Louise Thompson Patterson: A Revolutionary Life

BY:Norman Markowitz| August 18, 2023
Louise Thompson Patterson: A Revolutionary Life


If she had not become a revolutionary activist in the African American freedom movement Louise Thompson Patterson would have been lionized today as a pioneering woman of the Harlem Renaissance and a role model for both African Americans and women. Instead, she put her skills and education to work for the liberation of the oppressed in this country and around the world – and for that she has been largely ignored.

Born in Chicago in 1901, as Louise Toles, Patterson moved west with her mother at the age of five after her parents separated. She grew up in  towns where she was often the only Black child fighting back against racist taunts and ostracism by excelling in school. After her mother settled in Berkeley and married a handyman, whose name she took, Louise became the first Black  woman to attend the University of California at Berkeley, where she received a degree with honors in economics in 1923. It was here that she heard W.E.B. Du Bois speak and as she  remembered, “for the first time in my life I was proud to be Black.”

Back then professional jobs were rare for Black people (as they had been for Du Bois a generation earlier, even with his Harvard PhD). After working as a secretary, the young scholar returned with her mother to Chicago, to pursue graduate work at the University of Chicago. Although her situation improved, she was encouraged by  Du Bois, to become a teacher in Black colleges. Forced to resign from Hampton Institute because of her support of striking students, she came to New York to study at the New York School for Social Work on an Urban League Fellowship in 1927.

Soon she began to involve herself in both community activism and the cultural life of the Harlem Renaissance. Doing editorial work for Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, briefly marrying novelist Wallace Thurman, she turned her large Harlem apartment into a meeting place for Black  writers, poets and fine artists.

As the Depression devastated Harlem, (Black unemployment was nearly double that of whites) Thompson joined with the Black  sculptor, Augusta Savage, to form the Vanguard, a radical artists group in opposition to others  who sought  wealthy patrons  and acceptance in  establishment institutions. Attracted also to both the anti-racism and socialism of the Soviet revolution, she organized the Harlem branch of the American Friends of the Soviet Union and began to study Marxism at the CPUSA’s Workers’ School.

In 1932, she organized and led a group of Black artists, including Langston Hughes and her former husband, Wallace Thurman, to the Soviet Union to produce a film about African American life and struggles for liberation. Although the film was not made, the excursion was praised by Thompson and most of the other artists. “For all of us who experienced discrimination based on color in our own land,” Louise  remembered, “it was strange to find our color a badge of honor.”

The young activist  returned to New York committed to mass struggle and socialism as the road  to  Black liberation. Now called “Madame Moscow” by some, she joined the CPUSA in 1933 and became an organizer for the International Workers’ Order (IWO) composed of many nationality groups. Her talents as an organizer were seen as she led a march in Washington for the Scottsboro prisoners in 1933. With the rise of the federal arts projects of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935 and the creation of the National Negro Congress, (1936) she worked tirelessly in campaigns for advancing and radicalizing New Deal social programs, and for building a united front against fascist aggression in Africa and Europe. Two years later, she joined her friend Langston Hughes in Spain in solidarity with the anti-fascist fighters for the Spanish Republic.

Through the IWO she organized with Langston Hughes in 1938, the Harlem Suitcase Theater, which provided a venue for young Black playwrights. Robert Earl Jones, father of the distinguished Black actor, James Earl Jones, began his career in the Harlem Suitcase theater in Langston Hughes’ Don’t You Want to Be Free?

In 1940, Thompson married her longtime friend and comrade, William L Patterson. With Patterson she returned to Chicago and became active in the Civil Rights Congress and the IWO and played a leading role in the establishment of an African American Cultural Center on the South Side. Along with her husband, she helped found the Abraham Lincoln Workers’ School in Chicago, using her prestige in cultural circles to recruit Lena Horne to sing at a fundraiser for the school at the Chicago Opera House.

During the Cold War era, she and her husband remained committed to fighting against  racism and imperialism.  In 1949, she was a major organizer of Paul Robeson’s Peekskill concerts and later helped to organize Robeson’s tour of African American communities against the savage campaign of the FBI to deny him access to concert halls and theaters.  Louise also worked through the 1950s with other prominent African American women, Shirley Graham Du Bois and Charlotta Bass. In 1951, along with Shirley Graham Du Bois  and Charlotta Bass, Thompson helped establish the radical civil rights organization, Sojourners for Truth and Justice. With her husband, she sought to provide support and guidance to a new generation of African American activists whom the FBI and all of the institutions of political repression in operation sought to isolate from the “old left.”

In the 1960s, as some of the more brutal manifestations of McCarthyism began to recede, Louise Patterson joined with Marxist historian and CPUSA leader Herbert Aptheker to establish the American Institute for Marxist Studies (AIMS). Contrary to the new establishment view that the “old left” disappeared after 1956, William and Louise Patterson continued to play an important role for a new generation of New York political and cultural activists, who flocked to their Harlem apartment in the 1960s just as Harlem Renaissance figures had in the 1920s.

In the early 1970s, she led the New York Committee to Free Angela Davis. After her husband’s death in 1980, she established the William L. Patterson Foundation to continue her and her husband’s work.  In the 1980s, she returned to the University of California at Berkeley where she received both honors and awards and was active in the struggles to advance Black studies.  Gus Newport, the progressive Black Mayor of Berkeley,  declared  October 7,1984, Louise Thompson Patterson day, and celebrations were held on the Berkeley campus.

Louise Thompson Patterson died in 1999 at the age of 98. For nearly 80 years she was an organizer and leader  in the finest sense of the word. Her story deserves to be told and her life emulated.

Photo: Wikipedia


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