African Americans in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s: The Development of Transcontinental Protest

Article excerpt

Introduction

The end of World War I ushered in a new era for African Americans who had been radicalized by their participation in the war and were resisting an oppressive second-class citizenship at home. There were numerous organizations activating the struggle of African Americans for the reestablishment of their civil rights. Among these organizations was the newly formed Communist Party of the United States of America. Communist doctrine advocating racial equality and the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia precipitated African American travel from the U.S. to the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 30s. Accounts of Black travelers' experiences in the Soviet Union, dialogue surrounding race relations there and the development of a Communist Party platform on the "Negro Question" may have encouraged further Black enthusiasm in travel to the USSR. African Americans went to the Soviet Union both in search of a permanent solution to White supremacy and seeking respite from dis-enfranchisement at home, as is evidenced by the experiences of Harry Haywood, Oliver Golden and Langston Hughes, in particular.

The phenomenon of African American travel to the Soviet Union during this period was shaped by a dynamic web of social, political and economic factors. The work and experiences of those Blacks who went to the USSR heightened the interest of the African American community in Communist ideology and aided in emboldening individuals to struggle for their rights. In this manner, those African American individuals who traveled to the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 30s contributed to the newly radicalized movement for Black liberation.

Antecedents

During World War I, several hundreds of thousands of African Americans migrated to urban areas, particularly in the North, seeking to escape racial violence and substandard living conditions in the South. While many Blacks found work in new locations, conditions were difficult everywhere. The Ku Klux Klan was active in Northern as well as Southern areas and regularly attempted to terrify and intimidate Blacks. Lynching, too, was increasing in both the North and South. Northern neighborhoods were racially segregated and rent was high, health conditions were poor, and access to quality education and health care were questionable. Jobs were even more scarce after WWI and competition for those jobs strained Black-White relations to new heights (Franklin & Moss, 1988).(1)

The advent of World War I provided African Americans with the opportunity for military service. Most in the community felt that military service would prove their loyalty to the country and then the government would surely recognize African Americans as full, loyal citizens of the United States. The government, however, was intent on maintaining legal disenfranchisement despite the service of African Americans in Europe. Rather than disestablish racial barriers during the war years, the government instead sought to preserve segregation and social inequality. This became increasingly clear to Black troops serving in France.

The U.S. government sought to induce the French to treat Black troops as racial inferiors. This effort to maintain a veneer of normative White supremacy was likely an attempt to prepare Black troops for a postwar return to social inequality in the U.S. The French, however, refused to succumb to these measures. Instead, Black troops experienced a greater level of social equality in France than they had known at home, intermingling more freely with French men and women (Franklin & Moss, 1988).(2) Some service men later became associated with the Communist Party in the United States based on their experiences in France. Harry Haywood was one and he praised the hospitality of the French people towards African American troops, including invitations to the troops to join families for food and wine. Concluding that the "long arm of Jim Crow" was inescapable, Haywood illustrated the attempts of White U. …