Life and times of Claudia Jones: Telling herstory

Claudia Jones (1915–1964), an Afro-Caribbean woman born in Port of Spain, British West Indies (Trinidad), was a Communist activist in the U.S., holding several responsible positions within the Communist Party and for its publications until her deportation in 1955 to Great Britain. There, based in London, she played a leading role in the West Indian community, editing the left-wing West Indian Gazette, and founding (in 1959) the Caribbean Carnival, a cultural event now attracting some two million people each year.

Below is an excerpt from a letter Jones wrote to then-CPUSA National Chair William Z. Foster, dated Dec. 6, 1955. The letter is part of a small file of material donated to New York University’s Tamiment Library by Howard “Stretch” Johnson, an African American communist, which also contains a letter (London, April 21, 1956) from Jones to Johnson, her friend and former lover.

As part of Women’s History Month, the People’s Weekly World is honored to publish a brief autobiographical glimpse of this extraordinary woman.

Dear Comrade Foster,

As a child of eight, I came to the United States from Port of Spain, Trinidad, British West Indies. My mother and father had come to this country two years earlier, in 1922, when their economic status (which were middle class land owners on my mother’s side and hotel owners on my father’s side) had been worsened as a result of the drop in the cocoa trade (on the world market) from the West Indies which had impoverished the West Indies and the entire Caribbean. Like thousands of West Indian immigrants, they hoped to find their fortunes in America where “gold was to be found on the streets,” and they dreamed of rearing their children in a “free America.”

This dream was soon disabused. Together with my three sisters, our family suffered not only the impoverished lot of working class native families, and the multinational populace, but early learned the special scourge of indignity stemming from Jim Crow national oppression.

Early education

My formal academic education on American soil began when I entered public school. I have early recollections of being hurt by youngsters of my own age who mouthed anti-West Indian propaganda against me and my sisters. But by the time I reached junior high school, I had formed friendships and became integrated in the student body, and was nominated in Harriet Beecher Stowe Junior High for the highest office in the school and was subsequently elected Mayor. (The form of student administration of this particular junior high was patterned after the then-established pattern of the NY City administration).

One incident I recall with some pride today. Namely that running with me then as President of the Board of Aldermen was a young Chinese girl. Numerous teachers tried to pressure me to refuse her as a running mate, on the grounds that she was Chinese, and that had the situation been reversed, this would not happen in China of that day. I refused to be drawn in or to accede to any such narrow concept — choosing instead to have her as my running mate. (To use the phrase, I exercised my “preemptory challenge!”) We were elected by an overwhelming majority of the students, proving the teachers wrong, and showing the internationalist approach of the student body.)

Lessons from capitalism

I began to wonder why there was wealth and poverty; why there was discrimination and segregation; why there was a contradiction between the ideas contained in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights which contained its precepts of the pursuit for all of “life, liberty and happiness.”

My mother had died two years earlier of spinal meningitis suddenly at her machine in a garment shop. The conditions of nonunion organization of that day, of speedup, plus the lot of working women who are mothers and undoubtedly the weight of immigration to a new land where conditions were far from as promised or anticipated, contributed to her early death at age 37.

My father, who together with her had come earlier to America, was left to rear four young girls, the oldest of whom was 14. I was the second child of my parents. Because of my pride, I didn’t ask friendly teachers to help provide me with a graduation outfit, at which I was to receive high honors (including the Theodore Roosevelt award for good citizenship), and officiate as Mayor of the school, choosing instead to stay away, sending them some lame excuse while I bawled my eyes out in humiliation and self-pity.

I was later to learn that this lot was not just an individual matter, but that millions of working-class people and Negro people suffered this lot under capitalism – if not identical, in one degree or another.

Confronting Jim Crow

Following my graduation from junior high school, I entered Wadleigh High School. Here I was confronted with Jim Crow in the classrooms and in the social life of the school. White kids would borrow notes from me in school, and then on leaving the school would turn their faces the other way under pressure of the Jim Crow society. Teachers with audacity would hold Negro students after school, asking if they wanted to make an extra dollar by doing domestic work for them or as they not-so-quaintly put it, whether I wished to “wear a pretty white apron” at their own social affairs. Or they would select poems in dialect and ask Negro kids to read these pointedly. While I even then had, as do other Negro youth, a searing indignation about these things, I didn’t know that they were part of a conscious plan designed to perpetuate the national oppression of the Negro people in the U.S. of which these incidents were reflections of the badge of inferiority perpetrated on the Negro people in the North, with the more hideous features of lynching, poll taxes, (crop lien laws) and economic strangulation devolving on the (Negro people) in the heartland of their oppression in the Black Belt of the South.

Great Depression

My formal academic education in a bourgeois sense ended with my graduation from Wadleigh High School. One year before my graduation, however, in the midst of the Great Depression, where I was one of the so-called “lost generation” of American youth, I contracted tuberculosis of the lung.

My family’s economic condition had worsened as had millions of American families, native and foreign born, second generation, etc. My dad, who was an editor of an American West Indian newspaper, lost his job; as later also when he became a furrier, and to guarantee our support, became a superintendent of an apartment in Harlem where I lived all my life in the U.S. In the room where I slept, it was later discovered that an open sewerage flowed, and undoubtedly it was this dampness that contributed to my contraction of TB.

Sea View Sanitorium

I was sent to Sea View Sanatorium from Harlem Hospital at the age of 17, where, with pneumothorax treatment for my condition, I fully recovered since fortunately my sputum was never positive. I was there for one full year. There, too, I had an opportunity to read avidly, to think deeply, about the social ideas instilled in me by my mother and father. My mother had left the Catholic church, in which faith we were baptized from early childhood, choosing to become a Bible student, since her alert mind rejected early the hierarchal teachings of Catholicism. My father’s social ideas instilled in us were that of a pride and consciousness of our people, of our relation to Africa, from which my antecedents sprang, to our interrelationship to Caribbean independence, the dream of San Simeon, great Caribbean patriot; to the new recognition of the struggle for Negro equality in the U.S., linked indissolubly as I later learned with the freedom and equality of the American trade unions and working class as the future class of society.

One incident, I remember, while in Sea View — namely when I gave a blood transfusion voluntarily (since I was her blood type) to a young Italian woman patient. This created quite a stir in the hospital on the question of “black blood” and “white blood.” Many of the white patients looked for days to see if the young Italian woman, who was eternally grateful (to the point of my embarrassment!) to me, had turned “black.” One of the first hospital speeches I ever heard was from a young Jewish doctor who in the midst of this scientific lecture stood in the middle of the ward and gave a lecture to the interracial patients asserting the inviolability of blood types as the antithesis of any false teaching on “race.”

First job

Upon recovery, I completed the last term of high school at Wadleigh. (During my teens I was active in numerous social clubs in the community, in Junior NAACP, in tennis clubs, and also studied dramatics at the Urban League. I performed in this capacity with a troupe in many churches in the Harlem community and in Brooklyn.) Upon graduation, I went to work in a factory, since college was out for me and I had to help support myself and contribute to the family larder.

My first job was in a laundry, where I observed, under the incredible (to me then) conditions of overwork, speedup, etc., in the heat of summer young Negro women fainting regularly because of the unbearable conditions. I didn’t want to become like them, so I went to work in a factory. But being unskilled, my job was setting nail heads — with a toothpick, a small jar of paste and placing these in the nail head setting. Boredom and ennui set in and I quit this job. Besides the pay was about $14 a week. Next, I got a job in a Harlem millinery store and lingerie shop as a salesgirl. This continued for quite a while — about two years or so.

Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia

These were the years of the Ethiopian war and the invasion of Mongolia. During this period (1935-36) I worked on a Negro nationalist newspaper (circulation about 4-5,000 copies), where I wrote a weekly column called “Claudia’s Comments.” My job consisted there also of writing precis [summaries] of the main editorial comments on Ethiopia from the general commercial press, Negro press, trade union press, etc. To my amazement, on attending one of their meetings (of the nationalists), I saw my boss reading my precis to the applause and response of thousands of community people in Harlem, men and women. When the next day, he would come in and tell me what a “Big Negro” he was, I would challenge his facts. What he did was to read books on Ethiopia all day and fuse his accumulated knowledge with my precis which were listened to by thousands of people in the mass rallies held by nationalists in Harlem.

I spent a lot of time coming from work listening also to the street corner meetings of the various political parties and movements in Harlem. These were the days of the famed Scottsboro Boys frame-up.

I was like millions of Negro people and white progressives and people stirred by this heinous frame-up. I was impressed by the Communist speakers who explained the reasons for this brutal crime against young Negro boys, and who related the Scottsboro case to the struggle of the Ethiopian people against fascism and Mussolini’s invasion. Friends of mine who were Communists began to have frequent discussions with me. I joined the party in February 1936 and was assigned to work in the Young Communist League shortly after. My first assignment was secretary of the YCL executive committee in Harlem and it was about this time, I got a job in the Business Dept. of the Daily Worker. This job coincided with my application for a $150 a week job in the field of dramatics with the Federal Theatre Project under WPA. I took the job at the Worker for $12–15 a week instead.

— Claudia Jones

Continuing her story

Jones went on to be elected to the national leadership of the Communist Party and many peace and early civil rights organizations. She edited and wrote for numerous publications including Spotlight, the publication of American Youth for Democracy, and the Daily Worker. Jones wrote a column on women’s issues for the Daily Worker, called “Half the World.”

“From 1947 to 52,” Jones wrote, she was “active in national women’s movements and united front movements such as Congress of American Women; National Council of Negro Women; I toured the nation — 43 states in connection with work among the masses of women, particularly working-class and Negro women in struggle against the Korean war, for peaceful coexistence between nations, for peace, national dignity, full equality for women and the equal rights of women.” And urging “American women, Negro and white, to unite lest their children like those in Korea suffer the fate of Hiroshima’s atomic destruction.”

Jones was arrested three times during the McCarthy era anticommunist witchhunts. She was among the 17 Communist leaders arrested in 1951 under the Smith Act, eventually serving nine months in prison in 1955, alongside “Rebel Girl” Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Shortly after her release, she was deported to Britain under the provisions of the McCarran Act.

In Britain, she continued her struggles against racism and for peace despite the ill-health she suffered. Claudia Jones is listed as one of the 100 Great Black Britons for her “lasting legacy” as a founder of the Notting Hill Carnival, which she helped launch in 1959 as an annual showcase for Caribbean talent. These early celebrations were held in halls and were epitomized by the slogan, “A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom,” according to the 100 Great Black Britons website.

Jones died on Christmas Eve, 1964, aged just 49, due to a heart condition and tuberculosis. She is buried in Highgate Cemetery, where Karl Marx is also buried.

Special thanks to Peter Meyer Filardo, who published Jones’ full letter, with introduction and bibliography, in the journal American Communist History, 2005.