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Reel Life

March 17, 2012
by Jack El-Hai
A group of people posing for a photo

In the depths of the Great Depression, Louise Thompson Patterson ‘23 led a group of aspiring African-American actors to the U.S.S.R.

Louise Thompson ’23 looked through the window of her train on June 25, 1932, as it pulled into Leningrad and beheld a wonder. “Such a reception we were given!!” she wrote home. “A brass band and a large delegation who greeted us with ‘The Internationale’ and speeches in Russian.” Hundreds of people had come to welcome Thompson and her fellow African-American travelers.

They were on their way to Moscow, to star in a film that promised to expose to the world the racism that tarnished life in the United States. Thompson, the organizer of the trip, wanted more than anyone for the movie to succeed and be screened around the globe.

Though events unfolded in ways that Thompson and her group could not anticipate, the experience influenced their future work in social justice, literature, law, and journalism.

Born September 9, 1901, Thompson knew racism early in life. As her mother moved up and down the West, Thompson often stood out as the only African-American child. Deprived of a black community, she developed an uneasy awareness of her own difference. She enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, where a lecture by W.E.B. Du Bois aroused her interest in black literature and the politics of race. Thompson majored in economics and became one of the first black women to earn a UC degree.

In 1927 she began teaching business courses at Hampton Institute, an African-American college in Virginia. There she met the writer Langston Hughes, then touring the southeast, and a decades-long friendship began.

Thompson left Hampton for New York City. Striking, serious, and what Harlem Renaissance writer Dorothy West described as “a little bitty woman,” Thompson entrenched herself in the cultural and literary life of black New York. Within months, she was chain-smoking and typing manuscripts for Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, studying Das Kapital, and leading seminars on race relations. But by 1931, as she later wrote in her unpublished memoirs, “I was rebellious and getting a bit fed up with the interracial seminars. They were mostly talk and little or no action … so I was ready to embark on something new.”

One day opportunity arrived in the person of James W. Ford, a prominent African-American communist. Just returned from Russia, he showed Thompson a letter from the Meschrabpom Film company of Moscow. The Soviets planned to make a film titled Black and White, about Negro life in the United States, and it needed an African-American cast. Ford asked Thompson to organize the trip and to go along herself.

A master manager, Thompson recruited sponsors and supporters and typed countless letters. “Hollywood producers continue to manufacture sentimental and banal pictures, and particularly cling to traditional types in portraying the Negro,” ran one such appeal for the project. “At such a time, Black and White, produced under the best directive experience of Russia, comes as a pictorial event of the greatest artistic and social significance.”

By the start of June 1932, an eclectic group of 22 would-be actors had signed on. It included students, social workers, three experienced actors, journalists, a postal worker, and even a paperhanger. Most important to Thompson, however, the group included Langston Hughes. Eager to have a close friend along, she had pleaded with him to come.

On June 14 the group settled aboard the ship Europa. Hughes, lugging a phonograph and collection of jazz records, was the last to board. Thompson already knew this journey would prove more than just a pleasure trip. “We were told,” she later wrote, “that there was no racism practiced in the Soviet Union…. This was something new under the sun.”

Once the Europa launched, the behavior of some of her fellows worried Thompson. Ted Poston, a reporter, and Thurston Lewis, an actor with minor stage credits, “have been thoroughly irresponsible,” she wrote of their constant skirt-chasing. “Their actions have shamed us all, for they have acted like puppies, chained for a while and then released.” Another newsman, Henry Lee Moon, later upset Thompson by joining in the disruptiveness.

Arrived in Moscow, they learned that Russian writers were still working on the Black and White screenplay. So the Americans had plenty of free time. From the comfort of the Grand Hotel, near the Kremlin, Thompson explored the city with Hughes and his friends Loren Miller and Matt Crawford.

“Everywhere we go we are treated as honored guests, given enthusiastic ovations, and offered the best,” she wrote to her mother. The group was seated in the presidium for a Moscow celebration of Constitution Day, attended a reception for the Bolshoi Ballet, and spent evenings listening to a terrible jazz ensemble in the Hotel Metropole bar.

Meanwhile, the group met the film’s German director, Karl Junghans, and other Meschrabpom officials. The Russians puzzled over the Americans. “Russians, as do most Europeans, … think Negro means literally black, and our group has been the subject of much discussion on this point,” Thompson wrote. “We have had to argue at great lengths to tell them that we are all Negroes, and to try to explain just what being a Negro means in the United States.”

Hughes had finally read an English version of the script and saw problems. Set in Birmingham, Alabama, the story focused on black steel workers suffering under exploitation by their white bosses. Hughes pronounced the script fatally flawed by many absurdities: a rich white Alabaman asking a black woman to dance; a black-owned network of radio stations; and, in the finale, the arrival of the Red Army to rout the hired goons of the industrialists. The Russians promised to fix it.

By mid-July, no revision had appeared, and the group grew bored and restless. Meschrabpom prescribed a vacation at the Black Sea, after which the filming could start. They took a train to the welcoming beaches of Odessa.

Soon a Meschrabpom official arrived to break bad news: For lack of a usable script, there would be no production of Black and White in 1932. With this announcement, internal conflicts reopened. In a letter to home, Thompson wrote that a few of the group said “that we have been betrayed and that all the Negro people in the world have been betrayed.” U.S. reporters in Moscow had spread rumors that an American engineer helping the Russians with massive construction projects had advised Josef Stalin to abandon Black and White. The dissenters of the group believed that the Soviets, desperate for official political recognition by the U.S., had cancelled the film to mollify the capitalists.

Returned to Moscow, Thompson made the case that their hosts were merely disorganized and should be given the benefit of the doubt. The dissenters thought the Meschrabpom defenders were naïve.

Finally the group went before the Comintern, the governing body of worldwide communism, to lay out each faction’s opinion. Thompson and her followers urged the Comintern not to further delay shooting. The dissidents accused the Russians of kowtowing to the U.S. government and proving their enmity to the black race. Undoubtedly taken aback, the communist officials returned a judgment “that Meschrabpom had been very inefficient and that an investigation would be made,” Thompson wrote.

In the meantime, the group could go home, look for work in the U.S.S.R., or accept a theatrical trade union’s offer of a six-week tour of Soviet Asia. Thompson and most of the rest signed up for the tour of Asia, though Hughes planned to leave the tour partway through.

Thompson expected that the tour would be the greatest experience of her life, but as she prepared to leave, she received word that her mother was very ill. Agonized, she made her choice with her mother’s blessing: Thompson joined the tour. She never regretted the decision.

She returned to New York on November 17, 1932, to find her mother still living, though they had only three months together.

Meschrabpom promised to resume production of Black and White the following summer. Someone (possibly Thompson) did revise the English film script to eliminate the worst absurdities. But Meschrabpom ultimately gave up on the movie.

The effort to make Black and White, though quickly forgotten, catapulted its participants to high achievement. By gathering this group and dropping them into Russia’s radicalizing stew, this never-made picture changed the course of U.S. history. Loren Miller, politically charged in Russia, became an attorney who argued against racially restrictive housing covenants before the U.S. Supreme Court and later sat as a California Superior Court Justice. Dorothy West enjoyed an extraordinary literary career as the author of The Living Is Easy, The Wedding, and many stories and essays. Frank Montero campaigned for integration and became associate executive director of the National Urban League. Homer Smith served as the only African-American reporter on World War II’s eastern front. And Langston Hughes, who often referred to his Soviet journey in his writings, was one of the best-known figures of the Harlem Renaissance.

Even bad boys Ted Poston and Henry Lee Moon earned distinction. Moon immersed himself in civil rights activism as director of public relations for the NAACP, while Poston served on FDR’s unofficial “Black Cabinet” and spent decades as a staff writer for the New York Post.

Thompson never forgot the new social order she had seen in the U.S.S.R. In later years she worked as a manager at the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, the International Workers Order (spending time in jail in Birmingham for organizing African-American workers), and the Harlem Suitcase Theatre, which she founded with Langston Hughes. In 1940 she married civil rights attorney William L. Patterson, who had been active in the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti, was executive director of the International Labor Defense Committee, and had introduced Thompson to Karl Marx’s writings years before. Together they left a legacy of work for progressive causes, including the U.S. Civil Rights Congress, Paul Robeson’s Council on African Affairs, and the legal defense of political activist Angela Davis.

When Louise Thompson Patterson died in 1999 at the age of 97, many remembered her energetic battles for social justice, although few recalled her crucial role in the never-made film that energized the spirits of some of America’s most important literary and civil rights figures.

Jack El-Hai is the author of a forthcoming book on Berkeley psychiatrist Douglas M. Kelley’s relationship at Nuremberg with Nazi war criminal Hermann Goering.
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