Any mention of Grace Campbell, as we noticed in posting a profile on her last week, almost invariably has a notice of Frank Crosswaith. They are joined on a thread, it seems, as they were so often comrades in political formations during the turbulent ’20s and ’30s.
Pick up any book on radical activists in the 20th century and you will probably find at least his name and how intrepid he was in the labor movement. As a member of the Harlem Socialist Party, he a dynamic speaker and referred to as the “Negro Debs”––a comparison to Eugene Debs, the renowned political agitator and leader.
Crosswaith was born July 16, 1892, in La Croix, Virgin Islands to William Ignatius and Anne Elizabeth Crosswaith. He arrived in the U.S. in 1910 and almost immediately got involved in the political movement, joining a number of socialists in their resolve to challenge racism and capitalism. After settling in New York City he became an elevator operator and married Alma Besard. His educational ventures included the Rand School of Social Science from which he graduated in 1918.
It was during his attendance at Rand that he immersed himself in the writings of various socialist authors and activists. Along with his involvement in radical politics, he was often in concert with members of the literary and cultural activities of the Harlem Renaissance with a keen interest in the poetry and outlook of Langston Hughes and Alain Locke. But it was his vocal and highly visible role in the political movement of the day, especially his appearances at rallies and as an organizer in labor that garnered him wide acclaim and respect.
As a member and often spokesperson of the Friends of Negro Freedom, under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, Crosswaith advocated strongly for the coalition of Black workers in the labor movement, given their common cause against a common foe.
Because of his abilities and vision, he became secretary of the Trade Union Committee for Organizing Negro Workers (TUC), an organization that allied him with Campbell and other notables in the struggle for liberty and justice. The TUC came into existence in 1925 at the same time that the Harlem Renaissance was gaining traction.
When he wasn’t busy with his administrative duties, he was a ubiquitous speaker and organizer for laundry workers, all part of his affiliation with the NAACP and the National Urban League. It was an easy transition to Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1926 with the demise of TUC. His tenure in Brotherhood was short-circuited after he became embroiled in a scandal in which he accused members of embezzling money. After the accused was cleared of charges, Crosswaith was forced to resign.
Crosswaith is given considerable coverage in Mark Naison’s “Communists in Harlem during the Depression,” mainly chronicling his anti-Communism. No matter the affiliation, ALP or otherwise, Crosswaith was a bitter opponent of Communist aspirations in Harlem, and as Naison notes often called on “Black leaders to drive Communists out of positions of influence in Black life.” And we would be remiss not to cite his membership in Harlem’s 21st A.D. club that included Campbell, and W.A. Domingo, who will be featured in future columns. He also expressed an outspoken resistance to the Harlem Labor Union, founded by Ira Kemp, accusing the organization of undermining the interests of African American workers with its commitment to employers that offered wages below union rates. He believed strongly that “separation of workers by race would only work to undermine the strength of the entire labor movement.”
He continued his labor activism with the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), where he would remain for the rest of his career. In the ILGWU, he became head of the organization’s labor committee. Here he was a formidable force in insisting the American Federation of Labor open its doors to African American union.
By 1941, he was once again allied with Randolph in the threatened march on Washington with the central purpose of ending job discrimination. A year later, after a relative success in the threat, Randolph was offered the helm of the New York City Housing Authority. He declined the position and Crosswaith was given the leadership role at the Authority.
Crosswaith died June 17, 1965 in New York City at the age of 72.