The ultimate Black Bolshevik and revolutionary Harry Haywood

Herb Boyd | 5/2/2019, 10:38 a.m.

When a life was as adventurous and politically active as Harry Haywood’s, it’s difficult to find a starting point, a pivotal moment that encapsulates his remarkable journey.

He was a devout, relentless revolutionary who in radical circles is best remembered for his unwavering commitment to Black Nationalism and as a progenitor of the “Black Belt thesis,” positing that African-Americans mainly living in the South comprised a separate nation.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Detroit was a hotbed of revolt, particularly as fomented by radicalized Black workers, and this may have been one factor that drew Haywood to the city, though he had been there several times. In association with scholar and teacher Ernest Allen, who I had brought to Wayne State University, a relationship was forged with Haywood and the time we spent with him was educational and enlightening.

Yes, Haywood was a well-traveled revolutionary, but he was also a raconteur, a storyteller with an endless fount of memorable tales to relate.

The youngest of three sons, he was born Haywood Hall Jr. Feb. 4, 1889, in Omaha, Neb. His parents were former slaves who had migrated to the city from Missouri and West Tennessee. Like many African-Americans, they moved to Omaha seeking jobs in the railroad and meatpacking industry.

The Hall family left Omaha in 1913 after his father was attacked by white racists. After two years in Minneapolis they moved to Chicago. His formal education ended in Minneapolis when, as the only Black in the school, he entered a classroom to hear the students singing a racist song in Black dialect. By the time he was a teenager he began working as a porter in railcars which gave him his first glimpse of Chicago. Harry had a variety of jobs in Chicago, including one as a bus boy when World War I erupted.

In his autobiography “Black Bolshevik,” now a member of the 8th Regiment of the Illinois National Guard unit and attached to the 93rd Division, he recounted a scene from the last major battle in Europe in the Argonne Forest in northeastern France. “Bullets whizzed over our heads,” he said. “All of us scrambled to get into the communication trench which opened on the valley. Second Lieutenant Binga Desmond, our platoon commander [and University of Chicago great sprint star] fell from the embankment on top of me. Fortunately, he was not hit. But even with his 180 pounds on my back, I am sure I made that ten or fifteen yards to the communication trench, crawling on my hands and knees, as fast as he could have sprinted the distance.”

As Harry notes in his book, he was fighting in the wrong war. That point came home to him dramatically in 1919, the so-called “Red Summer,” when race riots broke out across the country, including Chicago where he quickly got involved.

Two years later, influenced by his older brother, Otto, he was a member of the African Blood Brotherhood, a clandestine group of Black activists affiliated with the Communist Party. Within a few years, around 1925 or 1926, Harry was a member and began his long odyssey in the Party that would carry him all over the world.