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Lovett Fort-Whiteman: The First African-American Communist

Lovett Fort-Whiteman: The First African-American Communist

Starved and froze to death at the Sevvostlag Prison Labor Camp in Siberia in 1939.

Hamilton College is acknowledging the hundredth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution with displays of crimson banners, books from International Publishers (a Communist organization), and visages of Lenin in the library.

What should be added is a rendering of a hand-less and toothless frozen corpse with the death certificate from 1939:

Surname, name and patronymic Fort-Whiteman, Lovett

Year and place of birth, 1894 American

. . . .

Nationality American

Social position White-collar worker

By whom and when convicted Special board of the NKVD of the USSR art. of criminal code Anti-Soviet agitation sentenced to 5 years

Other distinguishing features Above-average height, normal build, black hair, normal nose . . . .

Another “distinguishing feature,” not listed, was the color of Fort-Whiteman’s skin. Presumably this did not matter to a regime that presented itself as a multicultural workers’ paradise.

Lovett Fort-Whiteman, an African American hailing from Texas, and a drama critic for the Messenger, among other things, in the 1920s, was a path breaker, traveling to the Soviet Union for educational training and then returning to the U.S. to recruit. In 1930, he moved to Moscow and married a Russian woman.

Fort-Whiteman was discussed in the autobiographies of two other African Americans who had moved to the Soviet Union in the early 1930s and escaped decades later: Homer Smith, a journalist, wrote Black Man in Red Russia in 1964; and Jamaican-born Robert Robinson, an engineer, wrote Black on Red: My 44 Years Inside the Soviet Union in 1988.

Smith described Fort-Whiteman as the “ideological mentor” to the “small group of American Negroes,” all college-educated “intellectuals,” but classified as “’non-politicals’ and distinct from other Negroes, mainly from Africa and the West Indies, who were being trained as revolutionaries in Communist political schools.” Fort-Whiteman “stoutly supported the Communist ‘line’ of that time on a separate Negro state to be gerrymandered out of the southern American Black Belt” and defended sending gold to the outside world for “fomenting and financing revolutionary organizations and movements.” He helped write a script for the anti-American propaganda film “Black and White” and “pleaded fervently for formal and material support for the Scottsboro boys and Angelo Herndon. . . . expounded loud and long on lynchings, Jim Crow and oppression of his people in America and condemned with fiery emotions the enslavement of black people in the African colonies of European imperialist nations.”

But in 1936, Fort-Whiteman disappeared.

Robert Robinson, in his 1988 memoir, also noted Fort-Whiteman’s disappearance. He knew that Fort-Whiteman had been accused of being a counter-revolutionary for criticizing Langston Hughes’s short story collection, The Ways of White Folks.

In August 1935, at the Foreign Workers Club in Moscow, Fort-Whiteman was critiquing the stories, which Hughes had begun to write during his own sojourn in the Soviet Union in 1931-1932. Hughes, whom many may know as the “poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance” for such poems as “Harlem” (“What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?”), had recruited a cast of about twenty African American “actors” for the “Black and White” movie. The project was scotched when the Soviets sought diplomatic recognition from the U.S. Though most of the “actors” went home upset, Hughes took up the offer to live and travel throughout the Soviet Union and write for their newspaper Izvestia and then later poems for New Masses, like “Stalingrad.”

For Fort-Whiteman, Hughes’s stories had not been revolutionary or anti-bourgeois enough. Fort-Whiteman had apparently not gotten the memo (so to speak) of the change in the party line to the “Popular Front”: “reformists,” like FDR, were no longer enemy “social fascists,” but allies. William Patterson, another black Communist “leader,” overheard Fort-Whiteman’s barroom “anti-revolutionary” literary critique.

Long-standing rumors about Fort-Whiteman’s demise were confirmed when archives were opened for a period after the fall of the Soviet Union. The death certificate and finger prints, which came from Kazakhstan after its independence in 1996, were reproduced by Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Kyrill M. Anderson in their book The Soviet World of American Communism (Yale University Press, 1998).

They revealed that in 1935 Fort-Whiteman was the subject of a Comintern committee meeting concerning the American party, with Earl Browder, William Schneiderman, and Sam Darcy present. This led to a resolution for “Comrades Paterson (sic) and [James] Ford [another black Communist “leader”]” to hold “a meeting with all the Negro comrades” to discuss the “reported efforts of Lovett Whiteman to mislead some of the Negro comrades.”

Fort-Whiteman had also praised Nikolai Bukharin and Karl Radek who were accused of sympathizing with Trotsky.

On July 1, 1937, Fort-Whiteman was sentenced to five years of internal exile in Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan, where he taught school and boxing.

On May 8, 1938, Fort-Whiteman’s punishment was upped to five years’ hard labor at the Sevvostlag Prison Labor Camp in Siberia where prisoners slept in holes they dug in the tundra as they worked on the Kolyma Highway. Temperatures went down to 60-below.

His fingerprints were taken posthumously; hands had to be chopped off from frozen corpses and then thawed in a heated office. Official “cause of death” was “Weakening of cardiac activity.” He was 44. The former teacher, actor, writer, and athlete had not been able to make his work quota. So he received decreased food rations and beatings so severe that all his teeth were knocked out. Details came from eye witness accounts and medical records.

One would think that everyone would be horrified at the fate of Fort-Whiteman. But Yale University History Professor Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, who holds an endowed chair, in her book Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950 (W.W. Norton, 2008), praises Fort-Whiteman as the “first African American communist.” For her, the Soviet Union’s disregard for the race of the corpse evidences racial progressivism.

Gilmore rebukes her native South, in which she grew up in the 1950s, for its ill treatment of African Americans and its anti-communism. Ignoring overwhelming evidence to the contrary, she writes, “In the 1920s and 1930s, the Communists alone argued for complete equality between the races” and thus led the way for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. She contends that the idea of “Moscow gold” is a “myth.”

In their 1998 book, Klehr, Haynes, and Anderson ruefully noted that Fort-Whiteman had been ignored by historians in the 1980s and 1990s. Gilmore, in her 2008 book, takes a different tack. She acknowledges their path-breaking archival work but ignores their conclusion: “The Soviets established the ideology, provided the money, chose or approved the leaders, and monitored the tactics of the Americans.” That included ordering American Communists to agitate for the “black belt” in the South, which would mean civil war, and sure death for thousands, mostly African Americans. They used the Scottsboro Boys rape case for publicity, stole from their funds, put their lives at risk, and prolonged their imprisonment. Communist agitation led to deaths of tenant farmers. Communists betrayed, and then tortured and killed Lovett Fort-Whiteman.

Gilmore, however, praises Fort-Whiteman for “never allowing [himself] to be silenced,” then describes his experiences, including his tenure in “Alma-Ata, a beautiful small town in southeast Kazakhstan in mountainous Central Asia.”

She ends her chapter about Lovett Fort-Whiteman with the following paragraph:

Deep disappointments, crushing blows, starvations: It took them all to break Lovett Fort-Whiteman. Did he dream, there in a frozen hole in the tundra, of hot nights on Sweet Ellum Street back home in Dallas? Of midday classes at Tuskegee, where sweating students performed the heavy work of uplift? Of humid mornings in Yucatan spent imbibing Socialism? Of escaping J. Edgar Hoover’s men in St. Louis? Or did he dream his own ‘dream deferred,’ of bringing the revolution to Chicago streets, equality to the South, and black liberation to the Kremlin? There in Kolyma no one mourned him, no one knew he was the first African American Communist. No one knew of his eagerness, his recklessness, his abiding faith in poor working people. In the final, perfect equality of the gulag, it mattered not a whit that he was a black man, only that he was a broken man.

Communist ideology inspired unthinkable cruelties in the twentieth century. In the twenty-first century, Communist ideologues, some at Ivy League universities, romanticize the death of the “first African American Communist.”

[Featured Image: Lovett Fort-Whiteman speaking at the opening session of the founding convention of the American Negro Labor Congress, 1925, via Wikipedia]


Mary Grabar, a resident fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization in Clinton, New York, earned her Ph.D. in English in 2002. She most recently taught at Emory University (2007-2013) and founded Dissident Prof in 2011.

[This post originally ran at Enquiry, a publication of the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization]


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Truthfully, that photo of Fort-Whiteman appears as an apparition; haunted.

Such is the lot of those who walk with demons.

    Tom Servo in reply to turfmann. | November 27, 2017 at 12:14 am

    “One would think that everyone would be horrified at the fate of Fort-Whiteman.”

    All I see is cosmic Justice, and a man who worked very hard to get the final reward he deserved.

    How fitting that it was given to him by the men he idolized.

      C. Lashown in reply to Tom Servo. | November 27, 2017 at 1:00 pm

      re: “Starved and froze to death at the Sevvostlag Prison Labor Camp in Siberia in 1939.”

      STUPID IS AS STUPID DOES, some paydays are worse than others and this man’s payday for his ideology couldn’t get much worse.

Ah, those romantic young idealists who gave us 160,000,000 killed by their governments in peacetime!

Starved and frozen: Affirmative action, Soviet style.

The irony is that the first to be murdered by communists always seem to the people who enabled them.

Poetic justice, perhaps. Or perhaps murdering communists know an unreliable useful idiot when they meet one?

Wanna-be socialists never realize the basic concept of socialism; the individual is unimportant. Just as with social insects, such as ants, bees and termites, only the person at the top, the queen, is important. Every other being is merely an interchangeable drone. And, they are expected to be, and are, routinely sacrificed for the “good” of the collective.

But, human beings are individuals. Were live lives based upon individual wants, needs and desires. We naturally abhor the lack of individuality and strive mightily to accentuate that individuality. That is why communism and other socialist constructs are doomed to failure. But, people who live outside such a construct have no real understanding what life is like inside.

    “Wanna-be socialists…”

    There are three kinds.

    The first, is the likes of Frozen Lovett: pure useful idiot, and entirely a waste of money to feed after he’s served his purpose.

    The second, is the likes of Madam Perv Enablers nancy pelosi and hillary klinton, who care nothing about the likes of Frozen Lovett – rather, they merely seek to be in the commie ruling class at the expense of Frozen Lovett.

    The third are like the corrupt hacks of the GOPe: pay them to lead their base off a cliff, until their base discovers the deceit. To the commissars, they too are entirely a waste of money to feed after they’ve served their purpose.

In hell, will they recognize each other and snitch?

…the final, perfect equality of the gulag, it mattered not a whit that he was a black man, only that he was a broken man….

This is more evidence that these people are racists, seeing only race in everything.

This educated idiot professor actually says the gulag is “final, perfect equality”…?! WTH?!?! Is she saying she wants all people in gulags, as that is where society can find this utopian “equality”?! The gulag was a PRISON, a TORTURE CHAMBER with beasts with no heart or soul in charge, caring more for rats than for human beings. This man was reduced to the most base, hideous treatment….dare I ask it: was this really better than living in the USA during that time?

And to say this black man was merely a “broken man” – he was a BETRAYED man, who believed in a system that found him EXPENDABLE, and he was too foolish to see he was indeed the DEFINITION of a USEFUL IDIOT. He was tortured, then left to starve and freeze to death, alone, his life wasted on the false god of Marxist-Communist ideology.

Lord, defeat these evil people who believe they are “our betters” working endlessly to convince our young people that Communism is the solution to their unending discontentment, their unending outrage, their failure to see anything through a lens that is NOT race-related.

    Do you believe their seeing “anything through a lens that is NOT race-related” is nothing other than attempts at manipulating the suckers who fall for such whining?

    And yes, Frozen Lovett was a betrayed man, and he was expendable.

    But WE Americans were also betrayed by Frozen Lovett, and we were expendable in his eyes. His running into the bosom of the Soviets was no different than if he ran into the bosom of the Nazis during WW2, his deluded beliefs aside.

    Had Frozen Lovett not been frozen, he might have been the first “obama.”

    Maybe we can still make a trade. We’ll throw in michelle obama, nancy pelosi and hillary klinton. We’ll even pre-freeze them.

There is a well-received book that sheds light on the tragic story of idealistic, desperate and naive Americans who immigrated to the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Many were eager to buy into the alluring narrative of a “worker’s paradise. Most were rounded up by the NKVD when Stalin grew paranoid with respect to their intentions, dying shortly thereafter in the gulags.

I’ll be waiting for Hollywood to tell this story. Perhaps Sean Penn, Michael Moore, Danny Glover and George Clooney can lend their talents to the project — these courageous artists would surely be eager to shine a light on communism’s horrors, right?

    meyou in reply to guyjones. | November 27, 2017 at 9:11 am

    But Guy, you only listed 4 Communist-Lovers in HWood. Just a guess, but maybe 4% of the entire town might be Anti-Communist. Still leaves 96% of them worshiping and adoring their Golden Calf, Karl.

“One would think that everyone would be horrified at the fate of Fort-Whiteman. But Yale University History Professor Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, who holds an endowed chair, in her book Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950 (W.W. Norton, 2008), praises Fort-Whiteman as the “first African American communist.” For her, the Soviet Union’s disregard for the race of the corpse evidences racial progressivism.”

This mindset encapsulates Leftists’ abject moral bankruptcy in perpetually appraising communism through rose-tinted lenses. Communism may have killed Fort-Whiteman, but, hey, at least his murderers weren’t racists!

American Human | November 27, 2017 at 8:58 am

Mr Fort-Whiteman is discussed in the book The Forsaken by Tim Tzouliadis.
It is a fascinating book about 10’s of thousands of Americans who went to the USSR in the early 30s to work. Some were committed commies but most were just Americans looking for work during the Great Depression. The commies “lost” their passports and then when they were panicked and wanted to come home, the Embassy was told that they were now Soviet citizens and there was nothing that the Embassy could do. The ambassador, Davies, was a useful tool for the commies, he sat in on the Show Trials and reported to Roosevelt that everything was on the up and up. He and Roosevelt knew what was happening to the trapped Americans but did absolutely NOTHING to help.
Probably only a few hundred of the thousands ever were able to return to the U.S.

Raise your hand if you are surprised that an unhappy Black man in America turned to an American enemy, communist Soviet Union, was exploited and then murdered.

In the same way, Islam is a siren song to Blacks. The Nation of Islam is one more sect, and when the Shias or Sunnis get control, the Nation of Islam will be reigned in, and it won’t be pretty. Mohammedanism is very much about Arabs. The Prophet Mohammed had a very low opinion of sub-Saharan Blacks. When those millions were being sold by Arab slavers to the West, even more were sold to Arabia. Whereas 2/3rds of slaves sold to the West were men, women were sold as well. Slaves were allowed to procreate and marry. Of course, the evil slave owners thought nothing of separating man and wife, or mother and child, but for a little while they could enjoy each other. Slaves going to the Muslim world were 90% female or young boys, intended for sexual pleasure. Women who were old, or ugly, were killed. Babies were killed. Boys were castrated and used as sex toys. In the West we have the children of slaves, and they have been given full rights of citizenship, and their humanity has been recognized. The evil sin of slavery has been recognized. Such acknowledgement has never been made in the Muslim world. So, who will be surprised that Blacks in this country have been tricked into thinking Islam is going to be a net positive for Blacks? Should Islam prevail here, Blacks will be worse off. In Libya, Gaddafi, was able to give some protection to Blacks, which ended with his government.

The CPUSA did often make astute use of Jim Crow to promote the interests of Stalin in the USA. And, given the deplorable state of African-American civil rights in this era, managed to net some pretty big fish.

Nonetheless, it’s impossible to top (let alone satirize) Paul Robeson’s “To You, Dear Comrade” eulogy for his hero, Joseph Stalin:

As Jonah Goldberg pointed out in “Liberal Fascism”, one can be ostracized (and eliminated) for being on either side of the Party Line. Fort-Whiteman was to the left of the Party Line. Rigid adherence to correct doctrine still did not guarantee survival in Stalin’s Russia.

The perpetually aggrieved become the perpetually deceived.

PersonFromPorlock | November 27, 2017 at 3:43 pm

If only Comrade Stalin had known!

    You are SOOOOO right…. millions went to their death thinking that if only “Papa” Joe knew they were there that he would save them. They never thought that HE had coldly and impersonally ordered their deaths.

Here’s the paradox of Jim Crow laws: If Southern whites were all racist, they would have been unnecessary. There had to have been enough integrationist whites that it was felt necessary to pass laws to force them to engage in segregation, because left to their own devices, the integrationist whites would have allowed African-Americans a more full measure of citizenship. In 1920 many Republicans were elected in the South for the first time since Reconstruction, which demonstrates that the integrationist whites always had a significant following – only rarely large enough to achieve an electoral majority (after all, most of the Republican class of 1920 officeholders were defeated for reelection), but probably large enough under most circumstances that they had to be taken into account. Why did the KKK, the terrorist wing of the Democrats, feel the need to wear hoods? If they truly ran things, they could have burned crosses and lynched people with impunity. None of us were around then, but we can surmise that there had to have been disagreement among whites about relations with their black neighbors.