Home Feature A Black Harlem communist speaks: Abner Berry 1-3

A Black Harlem communist speaks: Abner Berry 1-3


Editor’s Note: Liberation School continues our Black Communist History series with a transcription of an interview with Abner Berry. Berry edited the Harlem edition of The Daily Worker in the 1940s and 1950s. He was a founding member of Black Workers for Justice. These interviews were 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. Thanks to the Tamiment Library for digitizing these audio files and to Scott Simpson and Nigel Lisbon for the transcriptions and technical work.

Interview, pt. 1

Interviewer: In Harlem, one of… well, two people who seemed to be particular nemeses for the Party were Ira Kemp and Arthur Reed.

Berry: Oh yeah.

Interviewer: During the Ethiopian campaigns and other…

Berry: Yeah. I knew them.

Interviewer: They were advocating boycotts of Italian store owners and icemen and so on.

Berry: But they didn’t have such a big following, you see. They were street speakers. And as such, they only had their followers that they would attract on the street corner. So that they were no match, you see, for an organization that had steel fibers running all through the community, you see. And therefore, they had a nuisance value and that was all.

Interviewer: What about the thing they organized, the Harlem Labor Union?

Berry: The same thing. It was a… it was not much of a… it wasn’t a union or anything. It had a few followers.

Interviewer: Now, what about the incident in, I guess in ’38 with Louis Campbell and Frankie Duty.

Berry: Oh…

Interviewer: What was that all about? And the Workers’ Alliance

Berry: Let me see now… Louis Campbell and Frankie Duty were the leaders of the Workers’ Alliance. I don’t know now just the answer to that. What was it?

Interviewer: Well, I’m not exactly sure what the origin of the dispute was — it may have been something about salaries or stipends in the Workers’ Alliance — but in any case, they apparently left the Workers’ Alliance and started picketing the Party headquarters, and organized something called the United Afro-American Union, which was an all-Black unemployed organization. And [George] Charney mentions it in his book, that when they started becoming dissatisfied, they called you and Sam Wiseman in to try to keep them from defecting, but the whole thing isn’t really clear in my mind, what…

Berry: It’s not really clear to me, because whatever they organized couldn’t have lasted a month long, or a week, or two weeks, you see. Because it was an organization that couldn’t function, you know, without the support, and without the kind of organization which the Party had then — to surround it, you see. It had no possibility of developing, as I can see, at that time, because I can’t remember it getting us into trouble at all.

Interviewer: It seems like that the Garveyites and Nationalists in the Thirties were not capable of organizing themselves in stable groups or in any kind of national organization.

Berry: No. No. They just weren’t able, they weren’t able — as I said before, they weren’t able to organize actions and groups, or collections. They just weren’t able to do that.

Interviewer: It’s curious: they also seemed unable to attract the intelligentsia.

Berry: Oh, no. Well, that was true all the way through…

Interviewer: It’s interesting, you know, when you talk about the “Americanization” aspect of it, that it seemed that, at least for a very large percentage of the Black community, this is something they desperately wanted: to be part of America.

Berry: Yes! They wanted to be part of America, yes.

Interviewer: And that the Party, in a sense, was trying to smash down the doors which were keeping them out.

Berry: Yes.

Interviewer: And that that gave them a tremendous amount of credibility.

Berry: It certainly did.

Interviewer: And emotional credibility as well as practical credibility.

Berry: Yes, yes. Because the Blacks were emotionally attached to the Party. In my own case, the same way, you see. It was very strong then. Because it was not just a case of this being only a theoretical thing. It was a personal and a practical thing, for not only the communists, but to the mass of the Blacks, because, for instance, what happened is that you knew, and by the way this is what I — thing I knew for the first time, you see — I knew that when I was attacked, that there were hundreds of others, you see, who would do everything and anything in order to redress that attack, and to extricate me from the bowels of the war, in which I was. And then I had it from experience, not just what someone told. So that it was very — it was simple to see how this would affect you emotionally, you see. This was something like the relationship between a mother and child, you know, a young child and a mother would fight like the Devil, you know, to protect their child, and the child will feel secure in the arms of the mother. So this is true of the Communist Party during that time, fighting both tooth and nail, many were killed, you see. This one, wonderful woman — I can’t think of her name now — she was considered one of the most beautiful women in America. She was once married to V. J. Jerome. But she was hit on the back by a cop, and it resulted in her death. Well, there were many deaths fighting you know, at the time. So that knowing all this you see…

Interviewer: It’s interesting, because talking with Queen Mother Moore, I have the strangest experience of seeing almost two ideologies coexist at once in the same person in a very strange way.

Berry: Yes.

Interviewer: And each with their — you know, a set of arguments about African feelings.

Berry: Mmhmm. Mmhmm.

Interviewer: And while at this point, the classic Nationalist viewpoint is the dominant one, one sensed the residues, in a very coherent form,

Berry: Yes.

Interviewer: of the earlier orientation, in which she stood. When she described what amounted to her “conversion”, when she talk about like she discovered she wasn’t a “Negro”.

Berry: Mmhmm. Mmhmm.

Interviewer: And, you know, and the psychological changes. She said she used to dream of the transformation occurring within the Party —

Berry: Mmhmm.

Berry: And applying the feelings, and the goals — the new feelings, the new goals that she was having — could have found a place within the Party, and within a broader working-class struggle to transform America.

Berry: Mmhmm. Well, and she’s right, there, see? She’s right. This ambivalence, you see, on her part — it was forced, and is forced upon her by the line of the Communist Party, because it’s “either-or”. When, as a matter of fact, it is not either-or.

Interviewer: It has to be both together.

Berry: It has to be both together! And she realizes that, just as I do — that it has to be both together. And therefore, if we can’t talk sense, you see, to this doctrinaire group, then we will have to organize it the best way we can, that’s all. And this, of course, she goes about — never giving up the idea of revolutionary organization, you see. But at the same time trying the same, then, to the Blacks. So that they will join, in this general world, an American revolution.

Interviewer: It’s amazing, you know, when I was looking back, there just — I could sense somehow this incredible opportunity was lost. And, at some point — because if anything like that organization had been around in the Sixties, when we had gotten our thing started, the whole thing could’ve been turned around.

Berry: This whole thing, it’s just too goddamn bad. Look! It’s at the end, it’s at its very end, everywhere. Everywhere it’s at the end. They don’t know what to do.

Interviewer: They had this article in The New York Times magazine about the world economic crisis, and they called Keynes in 1930.

Berry: Well, Keynes saved them. Because — not just because of Keynes, but because Keynes had a Roosevelt. Keynes had a Roosevelt. And Roosevelt had a Communist Party!

Interviewer: [Laughs]

Berry: See, I’ve looked over that recently. And, actually, what happened is — I read Therobans (?) book. I don’t know whether you did.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Berry: Well, you did read Theroban (?) book. Theroban (?) chooses foreign policy as one of the reasons for the Communist Party’s deterioration. But I don’t agree with that, see. It wasn’t the development, or lack of development of foreign policy. It was the refusal of the Communist Party to develop an independent line — and tailed behind Roosevelt, and helped Roosevelt develop his capitalist line. That was the — the turning point of that was when calmed the economy. See, Roosevelt had [13:30: ???] with [???] and the other guy, who were consorting with communists all the time. See? With Browder meeting with Sumner Welles.

Interviewer: This was during the war?

Berry: No, following the war. [???] Not following the war, during the war. During the war, and before the war.

Interviewer: So in a funny way, the reactionaries were right when they said that Roosevelt [13:58: ?] Browder was meeting with —

Berry: Oh, yes!

[Both laughing]

Berry: Oh, they knew what they were talking about. But Roosevelt — without that, Roosevelt would not have succeeded. See? When Roosevelt, he — When Roosevelt issued his 7(a), was it? Ah, well, Congress passed the law with this 7(a) clause in it: the right to organize. Well, you see, presumably, that gave the communists an “open sesame”. They had carte blanche to go and organize these unorganized workers — most of whom were unorganized. This they did. They organized every industry. And without the communists, they could not ever — and would not have — organized them. Organized auto, steel, oil, mines, mills , radio — everything was organized by the communists at that time. And they kept to their line with Roosevelt. So instead of developing their own, and instead of developing their own — their organization, I mean, their organization, the organization. Then they dropped the formation of shop unity, altogether. Dropped the organization of practice. We were just like everybody else.
Interviewer: This tendency — which I suppose, in Leninist terms, would be called a right opportunist…

Berry: Yes.

Interviewer: … error — had to do with the fact that there was a cultural drive within the Party — because of it was a party of outsiders — the Negroes, the foreign-born — that — the “American Dream” still had this…

Berry: Now we were inside.

Interviewer: … and that these people — the people who composed the majority of the Party desperately wanted to become part of America, and pushed it to the right. It wasn’t just a question of bad leadership, but a deeply-rooted drive within these groups of outsiders, who still — the American mystique still had them.

Berry: That was a part of it. That was a part of it. But you see, the Party leadership at the time was the old-line Americans.

Interviewer: Aha. Right, Foster, Browder —

Berry: Browder — well, yes. These were all white Americans, you see.

Interviewer: It’s funny, it’s — you know, you think of it — here’s a party which is of Jews, of Blacks, of Finns, of Italians, of Slavs, being led by old, white WASPs.

Berry: Two old, white WASPs, yes!

Interviewer: Right.

Berry: And Dennis who was — he wasn’t, Dennis. Dennis that was a man who couldn’t speak in anything but clichés.

Interviewer: But it’s a strange — the sort of social and cultural drives there. And somehow, I don’t know, it’s funny how you sort of think that not until the American mystique, and the American Dream, loses its hold can you have a broadly-based Left. The system has to be de-legitimized in people’s minds to a far greater degree than it was in the Thirties.

Berry: Yes certainly I think you’re right.

Interviewer: Because the Depression, I think, came after a period of when people were talking about the American “economic miracle” — when Henry Ford was more of a hero than Lenin.

Berry: And then, you see, there’s a whole lot — the first and second-degree Americans began, during the Browder-Roosevelt era, you see, began to arise — began to become the movie producers, movie directors, movie writers, the Broadway, the construction men — developing in other industries, as well, see. They came right along with this Roosevelt thing. And that helped, too — this whole line in the Party, because a lot of the guys, and a lot of the names I see now in the movie, and a lot of the industrialists, and that I see now, and all these were contributed.

Interviewer: Wasn’t this guy Armand Hammer, petroleum —

Berry: Yes, Yes! That’s who I had — the guy I had in mind, you see. Well, so — when you had all of this, you see, it’s easy to see how you got lulled. Because everyone — going on the expectation of participating in the American Dream. And finally, when Roosevelt died, there was that sharp turn away — boom! Then the boom fell. That’s all.

Interviewer: Wow.

Berry: [laughs] Yes. And then the Communists were left to thrash around, and to try then to develop a program, a line. Because the line had been shattered: they had none.

Interviewer: Was this the only party in the world where it happened that way?

Berry: Well, I think this was the only party in the world where it could happen that way — but no, I think it happened in other parties. I think it happened in the French party, too. But other than that, I don’t see — I don’t see how — I don’t think it could’ve happened. Other than these two — these places. Because, see, in the French party — there was only one political organization in the whole of France. That was the CP.

Interviewer: Especially during the war.

Berry: Yeah.

Interviewer: They had the underground.

Berry: They had the whole underground. And somehow or other, they were enticed to turn in their guns. And they turned them in. Then they gave them that little token thing — they gave them — Thorez went into the Cabinet. One of the — I don’t know, minister of — even minister without portfolio or some other thing. And that was all.

Interviewer: Huh, well, yeah, it’s an amazing story. Do you have any specific comments on that paper?

Berry: Yeah, I’d better do that now.

Interviewer: Mmhmm. By the way, have you eaten lunch?

Berry: No.

Interviewer: Because I have some homemade stew I could heat up, if you’re — if you’re hungry.

Berry: Well, I think I — I can’t refuse.


Berry: Yeah, see, now the Empire Cafeteria struggle was one of those landmark struggles in Harlem, because by breaking the — you mentioned the fact that they won, but you didn’t mention what the consequences of their winning was to the rest of the struggle in Harlem, because that enhanced the authority of the Party. And it made the white workers in Harlem who followed the Party altogether different from any other white workers, see, because all you had to do then was to explain, if you got stopped by a Black on the street, or something like that, even during the riot, see, you’d say “Well, I’m a communist.” “That’s alright, boys, he’s a communist.” — you see, so —

Interviewer: You mean, because this was a case where the workers — the white workers —

Berry: The white workers had taken the lead in this thing, see.

Interviewer: In organizing to get jobs for Negroes —

Berry: Yes.

Interviewer: — at their particular workplace.

Berry: Yes, yes. And on here, the only person who was guy by the name of …. was arrested, beaten, and almost killed — at Empire. So he was known. His name was all over Harlem at the time. Because of — and because of that, you were able then better to go about your organizing duties than before.

Interviewer: It’s interesting, at about the same time that that happened, that was when the other boycott movement started disintegrating.

Berry: Mmhmm. Yeah.

Interviewer: And so that the Party had the credibility of winning when the other people were fighting about whether the people were light — the light-skinned people were getting the jobs or not.

Berry: Yeah, mmhmm. And here is where this — you mean as opposed to this Blumstein’s struggle. Well, yes, that was true. That was a force, and it ended a force, all the way. And here, where this was won, almost in the main, by whites, you see — the fight at the Empire — or by a large proportion of those in that struggle — were white. Oh yes, the riot. Now, it seems to me that people would understand the riot better if they could understand the — repicture for them the incident that sparked it. You know, the rumors that spread throughout Harlem on that day that a boy had been killed by the manager — which wasn’t true, you see — and to mention the resentments, also, that had been building up in the people of Harlem against a 125th Street merchant — because you didn’t need very much, you see, you just needed anything — a rumor, or anything else — before everything was rush to action. But this — you can get some newspapers — the Amsterdam News had the details — all the details. But you should have some details so that it makes logical — as to the reasons for the riot — or we didn’t call it a riot, we called it an uprising. [laughs] And this — the hearings that were held on the — the riot hearings. Now, what influenced the committee members in writing this report a lot was the fact that Robert Minor, see, sat all the time as though he were a functionary of the committee — questioning closely every witness, examining and cross-examining, you see, so that — and he helped individually, this wasn’t — well, he helped a whole lot in making this result what it was.

Interviewer: Did Robert Minor, like, have, credibility with, like, local Harlem leaders as a result of that, or —

Berry: No, but you see he was a Texan — well, you know who Robert Minor was, he was the outstanding artist, see, and who decided he was just not going to draw another cartoon — he was America’s leading cartoonist. He was the guy that invented, almost, the current political cartoon, and all of the cartoonists — Fitzsimmons and the others — were all — they all went to school under him. So that — but when he joined the Communist Party, he said he’s giving up, he’s not gonna write — he’s not gonna draw another cartoon, but once in a while he sketched one, you know. I used to — I kept one for a long time that he kept. But you see, he had — he came there with the bearing of a lawyer, you know he was a big Texan, see. Very, very, very — I wouldn’t say “athletic”, he wasn’t, he was man of about — at that time was about 45. And greying, and a little bald. He looked like a lawyer, anyway, but he wasn’t. And he’d sit there, and he would ask his question, you know, very sharply. And he was able — with the committee, you see, he had very nice standing. I knew some of the committee members, there was Mrs Haynes, and another was…


Berry: He didn’t know just what the hell he was going to do with on the committee. But Ms Haynes was a realtor. She was a real mover on the committee.

Interview, pt. 2

Naison: Going through the papers, it seemed that your contact with him came through the Provisional Committee for the Defense of Ethiopia.

Berry: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I was representing the Provisional Committee and, of course, the Party too. He did not know, just as most of them — most of the nationalists, you see — have no idea of administration, of how to put things together. And they’ll go out, and talk about raising money, and doing this, and doing the other, and making a demonstration. They can’t organize a demonstration. You see, he couldn’t organize fundraisers, yet he was the — well, this conference had chose him to be the head of the Ethiopian Defense Committee — as I recall, I can’t remember now the official name for it. And I would consult with him every day, you know. That was the one that I told you we had decided that we would — well, first were the Italians. That’s the first one. Oh, but you couldn’t see this, you see — couldn’t see that you were told. So I said “Well, we’ll go to the Italians, but first of all, most of the Italians in this community are anti-Mussolini, and I can take you into any store, or anywhere else, and if you’re against Mussolini, you’ll be with them,” you see. Well, he accepted that, and — well, that was when he went to present the case to the — I can’t remember what it was, it was an Italian anti-fascist group in the community at about 116th St. and Lexington Ave. Somewhere there. Or 116th and 2nd or 3rd Ave., that’s where it was. Well, he went, and he presented it, and he talked the case — “Mussolini, and the Italians, and then Mussolini did this, and did that and the other thing” — but he wound in the whole “the end” — his conclusion was, you know, “we’re going to run him out!” and so forth, and he got [applauding] [laughing] and that floored him!

Naison: Mmhmm. Was it the Party’s initiative that organized the Provisional Committee for the Defense of Ethiopia?

Berry: Yes. Yes, it was the Party’s initiative.

Naison: There was a man named Arnold Johnson —

Berry: Yes.

Naison: — who was involved in that, and who seems to have been a key figure in a lot of the united front organizations.

Berry: Arnold Johnson was most effective in the Committee Against Job Discrimination. That was where he was most effective. But the moving figure in that — that is, the great symbol of that time — the real mover — was Adam Powell. And that was when they got the bus riders, and so forth, but he could not have done it had it not been for the support he got from the transport workers. You see, the transport workers — I won’t mention any names, but since the Party had organized the transport workers, completely and absolutely — there’s no doubt, you see — without the Party, there would never have been a Transport Workers’ Union, and since their bourn, was in Harlem up at, I think 146th St. — 46th or 47th — was their terminal, and — so that our section had the task of concentrating them. And therefore, at least I knew all most of the leaders, you see. They were more or less anonymous, these leaders were — the leaders of the incipient union, but we used to meet with them privately, and in the upper Party committees, of course, to plan and develop strategy, and organizational tactics and so forth. Well, it was due to their support, in large measure, too, that this job campaign was able to proceed.

Naison: Was Arnold Johnson West Indian in ancestry?

Berry: Yes, he was West Indian, yes.

Naison: One of the curious things is that as I was reading through the U.N.I.A. papers, it seems at a certain point, the relationship with Captain King deteriorated. And that’s just an impression, and that part of it seems to have come around the Home Relief — struggles of the Home Relief Bureau.

Berry: Well, that I don’t know. I only know him from the Ethiopian Defense. He may have had — that question might have arisen at a certain time, but that was with someone else and was completely localized, it didn’t go beyond the Relief Bureau, or something like that.

Naison: Mmhmm. Were you at all involved with this organization the Joint Conference Against Discrimination Practice?

Berry: I think that was before my time.

Naison: Hm. Because I think it was organized in like December of 1934, but it may not have been that much more than a paper organization.

Berry: It was not. It was — “Joint Conference”, I don’t know, it may have been a conference and it may have made some declaration or another and disappeared. The main thing was the committee which Arnold Johnson headed, I’ll say — that is, formerly he headed it.

Naison: When you came to Harlem, was the Unemployed Councils a strong movement?

Berry: Yes. I didn’t come to Harlem ‘til ‘35, you see.

Naison: Because there was a man named Merrill Work, who seems to have been active in —

Berry: Oh! I know Merrill Work. Merrill Work was — he was one time an Urban League leader.

Naison: I see.

Berry: He’d been a basketball player, and he was an athlete of sorts. And he was active here in Harlem, but that was before I got here. He then — very shortly thereafter I think — he went to Detroit. Now, I’m trying to figure what it was that he’d been. What was he doing here? I know that he was a functionary somewhere.

Naison: He was clearly active during the hearings of the Mayor’s commissions on conditions in Harlem. He was representing the Unemployment Council.

Berry: Yeah.

Naison: And I think he left Harlem — he was in Harlem through ‘36.

Berry: Yes, yeah, I know he was somewhere around there, but it’s very misty to me now.

Naison: It’s interesting that there’s a whole core of leaders in the Harlem section who come out of university backgrounds, middle class families —

Berry: Merrill Work was one of them.

Naison: Yeah, in fact I think his family is fairly well-known. His father was Monroe Work —

Berry: Yes, Monroe Work, yeah.

Naison: — who was at Fisk University.

Berry: And he was from Fisk.

Naison: And then all the — Ben Davis. There’s another person named Emmett May.

Berry: Emmett May — was killed. Burn for that, and his wife. Emmett May was a Catholic. A very interesting story, because it was through him that we began to develop work within the Catholic Church. You see. The more, the further we dig into this, the more significant some of these things become, because it shows the breadth of Communist Party activity, you see. Now these people were in the Holy Name Society, and they met with us regularly: [Bob] Jiggets, and May. And they were raising questions of involving the Holy Name Society in some board activity, of course. And then they had a Father there, who was — Father McGuire, I think it was. Anyway, his name was bigger in some of the —

Naison: There was a Father McCann, who was very anti-communist —

Berry: Yes.

Naison: — who, after the Riot, made a speech saying that all white communists should be driven out of Harlem.

Berry: Yes.

Naison: He was on the Commission. Is that — this is a different person?

Berry: It may have been, anyway he was Irish — he had an Irish name. And they were successful in toning down much of his anti-communist tirade. Literally they were able to win a number of their fellow parishioners, and they finally withdrew from the Catholic Church and joined the Party. That is, they were working with the Party all the time, then they finally joined —

Naison: Yeah. He was also, I think, a member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.

Berry: Who?

Naison: Emmett May. And he — I was reading from the National Negro Congress papers, and he was saying how he was working to get his fraternity involved in the National Negro Congress.

Berry: It may — I don’t recall that. He may have. He worked very closely with Ford at the time, and I don’t remember that. But I do know about the activity in the Catholic Church, and how he we counseled him on his activity.

Naison: Were you active at all in the Committee for Better Schools that was organized —

Berry: That was [Ted] Bassett’s responsibility, and what I know about that is only through him. I knew that we had a number of these Black school teachers, who worked with us on that, especially there was a campaign at the Wadleigh High School. And it seems we had more support from Wadleigh High School than any other high school — than any other school. And mention something specific, and I may recall, but I do recall Ted Bassett —

Naison: There was an incident where a principal — 250 pound principal — beat up a young teenager, which came to my attention, but I don’t know whether that was a broad —

Berry: I can remember that just as an incident, but the details I don’t remember.

Naison: One other organization I came across — this was I think organized in ‘36 — was the Harlem All People’s Party. This was a time when the Farmer-Labor party idea was being pushed, and it was this local manifestation in Harlem.

Berry: Well, that was very — I don’t know — transitory. It just popped up, and —

Naison: Mmhmm. But that wasn’t a major organizational force at that time —

Berry: No, no. It came in response to the political line, and then as some of those things happened, you have People’s Front develops the Trans Union, who wrote “The People’s Front” and put that label on it.

Naison: When did the Party in Harlem, you know, begin really emphasizing electoral politics?

Berry: I think with the advent of the American Labor Party, and with [Vito] Marcantonio’s campaign. And I think that was after the ‘36 elections, if I’m not mistaken. Well, then it was that we began to emphasize the electoral politics. Up until that time, only Party candidates ran, and they were just totems, that’s all. And when the American Labor Party entered the field, then the Party entered the field seriously.

Naison: When you were in Harlem, there were a couple of highly publicized defections from the Party. We previously talked about Herman McIlwain who left during the Ethiopia — well, there was another person named Charles White, who made a big splash.

Berry: Yes, Charles White. Well, Charles White was a bigger — bigger thinking only in terms of his role in the Communist Party, because he was the youth leader, you see. Charles white was the YCL leader. Well, I can’t say anything there except that he left. Why he left — he had a white wife. And it seems that that had something to do with it. He left his wife, and — I don’t know whether he had any children, or not — but he left his wife and his children. And he issued a statement — was it White?

Naison: Yeah, White.

Berry: Yeah, he issued a statement on — it was based mainly on sexual grounds, you see. That “the Black communists were drawn magnetically toward the white women”, and he describes the ecstasy of this thing in the bed, and all you know — saying that it was a sort of a psychological reaction. Well, whatever it was, it was his.

Naison: [Laughs]

Berry: And he left, now whether that was it or not, I can’t remember.

Naison: Could there have been any question of personal jealousy, because I know it was in late 1934 that James Ashford came into Harlem, again as a youth leader, and I wonder if that had anything, you know, to do with whether Charles White was sort of demoted within the organization when Ashford came in.

Berry: No. No, that had nothing to do with it. No, he wasn’t demoted. He graduated on up, you know. But, well Ashford was — at that was another question. I don’t think this was connected with it at all. I don’t know just what the motivation was.

Naison: Did it create a lot of — did it create a furor in the Party when he did leave, or it was just one of those things?

Berry: No, no. No, at that time — well, it was just one person, you know, but when he left — you just treated him as just one, another person —

Naison: And wasn’t — didn’t represent a political tendency.

Berry: No. Well, except this: now, in all of this, you have to recognize that it represented a political tendency in the sense that it represented some shading of nationalism. All of these, even McIlwain’s defection had that tinge of nationalism then, and this was their way of expressing this nationalist tendency. Now — well, we could get into the argument about that now, and for my part it’s all hindsight anyway, but sometimes it might be worth to have this hindsight, because it will — it means if you have foresight —

Naison: Yeah. Because when you came to Harlem, was — you had mentioned before the Party did not provide a place for Black members to meet by themselves as a group.

Berry: Yeah, and this was a mistake.

Naison: Was that, you know, very clearly like a Central Committee directive, or was that a Section policy?

Berry: This was — no, see, this was a thing that went all the way through the Party: it was an understood thing, that if we are for Black and white unity, then we cannot insult white comrades by telling — by holding a Party meeting to which they are not invited. That was the — this was the logic, you see, and this went all the way up, and all the way down, although it was not written.

Naison: Ah, this was like an unwritten —

Berry: Yeah, it was like an — it was an understood thing. Although, there were certain specific times when one or another Party leader, like Ford sometimes would say, “Well, I want to meet with all the Black Party members.” Well, he did it. Or if one — usually it was if a leader was present, it was permissible, that is nobody would say anything about it. But if — if the members did this on their own, you know, without a leading Committee member there, or without a white person being there, then it was — it would brave the accusation — would draw the accusation of nationalism, you see.

Naison: If there was a neighborhood branch or unit, in an all Black neighborhood, which demographically would be actively Black, would the Party go out of their way to send a white person into it?
Berry: They would import a white person.

Naison: So that there would be no all Black unit, even if it was natural to have one?

Berry: No all Black unit. I don’t know of any all Black unit in Harlem.

Naison: Huh. That’s incredible.

Berry: Yes. But now, well, that was a thing which should have troubled the Party, I think, and which should trouble it now [laughs] — which should trouble it right now!

Naison: Yeah. Is it still their policy, do you think, or —

Berry: Yeah. You see, because they have this rigid, “Black and white unite! And we will unite you if we have to kill you!”

Naison: [laughs]

Berry: No, I think the statement by Patterson, which was a particularly vulnerable statement.

Naison: That’s a quote?

Berry: Yeah, in here, you see.

Naison: Oh, right yeah, that —

Berry: Where he — well, he had it just about right, that he says, “By excluding whites from the picket line, you have insulted all the white liberals, and the progressives, and that by doing this, you are splitting the ranks of the working class”, and — how else did he put it? There was a third thing that you were doing. Well, I can’t recall now, but I’ll read it later.

Naison: Yes. But, you know, it’s interesting that — Well, I’m trying to grapple with whether that was something which made sense at that time, and doesn’t make sense now, or — in other words, why wasn’t there more struggle against that position? Within the Party, yeah.

Berry: Ah! There, there, there, now. That’s very simple, I can take that as from a personal point of view, and then of course from the broad, social point of view. The Garvey movement had come — had failed, and had passed on — that is, more or less it had passed on. Well, now, I think we can say definitely that it had. A big problem — social, political, and economic — arose. This great crisis arose, to which Garvey had no answer — to which none of the nationalist politicians had an answer. The Communist Party came along, and it did have an answer. It therefore attracted all of the Blacks for the movement. They were indoctrinated in this movement. They came to love it, you see, to be devoted to it — and it had been brought to them by white men. This solution to their problem — their immediate problem — had been brought to them by whites. Therefore, how can we now turn our backs, you see, on what is being said there? We are a part, and they are a part, and therefore, this unity between them and us, we have got to maintain by all means, you see. Now, you had — well, thousands of people who held this idea, and who saw no other solution to their problems except the continuing unity. This was the unity — that, you see, would batter down all opposition, you see. So that was easy to see how this would be accepted, although there was always — there was still that nagging — you know, the nagging thought of “if we get the Blacks together separately wouldn’t they be…”, you know, but it was not dominant, you see. It was not dominant. And once in a while, it would break out, but irrationally, you see. Nobody put together a rational line, and argued it, for nobody could.

Naison: That’s interesting, because, you know, like even in the job campaign, when you look at the nationalist line, it didn’t represent a real alternative, in most cases, because they were still talking about Black business.

Berry: Yeah. Yeah, there’s nothing, see, and there was no way for them to attract these radical — these Blacks who had been radicalized, you see, by this working class philosophy. They couldn’t be attracted by it. Now, that was one thing. The other thing is, the low — remember that this Depression — the Depression came after, just after the nadir of “the Negro movement” — had been at the bottom, see, just thirty years previous to that. It was at the bottom, and it was at a time when all of the Blacks in the United States had no idea, except in this Garvey movement, which, although large and important, it still represented a minority, you see.

Interview, pt. 3

Abner Berry: Now, the — most of the Blacks at that time wanted to identify with things “American”. Most of them. They straightened their hair, they wanted to enjoy the classical movement of the — the Thirties: the Bach, the Beethovens, the other things. They — even those things which they did not understand, they wanted to get into that so that they would have the approval of the whites — who were in power. Now, it was these Blacks which the Communist Party recruited — well, of course, with a sprinkling that those that had found the national identity, but that was rubbed off in the Party in favor of “united, working-class…”

Mark Naison: It’s interesting, because you have a couple of people who are active in Harlem — I guess Cyril Briggs and Richard Moore — who had come out of —

Berry: The Black [African] Blood Brotherhood.

Naison: Yes, and from what I gather, at least from what Harry Haywood told me, in ‘33 and ‘34, they were kind of eased out of — of work in the section when James Ford…

Berry: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, Ford couldn’t stand them, you see.

Naison: Were you familiar with the background of that? Or just…

Berry: Yeah, well, just this — that when — they weren’t trusted. Neither Briggs nor Moore were trusted. Ford didn’t trust them because they had nationalist tendencies, you see. And while Richard was a great orator, and just on those occasions when you needed an orator, well we’d’ve called Richard for that, but he was not an administrator, and he had this tendency toward nationalism, and Ford did everything he could, see, he even tried to have Richard expelled from the Party, and the same thing is true with Briggs. Briggs went down to the Daily Worker, and he was, you know —

Naison: He was out of his range.

Berry: Yeah, but then they picked on him even then, you see, until finally he got out entirely, so that even that little voice within the Party, you see, was completely cut off then.

Naison: Mmhmm. But the curious thing is that it seems like in the early Thirties, Briggs and Moore were like the leading people in Harlem — or among the leading people in Harlem —

Berry: Yeah, yeah.

Naison: And the Party, while it was very active, didn’t consolidate —

Berry: Yeah, tried to —

Naison: And it wasn’t until James Ford came in that it began to really deepen, and consolidate, and become a real force throughout the community.

Berry: Yeah. Well, that was due to a number of things. Well, first of all, Moore was not an administrator. Neither was Briggs, and the Party at, say, ‘33 wasn’t the same Party that it was in ‘35, so that when Ford came in, the best administrators — two of the best of them that they found: Sass, and — Lou Sass, and Charney — were given to Ford, see. Sass was with me, and Charney, who was with Ford. Then there began — there began to be instituted regular, administrative methods — you know, the question of dues collection, the question of systematic recruitment, the question of registration of membership, the question of regular membership meetings being held, of a full, coordinated — and you had an orchestrated party, see, that once you developed a program — this objective — “this is our objective” — first we had an overall political objective, then you had certain objectives like the Empire Cafeteria, the stores on 125th St. — certain sections or organizations had that as their concentration. This one had the yards of the Transport Workers’ Union, and so forth, so that it was only with these administrators come in — they were not known, and not heard, but they were felt, you see.

Naison: It’s interesting, because there seem to be very few whites, in reading through, you know, the newspaper accounts, who make an impression —

Berry: Yeah.

Naison: — like, publicly, in the Harlem Party.

Berry: No, nah.

Naison: They’re mainly functionaries, and administrators, and —

Berry: That’s all.

Naison: Mmhmm.

Berry: That was all, the administrators, you see. They were — they had these administrative jobs. And they’ve done well — they did all these jobs very well, so that while they didn’t have to do with advancing the line of the Party, see — this, Ford did. In Harlem, in the section, the smallest organization, I did. And they consolidated, and kept the wheels going.

Naison: Mmhmm. So they kept a low profile.

Berry: Yeah. Now, for without this — this kind of attention — Briggs and Moore were just floundering around, see, but then the Party began to pay special attention to Harlem, and that was when you got this united front developing there, and the Party establishing its hegemony, more or less, in the Harlem organization — we had organization in most of the schools, and all of the Home Relief Bureaus, and organization of the transport workers, and the development of job campaigns — that was a big thing, you see.

Naison: Mmhmm. When there was a disciplinary — a serious disciplinary problem within the Party, who was the person who, you know, cracked the whip? Was that Ford’s role — when there was a crisis of any kind, or…

Berry: Well, it depends, just where it was. Now, when there was a crisis in the section, first it comes before the section committee, you see, and if it can’t resolve that problem — that is, when I was the head of the committee, it would come directly before me, you see — before me and the committee, and we would attempt to resolve that. If we couldn’t resolve it — that is, if we voted to expel, say — then it went on up to Ford, and if they did — if they expelled him, then it went on to the state — that is, if the person kept appealing, it would go that way. Or, usually if we had a problem in the section that we figured was too big, then we’d invite Ford there, and he would take charge, in that sense.

Naison: He comes across — from the various, you know, things that I’ve read and heard — as a very ambivalent kind of figure, and in some ways very formidable.

Berry: Mmhmm.

Naison: That he was not considered theoretically very deep. Occasionally, you’d come across a reference to him as a Black “Uncle Tom” by someone who would leave the Party, and yet he seemed, you know, on the other hand, to wield a tremendous amount of power and authority, and to be very much feared — and also a very effective person.

Berry: Yeah, that was — that’s a correctly — he was effective, and you can’t say very much more about him. He was a funny guy, you see. Certainly, we worked together on the same committee, dealing with the same problems. I did a lot of writing, a lot of — I wrote a lot of pamphlets, and a lot of articles at the time. Well, sometimes I would really write an article for him, you know, but it wasn’t [unintelligible]. And, uh, he would say… “That’s good… I’ll sign it with you!” [laughing] Well, he kept on doing this and that — it didn’t make any difference to me, you see, I wasn’t writing this for ego tripping, and so many of the things that I wrote. Sometimes he would sign it altogether, so that when you take a book, see, “The Negro and the Democratic Front”, half of it would be mine [laughing], see. And well, that was all there was to that. It didn’t mean anything to me at the time. I don’t know whether it should mean anything to me now, but that’s the way he was. Now, I just say that to demonstrate that he was conscious always of his image, see. His dealing with this question, theoretically — see, like, for instance, there was the story about Ethiopia — I can’t think of what it was now. If I had “The Negro and the Democratic Front” — you don’t have it…

Naison: Yeah.

Berry: You have it with —

Naison: Yeah, I have it with me.

Berry: You see, by his writing this, it would establish him as a leader in this, you see.

Naison: Right. You wrote the introduction —

Berry: I wrote the introduction.

Naison: — but actually you wrote most of —

Berry: Yeah, well it was easier — it was easy, then, for me to write the introduction. [searching through book] Oh yeah. Yes, yes, yes, yes. [cut] … defense of the Ethiopian people, see. But that was such a — such an incident. Only when this was written, you see, well, I just turned it over to him to “okay”. And immediately, then, he says, “Oh yes.” He says, “Was this written, too, by us?” “Oh sure!” That’s all, I’m just writing it for the Party, and we let it go at that, see. And so, he let that — he says “Certain Negro nationalist organizations under the influence of demagogic propaganda”, and so forth. Well, I went on to answer the nationalists on Ethiopia. It says “Negro delegates were sent to the conference of Italian workers”, and so forth, and how the Italians responded to that situation. Now this other one was written by [Ted] Bassett — the one about the carpetbagger government. [laughing] It was — the historical roots of Negro integration.

Naison: And anyway, it sounds like he — he almost sounds, in some ways, like someone who would have made a very good regular politician.

Berry: Yeah, yeah! He would’ve made a good regular politician, see.

Naison: You know, it’s very curious that the Party attracted personalities who, in other circumstances, would’ve been very successful in bourgeois society.

Berry: Yes. Yeah, he would’ve been very successful with that, yes.

Naison: He just came forty years before his time.

Berry: Mmhmm. That’s right, and — so that the image that comes out, that comes through from what you have read, there, would be absolutely true, you see. In other words, he wanted to keep his image as a leader before other people at all times, and he was able to do this because he had “lesser” people, see — like Ted Bassett and myself — who at least would read theoretical stuff, a lot of times, and we would prior write theoretical stuff, you see. And so he would take Ted’s stuff, and my stuff, and appropriate it for his own ends. I would imagine that would be permissible, given —

Naison: Well, yeah. I mean, every, you know President is doing the same thing, or politician. They have a corps of speechwriters and ghostwriters.

Berry: Yeah. So that, especially since all of us had the one idea that the bigger you make your leader, the more authority that your leader has, then, the more authoritative is your organization. And therefore, we would all contribute to developing the strength and the leadership of an individual leader.

Naison: Mmhmm. Was there — I seem to come across some signs of jealousy and resentment of the fact that Ford was put in that position.

Berry: Yes. You had that on the part of Ben Davis. Ben Davis was resentful of Ford. Now he had his own personal reasons, but Ben Davis never thought that Ford was a leader, see. Because he said to me once, he said, when I said — especially after this book, see, because I did all the editing on this book, here — Well, Jerome and I — V. J. Jerome and I did all the editing on it — and so when the book came out, Ben Davis sneered and said, “Well there’s only one goddamned thing that’s good about that,” he says, “and that’s the introduction.” [laughing] You know, which gives you —

Naison: But it’s funny because Davis, during 1936, was writing all these laudatory articles about James Ford.

Berry: He was in the Daily Worker

Naison: Right.

Berry: — at the time. But you see, as I look back, I conclude that a lot of these people had petit bourgeois mentalities, you see. They were looking at one thing — and including Ford himself, see — these petit bourgeois mentalities is what clashed, you see. They are each maneuvering for position, you know, in a certain way, and then there were those of us who were just there for the — furthering the program, you see. And it didn’t matter to us just how it was advanced, but we were just like a man rolling a stone up a hill, you see, that — “Well, we’ll know when we get to the top of it, all of us will be over it.” That was all.

Naison: Mmhmm. Manning Johnson, when he left the Party, was particularly vituperative about Ford, but he seemed like a strange character.

Berry: Oh, well you can’t give any validity to anything that he would say, because whatever Ford had said about him, you see, would be correct. You know, and Ford had no trust in him. Well, he was absolutely correct.

Naison: Mmhmm. Ford didn’t trust him even when he was in the Party.

Berry: Yeah. You see, Johnson was — he was a dandy, you see. Well, a dandy, I mean, in the bad sense. You know, he liked well-cut, well-tailored clothing, and then of course he mistreated women, you see, which was very bad. He was in Buffalo, as an organizer. He had a wife — I think she had a child, and he left her. He had this other wife, here in Harlem, and he ran off and he left her — and it wasn’t out of poverty that he left, you see, but out of just being no damn good, that was all. Well, the Party shield him, you know, from all of this, while he was wearing his seventy-five dollar suits —

Naison: Which, by today’s inflation, was like a three hundred dollar suit.

Berry: Yeah, yeah, yeah, which is like a three hundred dollar suit, today, see! And then, when he was no longer in a position to buy these suits, he sold out to the FBI — and the Congressional committees: they had squeezed him, and squeezed everything they could out of him, and when he no longer had any connections, and could speak with no authority about anything, they threw him out. And there he was, he died in the gutter out here.

Naison: It’s interesting, the variety of people who became involved —

Berry: Yes, it is.

Naison: which — because, in one sense, I guess, reflects the strength of the movement: that you attracted so many different kind of people for so many different kind of motives.

Berry: Yes. Mmhmm. Exactly so. Well, as I told you, there were very few people — of any Black people — very few, during a period of ‘31 to ‘38, even as late as ‘40 or ‘41 — there were very few people who were not affected by the work of the Party. Very few of Black intellectuals who were not affected. Now, I could call a roll, see, of the academics — very few I know of, those who opposed and who stayed opposed, and some of them who were “for” and who moved away and became “anti” later, and so forth, and among the writers, the poets. I think I’ve gone over this with you before.

Naison: Mmhmm.

Berry: The writers, poets, educators, and lawyers and so forth, they were — all of the intellectual — Black intellectuals — were affected, see. Now, it has been said — this might be an interesting thing to explore — but it was said by [Claude] Lightfoot, when he said — he told me this at the time — well, he didn’t tell me, he told all of us, because he was in a meeting where he discussed this — a meeting with — I don’t know, of some committee — investigator, or whatnot, and it went something like this, this is what he told him (and that was indeed true, see, what he told him): he said that in 1930 and in 1931, that the Negroes were just about fed up with the American system, see. They had almost got to the point, you see, where they saw no future at all in it. They didn’t know which way to turn, and they were just threshing around, looking for leadership. Now, along came the Communist Party, and giving the Negroes this leadership — giving them this direction — it directed them back toward the American system, see. It gave them that sense of being “American”, you see — and this is true.

Naison: That’s interesting, because in a certain sense, one can almost, then, see a continuity between what the Party did in the Thirties in the civil rights movement —

Berry: Yes.

Naison: — which, in terms of the atmosphere of it, if not the actual, organizational leadership.

Berry: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. It was a continuation, see, because it was — it had given these Black people a belief in the American system, because the Party had taught them, under Browder’s “Communism is 20th Century Americanism”: “We have undergone a thorough study of American history”, see — very, very — this was all through the Party, a thorough study of American history, of the American revolution, of the committees, the committees…

Naison: Committees of correspondence.

Berry: Yeah, the committees of correspondence, and the relationship between the committees of correspondence and political parties, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, the debates on the Constitution, the Three-Fifths Clause, and so forth, and the dialectical development of the Constitution. All — you see — all of this came about — came as a result of the Communist Party’s program. Now, most of us would never have studied this history, you see — not as closely as we studied it in the Communist Party, and this gave the Black people at the time — it gave the Black leaders, those that studied the thing — it gave to them a new understanding, so that they were able to represent this, logically, to masses of Black people, and, in a sense, it ushered in this “new day”, so to speak, wherein you had Martin Luther King, who himself was affected by the Party — had, at one time been a Daily Worker reader, see. But it gave him a belief in the perfectibility of the American system, and having given the Blacks this, you see, it “saved” them — but it saved the system! [laughing]

Naison: Uh huh. Wow.

Berry: See, it saved the system. Now, there were — well, I won’t go into that. There was a number of movements, you see, to the other way, which were, of course, wrong: the Pacific Movement, for example, which — you haven’t dealt with that.

Naison: Yeah. Were they strong in Harlem, the Pacific Movement?

Berry: They were strong in Detroit. They were strong throughout the Middle West, and they — that was what stormed Elijah Muhammad, you see: he was from the Pacific movement. But the Communist Party won most of the Blacks away from there.

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