Today in black history: Civil rights pioneer Claudia Jones is born

Claudia Jones, Caribbean American political leader, communist, and journalist, was born February 15, 1915, in the British West Indies (now Trinidad). She migrated to New York in 1922, where she became a multi-faceted activist, beginning with the Scottsboro Case in the 1930s.

Jones died in exile in Great Britain in 1964 at the age of 49, her health weakened from imprisonment in the U.S. because of her political activism. She is remembered in the UK as “the mother of the Notting Hill Carnival.”

Claudia Jones told her story movingly in a 1955 letter to then-Communist Party USA National Chair William Z. Foster.

Here’s a summary:

Jones and her family arrived in New York during the cultural upsurge known as the Harlem Renaissance. In Harlem she faced both poverty and Jim Crow segregation.

Because of the cold and damp of her family’s apartment, Jones contracted tuberculosis when she was 17. After her mother died she, like many other black girls, went to work in a laundry.

The Scottsboro case changed the course of Jones’ life. Nine young African American men in the South were accused in 1936 of raping two white women. Although one of the women later recanted, some of the young men were convicted anyway. Jones joined the Young Communist League because she saw that Communists were the most active in defense of the Scottsboro nine.

She became a YCL activist and leader. She also found time for a local theater group and the Junior NAACP. She played tennis and was a member of various Harlem social clubs.

Jones wrote for the Daily Worker and became editor of the newspaper’s Negro Affairs Desk. Later held leading positions in the Communist Party USA National Negro Commission and National Women’s Commission. She toured every state, speaking on the struggles for equality and, later, against the Korean War.

She was jailed in 1948 because of her activities and her membership in the Communist Party, during the height of McCarthyism.

In 1951, she was jailed again, bailed out by the Party, and then jailed for a third time. The harassment she suffered took its toll on her health and she developed heart disease. After the Supreme Court refused to hear her case, she was subject to deportation as a non-citizen.

She went into exile in Great Britain in 1955. There she started a newspaper, the West Indian Gazette, Britain’s first Black newspaper. In 1959, after race riots erupted in 1958, she was one of the founders and promoters of the Caribbean Carnival, today known as the Notting Hill Carnival, one of the biggest mass cultural events in England. In 2009, the UK honored her with a postage stamp.

Claudia Jones died in Britain on Christmas Eve 1964 from complications of the heart disease and tuberculosis she had contracted in the U.S. When she died, condolences came from throughout the world, and from those who knew her – Paul and Eslanda Robeson, Martin Luther King Jr., and Communist Party leaders Gus Hall and Ben Davis, among others.

Photo: Claudia Jones stamp


Special to People’s World
Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.