‘Reds under the beds’

Sex and subversion in Chico: recalling an ‘un-American’ inquiry

Photo illustration by Tina Flynn

One of the most bizarre episodes in Chico’s history began, apparently, with a misunderstanding between Mrs. Clementine Wraith and Chico High School officials about a course at the school titled “Family Relations.”

God forbid that any sex was being taught in the course, Mrs. Wraith thought.

Eventually Mrs. Wraith’s concerns led to a visit to Chico in 1947 by the California State Legislative Committee on UnAmerican Activities. Called into the community by certain disgruntled citizens, the committee carefully scoured this small, conservative town for evidence of “influence” by the “Communist Party” behind a reported “sex education” class allegedly being taught at Chico High School.

Perhaps such a casual linking between the concepts of “sex” and “un-Americanism” might seem strange and even humorous now, but the committee’s visit, and the subsequent inclusion of the previously unsullied name of Chico into the committee’s 1947 report to the California Legislature, stirred a firestorm of controversy that rocked the town.

People tended to take such things more seriously back then, and many of Chico’s citizens didn’t think it was funny at all.

Maybe it still isn’t.

Initially, Mrs. Wraith brought her concerns about the course to its instructor. She was given a copy of a course outline, which the instructor told her had been patterned after the textbook Marriage and Family Relationships. Wraith asked to see this text, and when she looked through it, she noted with some curiosity that a chapter had been cut out of the copy she had been handed, apparently with a razor blade.

Alarmed, she asked to see the missing section. She discovered, much to her surprise, that the excised chapter discussed—sexual relations in marriage!

As a concerned parent, Mrs. Wraith felt duty-bound to take this chapter home and study it in greater detail. “I felt that a book that was bought by taxpayers, the taxpayers were certainly entitled to see,” she explained later. “It was quite a chapter,” she noted.

But when she obtained copies of the textbooks that were listed as “supplemental reading” on the course outline she had been given, alarm bells began to ring. Each of the “supplemental” texts also had chapters dealing with this same shocking subject.

These books discussed sex in a manner, it was alleged, that was “foul, dirty … suggestive … communistic and fascism combined,” and that could serve only to “break down morals … homes and churches.”

Mrs. Wraith and others were convinced, for reasons that were probably understandable, that Chico’s impressionable youth were receiving “sex training” in Chico High’s Family Relations course, and that an attempt had been made to hide the fact. Many of Chico’s citizens began to clamor for an investigation into this sordid, sinister-sounding matter.

Ironically, later testimony from the school administrator, instructors, and the students who had taken the controversial course seemed to indicate there was nothing “sexual” about the course whatsoever.

According to school officials, Marriage and Family Relationships had never been used as a students’ text, since the course was a lecture course with no textbook being used, and the copy of the text that Wraith had been handed was for instructors to use as a reference source.

The section of this book that dealt with sex, it was explained, had been cut out because the use of the book as a student text with this section removed was being considered for the following year.

And the “supplemental reading” list on the course outline was meant to specify supplemental reading for the instructor, not the students, since the course outline in question was also meant for the use of the instructor only, school officials asserted.

But these explanations either were not convincing or came too late. Public outrage rose to a white-hot fervor, until finally a Butte County Grand Jury investigation was held.

The report of the Grand Jury, which came out on Dec. 31, 1946, blasted the proposed text as “not educational and immoral,” adding that it was “inconceivable that any modern education would even contemplate the use of the books referred to. … Had the administrative employees in charge of curriculum fully and fairly reviewed the course … the board of education … would not have approved the course as originally set up.”

As can be expected, the Jan. 21 meeting of the Board of Education had its share of pyrotechnics. After the board voted in favor of expressing “full and complete confidence” in the school administrators, the meeting broke up amidst unruly disruption and angry shouting on the part of protesters in the audience.

The board’s chairwoman, Dorothy Enloe, subsequently resigned, citing an “undercurrent of willful misunderstanding, hatred and dissatisfaction” on the part of the board’s critics that had subjected her to a “nerve-wracking pressure.”

California State Sen. Jack Tenney, chairman of the state UnAmerican Activities Committee, came to Chico in 1947 on a hunt for communists.

Things were to become stranger still, as the efforts of one California state senator, Jack B. Tenney, would subsequently uncover what one newspaper described, tongue in cheek, as “Reds under the beds” at Chico High.

Many people frowned on the concept of sex education at this time in American history. The distinctions between “sex education” and “teaching sex” tended to blur in their minds, and some thought such instruction might encourage sexual “experimentation” by America’s youth, thus paving the way for a general breakdown in their moral fiber. For this reason some suspected that the very idea of sex education had originated from the efforts of agents of the Communist Party at work in America.

One faction that held this opinion was a group of World War II veterans in Chico, who petitioned Tenney, as chairman of the state UnAmerican Activities Committee, to come to Chico in order to investigate the possibility that Red agents were responsible for Chico’s “sex education” dispute.

Tenney had every reason to be delighted with the veterans’ request. The senator had just recently authored a number of Senate bills prohibiting the teaching of sex education any earlier than senior year of high school, outlawing mixed classes on the subject of sex education even at that point, and making illegal the teaching of “controversial, partisan, sectarian, denominational or politically controversial” subjects in California’s schools as well as “propaganda in any form.”

Tenney undoubtedly believed that Chico’s woes were right up his alley.

The committee’s initial investigation was an unobtrusive affair. As a matter of fact, most people had no inkling that members of this group were in town until committee members convened an official hearing after their arrival.

This hearing, which was held on Feb. 27, 1947, was typical of such anti-communist crusades of the period. During the morning session, in which Tenney was busily grilling Chico’s superintendent of schools in order to wrestle the “truth” from him, Chico High School senior Ted Scoles rose to his feet from where he sat in the audience and exclaimed, “I took that course. There wasn’t any sex education. … There wasn’t anything sexual in any of the course!”

A wave of applause spread among the nearly 300 spectators in reaction to Scoles’ statement. Annoyed, Tenney announced that no more sudden “demonstrations” would be permitted. The applause quickly died down as Tenney returned to work.

Apparently, nothing was going to be allowed to come between Tenney and the truth—even protestations of the truth itself.

School administrators testified that no sex was taught. The instructor testified that no sex was taught. Questionnaires filled out by the students of the class unanimously declared that no sex was taught.

But Tenney wasn’t convinced.

According to one of the members of the committee, an unspecified number of students in the class, “both boys and girls,” had submitted affidavits, after “some people here in Chico had talked to them,” declaring that sex was indeed taught in the Family Relations class. Tenney said they preferred to remain anonymous in order to avoid “reprisals.”

These students, who were never identified, did not testify during the proceedings, and their affidavits were never used.

At the start of the hearing’s afternoon session, Tenney asked all of the high-school students in the audience to identify themselves with raised hands and said, “I ask how you all happen to be out of high school. Is there no school today?”

“Our parents gave us permission to leave school and come over to the hearing,” one young woman answered.

“Yes, with our parents’ permission,” another said.

At this point, Tenney instructed all high-school students in the audience, as well as anyone else under the age of 21, to leave immediately. He pointed out that excerpts from the alleged “sex books” in question were to be quoted during the proceedings, and that such quotes would be “pretty bad.”

The high-school students then left, grumbling in protest as they exited.

Most of the observers at the hearing complained about what they believed was an obvious bias on the part of Tenney and investigators. School officials, it was said, were subjected to harsh, arrogant “district-attorney-type” questioning, while others more critical of the Family Relations course were “asked a few questions and then permitted to make speeches,” according to Chico Enterprise coverage of the hearing.

During what was reported to be one rant, delivered by a retired military officer by the name of Jose Perez Brown, the Enterprise reported that one college-age person rose and spouted, “Who is conducting this investigation, Tenney or Brown?”

“We are,” Tenney responded. “This is a Senate investigation.”

“Investigation or inquisition?” the young man asked sarcastically.

Tenney asked that the man be ejected from the hall. Angered, approximately 100 other college-age people also left, noisily shouting insults at the committee as they rose from their seats.

“If this is a committee on un-American activities, it is conducting itself in the most un-American manner I ever saw,” one person shouted.

Another was more direct and to the point: “This hearing stinks!”

In a side comment, Tenney observed that the walkout was an indication of “communistic influence,” the Enterprise reported.

It is interesting that Tenney’s own recollections of this incident, as given in the official report of the hearing, differs substantially from the Chico Enterprise report: “During the examination of Major Jose Perez Brown,” the report states, “a Kenneth Tinkler arose in the audience and made a statement that was not audible to the members of the committee or the court recorder. He was asked to take the stand but refused. During this incident 75 to 100 Chico State College students rose in a body and in a boisterous and disorderly manner left the auditorium….”

After this demonstration, Tenney called out to Dr. A. J. Hamilton, at the time the president of Chico State, and asked him to stand from where he sat in the audience.

“You are the president of the college?” Tenney asked.

“I am,” Dr. Hamilton replied.

“Is this the type of student you are turning out?” Tenney challenged.

“I don’t know anything about what you are talking about.”

“Aren’t they students of your college?”

“… I don’t know.”

“Well, if they were,” Tenney concluded, “I think you ought to do something about it, doctor.”

Tenney’s inquiries into the alleged “communist” origins of the class quickly ran aground. When he began asking about the possible presence of an allegedly communist organization by the name of California Youth for Democracy, none of the witnesses had even heard of it.

Mrs. Wraith’s testimony undoubtedly perked up the senator’s spirits, however. Wraith solemnly declared that what she perceived as a breakdown in morale and respect for authority among students of Chico High might be the result of “communistic influence.”

The committee adjourned the hearing at the end of the day, but members vowed that they would return. “We feel that there is a lot more to this thing,” one committee member stated. “It looks like we have only scratched the surface of a lot of things around here.”

Although the committee never came through on its promise to return, it did assure a certain amount of notoriety for Chico by devoting 36 pages of its 1947 report, titled Third Report: Un-American Activities in California 1947, to a lengthy discussion of the affair under the heading, “Sex Books in Chico High School.”

Chico citizens, most of whom considered their community a staunch bastion of “Americanism,” were resentful at being lumped together with such dangerous groups as the Berkeley YMCA and such dangerous communists as Humphrey Bogart and Dr. Linus Pauling, also exposed in the report.

According to the report, “The books under examination are pornographic in content, immoral in many respects, and … either wittingly or unwittingly follow the Communist Party line for the destruction of the moral fibre of American youth. Disrespect for parents, religion and the law of the land is subtly injected throughout the hedonistic context. … The Chico affair … indicates a carefully laid Communist plan for the corruption of America’s coming generation.”

The report also notes the sinister fact that the San Francisco Chronicle, which the committee considered normally to be a member of the anti-communist press, had been “deceived” into carrying “items and editorials echoing the Communist press” in its coverage of the Chico affair, by referring to the whole controversy with humorous phrases such as “the big ‘Reds under the beds’ scare,” etc.

The Chico High campus has changed over the years since this building pictured was constructed in the 1920s.

Photo By Stanley Staples

Although Tenney obviously believed that his search for communism in the small, conservative community of Chico had borne fruit, some local observers were not so sure. The following anonymous poetical letter appeared in the Chico Enterprise on March 5, 1947:

There came a state senator named Tenney,
Whose un-American detectings were many.
At Chico they said,
Sex hides the Red,
So sleuthing went Senator Tenney.
But sex, it seemed,
On the world had beamed,
Even prior to Senator Tenney.
With sex not the loot,
“Then it’s the NAZI SALUTE!”
Boomed out Senator Tenney.
“Teachers,” he said
“Are making kids Red,
“In commanding a hand for attention.
“Instead of a hand
“At teacher’s command,
“Using a leg would be prevention.”
But this we deplore,
For while sex is no more,
We still believe in convention.
There were a state senator named Tenney
Whose Red detectings were one less many.

The poem was signed “Shakespeare, Jr.” The real name of the author—undoubtedly a communist—was never revealed.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article appeared in the Feb. 2, 1978, issue of the Chico News & Review. Some things never change …