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Billie Bramhall – A lifetime of social activism, passing the torch

May 14, 2019

Billie Bramhall

May 15. 2019

Received the news this morning that Billie Bramhall, whose extraordinary life of social activism, commitment to social justice and peace lasted a lifetime, died last Thursday (May 9). She had contracted pneumonia a few months ago and never completely recovered. Her son Fred Bramhall was with her when she died.

These last years – well into her 90s – she worked hard for the rights of the homeless, working closely with Denver Out Loud, effective mass-based movement of homeless people. Billie worked hard against Denver’s repressive “camping ban” denying homeless people the rights to rest on public property and was actively in support of Initiative 300 (which failed) that was put before Denver voters to rescind that law.

July 7, 2019

Yesterday Nancy and I went to the memorial for Billie Bramhall at the First Unitarian Church (1400 Lafayette). The chapel was filled with family and friends, several hundred strong. The program lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes. Quite moving to see how many lives Billie touched – and virtually all in a most positive way.

Billie was…in a word…a force, a force for good.

We were connected in more ways than politically.

She grew up in the South Bronx, a few blocks from Yankee Stadium, – not far from where my father experienced his first years. She went to Hunter College High School, one of NYC’s finest. Exactly ten years before Billie, my dad, Herb Prensky ,went to Styvesant High School, an equally prestigious public institution. A close friend, Eileen Coppola, was for a time, more recently, the principle at Hunger College High School.

There was so much richness in Billie’s life, too much to detail here where I only comment on a few aspects. A granddaughter did a slide show, if it is put on dvd, it would be worth circulating. Gave a wonderful flavor of Billie’s life and the photos were wonderful. I ove old photos.

Two points about the memorial that struck me..

Firstly, the family did not hide the fact that Billie and Dave were active in the Communist Party USA in the 1940s, 1950s, a very difficult time to be any kind of leftist, no less a communist. Most families for former communists play that down. in memorial services that I have attended.  Kudos to the family for not purging that important part of their lives, and for celebrating Billy’s and Dave’s commitment and militancy. At the reception just after the ceremony, concerning Billie’s adhesion to the CP, Nancy heard several people commenting with some surprise “We didn’t know….”

With the poise that characterized her whole life, Billie refused to testify before the House of Un-American Activities Committee and made a moving statement to that end – a video of which was shown at the memorial. They both left the CPUSA – as did many others – in the aftermath of Khrushchev’s famous 1956 speech exposing and condemning the crimes of Stalin. But they never abandoned their commitment to social justice, to the working class, to socialism, even if they didn’t talk much about it – the values of their youth and were active and committed until the end; Billie was the more practical of the two – the eternal “problem solver”, Dave was more theoretical. They made a wonderful and effective couple and team.

At the time that Billie and Dave were involved in the Communist Party here in Colorado, it was very much of a force both in the working class (trade union movement) and in work for civil rights (the Civil Rights Congress). It had several hundred members and a strong base in the working class and among the Chicano and Black populations in the state. It was all but destroyed during the McCarthy period and never regained its former influence.

Secondly the love that the two shared for each other during more than seventy years of marriage came shining through. They were lovers, friends, discussed pretty much everything – and everyone – together and rather than the bond weakening and growing more stale, it only deepened and strengthened over time. The love, affection and respect that people in the room felt for her came pouring out. We have no doubt that the values to which Billie and Dave dedicated their lives will live on in their family and friends.

They have, as the saying goes, passed the torch.

We were glad to have attended. Below is an extract from yesterday’s program


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