African American Anti-Fascism, the Popular Front, and Civil War in Spain, 1936-1939

 In 1936 the Spanish fascist General Francisco Franco, aided by a coalition of right wing elements, led a military uprising against the Spanish government, thus beginning the Spanish Civil War. People around the world saw the defeat of the military coup as critical to the struggle against what they perceived as the threatening rise of fascism worldwide. The dominant ideological outlook and social movement within anti-fascist circles was called the Popular Front. While the Popular Front has received scholarly attention, considering African Americans within the Popular Front sheds new light on both African American anti-fascists and the Popular Front. African American anti-fascists formed a distinctive vision in two ways within the Popular Front. African American anti-fascists carried out an anti-fascist program specific to the African American constituencies they sought to involve in the Spanish war effort. This program involved an ideological perspective which was distinct within but complementary to the larger anti-fascist milieu.


The Popular Front and Spain

Understanding anti-fascism in the late 1930s requires a discussion of the Popular Front, a term which referred three things: the goal of creating then strengthening social movements against fascism, an analysis of fascism as an important problem, and an actually existing anti-fascist social movement. The term Popular Front came from the strategy of the Soviet Union based Communist International or Comintern as decided at its 7th International Congress. The 7th Congress instructed every Communist Party belonging to the Comintern to dedicate itself to the goal of a creating cross-class political alliance or Popular Front centered on defeating fascism. The ideological perspective underpinning this strategy had two pieces. First, stopping fascism mattered more than anything else. Second, communists, socialists, and the working class were not going to be able to stop fascism on their own, and so needed to unite with people of other political outlooks and classes.[1] Comintern policy had a tremendous influence in Spain because the Comintern served as the mechanism for channeling aid and advice to Spain from the Soviet Union, the only country which supported the Spanish government.

The Popular Front perspective expressed the belief held by anti-fascists across the globe that a victory for Franco’s fascist forces in Spain would embolden fascists around the world. On this point, African American anti-fascists were fully in step with the Popular Front. Harry Haywood, an African American who fought in Spain argued that this prediction proved correct, given the outbreak of the Second World War so shortly after the fascist victory in Spain in 1939.[2] Crawford Morgan, an African American soldier who fought in Spain, voiced the quintessential anti-fascist viewpoint on the Spanish Civil War: “I felt that if we could lick the Fascists in Spain, I felt that in the trend of things it would offset a bloodbath later. I felt that if we didn’t lick Franco and didn’t stop Fascism there, it would spread over lots of the world.”[3] Almost any anti-fascist in the late 1930s could have made this remark.

The Comintern named military units in Spain after significant figures from the emancipation of slaves in the United States: anti-fascist volunteer soldiers fought in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, the Frederick Douglass Machinegun Company, and the John Brown Artillery Battery. These names may not necessarily have indicated a sincere belief in anti-racism, but do demonstrate that the Comintern had an interest in seeking to recruit African Americans or at least invoking figures tied to the history of African American emancipation.

Literary critic Michael Denning argued that the Comintern should not be over-emphasized in discussions of the Popular Front. Denning rejected what he called “a core-periphery model in which the core was the Communist Party and the periphery was the surrounding circles of “fellow travelers” with greater or lesser degrees of affiliation to the Party.”[4] Denning argued instead that the Popular Front should be seen as a social movement dedicated to anti-fascism, labor unions, and anti-lynching. Denning’s expansion of the definition of the Popular Front is useful for emphasizing commonalities within a milieu larger than simply the membership and activities of the Communist Party. Denning’s work emphasizes the ways in which writers participated in the Popular Front, using their literary work to put forward a critical political perspective and to attempt to build a larger social movement.

While Denning’s expansion of the definition of the Popular Front is useful, his redefinition can flatten differences which would have been important to historical actors in the 1930s. For example, Denning suggests that C.L.R. James’ 1938 book The Black Jacobins was a Popular Front retelling of the Haitian Revolution, one that embodied the Popular Front’s “larger narrative of anti-fascism and anti-imperialism.”[5] James’ book certainly embodies such a narrative, and so fits within Denning’s expansive definition of the Popular Front as a category of analysis for historians. This does not make sense, however, in terms of how James himself as a historical actor understood his work. James had nothing but scorn for the Popular Front, likening it to religious faith and calling it “nonsense.”[6]

The flattening tendency in Denning’s account of the Popular Front is important. While the Popular Front as a whole combined the three projects of anti-fascism, labor unions, and anti-lynching, in practice actual activists within the Popular Front often prioritized one project to the exclusion of others. This paper attempts to be aware of differences within the Popular Front, focusing in particulate on distinctive qualities of African Americans within the Popular Front, while making use of Denning’s expansive definition. For example, numerous articles in the African American press covered the Spanish Civil War. Though not all of the authors of these articles or the editors of these newspapers may have identified themselves consciously with the Popular Front, they still took part in the Popular Front in the expanded sense which Denning gives to the term, contributing to a cultural climate concerned about the growth of fascism in Europe.


African Americans within the Popular Front

Approximately one hundred African Americans served in Spain as part of the all-volunteer military units called the International Brigades. Innumerable African Americans acted as noncombatant supporters in all sorts of ways: they drove ambulances in Spain, gave medical care to anti-fascist soldiers, performed administrative tasks, raised funds, collected medical supplies, and helped those volunteers who wanted to go to Spain get around the restrictions the U.S. government put in place regarding travel to Spain. It is particularly worth noting that this attention to Spain occurred during the economic difficulties of the 1930s, which hit African Americans especially hard; African American anti-fascists must have felt quite strongly about their cause to devote energy to it in such troubled times.

In addition to direct participation in the war effort, many more anti-fascists worked to convince more people to become anti-fascists, by producing print and visual representations of the war and holding events for organizations and broader public. Seeking to persuade others to become anti-fascists formed a key piece of the attempt to build and strengthen an anti-fascist social movement. To the degree that African Americans anti-fascists sought to build a social movement of African Americans united against fascism, they exemplified the practice of the Popular Front. To the degree that their message was specific to African Americans they differed from or were different within the Popular Front. African American anti-fascists either deliberately tailored their views to an African American audience or their views were shaped by their own experiences of racial oppression, or both. Whatever the reason, African American anti-fascists showed a perspective distinct from the rest of the Popular Front with regard to three issues: a view that linked between fascism and racial oppression in the United States in such a way that fascism seems a particular threat to African Americans, a message emphasizing references to African American history and African American heroism, and an emphasis on the importance of colonialism.

A first aspect of African Americans within the Popular Front was their distinctive understanding of the links between fascism and racism. Many people – quite possibly everyone – active in supporting Spain opposed lynching and racial oppression. Still, many black anti-fascists had a distinctive view on Jim Crow and lynching. While many white anti-fascists opposed both fascism and lynching, many black anti-fascists did not make the same conceptual distinction implied in saying ‘both fascism and lynching,’ an implication that there was a great difference between racial oppression in the United States and fascist aggression abroad. Many African American anti-fascists understood racial oppression in the United States as already fascist in nature, or understood fascism in Spain as a form of the racial oppression they already faced at home.

In a 1937 speech to the Second International Writers Conference in Paris, Langston Hughes said that African Americans “are the people who have long known in actual practice the meaning of the word Fascism.” Hughes said that having known “Jim Crow, race riots, lynchings” African Americans did “not have to be told what Fascism is in action (….) its theories of Nordic supremacy have long been realities to us.”[7] Crawford Morgan stated that since he was “aware of what the Fascist Italian government did to the Ethiopians, and also the way that I and all the rest of the Negroes in this country have been treated ever since slavery, I figured I had a pretty good idea of what fascism was.” Morgan argued that “for the longest time Negroes have been getting lynched in [the United States] by mobs, and that was fascism on a small scale.”[8] James Lincoln Holt, another volunteer combatant, expressed a similar sentiment: “what we were fighting in Spain was a species of that thing which at home had kept me, a trained pilot, grounded, while keeping hundreds of thousands of Negro youths from being what they wanted to be.”[9] Holt subtly gave conceptual priority to the African American experience, by saying that fascism in Spain was a species of the oppression faced by black people in the United States. 

It is tempting to see the equation of American racial oppression with fascism as an exaggeration for rhetorical effect or as a mistake. This is in part because the contemporary understanding of fascism is so heavily, and perhaps rightly, over-determined by the history and memory of mechanized genocide perpetrated by the Nazis during the Second World War. Arguably, however, the white supremacist order Hughes denounced committed a similar atrocity against Africans and African descended people. At the very least, anti-fascists in the 1930s had not yet experienced the Second World War and so did not understand fascism in the way many subsequent commentators have, that is, through the lens of Nazi genocide. African American anti-fascists most likely meant what they said when they called Jim Crow fascist in nature.

For African Americans who believed they lived under fascism “in actual practice,” to use Hughes’ phrase, in the United States, anti-fascism offered an opportunity for open combat against the problem and the enemy. Crawford Morgan said “I, being a Negro, had a pretty good idea what fascism was and I didn’t want no part of it. I got a chance there to fight it with bullets, and I went there and fought it with bullets. If I get a chance to fight it with bullets, I will fight it with bullets again.”[10] Louise Thompson, quoted in an article by Richard Wright, said that African Americans “in Spain are a great deal luckier than those back in America. Here we have been able to strike back in a way that hits at those who for years have pushed us from pillar to post (…) actually strike back at the counterparts of those who have been grinding us down back home.”[11]

African American anti-fascists not only saw Spain as an opportunity – an opportunity to fight white supremacy “with bullets,” in Crawford Morgan’s words – but as a serious threat. James Baker, national secretary for the Negro Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, expressed a racially specific view on the anti-fascist struggle. In his view, African Americans should "recognize that our hope of freedom and equality" required fighting fascism and its "barbaric race theories."[12] William Pickens, the NAACP’s Director of Branches said after returning from a trip to Spain that “it would be "a policy not of altruism but of self-interest" for "the American Negro to support in every possible way the Loyalist cause in Spain."[13] Crawford Morgan cited the particular threat of fascism to African Americans as a large part of his decision to fight in Spain, saying “it is bad enough for white people to live under fascism (…) Negroes couldn’t live under it. They would be wiped out.”[14] Pauline Reed of the Chicago South Side Negro People’s Committee argued that “American blacks will be the first to feel the stings of the Fascist whip” if the rise of fascism was not stopped.[15]

Fascism thus was perceived as a greater threat to black people than to white people. This view dovetailed with the goal shared by many anti-fascists of getting as many people as possible to participate in their cause. Black anti-fascists believed that they had a particular interest in stopping fascism, and tried to convince other black people that they too had a particular interest in the outcome of the Spanish conflict, in order to win them to supporting the anti-fascist cause.

            A second quality which distinguished African Americans within the Popular Front was the tie they made between anti-fascism and African American history. As already mentioned, Pauline Reed used the image of a whip to describe fascism, evoking African Americans’ memories of slavery. In his column in the New York Amsterdam News, Roy Wilkins compared the fascists in Spain to Ku Klux Klan attacks on Reconstruction. “Ask yourselves,” urged Wilkins, “if the Negro sharecroppers of the Mississippi (…) won control of that state, and then the rest of the people staged a revolt, how would the situation be pictured to the rest of the world?” Exactly the way Spain was depicted in the mainstream press, Wilkins answered. “[T]he present Spanish government is [portrayed as] just what the Ku Kluxers said the Reconstruction government was.”[16] John P. Davis of the National Negro Congress invoked the American Civil War and emancipation, saying that “the United States was rent asunder by those forces which wished to stem progress and perpetuate the enslavement of the Negro people. Spain is undergoing a similar experience.”[17]

Many articles in the African American press trumpeted the achievements of African American anti-fascists both on and off the battlefield in Spain. “The Race has shown its courage,” wrote Oliver Hunter in the Defender.[18] Another article spoke of “the Negro soldiers’ heroism in Spain,” and emphasized that African American volunteer Oliver Law had risen to the rank of “full command of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion.”[19] Numerous other articles as well as pamphlets discussed Salaria Key’s service in Spain as a nurse as well as her speaking tour after she returned home wounded from Spain.[20]

Articles about African Americans’ achievements in the Spanish cause would have served at least three purposes. The articles’ positive depiction of African Americans would have appealed to African American readers, and provided additional evidence against white supremacist views that African Americans were not capable of great things. This, in turn, would have helped sell newspapers. The articles also helped muster more support for the anti-fascist struggle by demonstrating that Spain was a place where African Americans could be allowed to excel, and by implying that some of the most laudable African Americans were concerned with Spain.

A final distinctive quality about African Americans involved in the Spanish cause was their attentiveness to colonialism, something largely missing among white anti-fascists. African American anti-fascists saw colonialism particularly with regard to Africa as central to the global order that produced the emergency in Spain. Langston Hughes, for example, invoked interest in colonial power in Africa as the reason why Italy supported the Spanish fascists, as well as the reason why no countries but the Soviet Union helped fight the fascists. Hughes’ poem “Dear Brother at Home,” written while Hughes worked as a journalist in Spain, appeared in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion’s publication The Volunteer for Liberty and in the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker in 1938. Hughes suggested in the poem that the defeat of fascism in Spain might undermine the ability of all countries, including ostensibly democratic ones, to maintain their colonial holdings: “if a free Spain wins this war, / The colonies, too, are free -/ I guess that’s why old England / And I reckon Italy, too, / Is afraid (…) Because they got slaves in Africa And they don’t want ‘me free.”[21]

Black anti-fascists repeatedly cited Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 in particular as a key part of their motivation to fight in Spain, in particular because Italy provided much military aid to Spanish fascists. Harry Haywood wrote that “For Black Americans, Ethiopia had always been a symbol of freedom and independence in history and folklore.”[22] Many African Americans perceived Italy’s attack on Ethiopia as an attack on black people around the world. Some considered volunteering to fight in Ethiopia, but the war ended too quickly. After Ethiopia’s defeat, many African Americans channeled their anger at Italy into support for Spain.[23] Oliver Law, one of the first African American volunteers in Spain and the first African American to command an integrated military unit, was arrested for protesting Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia just before he went to Spain.[24]

African American anti-fascists saw the white supremacist order in the United States as already fascist. Furthermore, they saw the growth of fascism outside the United States as a particular threat to black people. These views gave African American anti-fascists a strong incentive to participate in the Popular Front. Furthermore, by propagating these views, anti-fascists sought to enlist more African Americans in supporting the anti-fascist cause. Anti-fascists further tailored their appeal to African American audiences by emphasizing African Americans’ heroism in the Spanish civil war, making links to the anti-fascist struggle and African American history, and emphasizing the connection between fascism and colonialism in Africa.


Experiences of Racism

Unsurprisingly, African American anti-fascists had endured a great deal of racial oppression in the United States. This experience set them apart from the predominantly white anti-fascist movement. Indeed, African American anti-fascists’ experiences of racism often factored heavily into their decision to go to Spain.[25] James Yates credited reading a document by the Communist Party denouncing lynching and calling for “the enforcement of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments” as shaping his relationship with Communists and ultimately with his decision to go to Spain.[26]

 James Lincoln Holt Peck, a trained pilot, had been rejected by both the U.S. Air Corps and Navy because of his race.[27] Harry Haywood wrote of his childhood experience in school, “our geography books portrayed the Negro with the receding forehead and prognathous [sic] jaws of a gorilla.”[28] Haywood experienced racial discrimination as well within the segregated U.S. army during his tour of duty in France in the First World War. He wrote angrily of a document by the U.S. military warning the French of the so-called “vices of the Negro,” claiming that “ black American troops in France have, by themselves given rise to as many complaints for attempted rape as the rest of the army.”[29]

In a chapter revealingly titled “Surviving Boyhood,” James Yates recounted numerous incidence of white supremacist violence during his childhood, including an incident in which his uncle came close to being lynched, along with numerous other ostensibly smaller incidents that were all too common in the lives of African Americans in the Jim Crow south.[30] The intolerability of life in Mississippi eventually drove Yates to run away to Chicago, starting the path which would take him to Spain.

While in Spain, Yates had a conversation with another African American volunteer, Walter Garland, who decried “the Ku Klux Klan mentality running through [the United States] government,” which made U.S. politicians “more comfortable with a Nazi and fascist victory” than with the defeat of fascism.[31] On his return from Spain Yates found himself denied a room in a hotel. He wrote that “[t]his was another kind of warfare.”[32]


“There is no color question in Spain.”

            African American anti-fascists routinely claimed that there was no racism in Spain.  William Picken claimed there was “no color question in Spain,” citing that Spanish women and African American men in Spain “do not sneak (…) they go along openly” when romantically involved.[33] Langston Hughes reported that there was “no color prejudice” in Spain.[34] An organization called the Negro Committee to Aid Spain circulated “A Negro Nurse in Republican Spain,” a pamphlet about Salaria Key’s medical service in Spain. The pamphlet claimed that “divisions of race and creed and religion and nationality lost significance when they met in Spain in a united effort to make Spain the tomb of fascism.”[35]

            Representing Spain as free from racism may have been useful for two reasons. On the one hand, doing so allowed anti-fascists to make another appeal to African Americans. According to this representation, not only was fascism wrong, not only was it a special threat to racial minorities, but it was attacking an anti-racist and egalitarian society in Spain. On the other hand, presenting Spain as racism-free allowed African Americans to make use of the anti-fascist cause for anti-racist purposes within the United States. Reports of a racism-free Spain could be used to make the white supremacist United States look even worse to African Americans.

Black anti-fascists overstated their case about the absence of racism in Spain. Antonio Candela, a young Spanish civilian during the Spanish Civil War, wrote of anti-Moroccan racism in his memoir, noting that “[f]or five hundred years the Spanish people had been told that the Moors were savages.” Candela added that “[t]he bringing of Moorish troops to Spain” was a “travesty of justice.” Candela’s memoir suggests that fears of the darker skinned and so-called savage Moroccans may have served a positive function for the Popular Front, helping knit together political coalitions: “The horrors of it all served to unite all political parties into forming a loose alliance.”[36]

In the light of anti-Moroccan racism, the famous Spanish anti-fascist slogan “no pasaran” – “they shall not pass” – could have taken on a different cast, connoting the barring of racial minorities from public space. Lyrics from two Spanish songs during the Civil War expressed a racialized and gendered view of Moroccans with anti-fascist sentiment. Part of “La Defensa de Madrid” went “Los moros que trajo Franco/en Madrid quieren entrar / Mientras queden milicianos/los moros no pasaran;” in English this would be “The Moors that Franco brought / want to enter Madrid / While we remain militia men / the Moors shall not pass.” The song “Si me quieres escribir” included the line “Quieren pasar los moros / Mamita mia, no pasa nadie” “The Moors want to pass / Baby, nobody gets past.”[37] The verb entrar or enter in “La Defensa” would have connoted sexual penetration, perhaps recalling fears of inter-racial sex and the idea of the racialized other as a sexual predator. The term “militia men” made a subtle appeal to soldiers’ masculinity as defenders of their city and of women. The noun mamita in “Si me quieres” is both feminine and diminutive, a word for someone loved in a paternalistic manner.

Both songs expressed what could arguably be called a segregationist or proto-segregationist sentiment. Obviously keeping an invading force out of a city differs from segregation, but it is noteworthy that the Moroccan troops were singled out along racial lines, rather than simply being included with all the fascist troops. These songs subtly expressed a sense that Moroccans were a particular threat, and especially a threat to women. Luis Quintanilla’s drawings collected in Franco’s Black Spain expressed a similar sentiment with none of the subtlety. Quintanilla depicted Moroccans as inhuman sexual predators as part of establishing exactly how “Black” life was under the fascist occupation.[38] Quintanilla’s caricatures of Moroccans may have recalled similar images of African Americans from the United States.

Like the songs quoted above, Antonio Candela’s memoir expressed anxieties about Moroccans as  sexual predators, singling out “Moorish troops” for “brutality, accompanied by raping and looting” which “together with the fury of a terrible repression, struck fear and repugnance on every Spanish heart.”[39] While soldiers serving under Franco no doubt did commit atrocities including sexual assault, highlighting Moroccans as particularly sexually predatory spoke to anxieties about inter-racial sex as well as racial stereotypes of the Moors as dark savages. All of this would have been familiar to African Americans who lived under Jim Crow.    

The above demonstrates that William Picken was not literally correct when he said there was no “color question in Spain.” As detailed above, African American anti-fascists had experienced a great deal of racism in the United States and understood the anti-fascist struggle as also an anti-racist struggle. As such, one would expect African American anti-fascists would have noticed and spoken about racism in Spain. This makes it all the more striking that they did not do so.

There are a few possible explanations for the lack of any discussion of Spanish racism among black anti-fascists. In all likelihood, black visitors to Spain did experience much less racism in Spain than they had in many other countries, resulting at least in part from gratitude by Spaniards for aiding their country. Anti-fascists may have generalized from their own experience of being treated well to a claim that there was no racism in Spanish society. Perhaps the volunteers did not encounter anything like the sentiments detailed above, or did not understand them when they did encounter them. Many of the volunteers spoke only or primarily English and mixed largely with other English speakers, which would have inhibited their exposure to Spanish racism. African Americans in the International Brigades were dispersed across military units, rather than concentrated in one unit.

African American combatants were dispersed across military units as the result of the strong integrationist stance of the Communist International. While this policy had good intentions and some positive effects, it also split African American volunteers up so that they had little contact with other black people. This probably made it less likely that they would discuss their common experiences as black people, and prevented them from comparing their experiences as a group. In this condition, African American volunteers would be less likely to analyze and reflect upon the elements of racism present in Spanish society.

African American anti-fascists undoubtedly wanted to believe in their cause as an anti-racist cause. This may have made them less likely to notice racism to which they were not themselves subject. In addition, African American anti-fascists may have noticed Spanish racism but decided not to comment upon it. Commenting upon Spanish racism might have undermined other African Americans’ support for the anti-fascist cause. It would be particularly ironic if African American anti-fascists deliberately avoided criticizing racism in Spain, though fully in keeping with the Popular Front view that stopping fascism mattered above all else. If this was what happened, if would mean that African American anti-fascists’ sough to portray their cause as an anti-racist cause while simultaneously putting their anti-fascism above their anti-racism,




Attitudes toward Moroccan Troops

African American anti-fascists did not discuss anti-Moroccan racism in Spain. While many African American anti-fascists cited concern over colonialism, particularly Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, as a motivation for fighting, they also maintained a curious silence about Spanish colonialism. Noncombatant anti-fascists did write about Moroccan soldiers and about Morocco, but they did mention the colonial policies of the Spanish government they sought to defend.

African American writings about Spain abound with discussions of Moroccan troops who served under the fascists and with discussions of Spanish colonialism in Morocco. Langston Hughes’ poem “Dear Brother at Home,” for example, portrayed an African American International Brigade volunteer encountering a captured Moroccan soldier and expressing empathy and a sense of racial solidarity. Such discussions do not appear at all in any sources left behind by African Americans who fought in Spain; perhaps because the fact of being shot at by Moroccans over-road any sense of racial solidarity African American soldiers may have otherwise felt. Noncombatants, however, clearly took Moroccans as a matter of concern.

Numerous discussions of Moroccan troops in the Spanish Civil War appeared in the African American press. Given the amount of coverage, journalist and editors who

cared about Spain clearly felt concerned with the Moroccan troops, or felt that their

readership would be. “African Troops Duped by Fascists” declared one headline.[40] Nancy Cunard asserted that "at no time did I hear any of the militiamen or other Spaniards condemn" the Moroccan soldiers.[41] The discussion above disputes Cunard’s point.

Cunard felt strongly enough about the importance of Moroccan soldiers that she traveled to Spanish Morocco, under fascist occupation. She described poor conditions and quoted Moroccans as having “absolutely no enthusiasm” over fighting in Spain. She suggested that if there was any loyalty among the Moroccans toward the fascists, it was because the fascists had falsely promised independence for Morocco.[42]

Attention to Moroccans and colonialism more generally was unique to writers within the milieu of the African American Popular Front. The same concern did not occur elsewhere within the Popular Front. In fact, the Popular Front in Spain, which held tremendous influence in the Spanish government, actively rebuffed an offer by the Moroccan nationalist Abd-el-Krim to foment nationalist unrest in Spain if only the government would declare Morocco free. The Popular Front government even went so far as to offer Spanish Morocco in trade to Britain and France if only they would aid the struggling Spanish Republican military forces against the fascists.[43] Even those African American anti-fascists who paid attention to Morocco and the Moroccan soldier kept silent on this issue.




Currently, the importance of anti-fascism to African Americans and the importance of African American anti-fascists within the war can not really be assessed. No one can say to what degree African Americans made a significant contribution to the anti-fascist cause in the Spanish Civil War. There is simply not enough scholarship on the subject. There are no monographs on African American soldiers in the Spanish Civil War. As far as this writer is aware, there are no books or articles on attention to the war within the African American press nor is there any work on organizations such as the Negro People’s Committee for Spanish Refugees. Future scholarship should study these organizations and attempt to assess the contribution they made to the war effort. Literary scholars do sometimes discuss African American writers’ and artists’ involvement with the Spanish Civil War, but they do so primarily as a moment of the history of a larger and mostly white cultural left rather than as part of African American history.

The true significance of the Spanish Civil War within African American history, like the significance of African Americans within the war, can only be assessed after future scholarship has been produced. Still, without a doubt many African Americans felt that the anti-fascist cause mattered to them as individuals and to African Americans as a whole. The African American press paid a good deal of attention to the Spanish Civil War. The Baltimore Afro-American, for example, paid for Langston Hughes to spend four months in Spain writing about the conflict. A number of prominent African American artists and writers, such as Hughes and Paul Robeson, spoke extensively about the Spanish war. Many African American leaders supported the struggle against fascism in Spain, and many younger participants in the anti-fascist cause remained active in African American struggles throughout their lives. The officers and board of directors for the Negro People’s Committee for Spanish Refugees, for example, included famous actor and activist Paul Robeson, civil rights and labor leader A. Philip Randolph, future civil rights activist and lawyer Pauli Murray, and Reverend William Lloyd Imes. After returning from fighting in Spain James Yates later became the head of his local NAACP chapter. Clearly many African Americans in the late 1930s often showed concern for and direct involvement in the crisis in Spain.

David Roediger has suggested that the Popular Front in the United States was at best insufficient on issues of race and did not represent an advance for African Americans, because the Communist International abandoned its commitment to anti-racism in favor of lowest-common-denominator coalitions.[44] Attention to the Popular Front in relation to the Spanish Civil War suggests that the Popular Front also fell short in relation to decolonization and to racism in Spain. African Americans in the Popular Front were little better on these issues.

Though African American anti-fascists displayed distinctive perspective within the Popular Front, they appear to have shared the Popular Front’s shortcomings. African Americans anti-fascists’ distinctive perspective within the Popular Front did not prevent them from exemplifying some of the problems with the Popular Front as a whole. They may have made a difference in the war effort, and they may have benefited from involvement in the war, but they did not comment on racism in Spain nor did they support Moroccan independence. Only future research can show to what degree the African American anti-fascists of the 1930s – and for that matter the larger anti-fascist milieu – left behind a positive legacy after the tragic fall of Spain in 1939.








Works Cited


Alpert, Michael. A New International History of the Spanish Civil War. London: Macmillan, 1994.


Candela, Antonio. Adventures of an Innocent in the Spanish Civil War. New York: Hyperion Books, 1988.


Collum, Danny Duncan, ed. African Americans in the Spanish Civil War: "This Ain’t Ethiopia, But It’ll Do." New York: G. K. Hall and Company, 1992.


Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front. London: Verso, 1996.


Dimitrov, George. Against Fascism and War. New York: International Publishers, 1986.


Haywood, Harry. Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist. Chicago: Liberator Press, 1978


Hughes, Langston. Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Social Protest Writings. Faith Berry, ed. New York: Lawrence Hill and Company, 1973


James, C. L. R.. World Revolution, 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International. London: Purnell and Sons, 1937


Pérez-Maura, Ramón. La Guerra Civil En Sus Documentos. Barcelona: Belacqva Ediciones, 2004.


Quintanilla, Luis. Franco’s Black Spain. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1946


Roediger, David. "Where Communism was Black." American Quarterly, 44 No. 1 (March 1992), 123-128.


Yates, James. Mississippi to Madrid: Memoir of a Black American in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Seattle: Open Hand Publishing, 1989.


Newspaper articles

"Ask Aid For The Spanish Loyalists." Chicago Defender. 5 March 1938


"Negro Group Urges Lifting of Embargo. New York Times. 8 February 1939


"Pickens Tells of Journey to Spanish Front." Chicago Defender. 7 January 1939


"South Side Forms Committee to Assist Spain.” Chicago Defender. 26 November 1938


"Spain’s Woman Leader Praises Race Fighters." Chicago Defender. 12 March 1938


Cunard, Nancy. "Girl Writer Visits Spanish Morocco And Finds Hotbed of Fascist Hatred." New York Amsterdam News. 23 January 1937


Cunard, Nancy. "Moroccan Troops Hate Their Role In Spain’s War." Pittsburgh Courier. 12 December 1936


Hall, Chatwood. "African Troops Duped by Fascists." Pittsburgh Courier. 27 March 1937


Hunter, Oscar. "Loyalist Commissar Tells of Black Men’s Role in Spain." Chicago Defender. 8 October 1938


Poston, Ted. "Louise Thompson Returns With Glowing Account of Colored Men in Spanish Civil War." Atlanta Daily World. 11 October 1937


Wilkins, Roy. "Watchtower." New York Amsterdam News. 28 November 1936










[1] George Dimitrov, Against Fascism and War, (New York: International Publishers, 1986), 34-36.

[2] Harry Haywood, Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist, (Chicago: Liberator Press, 1978), 469.

[3] Danny Duncan Collum, ed., African Americans in the Spanish Civil War: “This Ain’t Ethiopia, But It’ll Do.”( New York: G. K. Hall and Company, 1992), 176.

[4] Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century, (London: Verso, 1996), xviii.

[5] Denning, Cultural Front, 12.

[6] C. L. R. James, World Revolution, 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International, (London: Purnell and Sons, 1937), 322; 165.

[7] Langston Hughes, Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Social Protest Writings, Faith Berry, ed., (New York: Lawrence Hill and Company, 1973), 97.

[8] Collum, African Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 175-176.

[9] Collum, 89.

[10] Collum, 176.

[11] Collum, 120.

[12] “Negro Group Urges Lifting of Embargo,” New York Times, 8 February 1939.

[13] “Pickens Tells of Journey to Spanish Front,” Chicago Defender, 7 January 1939.

[14] Collum, African Americans, 176.

[15] “South Side Forms Committee to Assist Spain,” Chicago Defender, 26 November 1938.

[16] Roy Wilkins, “Watchtower,” New York Amsterdam News, 28 November 1936.

[17] “Ask Aid For The Spanish Loyalists,” Chicago Defender, 5 March 1938.

[18] Oscar Hunter, “Loyalist Commissar Tells of Black Men’s Role in Spain,” Chicago Defender, 8 October 1938.

[19] Ted Poston, “Louise Thompson Returns With Glowing Account of Colored Men in Spanish Civil War,” Atlanta Daily World, 11 October 1937.

[20] “Spain’s Woman Leader Praises Race Fighters,” Chicago Defender, 12 March 1938.

[21] Langston Hughes, I Wonder As I Wander, (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1986), 353.

[22] Haywood, Black Bolshevik, 449.

[23] Haywood, 450; James Yates, Mississippi to Madrid: Memoir of a Black American in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, (Seattle: Open Hand Publishing, 1989), 92-95.

[24] Collum, African Americans, 5, 83.

[25] Haywood, Black Bolshevik 449.

[26] Yates, From Mississippi to Madrid, 98.

[27] Collum, African Americans, 89.

[28] Haywood, Black Bolshevik 21.

[29] Haywood, 55

[30] Yates, From Mississippi,  21-22.

[31] Yates, 118.

[32] Yates, 161.

[33] Collum, African Americans, 116

[34] Hughes, Good Morning, 103

[35] Collum, African Americans, 129.

[36] Antonio Candela, Adventures of an Innocent in the Spanish Civil War, (New York: Hyperion Books, 1988), 220.

[37] Ramón Pérez-Maura, La Guerra Civil En Sus Documentos, (Barcelona: Belacqva Ediciones, 2004), 391. My translation.

[38] Luis Quintanilla, Franco’s Black Spain, (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1946).

[39] Candela, Adventures of an Innocent, 220.

[40] Chatwood Hall, “African Troops Duped by Fascists,” Pittsburgh Courier, 27 March 1937.

[41] Nancy Cunard, “Moroccan Troops Hate Their Role In Spain’s War,” Pittsburgh Courier, 12 December 1936.

[42] Nancy Cunard, “Girl Writer Visits Spanish Morocco And Finds Hotbed of Fascist Hatred,” New York Amsterdam News, 23 January 1937.

[43] Michael Alpert, A New International History of the Spanish Civil War, (London: Macmillan, 1994), 106.

[44] David Roediger, "Where Communism was Black," American Quarterly, 44 No. 1 (March 1992), 123-128.