Black communists in the 1930s
by Thomas C. Fleming, Jan 6, 1999
In the 1930s, there were four daily newspapers in San Francisco, but none of them hired any black reporters. The only exception was the People's World , a Communist daily. Black reporters worked not only there, but at the other two Communist papers in the United States, the Daily Worker in New York and the Midwest Daily Record in Chicago.
They all came out about five days a week, but I've never heard anyone include them as part of the daily press, because they weren't commercial papers. You only saw them in a few newsstands. They weren't dependent upon circulation like the others. Who would advertise in them?
It wasn't unusual for them to hire black writers. They were trying to get blacks to join the party. Black intellectuals were frustrated because they couldn't move ahead in the big society, and the Communists were fighting some of the same things they were fighting. They recognized that if you're going to form a true democracy, as they would call it, you've got to have everybody in there, and all be given the same rights.
Anytime there was some sort of demonstration on race relations, the Communists had somebody there. I felt they were friends, not enemies. I went to about four of their meetings altogether, but I never felt the necessity of joining. I knew quite a few blacks who did.
One was John Pittman, who I met in the late 1920s when he enrolled as a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, after graduating from Morehouse College in Atlanta. In 1931 he started a weekly paper in San Francisco called the Spokesman . It was black-owned and operated. John was an unabashed Marxist, and never tried to hide that fact. He formed a working alliance with the liberal community in the Bay Area.
I used to write articles for John. I didn't get any pay, but I couldn't find work anywhere else. The Spokesman was called the little People's World. Its office was located at Sutter and Baker streets, where a housing project is now. It was one of first housing projects in the city to be inhabited primarily by blacks.
The Spokesman went under in 1935. John then went to work for the People's World, and later moved to New York, and from there to Europe, where he lived for many years as a foreign correspondent for the Daily Worker.
He came back to San Francisco on a visit about 10 years ago. I heard he was in town, and I called him. He said we were going to get together, but it never did happen, because we were both way up in our seventies then.
In the 1930s, I used to read the Chicago Defender whenever I saw one in Oakland. At that time, it was the best-known of all of the black weekly papers published in the United States. Like all black newspapers then and since, the Defender served as a watchdog whose editorial policy was to conduct a solid fight for equality of opportunity.
The black press started as an anti-slavery tool, and ever since, it has led the fight for complete integration. Without it, black people wouldn't have had any kind of voice at all. You read all the stories about the lynchings when they happened, the jobs you could get, the instances of discrimination, the hotels you could stay in. You didn't see these stories in the daily papers, because they didn't consider them to be very important.
The Defender gave strong support to Oscar DePriest, a Republican who was elected to Congress in 1928 from the district that included Chicago's South Side, which was populated by more than 200,000 blacks. He was the only black congressman in the country at the time. That made interesting reading for black America, and was one reason why the Defender enjoyed its large national circulation.
The national black press lost a lot of its readership after World War II because local black papers were able to cover events in their own communities better, and get the news out quicker. It was a competition that the national press couldn't meet -- particularly social events and church affairs, which began to appear the same week they occurred. They couldn't do that back in the '30s, because there wasn't any black wire service, as there is today.
Oakland in the 1930s had two daily papers -- the Post-Enquirer, which was part of the Hearst empire, and the Tribune, owned and operated by old Joe Knowland and his sons. Starting in the early 1920s, the Tribune carried a weekly column, "Activities Among Negroes," by a black woman named Delilah Beasley. She died in 1934. That same year, Joe's son Billy Knowland ran for the state Senate and won. I worked for him in his candidacy, so I persuaded him to give me the column.
Delilah Beasley (1871-1934), columnist for the Oakland Tribune and