Editor’s Note: Louise Thompson Patterson was a key figure in the U.S. communist movement and the Harlem Renaissance. In this video, she speaks about her introduction to Marxism and her radicalization. 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.
But I found that I wanted to dig a little deeper than just an occasional forum or debate or discussion and my activities. One thing, we set up a little branch of the Society of American Soviet Friendship and began to have discussions in the home on what was happening in the Soviet Union. And, by this time I was working with a Congregational Education Society and I decided to go to the workers school and take some classes on political science and Marxism. The workers’ school at that time was down on 12th Street between Broadway and University Place. And, I remember there was a teacher called Pop Mendel, who we went to – was my teacher. And he was a real teacher, very interesting man.
Then there was a teacher’s summer training school. We went up to a farm for a whole six weeks, and Pop Mendel was the head of that school. To Mr. Herring, my boss, this to him was an amusing eccentricity, I guess you might call it, of mine. But I remember meeting – first reading Lenin’s State and Revolution and, was it, Engels’ Origin of the Family. And these began…were eye openers to me because even though I had gone, graduated in economics from the University of California, I had never heard about Karl Marx until I came to New York, and William Patterson had introduced me to the subject of Marxism.
There also grew up in Harlem a whole series of home study groups among intellectual friends of mine. And there was really a ferment of activity. I remember George Schuyler, who had started with The Messenger, way back in the early days of The Messenger when it had a socialist approach as a radical, by this time had become a ranked reactionary. If you look back over the pages of the Amsterdam News, you would see how he used to castigate those of us whom he considered in the intellectual circles as being pinkies and so on. So it was that I began to find that, not fully, but began to understand much more the character of the society in which we lived and that the kinds of activities that I had been part of or simply the reason why they were as they were was because they were part of the established order of things. That the best of all worlds was a capitalist world, and what we were doing, the kindsof things that we were doing, were the kind of activities that had very stringent limitations. And that if you wanted to to play the game and be a part of it, you couldn’t- there were certain things that…certain areas you didn’t go beyond.
I’ll give you a small example. In editing this paper, there’s a period when the Ford workers were beginning to organize and there was a, what we called, massacre if you remember. When they were workers shot down in Detroit, Michigan. I wrote a story on this for the…our little newsletter and my headline was “The Ford Massacre.” Mr. Herring told me, “Well, Louise, we can’t say it that way. We have to say the Ford tragedy.”
One time we had a seminar up in New England on labor relations. It was in the period before… this was all before the organization of the CIO when the mass industries and industrial unionism had not come upon the scene. There were attempts from the left like the trade union–I think it’s called T.U.U.L. Trade Union Unity League–and the activities of communist or- and radical labor leaders like William C Foster. And I entered their strike activities because like one of them goes back to 1919 before my time, but we had the seminar and who were the participants in this seminar up in New England? They were people who were part of the establishment, who were the owners or executives in factories and mills and industries. And I remember how futile I felt was what were we doing, we were, you know, worse than Don Quixote gesturing at world windmills, and I remember when after two days such seminar and the rationalization of what of these upper-class white members of the establishment of the society rationalizing their approach to labor, which was primarily just the philanthropic approach. And then labor itself did not have the right to organize independently and so forth.
And on the way back, driving down from Boston or wherever we had held the seminar, I was just filled with disgust and well, I guess foaming at the mouth, you might say. And Dr. Herring would say, “Ah, Louise, you know forget it, forget it. You know it’s just, that’s just what we do. We can’t really get down to the heart and the basis of these things because where does our money come from?” So that even here, though I was primarily in a white organization, and the people to whom I was talking were white, it was the same approach to labor as it had been to the black question, for example, and on race relations. I found, I was under Mr. Herring, that I could go just so far. It’s alright to talk about we had this seminar on the South and which outraged some of the people in the race relations field. We took a group of middle and upper-class white and Blacks through the South in a Pullman car. Sleeping together, I mean sleeping in the same car, eating together. And when we got to towns, like in the South, where the discrimination was, we’d all go out the Black…and sit going…if we had to get out of off of our car we’d go into it at the Black entrance to the railroad station. We stopped…where we stopped was at Black colleges such as Talladega and Tuskegee and Hampton. And wherever we stopped some stations we’d go into, we would have to pull our shades down because if our car was stationed in the station, whites would curse.
They canceled our trip to Birmingham. We were not- we were not permitted to go to Birmingham. And there was talk that our car was going to be dynamited on the road. Now…but what…it was a myth. Upper middle class Mary McLeod Bethune was with us, Brett Brownlee of the American Missionary Association,leading society women from Park Avenue. I don’t think there was a worker in the group. And all we did was go to these colleges and have talks. I remember in Atlanta at Morehouse and Florence Reid was the white head that time, at that time, of Spelman, the girls college in Atlanta. And we had these talks on race relations, but there was always…they stopped. Where would you go? You know, the most radical question you could talk about would be intermarriage or social equality. But we didn’t – talking about job equality or educational opportunities, it was a limited field. I mean we just went to the point where a liberal would go. So that, I think, was what turned me into going to the workers’ school and trying to get down to a more fundamental understanding of what all this was about Which I could not get either from the white philanthropist who had been my patrons or the white liberals and religious leaders who became my friends.
There was a limit to which you didn’t go beyond.
Thanks to AfroMarxist for the video and the Tamiment Library for archiving these audio files. Transcription by Jonathan Ebhogiaye.