Claudia Vera Jones nee Cumberbatch Autobiography. Born in Trinidad, moved to the USA, imprisoned and deported to England. Introduced the Notting Hill Carnival.
Claudia Jones’ Autobiographical History
Read the autobiography of Claudia Vera Cumberbatch aka Claudia Jones. “Mother of the Notting Hill Carnival.”
December 6, 1955
To Comrade Foster:
Dear Comrade Foster: The following is an autobiographical (personal, political, medical) history that I promised to forward to you.
Personal: As a child of eight, I came to the United States from Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, British West Indies. My mother and father had come to this country two years earlier, in 1922, when their economic status (which were middle-class land owners – on my mother’s side and hotel owners on my father’s side) had been worsened as a result of the drop in the cocoa trade on the world market, from the West Indies which had impoverished the West Indies and the entire Caribbean. Like thousands of the West Indian immigrants, they hoped to find their fortunes in America where “gold was to be found on the streets” and they dreamed of rearing their children in a “free America.”
This dream was soon disabused. Together with my three sisters, our family suffered not only the impoverished lot of working-class families and its multi-national populace, but early learned the special scourge of indignity stemming from Jim Crow national oppression.
My formal academic education on American soil began when I entered public school – entering 4A. I have early recollections of being hurt by youngsters of my own age who mouthed anti-West Indian propaganda against me and my sisters. But by the time I reached Junior High School, I had formed friendships and become integrated in the student body and was nominated in Harriett Beecher Junior High for the highest office in the school and was subsequently elected Mayor. (The form of student administration of this particular junior high was patterned after the then – established pattern of the NY City administration). One incident I recall with some pride today; namely that running with me then, as President of the Board of Aldermen was a young Chinese girl. Numerous teachers tried to pressure me to refuse her as a running mate, on the grounds that she was Chinese and that had the situation been reversed, this would not happen in the China of that day. I refused to be drawn in or to accede to any such narrow concept – choosing instead to have her as my running mate. (To use the phrase I excercised ‘my peremptory challenge!’) We were elected by an overwhelming majority of students, proving the teachers wrong and showing the internationalist approach of the student body.
I began to wonder why there was wealth and poverty; why there was discrimination and segregation; why there was a contradiction between the ideas contained in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which contravened its precepts of the pursuit for all of “life, liberty and happiness.”
My mother had died two years earlier of spinal meningitis suddenly at her machine in a garment shop. The conditions of non-union organisation, of that day, of speed-up, plus the lot of working women, who are mothers and undoubtedly the weight of immigration to a new land where conditions were far from as promised or anticipated contributed to her early death at the age of 37. My father, who together with her had come earlier to America was left to rear four young girls, the oldest of whom was 14. I am the second child of my parents. This was during the days of the Great Depression. Because of my pride, I didn’t ask friendly teachers to help provide me with a graduation outfit, at which I was to receive high honours, including the Theodore Roosevelt Award for Good Citizenship and officiate as Mayor of the school, choosing instead to stay away sending them some lame excuse while I bawled my eyes out in humiliation and self pity.
I was later to learn that this lot was not just an individual matter, but that millions of working-class people and Negro people suffered this lot under capitalism – if not identical, in one degree or another.
Following my graduation from Junior high school I entered Wadleigh High School. Here I was confronted with Jim Crow in the classrooms and in the social life of the school. White kids would borrow notes from me in school and then on leaving school would turn their faces the other way under pressure of the Jim Crow society. Teachers with audacity would hold Negro students after school, asking if we wanted to make an extra dollar by doing some domestic work for them or as they not-so-quaintly put it, whether I wished to “wear a pretty white apron” at their own social affairs. Or they would select poems in dialect and ask Negro kids to read these pointedly. While I even then had, as do other Negro youth, a searing indignation for these things, I didn’t know that they were part of a conscious plan designed to perpetuate the national oppression of the Negro people in the US of which these incidents were reflections of the badge of inferiority perpetrated on the Negro people in the North, with the more hideous features of lynching, poll taxes, crop lien laws and economic strangulation devolving on Negro people in the heartland of their oppression in the black belt of the South.
My formal academic education, in a bourgeois sense, ended with my graduation from Wadleigh High School. One year before my graduation however, in the midst of the great depression where I was one of the so-called “lost generation” of American youth, I contracted tuberculosis of the lung. My family’s economic condition had worsened as had millions of American families, native and foreign born and second generation etc. My Dad who was an editor of an American-West Indian newspaper lost his job and also later when he became a furrier and had to guarantee our support, became a superintendent of an apartment in Harlem where I lived all my life in the US. In the room where I slept, it was later discovered that an open sewerage flowed and undoubtedly it was this dampness that contributed to my contraction of TB. I was sent to Sea View Sanatorium from Harlem Hospital at the age of 17, where, with pneumothorax treatment for my condition, I fully recovered since fortunately my sputum was never positive. I was there for one full year. There too, I had an opportunity to read avidly, to think deeply about the social ideas instilled in me by my mother and father. My mother had left the Catholic Church, in which faith we were baptised from early childhood choosing to become a Bible student, since her alert mind rejected early the hierarchical teachings of Catholicism. My father’s social ideas instilled in us were that of a pride and consciousness of our people, of our relation to Africa, from which my antecedents sprang, to our interrelationship to Caribbean independence the dream of San Simeon, great Caribbean patriot; to the new recognition of the struggle for Negro equality in the US linked indissolubly as I later learned with the freedom and equality in the American trade unions and working-class as the future class of society. One incident, I remember while in Sea View – namely when I gave a blood transfusion voluntarily (since I was her blood type), to a young Italian woman patient. This created quite a stir in the hospital on the question of “black blood” and “white blood”. Many of the white patients looked for days to see if the young Italian woman, who was eternally grateful (to the point of my embarrassment) to me would turn “black”. One of the first hospital speeches I ever heard was from a young Jewish doctor who in the midst of this scientific ignorance stood in the middle of the ward and gave a lecture to the interracial patients asserting that the inviolability of blood types as the antithesis of any false teaching on “race”.
Upon recovery, I completed the last term of High School at Wadleigh. Upon graduation, I went to work in a factory, since college was out for me and I had to help support myself and contribute to the family larder.
My first job was in a laundry, where I observed, under the incredible (to me then) conditions of overwork, speed-up etc., in the heat of summer, young Negro women fainting regularly because of the unbearable conditions. I didn’t want to become like them, so I went to work in a factory. But being unskilled, my job was setting nail heads – with a toothpick, a small jar of paste and placing these in the nail head setting. Boredom and ennui set in and I quit this job. Besides the pay was about $14 a week. Next, I got a job in a Harlem millinery store and lingerie shop as a salesgirl. This continued for quite a while about two years or so.
These were the years of the Ethiopian war and the invasion of Mongolia. During this period (1935-36) I worked on a Negro Nationalist newspaper, where I wrote a column (circulation about 4-5000 copies) and had a weekly column called “Claudia’s Comments.” My job consisted there also of writing précis of the main editorial comments in Ethiopia from general commercial press, Negro rights, trade union press etc. To my amazement, on attending one of their meetings (of the nationalists) I saw my boss reading my précis to the applause and response of thousands of community people in Harlem, men and women. When the next day, he would come in and tell me what a “Big Negro” he was I would challenge his facts. What he did was to read books on Ethiopia all day and fuse his accumulated knowledge with my précis, which were listened to by thousands of people in the mass rallies held by nationalists in Harlem. I spent a lot of time coming from work listening also to the street corner meetings of the various political parties and movements in Harlem. This was the days of the famed Scottsboro Boys Frame up. I was, like millions of Negro people, white progressives and people stirred by this heinous frame up. I was impressed by the Communist speakers who explained the reasons for this brutal crime against young Negro boys; and who related the Scottsboro case to the struggle of the Ethiopian people against fascism and Mussolini’s invasion. Friends of mine, who were Communist, although I didn’t know it then, seeing my interest, began to have frequent discussions with me. I joined the Party in February 1936 and was assigned to work in the YCL shortly after. My first assignment was secretary of the YCL executive committee in Harlem and it was about this time, I got a job in the Business Dept of the DW. This job coincided with my application for a $150 a week job in the field of dramatics with the Federal Theatre Project under WPA. I took the job at The Worker for $12-15 a week instead.
During my teens I was active in numerous social clubs in the community in Junior NAACP, in tennis clubs and also studied dramatics at the Urban League. I performed in this capacity with a troupe in many churches in the Harlem community and in Brooklyn.
The National Negro Congress first organising conference had been held in Chicago. It was when I met James Ashford, outstanding Young Communist Leader who died at the age of 27, that I was oriented to work in the youth movements, in the YCL.
During the next ten years from 1936-1946-7 I was active in the YCL and the youth movement. Served as organiser of the YCL in Harlem for a year. 1937, I was sent on a 6 month National Training School of the CP. On my return, I was elected to National Council YCL and became associate editor of the Weekly Review. I was active in the work of the great American Congress, the organisation of the National Council of Negro Youth, the Southern Negro Congress (where I attended many conferences in Alabama, Atlanta, Richmond VA) and also in the National Negro Congress.
Later I became editor of the Weekly Review, 1938-49. During 1943-45, I became editor of Spotlight, national publication of American Youth for Democracy. This publication, many of whose articles were entered into the Congressional Record and for whom admirals and Senators wrote, inspired the victory in the anti-fascist war among youth and was widely read by GI subscribers throughout the war fronts.
Worked from 1945-46 as editor of Negro Affairs Daily Worker.
Elected full member of the National Committee 1945 Convention CP.
Assigned on “graduation” from youth movement to be Executive Secretary, National Negro Commission CPUSA (1945-46).
Arrested June 29, 1951 with 17 working-class Communist leaders, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn under the infamous Smith Act for writing an article which described the forward movement of Negro and white women in opposition to the fascist bent world domination US foreign policy. Bail $20,000.
Rearrested under Walter McCarran Law, October 1951.
Held with 18 working-class and Communist leaders on Ellis Island in special “Walter-McCarran” wing for 18 days until bail was won $5,000.
From 1947-52 – active in national women’s movements and united front movements such as Congress of American Women; National Council of Negro Women; toured nation – 43 states – in connection with Party assignment of work among women, organising Party Conferences of work among women, helping to implement this arm of our National Committee’s work among the masses of women, particularly working class and Negro Women in the struggle against Korean war, for peaceful coexistence between nations, for peace, national dignity, full equality for women and the equal rights of women. This was the basis of my “overt act”, an article I wrote, printed in Political Affairs which urged American Women, Negro and white, to unite lest their children like those in Korea suffer the fate of Hiroshima’s atomic destruction.
From 52-53 – worked on National Peace Commission of CP giving leadership activity to peace centres, to peace struggle namely around Korean war for the programme registered at Geneva for peaceful coexistence among nations, international friendship in a world of peace.
July 4, 1953, at the end of trial of 17, suffered heart failure diagnosed as hypertensive cardio-vascular disease. Hospitalised at Mt Sinai for 21 days. Took 5 months leave of absence. Placed on digitalis and drugs for control of hypertension. Hospitalised again for coronary disease in December 1953. Two months leave. Returned to work again served as editor of Negro Affairs Quarterly and special fields of work among Negro people, participated as member of NAC, throughout this period.
January 11, 1955 entered prison serving a year and a day sentence at the Federal reformatory for Women at Aldeson, W. VA. got 72 days off, serving 9 months and 18 days for so called “good behaviour”. Won first Prize, Blue Ribbon on August State Fair of W.A. for women…skills learned there. Was to be summarily deported straight to the Caribbean from Prison on October 23 day of release this year…but for protests here and abroad and intervention of British authorities. Brought suit for first time in challenge to the Walter McCarran Act which declares it a “crime” to be a non-citizen even or permanent resident alien but was forced to withdraw my suit due to my health status which is precarious and must be guarded.
December 9 – scheduled to leave US after residing here for 32 years in the United States.
I think this sort of summarises it. I should add (happily), due to digitalis poisoning while imprisoned I was taken off digitalis August 3, 1955 and have not had to use other than occasionally nitroglycerine for heart pain – which I have used now for 2 months and only used on two occasions during the last year when imprisoned. Now on drugs (supercil) for control of hypertension. If you summarise the medical status you should know that at the time of my imprisonment admitted by a court appointed physician – contrary to the attitude of the first women prison physicians I was diagnosed as suffering from essential hypertension, cardiac disease and coronary arteriosclerosis – with my background of arrested tuberculosis – the exact diagnosis of my personal physician.
I wrote this quite fully in the full knowledge, Dear Comrade Foster that your extracts would contain only what you consider pertinent, but I gave it as fully as I can to facilitate that end.
Best personal regards
to you and Comrade Esther
P.S. I was married to Abraham Scholnick in September 1940 in NYC. I was divorced February 27, 1947. My plans are to remarry in England within the next few months.
P.P.S. At the age of 23 I applied and received my certificate for first papers for American citizenship – but this was denied me by the US Government since I was politically active from the age of 18.
Source: “Claudia Jones. Beyond Containment” pp.10-16 by Carole Boyce Davies
Claudia Jones A Life in Exile by Marika Sherwood; Left of Karl Marx by Carole Boyce Davis and Claudia Jones. Beyond Containment by Carole Boyce Davis.
Hi Bob, What a great project! See also “Claudia Jones. Beyond Containment” [also by Carole Boyce Davies] which has now published all her essays. It is available in England from Ayebia Publishing, Banbury. It also includes a copy of her birth certificate. You have my permission to use it [extracts from the book] as long as you assign source as I noted you did. Please do let me know when it is complete and up and running.Carole Boyce Davies 20 August 2011 [Author of “Left of Karl Marx” and “Claudia Jones. Beyond Containment”]