News Americas, Thurs. Feb. 2, 2023: Today we spotlight on another Caribbean immigrant who made his mark as the first black member of the American communist movement.
Otto Eduard Gerardus Majella Huiswoud was a Surinamese political activist who was a charter member of the Communist Party of America. Huiswoud is regarded as the first black member of the American communist movement. Huiswoud served briefly as the Communist Party’s representative to the Executive Committee of the Communist International in 1922 and was a leading black Comintern functionary during the decade of the 1920s.
Huiswoud was born October 28, 1893, in Paramaribo, in what was then the Dutch colony of Surinam and is today the capital of the independent country of Suriname. He was the son of Rudolf Huiswoud, a former slave who had gained his freedom as a boy of 11 and who learned the skills of a tailor, working at the trade until his death in 1920. His mother, Jacqueline Bernard Huiswoud, originally hailed from the island of Curaçao. Otto was the fifth child and the second son in a family of eight siblings.
Huiswoud was unhappy with his lot in life as a printer’s apprentice, however, so in January 1910 the 16-year-old convinced his father to allow him to depart to see the world and he shipped out on a banana boat bound for the Netherlands.
Due to the abysmal working conditions onboard, Huiswoud and two of his Surinamese mates decided to jump ship when it was docked in New York. He settled in Brooklyn, where he made ends meet by working at various jobs as a printer, cook, and janitor.
In New York, Huiswoud was exposed to soapbox speakers in Union Square, where he was introduced to socialist arguments and literature for the first time. By 1916, he had become a member of the Socialist Party of America (SPA), participating actively in the Young People’s Socialist League at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he studied agriculture.
During the summer of 1918, Huiswoud took a job working on a pleasure boat that was part of the Fall River Line. Black crew members were not organized by the International Seamen’s Union, so Huiswoud took it upon himself to lead a walkout that led the company to negotiate for better pay and improved working conditions for its minority workers.
Huiswoud found himself a supporter of the Left Wing Section of the Socialist Party during the acrimonious factional war of 1919. He was one of 94 delegates to the June 1919 National Conference of the Left Wing, which elected a governing Left Wing National Council and participated in the formation of the Communist Party of America on September 1 of that year.
Through his connection to the radical black political leaders of Harlem, Huiswoud eventually made his way to membership in the African Blood Brotherhood, a secret society established by Cyril Briggs to promote black liberation and self-defense against the Red Summer of 1919. Although an active participant in the organization, Huiswoud was not among the group’s founders.
In the summer of 1922, Huiswoud was chosen as the candidate of the Workers Party of America – the new “legal” political arm of what was then the underground Communist Party – as its candidate for the New York State Legislature in its 22nd Assembly District.