Claudia Jones used her brief years (1915-1964) to the fullest. She was involved with everything and everyone having to do with the rights of African descendants and women.
Born in Trinidad, Jones arrived in New York in 1922 with her three sisters, joining their parents who had paved the way the year before. The family arrived during the period known as the Great Migration when African Americans were leaving the southern parts of the U.S. for cities in the north.
They came from the Caribbean and the south for the same reasons: World War I made life and work difficult. Returning veterans, facing a recession, demanded the jobs and resources from African Americans. In the meantime, employers in the north were recruiting for cheaper labor.
Although Jones’ mother had come from a land-owning family in Trinidad and her father had run his own business, in New York they had to take what they could to survive. Her mother worked in a garment factory and eventually her father became the janitor for their Harlem cold-water-flat apartment building.
The family arrived in New York during what has become known as the Harlem Renaissance. It was when Harlem was becoming almost exclusively a village of African descendants – when artists, musicians, actors, writers fed off the powerful energy of living in a new, exciting environment.
But in this mix there was also desperate poverty. Because of the cold and damp of the apartment her family lived in, Jones contracted tuberculosis when she was 17. This delayed her graduation from high school by a year. College was out of the question. Her mother had died when Jones was about 15 and her father was barely getting them by. So, like many other girls, she took work in a laundry, a hard, exhausting business that mainly hired young Black girls at low wages. (It was the job that most of the females in my family did after they too arrived in New York during the Migration. – JW-C)
But what changed the course of Jones’ life was the Scottsboro case. Nine young African American men from the south were accused in 1936 of raping two white girls. Although one of the girls later recanted, some of the young men were convicted anyway. Jones joined the Young Communist League (YCL) because she felt that the Communists were the most active in defense of the Scottsboro nine.
Jones came into her own in the YCL. She became a Harlem organizer for the YCL, a member of its national council and then went on to become the state education director and later state chair. At the same time she was on the staff of the Communist Party’s Daily Worker and became editor of the YCL’s Weekly Review.
While she was doing all this she also found time for a local theater group and the Junior NAACP. She also played tennis and was a member of various Harlem social clubs – and that wasn’t all. If anything had to do with the civil rights of the “Negro” people, she wanted to be there. She was also becoming interested in women’s rights.
She was named editor of the Daily Worker’s Negro Affairs Desk and, later, executive secretary of both the CPUSA National Negro Commission and its National Women’s Commission. In both those capacities she toured every state in the union, speaking on behalf of those issues that affected her directly.
When in 1952 she became a member of the National Peace Commission – which arose out of the Korean War – she again went on a speaking tour throughout the country.
As a woman, as an African descendant and as an activist, she had to have special difficulties in her travels: where to stay, where to eat, how to travel and where she could assemble with others. She was jailed for the first time in 1948 because of her activities and her membership in the Communist Party. This was the period in U.S. history when McCarthyism was at its height.
There is an interesting symmetry to Claudia Jones’ life. Her first nine years of life were spent in Trinidad, where she was born. Her last nine years were spent in Great Britain, where she died in exile at age 49. She arrived in America as part of a wave of migration from the south and Caribbean. She arrived in Great Britain as new immigrants were coming from the Caribbean, Asia and Africa. She considered herself an American although she was denied citizenship. It was in America that she learned how to speak, write and advocate – and learned it well.
Claudia Jones was unusual in many ways. There were very few African Americans like her and even fewer women. During one of her jail terms she learned to weave – and did it so well that she won a state fair prize for her creations. She knew everyone involved in the civil rights of workers, Negroes and women. These were her issues. At the same time she was a Communist and made no bones about it, which was off-putting for some people in the community.
She came of age at an interesting time in American social, labor, and political history. When her family arrived in the U.S., women had just gotten the right to vote. In the 1930s a devastating depression hit. There was World War II and its aftermath in the 1940s. African Americans had fought in the war (in segregated units) and expected to come home to the same freedoms they were fighting for overseas. For the first time women in large numbers had worked in the factories during the war and were not happy about going back to being homemakers afterwards. The Korean War in 1950 saw the first integrated units go into combat.
Despite her tuberculosis, Jones was tireless. She even found time for a brief marriage, although she had no children. 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. Despite taking her case as far it could go (the Supreme Court refused to hear it), she lost and was subject to deportation as a non-citizen. She didn’t want to go back to Trinidad because she feared she would be unable to get the medical treatment she needed. Trinidad didn’t want her anyway. The country was still a Commonwealth of Great Britain and was afraid she would cause too much trouble. Great Britain didn’t want her either, but was forced to accept her.
Jones arrived in Great Britain in 1955 at an interesting point in its history. In the new migration to that country, Caribbeans were the most numerous. Although Jones thought of herself as American, she became a Caribbean again – and she got busy. She understood from her work in the United States how to educate and activate. She started a newspaper, the West Indian Gazette. Then, in 1959, after race riots erupted in 1958, she was one of the founders and promoters of what is now known as the Notting Hill Carnival. She understood that in order to bring people together there had to be a cultural outlet and she used her newspaper to promote it.
Claudia Jones died 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 everywhere she had traveled – China, Russia, Hungary and, of course, the U.S. – and from everyone who knew her: Paul and Eslanda Robeson, Martin Luther King Jr., Communist Party leaders Gus Hall and Ben Davis, among others. While she has largely been forgotten, there have been attempts in the last few years to revive her legacy. A course in her life would be a how-to on being an activist and making a difference.
Jessica Watson-Crosby is an organizer for the United New York Black Radical Congress.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(see related articles below)
Claudia Jones speaks: On the Smith Act frame-ups
Three weeks is not long in the annals of time, yet the three weeks since the leaders of the Communist Party were imprisoned seems like a decade.
Events have moved with pell-mell speed as these towering working class Communist leaders warned it would, particularly as regards the onslaught of legal violence against the democratic rights of Americans, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, free speech and the right to one’s own ideas. This is shown by the widening net against 17 Communist and working class Negro and white leaders – and others now contemplated according to [the] U.S. Attorney General, under the pro-fascist Smith Act. (At this writing, I haven’t heard any steps of his office moving towards the vandals in Cicero, Illinois, who violated the home of a Negro veteran, his wife and two children.) …
Claudia Jones speaks: On women and the struggle for peace
How to counter the peace strivings of the American people? How to put blindfolds on their eyes? …
Hit at the peace strivings of American women! Attack mothers and grandmothers, who all their adult lives have contributed – some from youth – to the fight for social progress. If they are Communist working class leaders – all the better, to help throw the scare of God into women from the nation’s churches who want peace. All the better to attempt to dissuade Negro mothers, and working class mothers and women from ever more raising their thunderous fierce maternal cries of peace now against the despoilers of our youth, whom the jimcrow Army brass proudly states are now being turned into “professional killers!”
In San Francisco, pounding fists of FBI agents break down the door of Loretta Starvus Stack. They haul her away without allowing her children to breakfast, or for her to arrange for their care … This brings the number of women victims of the Smith Act to 11 …
Reaction knows that these women leaders have been dedicated to the fight for lasting peace and social progress, for the rights of the American working class and the oppressed Negro people, for women’s equality and dignity, for youth’s future, for the happiness of children. It is a counterattack to stem the rising tide of women’s unity for peace and social progress, to warn other non-Communist women leaders who want an end to the high cost of living, a peace economy, not for death and destruction of their sons and husbands in a third atomic world war which would bring devastation not only to the world but to our own land.