Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Blacks, Reds, and Russians

Blacks, Reds, and Russians: Sojourners in Search of the Soviet Promise

Joy Gleason Carew
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 296
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Blacks, Reds, and Russians
    Book Description:

    One of the most compelling, yet little known stories of race relations in the twentieth century is the account of blacks who chose to leave the United States to be involved in the Soviet Experiment in the 1920s and 1930s. Frustrated by the limitations imposed by racism in their home country, African Americans were lured by the promise of opportunity abroad. A number of them settled there, raised families, and became integrated into society. The Soviet economy likewise reaped enormous benefits from the talent and expertise that these individuals brought, and the all around success story became a platform for political leaders to boast their party goals of creating a society where all members were equal.In Blacks, Reds, and Russians, Joy Gleason Carew offers insight into the political strategies that often underlie relationships between different peoples and countries. She draws on the autobiographies of key sojourners, including Harry Haywood and Robert Robinson, in addition to the writings of Claude McKay, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes. Interviews with the descendents of figures such as Paul Robeson and Oliver Golden offer rare personal insights into the story of a group of emigrants who, confronted by the daunting challenges of making a life for themselves in a racist United States, found unprecedented opportunities in communist Russia.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4577-6
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xx)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    How could a country that turned a brutal and despotic face to its own people offer a hopeful visage to blacks suffering from generations of oppression and Jim Crow? How could a country whose Stalinist leadership eliminated thousands of people from all walks of life, stifling human potential and intellectual creativity, shelter and encourage growth among blacks who journeyed to its shores?

    Much has been written about Joseph Stalin’s purges and draconic measures to compel his nation’s growth and development. Little known are the special international race relations in the 1920s and 1930s that brought Soviets and blacks together. Frustrated...

  5. Chapter 1 A Journey Begins
    (pp. 9-12)

    Eighteen years before writing this letter, Oliver Golden, Tuskegee student-turned-dropout, had been spirited out of town with the compliance of university officials because he had been in a fight with a local white.³ But now he was back with the proposal of a lifetime. He wanted George Washington Carver to nominate talented Tuskegee students for projects in the Soviet Union.

    Golden’s earlier, abrupt exit had been not only for his safety but for the safety of the school he had looked forward to attending. Southern black schools depended on the patronage of the white community, and their administrations did everything...

  6. Part I The Fellow Travelers

    • Chapter 2 Early Sojourners Claude McKay and Otto Huiswood: Shaping the “Negro Question”
      (pp. 15-26)

      The Bolshevik Revolution was cataclysmic. Russia was completely remaking itself, and the ripples of this social change were exciting millions of other frustrated and neglected people. As news of the revolution spread, poet Claude McKay, like so many other blacks who had looked to the Soviet energy with envy, began to wonder—Why not me, too?

      A pained McKay, responding to the riots of the “Red Summer” of 1919 in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Elaine, Arkansas, wrote, “If we must die, let it not be like hogs/ … If we must die, O let us nobly die/ … Like men...

    • Chapter 3 Harry Haywood, KUTVA, and Training Black Cadres
      (pp. 27-48)

      Several weeks after I received my passport, I heard the FBI had been making inquiries about me…. [As] my departure time drew near, I hid out at the home of comrades on Chicago’s Westside [while my] political credentials, typed on silk, were sewn into the lining of my coat sleeve.”² Spirited out of Chicago and passing through Canada and Germany, Harry Haywood embarked on his own search for the promised land, finally landing in Leningrad in April 1926.

      This was a mere year after Haywood (né Haywood Hall) had formally joined the Communist Party, although several years after his political...

    • Chapter 4 W.E.B. Du Bois and the Soviet Experiment
      (pp. 49-64)

      In pregnant language reminiscent of a Protestant Reformation divine,” David Levering Lewis recounted, “Du Bois told of standing ‘in astonishment and wonder at the revelation of Russia’ that had come to him. He might be ‘partially deceived and half-informed,’ but if what he had seen and heard with his eyes and ears in Russia was Bolshevism, [Du Bois wrote] ‘I am a Bolshevik.’”² In 1928, two years later, Du Bois reminisced, “I have seen a bit of Russia; just a two month’s glimpse of this tremendous land. But what I saw convinced me of certain things: that Russia is earnest.”...

  7. Part II The Technical and Agricultural Specialists

    • Chapter 5 Robert Robinson and the Technical Specialists
      (pp. 67-89)

      In 1930 I was twenty-three years old and I had been working at Ford for three years…. Then in April 1930, it happened. The Russians arrived…. They stopped near my machine [and] a young man approached and began speaking to me in very thickly accented English…. I did not know why they were speaking to me, and felt uncomfortable. I wished they would go away and leave me to my work. When the young man asked me if I was willing to go to Russia to teach young apprentices the toolmaking trade, I said, ‘Sure,’ thinking they … would stop...

    • Chapter 6 George Washington Carver, Oliver Golden, and the Soviet Experiment
      (pp. 90-98)

      Iwonder if you would consider the following proposition: I have proposed to organize a group of Negro specialists who have had a theoretical and practical training in the production of cotton, to be sent to the Soviet Union,” wrote Oliver Golden to his former teacher, George Washington Carver. “This group is to be indorsed [sic] by you [and if] it meets with your approval, I shall also arrange a tour for you to the Soviet Union to demonstrate your findings in the field of agriculture. The expenses of this tour will be taken care of.”²

      Carver was intrigued; he...

    • Chapter 7 The Agricultural Specialists Journey to the Soviet Union
      (pp. 99-112)

      The last time you heard from me I was simply a physiologist working in the cotton fields of Central Asia. Now I am a research chemist following in the footsteps of my illustrious teacher, Professor G. W. Carver…. As my example and guide in this pioneer experimental work, I have you. From nothing at all, as a beginning you made undying history thru your application to the ‘study of things.’ I firmly believe that I can and will make world famous discoveries in the field in which I am working. Life shapes itself into queer and unexpected patterns. To think...

  8. Part III The Artists and Intellectuals

    • Chapter 8 Langston Hughes and the Black and White Film Group
      (pp. 115-139)

      In June 1932, Langston Hughes joined a group of twenty-one people to make a film in the Soviet Union. “This unexpected chance to work in films in Russia seemed to open a new door to me.”² Homer Smith was equally excited. “I yearned to stand taller than I had ever stood to breathe total freedom in great exhilarating gulps, to avoid all the hurts that were increasingly becoming the lot of men (and women) of color in the United States…. Moscow seemed the answer.”³ For Henry Lee Moon, it was a bridge to his future. “It meant the end of...

    • Chapter 9 Paul Robeson’s Search for a Society Free of Racism
      (pp. 140-154)

      Recalling his first visit to the Soviet Union, black cartoonist Ollie Harrington wrote, “I was invited by the satiricalKrokodile[journal] to see the Soviet Union.” He was in Tashkent and mapping out a scene in his mind:

      I sat on a parkbench where I could drink in the breathtaking oriental beauty of the opera house. I was thinking of coming back the next day with my sketchpad when a little Uzbek girl came to me holding out a flower. Of course, I couldn’t understand what she was saying but Yuri, my interpreter explained, “She asks if you are Paul...

  9. Part IV The Expatriates and New Sojourners

    • Chapter 10 The Expatriates: The Purges, the War Years, and Beyond
      (pp. 157-183)

      When Homer Smith downplayed his and other blacks’ brushes with the Soviet secret police by stating that it “did not affect” them, he was basically right. Only one of this small remaining group of black sojourners, Lovett Fort-Whiteman, was known to have been purged. If, however, Smith wanted to indicate that they had only minor encounters or were minimally aware of what was happening to others, then he is seriously misleading. Many of them were challenged by experiences that were traumatizing. As Smith himself had observed, “My boss … was liquidated along with several other postal officials…. Many disappeared without...

    • Chapter 11 William “Bill” Davis, the American National Exhibit, and U.S. Public Diplomacy
      (pp. 184-199)

      In late July 1959, William “Bill” Davis was serving as one of seventy-five guides at the American National Exhibit in Moscow when another black man approached him. Davis was perplexed. He knew the three other black guides and the four black models in his group, but who was this fellow? To Davis’s amazement, it was Robert Ross, a black man from Montana, who had been living in the Soviet Union for over thirty years. Ross was an actor and lecturer.² But, as Davis would learn, Ross was not alone; many other blacks had gone to the Soviet Union in the...

    • Chapter 12 The Cold War, Solidarity Building, and the Recruitment of New Sojourners
      (pp. 200-210)

      It was the fall of 1958. Robeson had returned to Moscow in August, and Du Bois followed shortly thereafter. In October, both would meet a grown Lily Golden in Tashkent at the Asian and African Writers conference. It was the first time in over ten years that Lily had seen the city of her birth, her “beloved Tashkent.” Happy to have the excuse to return, she was also under assignment from Professor Ivan Potekhin. “Potekhin proposed that I should go … as a delegate to the first Conference of Asian and African Writers. He said that he expected Paul Robeson...

  10. Appendix: Family Lines of Sojourners/Expatriates
    (pp. 211-218)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 219-256)
  12. Bibliographical Essay: A Survey of Selected Sources
    (pp. 257-264)
  13. Index
    (pp. 265-274)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 275-276)