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A Black Communist’s Disappearance in Stalin’s Russia
What happened to Lovett Fort-Whiteman, the only known African American to die in the Gulag?
In the spring of 1936, Lovett Fort-Whiteman, an African American man from Dallas, Texas, vanished in Moscow. He had lived in the Soviet Union for nearly a decade, most recently with his wife, Marina, a Russian Jewish chemist, in a cramped apartment around the corner from the Central Telegraph building. By then, a half-dozen African Americans had settled in Moscow permanently. Even among them, Fort-Whiteman, who was forty-six, was a striking sight. He wore knee-high boots, a black leather cap, and a belted long shirt in the style of Bolshevik commissars. Homer Smith, a Black journalist from Minneapolis and Fort-Whiteman’s close friend in Moscow, later wrote, “He had adopted the practice of many Russian Communists of shaving his head, and with his finely chiseled nose set into a V-shaped face he resembled a Buddhist monk.”
Nearly two decades had passed since the Bolshevik Revolution established the world’s first Communist state, a society that promised equality and dignity for workers and peasants. In the Soviet Union, racial prejudice was considered the result of capitalistic exploitation, and, for the Kremlin, countering racism became a question of geopolitical P.R. Throughout the nineteen-twenties and thirties, dozens of Black activists and intellectuals passed through Moscow. Wherever they went, Russians would give up their place in line, or their seat on a train—a practice that an N.A.A.C.P. leader called an “almost embarrassing courtesy.” In 1931, after the so-called Scottsboro Boys—nine Black teen-agers falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama—were put on trial, the American Communist Party provided pro-bono legal defense, and rallies in their support were held in dozens of cities across the Soviet Union. Two years later, Paul Robeson, the singer, actor, and activist, visited Moscow and remarked, “Here, for the first time in my life, I walk in full human dignity.”
Homer Smith eventually published a memoir, “Black Man in Red Russia,” in which he described Fort-Whiteman as one of the “early Negro pilgrims who journeyed to Moscow to worship at the ‘Kaaba’ of Communism.” Fort-Whiteman, Smith went on, was a “dyed-in-the-wool Communist dogmatist” who once said that returning to Moscow after a trip to the U.S. felt like coming home.
By the mid-thirties, however, the exuberance of Moscow’s expat community had begun to wane. In 1934, Sergei Kirov, a leading Bolshevik functionary, was shot dead in Leningrad. Joseph Stalin, who had spent the previous decade consolidating power, used the event to justify a campaign of purges targeting the Communist élite. Foreigners, once fêted, became objects of suspicion. “The broom had been sweeping steadily,” Smith, who attended the hearings for a number of high-profile defendants, wrote. “Thousands of lesser victims, I knew, simply disappeared or were liquidated without benefit of trial.”
Fort-Whiteman had become a polarizing figure. He could be pedantic and grandiose, with a penchant for name-dropping. “He did his best to proselytize and indoctrinate,” Smith wrote. Increasingly, Fort-Whiteman came to argue that the Communist Party, in order to win more support among African Americans, must acknowledge that racism, as much as social class, fuelled their plight. For Marxist ideologues, this was heresy.
One day, Smith stopped by Fort-Whiteman’s apartment. He knocked a few times, and finally Marina opened the door. “Is Gospodin Fort-Whiteman at home?” Smith asked, using the Russian honorific. Marina was clearly on edge. “No, he isn’t,” she said. “And I beg you never to come here looking for him again!” From his reporting on the purges, Smith could reasonably assume the worst. He later wrote, “I had been living in Russia long enough to understand the implications.”
Like many African Americans in the early twentieth century, Fort-Whiteman’s life was directly shaped by the atrocities of the antebellum South. His father, Moses Whiteman, was born into slavery on a plantation in South Carolina. Shortly after Reconstruction, he moved to Dallas and married a local girl named Elizabeth Fort. They had a son, Lovett, in 1889, and then a daughter, Hazel. When Fort-Whiteman was around sixteen, he enrolled at the Tuskegee Institute, the historically Black university in Alabama, then led by Booker T. Washington. Moses died a few years later, and Elizabeth and Hazel moved to Harlem. Fort-Whiteman eventually came, too, finding work as a bellhop and moonlighting as an actor in a Black theatre troupe.
In his mid-twenties, he went to Mexico, entering without a passport, and headed for the Yucatán. The Mexican Revolution was under way, with upstart anarchist and socialist movements confronting the wealthy landowning class. By the time Fort-Whiteman returned to Harlem, four years later, in 1917, he was a committed Marxist.
In Russia, it was the year of the October Revolution, in which Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks, after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, seized power and declared a dictatorship of the proletariat. In the U.S., the appeal of Communism for many immigrants and ethnic minorities was obvious: few other political philosophies at the time held out the possibility of full equality. “It can be difficult for many who think of the Soviet Union through the lens of Stalinism or the ‘evil empire’ to recognize all it seemed to offer African Americans,” Glenda Gilmore, the author of the 2008 book “Defying Dixie,” a history of the radical roots of the civil-rights movement, told me. “They weren’t delusional but, rather, thinking quite practically.”
Fort-Whiteman enrolled in a six-month course at the Rand School, a socialist training academy operating out of a converted mansion on East Fifteenth Street. He told a reporter from The Messenger, a Black-owned magazine that covered the politics and literature of the Harlem Renaissance, “Socialism offers the only lasting remedy for the economic ills from which humanity is suffering and which weigh so heavily on the colored race.”
In the years that followed, Fort-Whiteman returned to acting and began publishing theatre criticism and short fiction in The Messenger. His stories were richly imagined and often laced with a brash disregard for the era’s racial mores. In “Wild Flowers,” Clarissa, a Northern white woman with “a slight but well-knit figure,” has an affair with Jean, a Black man from the South “of pleasing countenance, and in the early flush of manhood.”Eventually, Clarissa gets pregnant, and she tries to hide the affair by accusing her husband of harboring Black ancestry.
As soldiers returned from the First World War, increased competition for jobs and housing contributed to rising racial tensions in the United States. During the summer of 1919, some twenty-six race riots broke out across the country. In Chicago, a Black teen-age boy who drifted on a raft into a whites-only area of Lake Michigan was attacked with rocks and left to drown by a crowd of white bathers. In the violent aftermath, hundreds of Black businesses and homes on the South Side were destroyed, and nearly forty people were killed.
Fort-Whiteman set off on a speaking tour, in the hope that this nationwide spasm of racist violence, known as the Red Summer, would open up African Americans to his radical message. A labor organizer from Illinois compared him to “a man carrying a flaunting torch through dry grass.” Fort-Whiteman was detained in Youngstown, Ohio, after trying to convince Black laborers to join striking steelworkers. He drew a meagre audience in St. Louis, where the police arrested him, boasting to the local papers that they had busted the “St. Louis Soviet.”
Fort-Whiteman eventually caught the attention of the Bureau of Investigation, soon to become the F.B.I. In February of 1924, an agent named Earl Titus, one of the first African Americans to work at the Bureau, saw Fort-Whiteman speak in Chicago. As Titus wrote in his report, Fort-Whiteman told the crowd that “there is nothing here for the negro, and that until they have a revolution in this country as they have had in other countries, the negro will be the same.” Fort-Whiteman added that he “would like very much to go to Russia.”
Four months later, at the age of thirty-four, he got his chance: he was selected [in 1924] as a delegate to the Fifth World Congress, the preëminent gathering of the Communist International, to be held that summer in Moscow.
On arrival, Fort-Whiteman and other delegates to the Comintern, as the Communist International was known, were taken to Lenin’s mausoleum, on Red Square. The father of the Revolution had died six months earlier, and his body lay in perpetual state, attracting pilgrims from all over the world. Stalin had been named the head of the Party, but he had not yet solidified power. Bolshevik politics were in a liminal phase, marked by a boisterous debate over the future of Communism. Everything seemed up for grabs, including the Comintern’s policy toward recruiting and organizing African Americans.
During a session devoted to the “national and colonial question,” Fort-Whiteman was given the floor. Stalin was in the audience, along with foreign delegates such as Palmiro Togliatti, a leader of the Italian Communist Party, and Ho Chi Minh, then a young Vietnamese socialist, who had travelled to Moscow on a fake Chinese passport. Fort-Whiteman began by explaining the Great Migration: Blacks were moving north, he said, not only in search of economic opportunity but also as an “expression of the growing revolt of the Negroes against the persecutions and discriminations practiced against them in the South.”
Fort-Whiteman suggested that issues of race and class, in varying and overlapping ways, were responsible for the oppression of African Americans. “The Negroes are not discriminated against as a class but as a race,” he said, seeming to acknowledge that this was a controversial statement. For Communists, he continued, “the Negro problem is a peculiar psychological problem.”
Much of the congress was leisurely. Delegates went boating on the Moscow River and attended a classical-music concert held along the shore. At the end of the three-week event, Fort-Whiteman decided to remain in Moscow. He was invited to enroll as the first African American student at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East (K.U.T.V.). White Americans attended the International Lenin School, Moscow’s premier academy for foreigners. But, because Soviet policy deemed African Americans a “colonized” people, they were to study at K.U.T.V., alongside students from China, India, Indonesia, and elsewhere. (Ho Chi Minh was a student there; so, too, was Deng Xiaoping, the future Chinese leader.) Students spent ninety minutes a day on Russian lessons, and the rest of their time reading Communist texts.
That summer, Fort-Whiteman embarked on a tour of the Soviet Union. Gilmore, in her book, recounts that a Cossack division in Ukraine made him an honorary member; in Soviet Turkestan, residents voted to rename their town Whitemansky. The archives of W. E. B. Du Bois contain a letter from Fort-Whiteman, written “from a village deep in the heart of Russia,” in which he describes how the many nationalities of the Soviet Union “live as one large family, look upon one another simply as human beings.” He tells Du Bois of evenings spent with his K.U.T.V. classmates, staging open-air theatrical performances in the forest: “Here life is poetry itself!”
Back in Moscow, Fort-Whiteman settled into his room at the Hotel Lux, where he wrote a number of letters to top Communist officials. I read them in the Comintern archive, held in the building that once housed the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute—a five-story edifice in what is now a posh stretch of central Moscow, across from a Prada boutique. Fort-Whiteman asked Grigory Zinoviev, a powerful Bolshevik and the head of the Comintern, about the possibility of enlisting “the discontented elements of the Negro race in America into the revolutionary movement.” He noted that, though African Americans were the most oppressed group in the United States, American Communist organizations had done little to reach out to them. Even if most Black workers had not read Marx, they had been pushed toward radicalism by the crucible of American racism. The Party, he wrote, must “carry Communist teaching to the great mass of American black workers.”