Isobel M. Cerney was a lifelong activist. She obtained her MA degree from Carleton College in 1934 and furthered her education at Graduate Teachers College in 1935. In 1940, she was awarded a General Education Board (Rockefeller) Fellowship to Harvard. By 1945, Isobel was a faculty member of California Labor School (San Francisco).
She was married to fellow activist Edwin Cerney. Edwin was one of several teachers who refused to sign a loyalty oath under the Levering Act of 1950. Although he was terminated, he continued teaching, without pay, until the end of the school year in June 1951. Edwin left the Stockton School District to seek a new position, eventually securing a position with Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. Isobel gained a professorship with Morris Brown College, also in Atlanta. While in Atlanta, Isobel was an active member of the Southern Conference Educational Fund, a south-wide civil rights group based in New Orleans.
After retiring and returning to California, Edwin filed a claim for unpaid wages. His claim was denied in 1980, as were the claims the others who refused to sign the Levering Oath.
As part of anti-war efforts, Isobel, under the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) (then under name Palo Alto Peace Club), researched history of resistance of American people to unjust wars, asserting that “there has always been a large peace movement in our country and that unjust wars have been delayed, shortened, even prevented by an informed people bent on peace.” In 1951, Isobel was developing literature to support members of the peace movement in their efforts. In research for this effort, she distributed a questionnaire to W.E.B. Du Bois and others to gather their thoughts on peace efforts.
In 1952, Isobel was part of a 17-person American contingent to attend the Peace Conference of the Asian and Pacific Regions, in Beijing, China. As part of the conference, the delegates toured several areas of the new republic, documenting what they observed in the pamphlet, What We Saw in China, when they returned to the United States.
In 1954, Isobel ran an unsuccessful campaign as the Independent Progressive candidate for U.S. Senate in California. Du Bois sent her an encouraging note of support after the primaries.
On July 5, 1955, undercover FBI agent Anita Bell Schneider was questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee regarding Isobel’s being brought in to speak to the San Diego Peace Forum—described as an educational institution, providing speakers, collecting signatures on petitions and circulating pro-Soviet literature. Civilian interviewees after her declined to speak about their political affiliations.
Undercover FBI agent Karl Prussion testified that he was in a communist cell with Isobel and Edwin, among others. Civilians testifying after him declined to speak.
In keeping with these HUAC meetings, Isobel’s name surfaced in a subsequent California Legislature Report of Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities, where she and several other professors and instructors at the California Labor School were identified as ‘Communists’. Interestingly, it doesn’t appear that either the HUAC or the California legislature called her for an interview.
On April 28, 1966, Isobel was a sponsor of the Herbert Aptheker Testimonial Dinner, held for Mr. Aptheker’s 50th birthday and for the second anniversary of the American Institute for Marxist Studies. The dinner was held at the New York Hilton.
During the years of the Vietnam War, Isobel and her friends were active participants in protests against the war.
The Isobel Milton Cerney Peace and Justice Scholarship was established at Gavilan College, a community college in Gilroy.