Louise Thompson

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Louise Thompson

Louise Alone Thompson (September 9, 1901 – August 27, 1999) was an African-American feminist and prominent Communist Party USA member. She is noted as an early formulator of feminist intersectionality theory, as a leader in the movement to free the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s, and as a writer and social figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s. She married CPUSA member William L Patterson and was thereafter often referred to as Louise Thompson Patterson.

Early life

Louise was born in Chicago, USA in 1901. According to Erik S McDuffie (p 63), "She grew up poor in small, racist towns across the West Coast before settling by the advent of World War I in Oakland, California with her mother, Lulu Brown Toles. Her poor, single mother cooked for white families, sensitizing Louise early to the arduous travails of black women." She managed to attend the University of California and graduated with a B.S. degree in commerce in May 1923.[1] Hearing W.E.B. DuBois give a guest lecture at the University of California at Berkeley, and meeting him afterward, was a pivotal experience for Louise; she determined at this time to dedicate her life to fighting for racial equality.[2] That great scholar of the African diaspora remained a mentor of Louise's for many years.

After graduating from U.C. Berkeley, Louise taught briefly at the Branch Normal College for Colored People in Pine Bluffs, Arkansas. Then in 1926 she began teaching business administration at the Hampton Institute in Virginia. According to Erik S McDuffie, she "suffocated under the racial conservativism of these institutions" (64). The cultural scholar William J Maxwell tells us that at Hampton she "supported a student strike against the puritanical heritage of alumnus Booker T Washington." He continues to say: "Nineteen twenty-eight found Thompson fleeing the school along with its most energetic strikers. Confirming the idea that black college rebellions of the era provided a talent reserve for the New Negro movement, she went straight to New York City."[3] Erik S McDuffie thinks she had already gone to New York City in 1927, at least for a visit. In New York she met for a second time her future husband William L Patterson, who she had already met in California. In 1927 he had recently joined the CPUSA; Louise, however was not yet a communist.

In her early days in New York, Louise received a sociology grant from the Urban League and a stipend from the literary patron Charlotte Mason. She found Charlotte overbearing, however, and soon renounced her support. Later, Louise would write that during this period she acquired a "distaste and hatred of white philanthropy."[4] Louise helped convince Langston Hughes to stop taking Charlotte's money also.

At the urging of William L Patterson, she read Karl Marx's Capital in 1927 or 1928.[5]

By the early 1930s, Louise had become a "central figure" (Erik S McD, 64) in the African-American cultural blossoming in New York called the Harlem Renaissance. She associated with leading Harlem intellectuals such as Aaron Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, and Langston Hughes, who became a close friend. In 1928 she married Wallace Thurman, a novelist; she soon discovered that he was gay, and they separated, but they remained formally married until his death in 1934.

Through her friends YWCA official Sue Elvie Bailey (Thurman), and Marion Cuthbert, a poet, Louise obtained in 1930 a position as a research assistant in the Congregational Education Service, a reform organization "composed mostly of affluent white liberals" (Erik S McD, 65).

Louise with Langston Hughes on their way to Russia to film Black and White

USSR trip

In 1932, a Black CPUSA leader, James Ford returned from Russia to recruit cast members for Black and White, a film to be made in the Soviet Union about US race relations. He invited Louise to organize the cast and she accepted. Louise formed a Co-Operating Committee for Production of a Soviet Film on Negro Life, corresponded with the Soviet organizers, and recruited most of the actors for the film.

In June 1932, Louise led a party of 22 Americans to the Soviet Union to participate in the making of the film. As it was for many African Americans who went to the Soviet Union, living in the young Socialist country was a transformative experience for Louise. Erik S McDuffie says that "from the moment" she arrived in the Soviet Union, she "felt a euphoric sense of personal freedom from American racism".[6]

Although the Soviets cancelled the Black and White film project in August 1932 in response to diplomatic pressure from the US, Louise, Langston Hughes, and many of the other cast members accepted a Soviet invitation to stay in the country a while and travel. Their itinerary included Soviet Central Asia, where they came to see themselves and comrades there as part of a transnational, multiracial community struggling against capitalism and imperialism. On 5 October they released an enthusiastic public statement from Buxara, Uzbekistan, about the revolution's achievements there.

After the troupe returned to US soil, Louise said she "preferred Russia to living in America."[7] And in a 1987 interview she recalled: "Because of what I had seen in the Soviet Union I was ready ... to make a change. A leap."[8]

Louise joined the International Labor Defense in 1933. She was the principal organizer of the "Free the Scottsboro Boys March" in Washington DC, USA, which took place on 8 May 1933.[9]


Louise joined the Communist Party USA shortly after the Scottsboro Boys march, probably later the same year (1933).[10] From 1933 until 1948 Louise was employed in a CPUSA-aligned organization called the International Workers Order (ILO). Her main activities there were cultural outreach and union desegegation.[11]

Due largely to her USSR travels and her role in the Scottsboro defense, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NACP) called her "the leading colored woman in the Communist movement in this country," in its magazine The Crisis in 1934.[12]

Louise embraced the "New Woman" ideal of the 1920s, and embodied an ethos of independent Black womanhood.[13]

Her lifestyle in the 1920s and 1930s has been described as "bohemian".[14]

The freedom that she experienced during her visit to the Soviet Union in 1932 helped Louise "cultivate her public persona as a sexually liberated woman.[15]

In 1937, Louise published an article in the CPUSA's Party Organizer, called "Negro Women in Our Party". It addressed the issue of Black-White romantic unions between Party members, which was causing some controversy. The problem was that many Black women in the Party felt that Black male CPUSA members had too great a tendency to seek sexual relations with White women leftists, leaving Black women leftists unbefreinded. A CPUSA group in Harlem led by Grace Campbell would the next year go as far as to call for a ban on Black-White marriages within the Party for this reason.[16] Louise's 1937 article has been summarized by Erik S McDuffie (2011, p 19):

Marking the first time this volatile was discussed in a Party publication, the article appresiated how the prsonal and political intersected, with devastating implications for black women. Thompson identified Communist Party social events as a key site of interracial sexual tension, emphasizing how black women often felt like "wallflowers" at social events because no one asked them to dance. "These are the things," she wrote, "that hold a lot of Negro women back from the Party. They are not so political, but they do mean a great deal." For these reasons, black women did not "feel that they fit in, they [did] not feel as much a part of it as even ... Negro men comrades." Thompson's comments implied that black men felt more at home in the Party than black women in part because [they] had sexual access to white women. Urging Communists to devise a more "personal," "human approach" when dealing Recruiting African American women, she stressed that their recruitment into the CPUSA was "essential to [the Party's] Negro work."

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Louise in Berlin, Germany, 1960

Considering its policy of interracialism, the Party could hardly ban Black-White marriages. But it made some efforts to smoothe the troubled waters of intermember mating. For example, Theodore Basset began teaching White male Communists how to dance, because many of them felt unskilled in this area and were afraid to dance with African American women at party socials.[17]

Louise was affiliated with the League for Women Shoppers in 1938.

Louise married William L Patterson in September 1940. They "forged a lifetime partnership based on gender egalitarianism."[18]

In the 1950s Louise and the young poet and actor Beulah Richardson led an important feminist group called the Sojourners for Truth and Justice. The two women composed the group's Anthem in October-November 1951.[19]

Works by Louise Thompson

  • 1968. "With Langston Hughes in the U.S.S.R.", Freedomways 8.2 (Spring 1968), pp 152-8.

Other works

  • Erik S McDuffie, 2011. Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism.
  • Willam J Maxwell, 1999. New Negro, Old Left


  1. Louise Thompson Patterson FBI file.
  2. Erik S McDuffie, p 63.
  3. William J Maxwell 1999, p 142.
  4. William J Maxwell 1999, p 143.
  5. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 64.
  6. 2011, p 66.
  7. Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem During the Depression, 1983 reprint, p 74, cited in William J Maxwell 1999, p 142.
  8. Erik s McDuffie 2011, p 74, quoting Louise Thompson Patterson papers, interview, 14 May 1987.
  9. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 59.
  10. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 59.
  11. William J Maxwell 1999, p 143.
  12. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 59; William J Maxwell 1999, p 143; William J cites Louise Thompson, "Southern", p 327.
  13. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 64.
  14. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 9.
  15. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 68.
  16. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 120.
  17. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 122.
  18. Erik S McDuffie, p 149.
  19. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 160.