Grace P Campbell

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Grace Campbell addressing a Harlem rally, 1920s or 1930s.

Grace P Campbell was a social worker, community activist, and member of the African Blood Brotherhood and the Communist Party USA.

Grace was born in the state of Georgia, USA, in 1882. Her mother was Emma Dyson Campbell, a woman of African American and Native American descent, from Washington, DC, USA. Her father was William Campbell, a teacher, originally from Jamaica. The family briefly relocated to the State of Texas, USA, but Grace grew up mainly in Washington, and graduated from that city's historically Black Howard University.[1]

Sometime around 1905, Grace moved to New York City. There she became a member of the National League for the Protection of Colored Women (NLPCW). This organisation had an inclusive membership of both Blacks and Whites, and women and men. In 1911 it merged with two other organizations to become the Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes, of which Grace sat on the board of directors. Later it was renamed the National Urban League.

In 1911 Grace became a parole officer in the Court of General Sessions for New York City. She was the first Black woman in that job.[2] She worked for the rest of her life as a jail attendant in the women's section of the tough New York prison called "the Tombs".

In 1913, Grace was kicked off the board of the Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes for "dereliction of duty". The scholars Minkah Makalani and Erik S McDuffie speculate that the real reason that the Committee, which was run mostly by men, kicked her off was her "refusal to show proper deference to male leaders".[3]

In the period just before World War I, Grace's circle of friends included leftist Harlem intellectuals such as Cyril Briggs, a journalist originally from Nevis; Richard B Moore, the Barbadian orator and bibliophile; W A Domingo, a newspaper editor from Jamaica; Frank Crosswaith, a labour organizer from Saint Croix; Hubert Henry Harrison, an orator and bibliophile also from Saint Croix; and A Philip Randolph, an American journalist. They shared a commitment to "black liberation, socialism, and decolonization", and according to Erik S McDuffie, were drawn to Marxism in large part because they saw in it "a means of solving the race problem".[4] During this time, Grace joined the Socialist Party of America (SPA). She was one of the founding members of the Party's 21st Assembly branch.[5] All of the just mentioned circle of friends, except Cyril Briggs, were also in the Party.

In 1915 Grace founded the Empire Friendly Shelter for Friendless Girls in Harlem for young, single Black mothers. According to the 1920 Census, Grace and her sister Mary both lived at the Empire Friendly Shelter, 116 West 135th Street, Harlem.[6]

Grace ran for the Socialist Party in the elections for the 19th District of the New York State Assembly in 1919 and 1920. She got about ten percent of the vote both years. According to Catherine Roth's article at BlackPast.org, Grace was the first woman of any race to run for public office in the state of New York [this seems unlikely; maybe she was the first to run for a seat in the Assembly].

Grace was a founder of the People’s Educational Forum, an organization that offered Black anti-racists and anti-colonialists a Socialist alternative to the more bourgeois Universal Negro Improvement Association of Marcus Garvey.[7]

Within a few years, Grace and her above-mentioned friends in the SPA moved away from that party. Erik S McDuffie thinks this was because they got uncomfortable with the SPA's "class reductionist" theorization of race issues. Erik characterises the SPA as seeing racism as being the result, primarily, of economic forces; and that party as "ignoring the specificity of black racial oppression and how white workers often embraced racism and benefited materially and psychologically from it."[8] It is not clear why Erik thinks that noticing white workers' racism necessarily leads one to a non-economic explanation of racism. To the contrary, the economic explanation of racism holds that capital uses racism as a divide-and-conquer tactic against the working class, fomenting racism among white workers so that they cannot achieve solidarity with their black sister and brother workers.

Whatever their disagreements with the SPA, Grace and Richard B moore, as well as Cyril Briggs, were soon throwing their energies into building the African Blood Brotherhood, a clandestine, independent revolutionary socialist organisation which formed in 1919. Erik S McDuffie describes the African Blood Brotherhood as programmatically calling for "black self-determination, the redemption of Africa, armed self-defense, black-white unity, support for trade unionism, and decolonization;" and he says that "In contrast to the SPA, the ABB viewed black liberation as central, not peripheral, to the global struggle against capitalism and imperialism."[9]

Grace sat on the "Supreme Council" of the African Blood Brotherhood, which was its executive board, along with Cyril Briggs, Richard B Moore, and W A Domingo. Her title was Director of Consumer Cooperatives. Erik S McDuffie claims that Grace suffered gender discrimination in the ABB, her male comrades "often relegat[ing] her to performing invisible, secretarial work."[10]

Grace became an enthusiastic public promoter of socialism. A police spy at a political forum in Harlem in June 1921 reported that "[she] devoted about twenty minutes condemning all other forms of but the Soviet, which she claims is the only hope for the workingman."[11] Another spy in 1921 reported that she "conducted an active campaign [in generating interest in socialism] among the colored women."[12]

In 1923, Grace, along with her friends Richard B Moore and Cyril Briggs, and a Chicago-based activist, Lovett Fort-Whiteman joined the Workers Party, the forerunner of the Communist Party USA. (They may have joined a year or two before.)[13] Influential in their decision was the nationalities policy and anti-imperialist orientation of the new Soviet Union. Especially influential was the resolution on the Negro Question by the Fourth Congress of the Communist International at Moscow in 1922. The resolution assigned Black liberation a key role in the global sruggle against capitalist imperialism. A very attractive feature of the Communist International for United States Black activists such as Grace P Campbell, was that it gave them an international support network and connections to progressive people of color around the world.

According to Erik S McDuffie, Grace was the first Black woman in the Workers Party.[14]

The African Blood Brotherhood was dismantled in 1923 at the Worker's Party's direction and transformed into the Party-affiliated American Negro Labor Congress (ANLC), based in Chicago.

Erik S McDuffie says that Grace's Apartment in Harlem was "a busy hub of radical political activity" in the 1920s and 1930s. It was the African Blood Brotherhood Supreme Council's meeting place, "as well as the office of Cyril Briggs' Crusader News Service and the distribution center for the Crusader, the African Blood Brotherhood's official periodical."[15] The local branch of the Workers Party also had meeetings at her house at 206 West 133rd Street, New York. Grace's Party comrade Hermina Dumont Huiswood recalls: "I remember her graying hair and jet-black beady eyes that glistened and twinkled as if she were perpetually enjoying something amusing. No wonder her home was always full of visitors. She kept a permanent open house, offering food and shelter to whomever knocked on her door." Hermina has also given us a glimpse of Grace's style at her day job: Grace was able to "assert her authority and command respect from the toughest woman delinquent simply by her motherly appearance and abundance of patience."[16]

One form that Grace's activism took was stepladder speaking in New York City. Erik S McDuffie writes: "Grace Campbell, Elizabeth Hendrickson, a Communist community organizer born in the Danish Virgin Islands, and Helen Holman were widely known stepladder orators, gifted speakers who stood atop crates and stepladders along Harlem's main thoroughfares and busiest street corners. With fiery oratory, they electrified crowds, sometimes for hours, on wide-ranging topics from history, politics, and culture. Harlem street corners, the historian Irma Watkins-Owens observes, 'became the most viable location for an alternative politics and the place where new social movements gained a hearing and recruited supporters.'"[17]

Grace was raised in a Catholic family, but became a free thinker as an adult. She was charter member of the Harlem Unitarian Church, which was founded in 1920. The Church's pastor was E Ethelred Brown, a Jamaican of strong socialst, anti-colonialist views. Erik S McDuffie writes that "Viewing religious orthodoxy as critical to maintaining the racial, gender, and class staus quo, [Grace] apparently believed that a progressive social ministry was essential for improving the lives of black people." Although Hubert Harrison, W A Domingo, and Richard B Moore were, according to Eric S McDuffie, "notorious in Harlem for their atheism," they as well as Grace, Hermina Dumont Huiswood, and Otto Huiswood regularly attended the Church. The Church "linked them to a thriving, multiracial community of free thinkers in New York." The radical secularism of women such as Grace and Hermina differentiated them from women who approached Black liberation through vehicles such as Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and other social clubs and chuches.[18]

Grace was part of a radical community in which transgressive gender roles, "sexual modernism" and the "New Woman" ideal were frequently embraced. Heteronormative, Victorian, boureois morality and women's domesticity were often rejected in favour of birth control, and wage work and economic independence for women. Grace was a close friend of Claude MacKay, the bisexual Harlem novelist and Marxist from Jamaica. She also knew Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who became a Communist Party leader on women's issues and a champion of sexual modernism and free thought.[19] Grace did not marry or have children.

Grace was a leader in the Harlem Tenants Leaue (HTL). The League conducted demonstrations and rent strikes, blocked evictions, and attempted to see that housing regulations were enforced. Formed in 1928 under the auspices of the Socialist Party, it later came under the control of the Workers Party. Grace acted as the League's secretary, alongside Richard B Moore as president and Elizabeth Hendrickson as vice-president. Hermina Dumont Huiswood and Williana Burroughs also had leading roles. The League's high-profile activism "helped spark a wave of community forums in Harlem sponsored by women's clubs, fraternal groups, and churches on the high cost of living in the neighbourhood." The CPUSA's Negro Department issued a report in 1929 praising the HTL, and the Daily Worker and the Amsterdam News had front-page stories about HTL protests.[20] Concerning the League's significance for the Workers Party internally, Erik S McDuffie has written that in the HTL, "for the first time in the Communist Left's short history, black women in the early Party came together within a WP-affiliated organization, enabling them to exchange ideas, to agitate collectively on behalf of the community, and to forge a collective identity based on their shared radical outlooks."[21]

Despite its success, the Harlem Tenants League was not to flourish long. Its demise resulted from a policy adopted by the Comintern in 1928 at its Sixth Congress. This called for the dissolution of internal factions such as were based in foreign language federations, and in neighbourhood groups such as the HTL. The imposition of this line threw the CPUSA into turmiol, with a group led by the Party chairperson Jay Lovestone calling for non-compliance with the Comintern directive. Grace cast her lot with the Lovestonites and continuation of the HTL. In doing so she put herself on the losing side and according to Erik S McDuffie lost status in the Party which she never fully recovered. In addition, her friendship with Cyril Briggs and Richard B Moore was severely strained as they sided with the William Z Foster-led majority which adhered to the Comintern line. Fortunately, Grace and those two comrades did mend their relationship in the following years.[22]

Grace was involved in the recovery campaign after the Great Okeechobee Hurricane and Flood hit the State of Florida, USA on 16-17 September 1928.[23]

Grace died in 1943 at the age of sixty.

Philosophical evolution

Over the course of her career, Grace progressed from holding conservative views on sexual morality and the causes of crime, which tended to blame criminals – young Black women arrested for prostitution being a frequent subject in Grace's work – for their own predicament. Her observations at work, and her encounters with leftist Black intellectuals in New York caused her to abandon this view and to emphasize structural and environmental factors as causes. These included poverty, racism, sex-based discrimination, the cultural dislocation of recent migrants from the rural southern States, and biases in the criminal "justice" system. In a pair of articles, "Women Offenders and the Day Court", and "Tragedy of the Colored Girl in Court", both of which appeared in the New York Age in April 1925, Grace laid out her mature thinking on this issue. The articles rejected the then-commonplace view that lax morals and irresponsibility explain poverty and crime. The articles asserted instead that the intertwining effects of race, class, gender and state power caused the high incarceration rate of Black women for prostitution. The academician Erik S McDuffie says that in these articles, Grace showed "how the capitalist process exploited black women's location as mothers by forcing them into prostitution in order to survive and to provide for their children."[24]


Accolades

  • The Harlem-based newspaper, New York Age, called her "one of the best known colored women in New York," in 1934.
  • The Academician Erik S McDuffie says: "From World War I through the eve of the Depression, she was the most prominent woman in the Harlem Left."[25]

Other Works

  • Catherine Roth. "Campbell, Grace P (1883-1943)" BlackPast.org
  • Erik S McDuffie, 2011. Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism.
  • Lydia Lindsey
    • 2010. "Racial Uplifting: The Early Life of Grace P. Campbell a founding member of the African Black Brotherhood". Paper presented at the annual meeting of the 95th Annual Convention of the Association for the Study of African American Life & History Headquarters, Raleigh Convention Center, Raleigh, North Carolina, Sep 29, 2010. Abstract
    • 2011. "Race, Gender, and Class: In the Aftermath of the Great Okeechobee Hurricane and Flood in Florida, 16-17 September 1928" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the 96th Annual Convention of the Association for the Study of African American Life & History Headquarters, Richmond, VA, Oct 04, 2011. Abstract
  • Winston James, 1998. Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth-Century America.

Notes

  1. Catherine Roth, accessed 2016.
  2. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 30.
  3. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 33.
  4. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 33. He cites Winston James, "Being Red and Black in Jim Crow America", Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Culture, Politics and Society, 1, no. 4 (Fall 1999), p 54.
  5. Catherine Roth.
  6. Winston James, note 152, p 326.
  7. Catherine Roth.
  8. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 33.
  9. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 34.
  10. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 37.
  11. Robert A Hill, Marcus Garvey and the UNIA Papers 4:688, in Erik S McDuffie 2011, pp 35-6.
  12. P-138 to Federal Bureau of Investigation, 4 March 1921, RG 65, BS 202600-667-307, FSAA Records, reel 7, 304; in Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 35.
  13. The 1923 date is from Erik S McDuffie, but I have seen some indications elswhere that it may have been earlier.
  14. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 26.
  15. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 38.
  16. Hermina Dumont Huiswood papers, quoted in Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 38.
  17. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 40. He cites Irma Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations, p 92.
  18. Erik S McDuffie 2011, pp 41-42.
  19. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 42.
  20. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 45.
  21. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 46.
  22. Erik S McDuffie 2011, pp 47-8.
  23. Lydia Lindsay, 2011. Abstract.
  24. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 50.
  25. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 26.