Lovett Fort-Whiteman (307404)

During research on Harlem’s history, especially from a radical perspective, Lovett H. Fort-Whiteman’s name popped up repeatedly. He seemed to be a major player in several significant political and international organizations. Most notably, he was the first African American to be a member of the Communist Party, USA, and a member who was given key positions and assignments.

Fort-Whiteman was born in 1894 in Dallas, Texas, the son of freed slaves from South Carolina. Very early in adulthood, Lovett adopted his mother’s maiden name and hyphenated it to his surname. Coming of age in Dallas offered him a greater chance to receive better education, which in most places was not available to African American children.

After graduation from high school, Lovett attended Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he majored in machinery. He was apparently an exceptional student and upon graduation was accepted at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn. His aim was to become a medical doctor, but he did not complete the course. In 1910, following the death of his father, Lovett took his mother and sister to Harlem. There he worked as a bellhop in a hotel while harboring dreams to become an actor.

But the intrepid Lovett soon put those aspirations aside and departed for Mexico where he resided in the Yucatan peninsula. He found employment as an accounting clerk at a rope manufacturing company. He spent much of his leisure reading and studying Spanish and French, gaining a relative fluency in each.

When the Mexican Revolution swept across the nation in 1915, he was among the thousands who joined in the march for social and political change, becoming a member of a trade union and the Casa del Obrero Mundial (House of the World Worker, or COM). But the organization was short-lived and crushed by the government composed mainly of Catholics and wealthy landowners. Unsatisfied with the failure to transform the society, he embarked for another venue as a sailor bound for Cuba and then on Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. This venture continued on to Montreal and he had a new name, Harry W. Fort and later returned to the States disguised as a porter on the railroad.

Landing at last back in Harlem, Lovett’s tireless activities led him to The Messenger magazine, published by A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, where for a spell he was the dramatic editor, again flitting around the theater realm. Even wider associates came when he began his affiliation with the Rand School of Social Science and joined the Socialist Party of America. As a consequence of these involvements, his circle of friends and “comrades” expanded to include such notables as Otto Huiswoud and Sen Katayama, both of whom became prominent radicals.

He was soon deeply involved in the emerging Harlem Renaissance and in contact with the era’s leading artists and activists. His articles gained him a small following and he used that to amplify his standing and reputation as an insightful writer and man-about-town. By 1919, mainly from the influence of Robert Minor, a cartoonist from Texas who had visited Russia, Lovett was convinced to join the Communist Party, making him the first of many Black Americans to be more than “fellow travelers.”

As an outspoken Party member, Lovett began addressing crowds and parading the virtues of the Party. It was on such an occasion in St. Louis 1919 that his passionate oratory led to his arrest. The Bureau of Investigation, a forerunner to the FBI, cited him as “dangerous agitator” and charged him with violating the Espionage Act, though he denied having made any such accusation. He served an extended period of time behind bars, but by the early 1920s he was back on the street and once more in radical circles.

In 1924, he was among 250 delegates at a Chicago convention, entitled the “Negro Sanhedrin,” an event assembled to deal with the problems of the working class. It was also an opportunity for Lovett to meet with members of the clandestine African Blood Brotherhood, and later such leaders as Cyril Briggs, Harry Haywood, and W.A. Domingo. A year later, again in association with members of the ABB, he was one of the signatories of American Negro Labor Congress, a front group for the CP. Lovett, as usual, was dispatched to recruit and spread the word about the need to end racism and segregation in America. He was a consistently powerful voice advocating the adoption of socialism.

The Congress wasn’t around very long but Lovett had acquired wide recognition and was largely responsible for what little success the Congress had. Lovett was in Moscow in 1925 for the meeting of the Comintern, where he impressed the central committee with his speeches and knowledge of world politics.

For the remainder of his life, Dick Reavis’s article in the Jacobin magazine is a reliable source. Lovett, according to Reavis stayed in Moscow at the end of the conference, and “landed a two-year fellowship in ethnology at Moscow University and somehow parlayed that into a job as a researcher on fish breeding. But in 1933, he requested permission from the American party to return to its ranks. His letter was snagged by Soviet authorities, who rather than forwarding it, entered it into police records.

“In his off-hours,” Reavis continued, “expat Fort-Whiteman often dined with visiting American Blacks, especially Party members. In early 1936, following a hot dispute with American comrades, he was banished to Alma-Ata, a city in Kazakhstan that had been Trotsky’s first stop on his way to exile. There Fort-Whiteman became a schoolteacher again. But the Soviet police did not forget about him. In early 1937 Bukharin was arrested, given a show trial and convicted of conspiring to overthrow the Soviet state. A year later he was shot. Within two months of his execution, Fort-Whiteman was rearrested and sentenced to five years of hard labor at a gulag in the gold-mining fields of Siberia. According to a fellow inmate, he was frequently unable to meet work quotas and was punished with beatings. Either from those or from unknown causes, he lost his teeth. On Jan. 13, 1939, at the age of 49, he died in the gulag, his death certificate said, of ‘heart failure.’ Had an admirer penned the certificate, it might have plainly said that he died of a broken heart.”

It was a tragic turn of events for someone who was the first of his race to join the Party to succumb in a Siberian Gulag. In effect, he was possibly the victim of a double-edged sword––hounded by the CIA and Soviet agents. Another of Lovett’s friends, Robert Robinson, who recalled seeing him confirmed some of the treatment he endured in the Gulag including the severe malnutrition and brutal torture. He said Lovett was a “broken man.” He was 49 when he died in 1939.