Lovett Fort-Whiteman

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Lovett Fort-Whiteman
Fort-Whiteman-Lovett-1926.jpg
Fort-Whiteman at the founding of the ANLC, 1925.
Born December 1894
Dallas, Texas, USA
Nationality American
Occupation Political activist, Comintern functionary

Lovett Huey Fort-Whiteman (1894–1939) was an American political activist and Communist International functionary. The first black American to attend a Comintern training school in the Soviet Union in 1924, Fort-Whiteman was later named the first national organizer of the American Negro Labor Congress, a mass organization (front group) of the Communist Party, USA. Fort-Whiteman was once called "the reddest of the blacks" by Time magazine.

Biography[edit]

Early years[edit]

Lovett Huey Fort-Whiteman was born in Dallas, Texas in December 1894. His father, Moses Whiteman, was born into slavery in South Carolina and relocated to Texas at some time prior to 1887, where he worked as a janitor and a small scale cattle rancher.[1] At the age of 35, Moses Whiteman married the 15-year-old Elizabeth Fort.[1] Lovett was the first of the couple's children.[1]

Fort-Whiteman received a better education than was common for many African-American children of the era in the Dallas public schools, attending one of the few high schools in the American South in that day open to black attendance.[1] Following graduation from high school, Fort-Whiteman enrolled at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, probably about 1906, from which he graduated as a machinist.[1]

Following completion of his studies at Tuskegee, Fort-Whiteman gained admission to Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, with a view to becoming a medical doctor, but he did not complete the course of studies at that institution.[1]

By 1910, his father having died, Fort-Whiteman had moved with his mother and younger sister to the Harlem area of New York City, where he worked as a hotel bellman to support the family while harboring dreams of becoming a professional actor.[1]

Mexican years[edit]

Soon abandoning his dramatic ambitions, Fort-Whiteman next spent two or three years in the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico, where he worked as an accounting clerk for a rope manufacturer, gaining fluency in the Spanish language and studying the rudiments of French.[1]

Fort-Whiteman was deeply inspired by the Mexican Revolution which swept the Yucatán in the spring of 1915, advancing a reform program over the staunch opposition of wealthy landowners and the Roman Catholic church.[2] He became a committed adherent to the idea of radical transformation of society through trade unions, syndicalism, as a member of an organization called Casa del Obrero Mundial (House of the World Worker, or COM).[2] When COM attempted to further deepen the nature of the revolution by launching a strike against the new government of Yucatán, it was destroyed in the aftermath.[2]

In 1917 Fort-Whiteman left Yucatán as a sailor bound first for Havana, Cuba before proceeding to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.[2] He disembarked there and made his way to the city of Montreal, adopting the pseudonym "Harry W. Fort" and discreetly reentering the United States under the guise of a railroad dining car waiter.[2]

Radical activism in New York City[edit]

Back in New York City, Fort-Whiteman became well acquainted with leading black socialists A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, publishers of the magazine The Messenger.[2] He enrolled for courses at the Rand School of Social Science, a socialist school operated by the Socialist Party of America,[2] joining the party himself.[3] While at the Rand School Fort-Whiteman met others who would become prominent in the world radical movement in ensuing years, including Japanese émigré Sen Katayama and Otto Huiswoud, a recent transplant from British Guiana.[4]

Picking up the pen as the new "Dramatic Editor" of The Messenger in 1918, Fort-Whiteman was among those at the epicenter of the Harlem Renaissance, a multi-sided and dynamic black cultural movement dedicated to artistic and political development of the so-called "New Negro."[4] Fort-Whiteman even tried his hand as a writer, publishing two works of fiction in The Messenger provocatively dealing with interracial amorous relations.[4]

Another who Fort-Whiteman met in this period was anarchist cartoonist Robert Minor, another expatriate from Texas.[5] Minor visited Soviet Russia in 1918 where he had seen the Bolshevik Revolution at close quarters.[5] Fort-Whiteman followed his friend into the Communist Labor Party of America shortly after the time of its formation in September 1919.[5]

In October 1919 Fort-Whiteman was arrested in St. Louis speaking to a small gathering attended by a small handful of party members infiltrated by an informer from military intelligence.[5] As a prominent black Communist agitator, Fort-Whiteman came under close scrutiny from the Bureau of Investigation as a "dangerous agitator."[6] Fort-Whiteman was charged with violation of the Espionage Act for having explicitly advocated "resistance to the United States" — although Fort-Whiteman denied ever having used such a phrase in his St. Louis speech.[3] Fort-Whiteman ultimately remained in jail for months after his arrest but seems to have escaped a lengthy prison term.[7]

Black Communist leader[edit]

During the years 1920 through 1922 the American Communist movement eked out a covert, underground existence, with Fort-Whiteman presumably retaining party membership through the succession of mergers and splits which ensued. He reemerged in the public eye in February 1923 as a member of the editorial staff of The Messenger, although his affiliation with the Workers Party of America (WPA), a legal Communist organization established around the first day of 1922, seems to have remained an unpublicized fact.[7] Fort-Whiteman only publicly acknowledged his Communist affiliation in January 1924 with the publication of an article in The Daily Worker, official English language newspaper of the WPA.[7]

In February 1924 Fort-Whiteman was tapped as one of 250 delegates to the "Negro Sanhedrin," a Chicago convention dedicated to issues of concern to black members of the working class, in which the WPA played a significant organizing role through its New York-based affiliate, the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), headed by Cyril Briggs [8] Fort-Whiteman served as speaker for the WPA/ABB caucus and forward the organization's program, calling for an end to racial segregation in housing, binding contracts to protect tenant farmers, an end to colonialism in Africa, and US government recognition of the Soviet Union.[9]

During the 1920s a so-called "Great Migration" of African-Americans moving from the South to urban centers of the Northern United States took place. The American Communist movement sought to capitalize upon the health and safety problems which ensued, initiating a short-lived mass organization (front group) known as the Negro Tenants Protective League to agitate for rent strikes and other forms of activity as a means of spurring change.[10] Fort-Whiteman, by then a top leader of the Communist Party in its "Negro work," addressed the founding convention of this group in Chicago on March 31, 1924 along with other top-level Workers Party officials, including Robert Minor and Otto Huiswoud.[10]

American Negro Labor Congress[edit]

In the spring of 1925, Fort-Whiteman joined his Workers (Communist) Party comrades Otto Hall and Otto Huiswoud as one of 17 black signatories of an official call for establishment of the American Negro Labor Congress (ANLC).[11] Established by the Communist Party as a successor organization to the now moribund African Blood Brotherhood, the ANLC was founded by a convention of 500 men and women in Chicago late in October of that same year.[11] Delegates attending this founding congress included substantial numbers of representatives of trade unions and sundry community organizations as well as unaffiliated working-class people rather than members of the so-called "Negro intelligentsia."[12] In the words of one historian, the bulk of these founding delegates were "the sorts of blacks the Communists felt the NAACP and Urban League forgot."[12]

The short-lived success of the founding convention of the ANLC was largely a product of Fort-Whiteman's initiative. Chosen as the head of the Provisional Organizing Committee of the ANLC, Fort-Whiteman had traveled across the South and Northeast speaking to countless black community groups attempting to persuade them to support in the new effort,[13] arguing that a new organization was essential in order to "present the cause of the Negro worker."[14] His successful organizing effort gained national notoriety for Fort-Whiteman, with the conservative Time magazine deeming Fort-Whiteman to be "the reddest of the blacks."[15]

Arrest and death[edit]

Early in 1937 a massive campaign of arrests and punishments of alleged spies, saboteurs, and disloyal individuals was begun by the Soviet secret police targeting especially Communist Party members and economic leaders. Lovett Fort-Whiteman applied for permission to return home to the United States at this time — a request which was refused. [16] Three weeks later, Fort-Whiteman was denounced for having expressed "counterrevolutionary" sentiments and on July 1, 1937 sentenced to five years internal exile. He was first sent to Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, where he worked for a time as a teacher.

The terror continued to escalate into 1938, however, and on May 8, 1938, Fort-Whiteman's sentence was reviewed and changed to five years of hard labor in the notorious Gulag system of work camps. Fort-Whiteman was sent to Kolyma in Siberia, a particularly inhospitable part of the Soviet Far East. There intentionally inadequate and miserable food supplied to the brutally overworked camp inmates and savage winter weather sapped Fort-Whiteman's strength and the formerly robust man's health rapidly failed.[16] On January 13, 1939, Lovett Fort-Whitman died of illness related to malnutrition.[16] He was 44 years old.

See also[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008; pg. 33.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Gilmore, Defying Dixie, pg. 34.
  3. ^ a b Gilmore, Defying Dixie, pg. 39.
  4. ^ a b c Gilmore, Defying Dixie, pg. 35.
  5. ^ a b c d Gilmore, Defying Dixie, pg. 38.
  6. ^ Gilmore, Defying Dixie, pp. 38-39.
  7. ^ a b c Gilmore, Defying Dixie, pg. 40.
  8. ^ Gilmore, Defying Dixie, pp. 40-41.
  9. ^ Gilmore, Defying Dixie, pg. 41.
  10. ^ a b Mark Solomon, The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-36. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1998; pg. 44.
  11. ^ a b Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Blacks and Reds: Race and Class in Conflict, 1919-1990. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1995; pg. 29.
  12. ^ a b Hutchinson, Blacks and Reds," pg. 30.
  13. ^ Hutchinson, Blacks and Reds, pp.3 0-31.
  14. ^ The Afro-American, October 31, 1925; quoted in Hutchinson, Blacks and Reds, pg. 31.
  15. ^ Time, November 9, 1925; quoted in Hutchinson, Blacks and Reds, pg. 29.
  16. ^ a b c Tim Tzouliadis, The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin's Russia. New York: Penguin Press, 2008; pp. 98-99.