The disappearance of a black communist in Stalin’s Russia

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In the spring of 1936, Lovett Fort-Whiteman, an African American from Dallas, Texas, disappeared in Moscow. He had lived in the Soviet Union for nearly a decade, most recently with his wife, Marina, a Russian Jewish chemist, in a cramped apartment on the corner of the Central Telegraph building. By then, half a dozen African Americans had settled permanently in Moscow. Even among them Fort-Whiteman, who was forty-six, was a startling sight. He wore high boots, a black leather cap, and a long, belted shirt in the style of the Bolshevik commissioners. Homer Smith, a black journalist from Minneapolis and close friend of Fort-Whiteman in Moscow, later wrote: a Buddhist monk.

Almost two decades had passed since the Bolshevik Revolution established the world’s first communist state, a society that promised equality and dignity for workers and peasants. In the Soviet Union, racial prejudice was seen as the result of capitalist exploitation, and for the Kremlin the fight against racism became a matter of geopolitical public relations. During the 1920s and 1930s dozens of black activists and intellectuals passed through Moscow. Everywhere they went, Russians gave up their places in the queue or their seat on a train – a practice one NAACP leader called “almost embarrassing courtesy.” In 1931, after the so-called Scottsboro Boys – nine black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama – were tried, the American Communist Party provided free legal defense and rallies in their favor were held. to dozens of cities across the Soviet Union. Two years later, Paul Robeson, singer, actor and activist, goes to Moscow and declares: “Here, for the first time in my life, I walk in all human dignity.

Homer Smith eventually published a memoir, “The Black Man in Red Russia,” in which he described Fort-Whiteman as one of the “first black pilgrims who came to Moscow to worship the ‘Kaaba’ of Communism.” . Fort-Whiteman, Smith continued, was a “die-hard Communist dogmatist” who once said that returning to Moscow after a trip to the United States was like coming home.

By the mid-1930s, however, the exuberance of the Moscow expat community had started to wane. In 1934 Sergei Kirov, a senior Bolshevik official, was shot dead in Leningrad. Joseph Stalin, who had spent the previous decade consolidating power, used the event to justify a campaign of purges targeting the Communist elite. Strangers, once celebrated, have become objects of suspicion. “The broom had been swept regularly,” wrote Smith, who attended the hearings of a number of high profile defendants. “Thousands of underage victims, I knew, simply disappeared or were liquidated without benefit of trial. “

Fort-Whiteman had become a polarizing figure. He could be pedantic and grand, with a penchant for names. “He did his best to proselytize and indoctrinate,” Smith wrote. Increasingly, Fort-Whiteman has come to assert that the Communist Party, in order to gain more support among African Americans, must recognize that racism, as much as social class, has fueled their plight. For Marxist ideologues, it was heresy.

One day, Smith stopped by the Fort-Whiteman apartment. He knocked several times, and finally Marina opened the door. “Is Gospodin Fort-Whiteman home?” Smith asked, using the Russian honorific. Marina was clearly on edge. “No, he’s not,” she said. “And I beg you never to come and get him here again!” From his reporting on the purges, Smith could reasonably assume the worst. He would later write: “I had lived in Russia long enough to understand the implications. “

Like many African Americans at the turn of the 20th century, life at Fort-Whiteman was directly shaped by the atrocities of the pre-war South. His father, Moses Whiteman, was born into slavery on a plantation in South Carolina. Shortly after the reconstruction, he moved to Dallas and married a local girl named Elizabeth Fort. They had a son, Lovett, in 1889, then a daughter, Hazel. When Fort-Whiteman was about sixteen, he enrolled at the Tuskegee Institute, the historically black university of Alabama, then headed by Booker T. Washington. Moses died a few years later, and Elizabeth and Hazel moved to Harlem. Fort-Whiteman eventually arrived too, finding work as a bellhop and moonlighting as an actor in a black theater company.

In his mid-twenties, he went to Mexico, without a passport, and headed for Yucatán. The Mexican revolution was underway, with upstart anarchist and socialist movements confronting the wealthy landowner class. By the time Fort-Whiteman returned to Harlem four years later, in 1917, he was a committed Marxist.

In Russia, it was the year of the October Revolution, in which Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks, after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, seized power and declared a dictatorship of the proletariat. In the United States, the appeal of communism to many immigrants and ethnic minorities was evident: few other political philosophies of the day offered the possibility of full equality. “It can be difficult for many who think of the Soviet Union through the prism of Stalinism or the ‘evil empire’ to recognize all that it seemed to offer African Americans,” Glenda Gilmore, author of the 2008 book “Defying Dixie,” a story of the radical roots of the civil rights movement, told me. “They weren’t delusional but rather thought in a fairly practical way.”

Fort-Whiteman enrolled in a six-month course at the Rand School, a socialist training academy operating out of a converted mansion on East Fifteenth Street. He told a reporter from The messenger, a black-owned magazine that covered Harlem Renaissance politics and literature, “Socialism offers the only lasting cure for the economic ills plaguing humanity and which weigh so heavily on the colored race.”

In the years that followed, Fort-Whiteman returned to the theater and began publishing theater reviews and short fiction films in The messenger. Its stories were richly imagined and often interwoven with a brazen disregard for the racial mores of the time. In “Wild Flowers”, Clarissa, a white woman from the North with “a light but well-knit figure”, has an affair with Jean, a black man from the South “with a pleasant face and early manhood”. , Clarissa becomes pregnant, and she tries to cover up the affair by accusing her husband of having black ancestors.

With the return of soldiers from World War I, increased competition for jobs and housing contributed to the rise of racial tensions in the United States. During the summer of 1919, some twenty-six race riots broke out across the country. In Chicago, a black teenager who drifted on a raft in a white area of ​​Lake Michigan was attacked with stones and drowned by a mob of white bathers. In the aftermath of the violence, hundreds of businesses and black houses on the south side were destroyed and nearly 40 people were killed.

Fort-Whiteman has embarked on a speaking tour, in the hopes that this national spasm of racist violence, known as the Red Summer, would open African Americans to its radical message. An Illinois union organizer compared him to “a man carrying a torch spread out in the dry grass.” Fort-Whiteman was detained in Youngstown, Ohio, after trying to convince black workers to join the striking steelworkers. He drew a meager audience in St. Louis, where police arrested him, bragging to local newspapers that they had detonated the “St. Louis Soviet.

Fort-Whiteman has finally caught the attention of the Bureau of Investigation, which will soon become the FBI. In February 1924, an agent named Earl Titus, one of the first African Americans to work in the Bureau, saw Fort-Whiteman speaking in Chicago. As Titus wrote in his report, Fort-Whiteman told the crowd that “there is nothing here for the negroes, and that until they have had a revolution in this country like they have done it in other countries, the negroes will be the same ”. Fort-Whiteman added that he “would very much like to go to Russia”.

“Let’s eat in a not so touristy place. “
Cartoon by Jeremy Nguyen

Four months later, at the age of thirty-four, he had his chance: he was chosen as a delegate to the Fifth World Congress, the preeminent gathering of the Communist International, to be held that summer in Moscow. .

Upon their arrival, Fort-Whiteman and other delegates to the Comintern, as the Communist International was known, were taken to Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square. The Father of the Revolution had died six months earlier, and his body lay in a perpetual state, attracting pilgrims from all over the world. Stalin had been appointed head of the Party, but he had not yet solidified power. Bolshevik policy was in an introductory phase, marked by a heated debate over the future of communism. Everything seemed to be won, including the Comintern’s policy in recruiting and organizing African Americans.

In a session devoted to the “national and colonial question”, Fort-Whiteman spoke. Stalin was in the audience, along with foreign delegates such as Palmiro Togliatti, a leader of the Italian Communist Party, and Ho Chi Minh, then a young Vietnamese socialist, who had traveled to Moscow on a false Chinese passport. Fort-Whiteman began by explaining the Great Migration: Black people were moving north, he said, not only in search of economic opportunities but also as an “expression of the growing black revolt against persecution. and the discrimination practiced against them in the South. “

Fort-Whiteman suggested that issues of race and class, in different and overlapping ways, were responsible for the oppression of African Americans. “Blacks are not discriminated against as a class but as a race,” he said, seeming to acknowledge that this was a controversial statement. For the Communists, he continued, “the Negro problem is a particular psychological problem”.

Much of the congress was quiet. The delegates went boating on the Moscow River and attended a classical music concert held along the shore. At the end of the three-week event, Fort-Whiteman decided to stay in Moscow. He was invited to enroll as the first African-American student at the Communist Workers’ University of the East (KUTV). White Americans attended the Lenin International School, Moscow’s first academy for foreigners. But, because Soviet policy viewed African Americans as a “colonized” people, they had to study at KUTV, alongside students from China, India, Indonesia and elsewhere. (Ho Chi Minh was a student there, as well as Deng Xiaoping, the future Chinese leader.) The students spent 90 minutes a day taking Russian lessons and the rest of their time reading Communist texts.

That summer, Fort-Whiteman undertook a tour of the Soviet Union. Gilmore, in his book, relates that a Cossack division in Ukraine made him an honorary member; in Soviet Turkestan, residents voted to rename their town Whitemansky. The WEB Du Bois archives contain a letter from Fort-Whiteman, written “from a village in the heart of Russia”, in which he describes how the many nationalities of the Soviet Union “live like one big family, look at each other. each other. simply as human beings. He tells Du Bois about evenings spent with his KUTV comrades, staging open-air theatrical performances in the forest: “Here life is very poetry!


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