The first African American to join the Communist Party died a prisoner in a Soviet gulag

Mildred Europa Taylor Sep 22, 2020 at 03:32pm

September 22, 2020 at 03:32 pm | History

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

September 22, 2020 at 03:32 pm | History

Image via Wikipedia

When Lovett Fort-Whiteman first traveled to the Soviet Union in 1924, he was one of the first black Americans in Soviet Russia. The early Black member of the American Communist Party, who later became a victim of Stalin-era purges, had moved from the United States to Russia at a time many Americans were already there largely in search of jobs.

As history notes, the Great Depression had begun in the U.S. then, meanwhile, the economy from the early Stalin years in the USSR had received a major boost. Then affiliated with socialists and having a good educational background, Fort-Whiteman and many other Americans were positive that the Soviet Union would provide them better job opportunities amid a society they thought was devoid of racism.

Later letters from Fort-Whiteman to Comintern (the world-wide leadership organization for Communist Parties) while studying at the Communist University of Eastern Workers however showed that racist stereotyping of African Americans was not absent in the Soviet media and the government. It is that same government that tried him and sentenced him to five years in internal exile for “anti-Soviet agitation” before he later died in a gulag.

To date, it is still unclear how Fort-Whiteman became a radical communist, though some historians say his beliefs started during the Mexican revolution, having worked in Mexico around 1914 while communicating with local anarchists.

Fort-Whiteman was living with his widowed mother and sister in Harlem when he moved to Mexico. Born in Dallas, Texas, in 1889 to Moses Whiteman, an ex-slave, and Elizabeth Fort, Fort-Whiteman (who took his mother’s middle name) attended Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas before heading to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He subsequently studied medicine at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee.

By this time, Fort-Whiteman — who was in future labeled by Time magazine as “the reddest of the blacks” — had begun writing articles in scores of radical publications founded by black socialists Chandler Owen and Philip Randolph. In effect, he became one of the first African-American activists who actively participated in the socialist movement in the U.S.

In 1919 when Fort-Whiteman joined the Communist Labor Party of America, he, like many others who had been inspired by the 1917 revolution in Russia, believed that one of the ways to ensure the same revolution in the U.S. is to throw one’s weight behind Soviet Russia and set up a political organization in America like the Bolshevik, whose government the U.S. was refusing to recognize.

That same year Fort-Whiteman joined the Communist party, he got into the bad books of authorities including the FBI, and was jailed for explicitly advocating “resistance to the United States,” a violation of the Espionage Act, according to a report.

Becoming the first Black to attend a Comintern training school in the Soviet Union in 1924, Fort-Whiteman returned to the U.S. the following year and was later named the first national organizer of the American Negro Labor Congress (ANLC), a mass organization of the Communist Party in the U.S., AAREG stated in a report.

At this moment, he had become so obsessed with the Soviets that he started dressing as a Bolshevik and toured the U.S. giving speeches. The American media kept an eye on him and later reported that he and others had been recruited by the Soviet Union to stage a revolution in the U.S. and remove the government.

In 1928, Fort-Whiteman was in Moscow, having been appointed a delegate from the U.S. Communist Party to the 6th Congress of the Comintern. While in Moscow, the Black African Communist also got a scholarship from the Moscow State University at the Faculty of Ethnology and later worked as a research assistant at the Timiryazev Biological Institute.

But Fort-Whiteman’s woes began when he lost his leadership position at ANLC following “philosophical differences over Communist policy for recruiting African Americans in the South.” And when in 1933 he requested to return to the U.S. in a letter he sent to leaders of the U.S. Communist Party, he was ignored. Then in 1935, he was accused of being a spy for the U.S. and engaging in “subversive work” among black Americans in Moscow.

That same year, Comintern started investigating him over these accusations including allegations that he was a “Trotskyist.” On July 1, 1937, the Soviet government sentenced him to five years of internal exile in Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan, but his sentence was reviewed the following year and changed to five years of hard labor.

He was transferred to a gulag in the gold-mining fields of Siberia, where, according to AAREG, “prisoners slept in holes they dug in the tundra as they worked on the Kolyma Highway.” There, Fort-Whiteman died in his late 40s in 1939, having suffered beatings at the hands of prison officials and being starved.

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