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Magazine / Activists / Exiled

A Black Communist's Disappearance in Stalin's Russia

www.newyorker.com
8 min read
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Joshua Yaffa reports on what happened to Lovett Fort-Whiteman, the only known African American to die in the Gulag.
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In the spring of 1936, Lovett Fort-Whiteman, an African American man from Dallas, Texas, vanished in Moscow. He had lived in the Soviet Union for nearly a decade, most recently with his wife, Marina, a Russian Jewish chemist, in a cramped apartment around the corner from the Central Telegraph building. By then, a half-dozen African Americans had settled in Moscow permanently. Even among them, Fort-Whiteman, who was forty-six, was a striking sight. He wore knee-high boots, a black leather cap, and a belted long shirt in the style of Bolshevik commissars. Homer Smith, a Black journalist from Minneapolis and Fort-Whiteman's close friend in Moscow, later wrote, "He had adopted the practice of many Russian Communists of shaving his head, and with his finely chiseled nose set into a V-shaped face he resembled a Buddhist monk."

Nearly two decades had passed since the Bolshevik Revolution established the world's first Communist state, a society that promised equality and dignity for workers and peasants. In the Soviet Union, racial prejudice was considered the result of capitalistic exploitation, and, for the Kremlin, countering racism became a question of geopolitical P.R. Throughout the nineteen-twenties and thirties, dozens of Black activists and intellectuals passed through Moscow. Wherever they went, Russians would give up their place in line, or their seat on a train—a practice that an N.A.A.C.P. leader called an "almost embarrassing courtesy." In 1931, after the so-called Scottsboro Boys—nine Black teen-agers falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama—were put on trial, the American Communist Party provided pro-bono legal defense, and rallies in their support were held in dozens of cities across the Soviet Union. Two years later, Paul Robeson, the singer, actor, and activist, visited Moscow and remarked, "Here, for the first time in my life, I walk in full human dignity."

Homer Smith eventually published a memoir, "Black Man in Red Russia," in…
Joshua Yaffa
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