Written by Anya Carr
As part of the University of Manchester’s History and American Studies degree, second year students are trained to make use of the rich archival collections held around the city relating to the history of the United States. Students work with collections held at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre, John Rylands Research Institute and Library, the Working Class Movement Library and the People’s History Museum, and are shown how to request, use, and interpret such sources in the context of the programme’s revamped module, AMER2002: US History Long Essay.
This blog post provides an overview of Anya’s research.
Paul Robeson was an African American artist and activist whose voice extended beyond the borders of the United States, and who captivated audiences around the world between the 1920s and 1970s. Although celebrated as a unifying figure among Black and oppressed people, Robeson was also embroiled at the time in controversy as a civil-rights activist with Communist sympathies. Robeson’s support for the Soviet Union during the first half of the twentieth century made him a target for anti-Communist persecution and censorship in the Cold War climate of the late 40s and 50s. After Robeson’s speech at the Paris Peace Congress in April 1949, which implied African Americans would refuse to support America in a war against the Soviet Union, the white mainstream press and large sections of the Black press turned on him.
Why such contradictory responses? Placing this globally significant figure in the context of local urban and social histories helps highlight tensions between a class-based Communist internationalism and the powerful movements towards Black solidarity that erupted in this moment in cities such as Manchester. Newspaper cuttings, letters and posters, from archives local to Manchester—including those at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre Library, the People’s History Museum, and the Working Class Movement’s Library—testify to Manchester’s long history of Black and labour organizing by the time of Robeson’s visit. The city’s Pan-African Federation had formed to lead a united Pan-African front in Britain. Despite being ‘the voice of Black Manchester’, it was not the Pan-African Federation that organised Robeson’s visit, but the mostly white, Communist New International Society (Goodman, 2013, p.71).
The NIS was founded by three working class Communists, and while one of these founders, Len Johnson, was Black, the organisation was nevertheless accused of being ‘white-dominated and Communist-dominated,’ according to a report written by Communist activist Maud Rogerson, now preserved at the Working Class Movement Library. Robeson’s visit brought the NIS prestige, but it also generated frictions with members of Manchester’s Black communities. The Pan-African Federation had hoped to ‘give an African welcome to Mr Robeson’ and were offended when the NIS usurped them as hosts (Goodman, 2013, p.71). Different groups thus positioned themselves to claim the authority to represent Robeson in Manchester, and conflicts periodically erupted over how this global figure fit into and furthered different competing agendas.
Since the academic re-examination of America’s civil rights and Black Power movements, there has been increasing interest in ‘the Red and the Black’—most recently in David Featherstone and Christian Høgsbjerg’s The Red and the Black: the Russian Revolution and the Black Atlantic (2021). Recent work by Adom Getachew, Hakim Adi, David Featherstone and Marika Sherwood, to name a few, has addressed the complex, intertwined internationalist and anti-imperialist agendas of Black and Communist figures, movements and organisations—though its focus has tended to be the global activist centres of London, Paris, and New York. Exploring Robeson’s time in Manchester offers new insight into the local ecology of political and cultural groups: how they saw themselves, and each other, in relation to wider freedom movements that were sweeping through, and transforming, a postwar, decolonising world.
Goodman, Jordan (2013) Paul Robeson: a watched man. London: Verso.
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