Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Middle Class Revolutionaries of Edgecombe Avenue: Presentation at "When Sugar Hill Was Sweet" Conference

It is an honor to be on this panel with such distinguished scholars  and public intellectuals.  We are here to celebrate a great history that is threatened by gentrification and unchecked development. Neighborhoods which have  a powerful role in transforming the history of our city and our nation are being changed with breakneck speed according to the vagaries of the global market place, bringing in people who don’t know about,  or care much about the people who have lived there or their struggles for equal rights, citizenship, and respectful treatment. So hats off to Karen Taylor and all of those trying to insure the history of Sugar Hill is preserved and honored in film and scholarship and historical landmarks.  We at the Bronx African American History Project are trying to do the same thing in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, that borough’s most important  historically African American community, before the forces of development reach it with the same speed as they have transformed, and some say, undermined communities  in Harlem
    On this panel we will be discussing the powerful legacy of political activism in two great apartment buildings which housed so many people of African descent who achieved distinction in politics, law and the arts.  That legacy, as we will see in my presentation, and I suspect in the others on the panel, was truly extraordinary.  But it was by no means inevitable.  The people  who were living at 409 and 555 had the option of insulating themselves from the day to day struggles of the poorest Harlemites  or addressing them from the distant perch of noblesse oblige. Some chose that path. But other chose to merge their fate with the Black working class and poor, and the working class of all nationalities, in ways that still challenge us today  It is time to look at some of the individuals who tried to forge a Black politics that put the working class in the forefront, even while their own lives may have retained elements of comfort and security those they were fighting for found difficult to attain.
         Before turning the three people I am highlighting, Louise Thompson, Marvel Cooke and Paul Robeson, I would like to venture into social geography.  Unlike the row of Brownstones known as Strivers Row, 409 and 555 Edgecombe were relatively insulated from the extremes of poverty and hardship that could be found in Harlem, or the sites of protest and even violence during the political struggles of the Depression years.  The most crowded block in Harlem,  which was also the most crowded in the world 140-141st Street between 7th and 8th Avenue, was more than a half mile from the Edgecombe buildings. 125thStreet, where the Don’t Buy You Can’t Work movement was centered, and the Harlem Riot’s of 1935 and 1943 began, was nearly two miles away.  There were no street orators on Edgecombe Avenue of the kind who were fixtures on 125th Street and Lenox avenue  If you lived there, you did not have to see extreme poverty, hear the voices of nationalist and communist orators,  observe large numbers of people being evicted from their buildings, watch marches and festivals and parades go past your door, or watch stores being looted and burned during riots.  And though you shared the humiliation and discrimination and even threats of police and personal violence all African Americans faced whenever they were in public spaces,  you had the option, once you were in your apartment, of blocking out the poverty and daily hardship that living in a racist society had imposed on most of New York’s Black population.
    The three people who chose NOT to block that off, as a matter of political principle, had one thing in common. They were all members of, or had a powerful association with, the US Communist Party. The CPUSA carved out a powerful niche in the Black intelligentsia in the early Depression years by making the battle against white supremacy  a central component of the struggle for economic justice, trying to expunge “white chauvinism” from every movement it had influence, taking on lynching and Jim Crow as central goals of its political organizing, and mobilizing its cadre to organize the poorest and most isolated sections of the Black population, sharecroppers, the unemployed, domestic servants and laborers, and people on the verge of eviction. It also took several controversial positions that posed a challenged to the talented tenth- it claimed that the leading Black organizations in the country, the NAACP, the Urban League, were poisoned by elitism; that Black churches were selling out the masses, and that the methods that were most favored by civil rights organizations- lobbying and litigation- would never bring justice to Black people- only mass protest  would work.  In the 1920’s, before the Depression and the CPUSA’s white chauvinism crusade, Communists had made little headway in gaining Black recruits. But when the Depression hit, crushing the Black middle class and imposing unprecedented hardship on the Black poor, and the CPUSA unveiled a ferocious campaign against white chauvinism  and Jim Crow, the Party began to gain the attention of a growing group of Black intellectuals, some of whom ended up living in the Edgecombe buildings.
   One of the most important of these recruits was Louise Thompson, a social worker, a friend and confidant of Langston Hughes, who knew all the key figures of the Harlem Renaissance and was in the same social circles as Harlem’s best know writers and musicians.  For Thompson, like many middle class Blacks drawn to the CPUSA, the Scottsboro Case was the defining event.  When Communist lawyers swept into rural Alabama to try to save 9 Black teenagers accused  of raping two young  white women, teenagers the NAACP was reluctant to defend because they were poor and illiterate and because the odds of winning were poor, and when Communists organized huge protests around the country  and the world denouncing  the arrests as a “legal lynching,” Thompson  saw a window of opportunity to push the struggle against lynching , Jim Crow and all forms of discrimination to a new level. That the Communists were bringing tens  of thousands of US whites into battles Blacks had fought largely by themselves, whites who were willing to get beaten and arrested and even killed to fight racism, was a wake up call, but so was the fact that Communists had a WHOLE COUNTRY- the Soviet Union- behind them in this effort.  Thompson  decided to seize the opportunity and ally herself with this new force, and she was able to bring scores of artistically and literarily talented blacks  along with her. Her apartment  already served as a gathering point for Harlem intellectuals and she used this venue to expose them to the Communist message on a wide variety of issues; whether it was the Scottsboro Case,  the unemployed movement, the battle against discrimination in stores on 125 street, or the Soviet Union’s alleged success in eliminating racism and anti-Semitism.  Thompsons  role in exposing middle class Harlemites to a left wing world view lasted more than 20 years, only enhanced by her marriage to the brilliant Communist lawyer William Patterson, a key figure who engineered the CPUSA’s Scottsoboro initiative. That Langston Hughes, her closest male friend, was part of this effort only made it more effective.  Thompson was never a street level organizer. That was not her strength. But she was integrally involved in virtually all leftwing initiatives in the arts, from benefit concerts for the Scottsboro boys or fighters in the Abraham Lincoln Brigage, to the organization of the Harlem Suitcase Theatre ; along with efforts to fight for the better schools, advance the rights of domestic workers, get access to better health facilities, all efforts which benefited the Harlem poor as well as middle class.  She was the very personification and embodiment of an activist spirit among the talented tenth of Edgecombe Avenue,  a middle class revolutionary for whom justice for all became a life’s mission.
  The next Edgecombe resident I have selected to highlight was Marvel Cooke, a charismatic and attractive journalist who wrote columns on Harlem social life for local newspapers. But Marvel Cooke was also a Communists and in 1935 she did something quite extraordinary with her friend Ella Baker; they put on cheap coats and dresses and lined up to get picked up for domestic work at two Bronx street corners- 167th Street and Jerome Avenue and the Westchester Avenue and Simpton Street- places known in vernacular parlance as “The Bronx Slave Market.” Their article about the experience, published by theCrisis, prompted a career long effort on Cooke’s part to improve the working conditions of domestic workers, efforts which ultimately resulted in the creation of hiring halls in the 1940’s and even attempts to form a Domestic Workers Union.   Cooke continued these efforts through World War II, when more varied job opportunities for Black working class women opened up,  through 1950, when the
“Slave Markets” returned and Cook wrote articles about them in the Daily Compass . This was not Cooke’s only venture into political activism, but it was the one that had the greatest impact. Where else but Harlem, and the two signature buildings on Edgecombe Avenue, would you have  a Communist society columnist lining up on Bronx street corners to get domestic work, and then make improving conditions for the city’s most poorly paid Black workers, her personal crusade.
  The final Edgecombe resident I will be highlighting is Paul Robeson, who moved to 555 after returning to the US from Europe in 1939.   Many long and distinguished books have been written about Paul Robeson,  who  when you consider his athletic and artistic accomplishments, coupled with his history as a human rights advocate, may have been the most multitalented person of the 20th Century. But for our purposes, highlighting the commitment to working class empowerment by the Communist wing of the talented tenth, what makes Robeson unique is how he allocated his time as a performer, entertainer and public speaker. In his prime earning years, before he was silenced and demonized during the Cold War, Robeson was among the highest paid entertainers in the world, making huge revenues as concert singer and actor. Yet he devoted a full half of his schedule to free public appearances for labor unions, civil rights organizations, and gatherings of striking workers around the country and around the world- he spoke and sang for miners, textile workers, sugar cane cutters in places as far apart as Hawaii, Wales, and North Carolina, sometimes at great risk to his own health and safety. The same legendary voice that regaled European royalty, and  the wealthiest concert goers in New York and London, sang for workers and political activists around campfires, at the gates of factories, and at the openings of mines. But nothing symbolized Robeson’s courage more than the two concerts he gave in Peekskill New York in 1949 at the height of the McCarthy Era, concerts which were attacked by thousands of anti-Communists and racists, concerts filled with death threats, where he had to sing surrounded by a phalanx of Black and white trade unionists.
       Is there anyone like him today?  People at the pinnacle of their artistic careers willing to risk their lives, much less donate their time, to help the most embattled and marginalized people, here and around the world.
      To me, Paul Robeson, along  with Louise Thompson and Marvel Cooke, represent more than a legacy worth preserving, they represent a legacy worth FOLLOWING.  The stakes are very high now, just as they were in the 1930’s, when fascism lurked around the corner, and people had to stand up and be counted lest their movements be suppressed and their dreams be crushed.
     With gentrification  undermining communities of color, militarized policing  intimidating the poor,  the prison industrial complex  deforming millions of lives  and  Donald Trump using racism and xenophobia to clear a path to the Presidency, we need our version of the Talented Tenth, of all racial backgrounds  to take a stand alongside those facing the hardest blows.
        Thompson, Cooke and Robeson, from deep back in our history, are sending us a message
        Will we heed their call?


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