Editor’s Note: Louise Thompson Patterson was a key figure in the U.S. communist movement and the Harlem Renaissance. Here she speaks about her transformative trip to the USSR from June until November 1932. Patterson helped organize the delegation of African Americans, which included Langston Hughes and Dorothy West.
This interview was conducted over three decades ago and the audio files have been digitized as part of NYU Tamiment Library’s invaluable Oral History of the American Left project. Liberation School has been transcribing and publishing interviews from this collection not as an endorsement of all the statements expressed in them, but to help a new generation of organizers and revolutionaries gain access to the experiences, lessons and perspectives of prior generations of U.S. communists. While much has been written in academic circles about the role of communists in the Black freedom struggle, this history is systematically omitted in history textbooks and rarer still do we get to hear from the Black radicals themselves.
All these activities that I and others were involved in, in the hall at that time, sort of climaxed when I received…an invitation was extended for a group of blacks to come to the Soviet Union, under the aegis of Mezhrabpomfilm [a Soviet-led film institute], to make a movie about Blacks in the United States. This invitation was brought to us from the Soviet Union by James W. Ford, who was a leading communist and whom I came to know.
And we set up an ad hoc committee in which many Black and white progressives and known leaders of our community became a part of the committee to get together such a group of Blacks. And, well, we became very excited: all of the activities, the discussions we had had been having in this little group we had of the American Soviet Friendship Society, our other lectures and activities. And so we set up this committee and had a lot of publicity.
Langston Hughes at that time was making a lecture tour. It was on the coast. I wrote him. I became the Secretary of the committee, and we drew primarily press releases and so forth. The call went out that this invitation was extended to us, and we began to get invitations. I mean we began to get applicants. It was really very, I would say, reckless, now in retrospect, way of doing it. Because we just made anybody, it wasn’t, they wanted to, were going to make a movie. But we always said we had to have, physically, was money to pay our way to the Soviet Union. And, at that time, it was ninety dollars.
So, we got applications of…I knew Langston would be interested. We carried on our communication primarily by telegram. And we were given a certain date. We had to leave on the 22nd. They wanted us there by the 22nd of June or something of that sort. And we had many, we had meetings here in Harlem, and we finally got together a group that was
– “Were they mainly intellectuals?”
Yes, and non-actors, non-actors. They were just young people with a desire to travel and have adventure. We had one actor, Wayland Rudd, who came from Hedgerow Theater in Philadelphia. Langston Hughes, of course, was the most prominent writer. Loren Miller, from California, who was an intellectual and a writer. Another Californian, one man who was supposed to work, was Smith, who later, when he came back here, wrote the most vicious book about the Soviet Union, even claiming that he didn’t even go with us. And the others were young people. We had Dorothy West, who had been a part of the Harlem Renaissance and a writer. Others were social workers, teachers, but certainly not artists. And we were 22 who got together when we left sail for Moscow.
This is not the time, and the one I’d have to take could take the whole side of this record to tell the story. Just to sum it up, we got there to find that not only were we not prepared to do a movie in that we, most people think that all Negroes sing and dance. Most of us could do neither. I mean dance in a professional sense. Langston could barely even carry a tune, but he could write. Certainly, none of us, except Wayland Rudd, could act, and we found that they, on that end, were unready in the sense that they had a script that was impossible, a German director who knew nothing about Black people.
So, there we were, 22 young people set loose in Moscow with 400 rubles a month to spend, living in one of the leading hotels in the city, and most of them really went wild, I mean, as young people can do. Well, after a whole fruitless summer, Langston attempted to work on the script, but it was fantastic. They had no concept of what life was like in the United States, other than they knew Scottsboro. To our astonishment, we got over there and found that they knew more about Scottsboro than some of the people who were going, but they were in our group. We’d be stopped on the street by little children. I remember one of the first things, the activities, we had. We were taken to Gorky Park and had a big mass meeting on the Scottsboro case. This astonished us, you see, because it was before the Scottsboro activity had gotten to a really high point in this country.
But, after a summer of idleness, and, you know, and you’ve got 400 rubles in your pocket, and you have all your time, and you could, that doesn’t, and your board room, and it’s taken care of, you can imagine what a group of young people, most of them there in their very early twenties, would do, whatever their color might be. And then we were taken down when, after this, the activity began to, I mean, the thing began to bore of being in Moscow.
We were sent to the Black Sea. We took a trip down on a boat, and when we came back to Moscow, well, when we got back to Odessa, the Mezhrabpomfilm finally decided that they, it was impractical. We couldn’t do it. They wanted to send us out from there, but we demanded to go back to Moscow, and it was there that we found, first of all, millions of cables from, I mean, not millions, cables from all our families and found out that stories had been sent out that, in the Herald Tribune under the byline of Eugene Lyons from Moscow, that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was stranded in Moscow, where we’d been living on the fat of the land in the sense that we didn’t even know it was one of the great famine years in the Soviet Union. We had not only our 400 rubles, but we had books to the foreign store where you could buy all of the things like butter and sugar and meat and everything that the Russian people didn’t have, and it was a real famine year. We had no idea because we never had it so good, and there were are our families thinking that we were stranded and starving and so forth and so on.
Well, the upshot was that we were, most of us, some of the people, we had a split in the group, some of the people, the minority, taking the position that it was a sellout on the part of the Soviet Union to gain American recognition, and others of us saying that the whole thing was a flop, that the company that had invited us had failed, and we ourselves were not prepared to carry through such a project. But, by no means did we take the position that it was a sell [out], and we took the position that it was an impossible situation that had to be resolved.
We were invited, we were given the opportunity to take a trip to Uzbekistan because we wanted, the thing that we were most interested was to find out how did, under socialism, how did national minorities thrive. And that’s why, when we were asked where we wanted to go, mainly we said, “To Central Asia.”
Because many Americans don’t realize that under the Soviet Union not everybody’s white, and that, in Central Asia, you have people that are brown and black. The only difference between them and Blacks in the United States is that they don’t have curly hair. They have straight hair as Mongolian and Indian-like people so that the groups with some of the ringleaders of the opposition left immediately. Others of us took the trip to the central, Central Asia.
Three or four of the people, Wayland Rudd remained in the Soviet Union, married, became, went into theater seriously. He was in the Meyerhold Theater and all of the theaters and died there and has two children. Another young man who had been a house painter before he left married a Russian girl and became a, went into the theater and became a part of the of a theater doing stage sets and things of that sort. Langston took a year, and we left him there, and in his book, I Wonder as I Wander, he writes about his travels and wanderings through Central Asia. And some of the others gradually came back to the United States, and I came back early because my mother, who had developed terminal cancer in ’29, was near death.
– “How had your mother felt about your growing radical interest?”
She was very concerned because she had given her life to my education, and she wanted always the best for me. But, when she found me moving in a leftward direction, she always rallied behind me, and, as she was dying, she said, “I’m so sorry I can’t help you. You know I could I can make teas for you and do things to help you in your work.”
So that she would have, she died. I got back in November, and she died in February of ’33 in the last horrible stages of cancer. When I returned, the Congregational Education Society had been very helpful. They encouraged me to take the trip, and, as a matter of fact, paid me my, paid my salary so that it made it possible for me to go and leave money for my mother to live on while I was abroad. When I returned, I went in to have a talk with Mr. Herring because, by that time, I had realized that most of the things, just, I felt about what I had done just as I felt in Arkansas. Trying to teach children that couldn’t spell how to do secretarial work, couldn’t spell, couldn’t add. I felt about approaching the question of, first of all, racial relations didn’t describe what Black people were after.
We were after complete equality and freedom, and you can’t dress it up in talking in terms that don’t get down to the brass tax.
Thanks to AfroMarxist for the video and the Tamiment Library for archiving these audio files. Transcription by Jonathan Ebhogiaye.