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African Americans in the Spanish Civil War

By Michael Kramer

I would like to make a film on the life of a Black commander of the Lincoln Battalion in the International Brigades who died there; but this would be refused by the big Yankee movie companies.

--Paul Robeson, 1938

On July 18, 1936, a fascist-led counter-revolutionary army revolt began against the five-year-old Spanish Republic and the coalition of various centrist and progressive parties that had been popularly elected five months before. The coalition was called the Popular Front and included the Communist Party of Spain.

The revolt received crucial logistical and material support from fascist regimes in Germany, Italy and Portugal. The German and Italian air forces deployed over Spain and terror-bombed densely populated, working-class neighborhoods in Madrid and Barcelona while submarines blockaded Republican seaports.

By November 1936 the situation was desperate. The Spanish Republic pleaded for help against the fascist onslaught. Communists, trade unionists and progressives all over the world took up the cause of the Spanish Republic. Thousands volunteered to fight and the International Brigades were formed.

Around 3,000 volunteers went to Spain from the U.S. to take part in the armed struggle against fascism and most fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The U.S. Communist Party played a leading role in organizing the Brigade and maintaining its support network. More than half the volunteers were killed or seriously wounded. Over 80 of the volunteers were African-American.

Black solidarity

In an article on the Web site, Prof. Robin Kelley relates how Black newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier, the Baltimore Afro-American, the Atlanta Daily World and the Chicago Defender "unequivocally sided with the Spanish Republic and occasionally carried feature articles about black participants in the Lincoln Brigade. ... Several black medical personnel from the United Aid for Ethiopia offered medical supplies and raised money in the community; Harlem churches and professional organizations sponsored rallies in behalf of the Spanish Republic; black relief workers and doctors raised enough money to purchase a fully equipped ambulance for use in Spain; and some of Harlem's greatest musicians, including Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Count Basie, W.C. Handy, Jimmy Lunceford, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake gave benefit concerts sponsored by the Harlem Musicians' Committee for Spanish Democracy. ..."

Black volunteers found it especially difficult to travel to Spain. In the out-of-print pamphlet "Black Americans in the Spanish People's War Against Fascism," volunteer James Yates related: "I'll never forget Dec. 26, 1936. Ninety-six Americans sailed from the port of New York. Among those were a number of Blacks. I would have been among the first group had I not been born in the racist state of Mississippi; they didn't give birth certificates to Black people in those days so I was delayed."

On Feb. 27, 1937, in a battle on the Jarama River, the first Black volunteer was killed in combat. His name was Alonzo Watson. "Alonzo, slight and quiet in his mannerisms, was a son of struggle. He saw fascism as the personification of racism. He had volunteered to fight in Ethiopia but the war ended. When the call came for volunteers for Spain, where Italian troops had been sent, Alonzo answered the call." A memorial meeting was held in Harlem for the community to remember Watson.

Three Black volunteers received battlefield promotions for bravery in that battle: Oliver Law, Walter Garland and Douglas Roach.

Gets promotion denied him
in U.S. Army

Oliver Law had been born on a ranch in Texas. He served six years in the segregated U.S. Army and, despite his talent, rose no higher in rank than private.

He lived on the South Side of Chicago, worked in construction and became a political activist. During the capitalist crisis of the 1930s known as the Great Depression, the police constantly targeted Law as he organized the unemployed and fought against racism. He helped organize the historic 10,000-strong Aug. 31, 1935, rally for Ethiopia, where he was arrested by the Chicago police while trying to speak to the crowd.

Law joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade as a private. In only six months he was promoted to brigade commander. Oliver Law was the first African-American to command U.S. citizens in an integrated military unit.

Law was described by Steve Nelson, his comrade, as "six foot two and powerfully built ... more serious than jovial, but never harsh; he was well liked by his men. ...When soldiers were asked who might become an officer--ours was a very democratic army--his name always came up. It was spoken of him that he was calm under fire, dignified, respectful of his men, and always given to thoughtful consideration of initiatives and military missions."

Brigade Commander Oliver Law was killed on July 9, 1937, while leading an attack on Mosquito Ridge during the Battle of Brunete.

Douglas "Doug" Roach grew up on Cape Cod in Massachusetts and was a communist. He played football at Provincetown High School and graduated from Massachusetts Agricultural College, where he was a star wrestler. Roach was wounded at Brunete by shrapnel and received a citation.

A daily bulletin written by his comrades in the trenches observed, "It was not merely his physical strength--he could carry a heavy machine gun over the hills of Brunete when others were too exhausted to walk--it was his moral fiber, his courage which earned him a citation for bravery." Roach was repatriated to the U.S. Weakened by his wounds, he contracted pneumonia and died the following year at the age of 29.

Women volunteers

In 1934 Salaria Kee graduated from Harlem Hospital Training School as a nurse and was assigned to the obstetrical division. She was the only nurse assigned to a 50-baby maternity-nursery ward. Racist conditions like this politicized her and she joined a group of progressive nurses.

When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, the group gathered and sent tons of medical supplies as well as a 75-bed field hospital to the Ethiopian troops resisting the fascist invasion. On March 27, 1937, Key left New York for Spain with a medical group of 12 nurses and physicians. Inspired by the resistance to fascism in Africa and Europe, she reacted, "I'm not going to sit down and let this happen. I'm going to go out even if it means my life. This is my world. I'm a nurse."

She was the only African-American woman to serve in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Other women served in the Brigade medical units and as truck and ambulance drivers.

There are so many other stories to tell about the heroic African-American internationalists who left the U.S. to give the strongest solidarity possible to their Spanish sisters, brothers and comrades. Volunteers like Jim Peck and Paul Williams who flew fighter planes for the Spanish Republic and Milton Herndon who was killed at Fuentes de Ebro on Oct. 13, 1937, while fighting with the mostly Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion of the International Brigades.

There was Dr. Arnold Donowa, an oral surgeon from Harvard University, and Thaddeus Battle, a student from Howard University. Their stories are an inspiration for activists today and for those who are thinking about getting involved in today's struggles. Their stories should be taught in the schools as part of Black History Month celebrations.

Volunteer Thomas Page was wounded badly in August 1938 during the River Ebro offensive. Years later, talking to other volunteers, he remembered, "Spain was the first place I felt like a free man. Leaving Spain was one of the saddest days of my life. Just the thought of going back to Jim Crow America made me sick! Like me you realized that after Spain our struggle was at home, just as it was before we sailed for Europe."

Reprinted from the Feb. 21, 2002, issue of Workers World newspaper

This article is copyright under a Creative Commons License.
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