Lesser-known Black women communists you must learn about (part one)
For as long as white society has oppressed Black people, Black women have led struggles for the liberation of Black people throughout the diaspora. Black women have and continue to be on the frontlines in opposing white supremacy, imperialism, patriarchy, capitalism, and all the other oppressive systems that terrorize Black people around the globe. Today, radical activists may be pretty familiar with Angela Davis and Assata Shakur. These two Black women have lived extraordinary lives of struggle against capitalist, misogynist, white supremacist, and anti-LGBTQ oppression. They have been targeted by the United States, police, and various local governments around the country. Shakur is still among the FBI’s most wanted people. Despite the US’s racist and sexist acts of oppression, the pair continue to advocate for a better life for all Black people (especially Black women) through the destruction of the capitalist system.
When studying radical politics and how to bring an end to capitalist and white supremacist oppression, socialists must study and examine the lives of Black women. Rather, radicals must study the material conditions and contradictions Black women face under capitalism and white supremacy. We must recognize Black women as some of the most oppressed workers who are often crushed by the triple oppression of being Black, woman, and part of the working class in bourgeois, white supremacist society. Then, we must work to crush the oppressions that exist.
In addition to Davis and Shakur, there are plenty of Black women communists who existed that have dedicated their lives to pro-socialist struggle. Some of these women influenced Davis and other notable Black women in the struggle for freedom. Below is a list and short (but not all-encompassing) biography of just some of the lesser-known Black women communists that the radical left must know of and study.
Louise Thompson Patterson
Louise Thompson Patterson dedicated her life to anti-racist, anti-imperialist struggle. Patterson was associated with the Harlem Renaissance crowd and was close friends with another great communist, Langston Hughes. Patterson joined the Communist Party USA and took on various struggles throughout her life. She became one of the leaders within the party during the 20th century.
One campaign Patterson involved herself in with her comrades was campaigning to free the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama. She helped organize and spoke at multiple protests to bring attention to the cause in Alabama — including a demonstration from New York City to Washington D.C. that picked up thousands of protestors along the route. The protest at the US Capitol called for releasing the 9 Black teens as well as all political prisoners.
Patterson took multiple trips to the Soviet Union in the 1930s and wrote letters to her mother and friends about the incredible achievements the country made under a socialist system. She wrote of the joys of being a Marxist and adamantly believed that Marxism would bring along the liberation of Black people.
Patterson was also an anti-fascist and raised money for the Republicans fighting in the Spanish Civil War. She took a particular interest in the Black people from the US and Latin America who volunteered to fight fascism in Spain.
Patterson also connected the issues of class, race, and gender. Along with Shirley Graham DuBois and Charlotta Bass, Patterson founded Sojourners for Truth and Justice in the 1950s. This group called on Black women to take on Jim Crow laws and Cold War policies within the US. Sojourners for Truth and Justice defended Black radicals such as WEB DuBois and Claudia Jones. They also organized and led a march on Washington DC before Dr. King’s famous march, demanding the US government address Black women’s oppression.
Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Jones was another important leader in the CPUSA. She and her family moved to the US when she was a child. Jones became interested in politics and joined CPUSA in 1936. She was also part of the campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys, writing critical essays about the global system of white supremacy and capitalism. Jones dedicated her life to anti-racism and related the intersections of class, gender, and race together in her works and her actions. She advocated strongly on education and rights for women and Black women in particular inside CPUSA and broader society.
Jones wrote her timeless essay, “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of Negro Women” in 1949, which called on Black women to take up and fight capitalism, imperialism, sexism, racism, and the other axes of oppression. In her essay and throughout her life, Jones was an early proponent of what came to be known as intersectionality. She talked about how class society, white supremacy, and patriarchy affected Black women at a time where self-proclaimed communists (sometimes purposely) neglected to look at race and gender as key to liberating the working class. Jones added to Marx and made it clear that Black women are workers and among the most oppressed. She made it clear that the working class cannot be free without Black women becoming militant and taking part in the liberation of Black people and the working class.
The US government sought to silence Jones by arresting her and some of her comrades for violating the Subversive Activities Control Act of 1950. Also known as the McCarran Act, the repressive law said immigrants to the US could not be communists. The US government also charged her and her comrades with violating the Smith Act, which prevented Marxist ideas from being taught to the public. The US government ordered Jones to be deported to the United Kingdom. Being born in Trinidad and Tobago, a colony of the UK, Jones was seen as a “subject” of the UK and sent there.
In spite of hardships in her public and personal life, Jones continued to advocate for Black people and found new ways to celebrate Black people. Jones founded the West Indian Gazette, which was a major Black newspaper in London and helped connect members of the Caribbean diaspora. She was one of the founders of the Notting Hill Carnival, an annual event honoring the traditions of the Black Caribbean diaspora. Jones continued her work against racism, sexism, and the like in the UK. When she died, she was buried to the left of one of her greatest teachers, Karl Marx.
Grace P. Campbell
Campbell was the first Black woman member of the Socialist Party and then the first Black woman in the CPUSA. As part of the CPUSA, she organized Black tenants in Harlem and put together educational programs for Black radicals. Campbell was also the first Black woman to run for public office in New York state. As part of the Socialist Party ticket, she ran for New York State Assembly’s 19th District in 1919 and 1920. Campbell, in the first campaign, won 10% of the vote, totaling 2,000 votes. More people voted for her than any other Black Socialist Party candidate. Campbell helped found the African Blood Brotherhood in 1919, which advocated for Black liberation, Black people owning arms for self-defense, and was aligned with communism politically.
Eslanda Goode Robeson
Eslanda Goode Robeson was a writer, a communist, an anthropologist, an actress, and so much more. Although too many people may only know her as Black radical Paul Robeson’s wife, Eslanda Robeson created and had a life of her own that she dedicated to African liberation. Goode Robeson’s travels throughout the world helped inform her internationalist and socialist worldview. Goode Robeson studied in and visited eastern and southern Africa in her life, which helped influence her pan-Africanist politics. She focused and wrote various books and articles on the struggles of Black women in Africa.
Goode Robeson also visited the USSR, which she thought highly of because of its stances against racism and imperialism. Goode Robeson displayed strong opposition to Western imperialism and colonialism — in Africa in particular. She continued to live her life interviewing and writing about the condition of Black people across the diaspora, from the US to England to Uganda. She expressed solidarity with oppressed peoples from Africa to Asia to the Americas. Goode Robeson came under surveillance by the US government and MI5. British colonial governments throughout Africa even considered Goode Robeson’s work and travel in the continent dangerous.
Like Patterson, Goode Robeson was part of the Sojourners for Truth and Justice and also supported causes on behalf of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Later in her life, Goode Robeson worked with Claudia Jones in London to form a pan-Africanist women’s group.
This is part one of a list of lesser known Black women communists.
By Marvel Jackson