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Herndon, Angelo(1913–1997) - Labor activist, editor, Begins Activism in Birmingham, Continues to Organize Workers, Chronology

white chicago unemployment communist

Angelo Herndon moved from menial laborer to radical labor activist, which resulted in his becoming a Communist in the 1930s who sought to organize black and white workers in the South during the era of segregation. He was tried, convicted, and imprisoned in Georgia because of his activities, and his case became the focus of international attention. Herndon endured mistreatment while incarcerated and eventually regained his freedom and continued his activism through writing, speaking, organizing, and other pursuits.

Eugene Angelo Braxton Herndon was born on May 6, 1913, in Wyoming, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, to Paul and Hattie Herndon, who had come north from Birmingham, Alabama. His father was a coal miner who died from miner’s pneumonia when Eugene was very young, leaving his mother to raise a large family, including seven sons and two daughters. She began doing housework for wealthy white families; the older boys sought work in mines, steel mills, and other industries; and the younger children helped out by doing a variety of odd jobs, all in efforts to support the family.

It was hoped that Angelo would be the one to leave the working class for better opportunities through education, but the family was unable to save money to assist him. In 1926 when he was thirteen Angelo left home with his brother Leo for Lexington, Kentucky to work at a mine owned by the DeBardeleben Coal Corporation. Here Herndon experienced the Jim Crow system firsthand, as well as dangerous working conditions, very low pay, high prices for food and necessities at the company-owned store, and squalid living conditions.

Begins Activism in Birmingham

When the company cut the pay of its workers due to large overhead expenses, Herndon and his brother quit the Kentucky mine and headed south to Birmingham. With relatives in the area as well as mining sites, Herndon was able to survive until he was hired by the Tennessee Coal and Iron (TCI) Company. He did surface work at the company’s Docena mine, cutting the right of way for wiring and transformation lines.

After an accident which resulted in the death of a fellow worker, Herndon surprised the management by speaking up about a foreman’s negligence and other safety issues. The other men supported Herndon’s account of the incident, and the widow received some compensation from TCI. Herndon then realized that organizing workers would help to improve their pay, working, and living conditions, and the present system was designed to divide as well as exploit employees for the benefit of owners and management.

When the Great Depression hit the United States in late 1929 after the stock market crash in October of that year, unemployment rose sharply and those fortunate enough to still have jobs endured continued problems with many employers. In June 1930 Herndon attended a meeting of the local Unemployment Council, where he heard Communist Party (CP) members speak about black and whites working together and being treated as equals.

This idea appealed to Herndon. Shortly afterwards he joined both organizations, became a recruiter for the National Miners Union, and was elected a delegate to the National Unemployment Convention being held the same year in Chicago. Once Herndon began to associate with the Communists, however, his relatives asked him to move out and not return, fearing for their safety. Their concerns were justified, as the Ku Klux Klan left a message for Herndon on the same day he went to the convention.

Continues to Organize Workers

In June 1932, Herndon and other members of the Unemployment Council organized black and white workers in Atlanta, Georgia to petition the city, county, and state governments for relief after 23,000 families were dropped from the welfare rolls, action that could have led to widespread hunger and starvation. A large number of persons from both racial groups came to the Fulton County court house on July 7 to demonstrate their concerns to the county commissioners and other authorities, with white workers being allowed in, while blacks were kept outside.

The attempt to use Jim Crow to divide the protestors was unsuccessful, as the commissioners only made excuses and told the white workers that no money was available, leaving them in the same position as the black workers. On the next day $6,000 suddenly appeared to fund unemployment relief for workers regardless of race.

The success of the peaceful demonstration made Herndon a marked man at age nineteen. On the following Monday (July 11, 1932) he was arrested by detectives when he went to get mail from the post office, and he was held in custody for eleven days without any formal charge placed against him. Herndon refused to talk despite attempts to intimidate him, and he smuggled a letter out by another prisoner to the International Labor Defense (ILD), the legal arm of the CP, requesting assistance and legal representation.

When a judge threatened to release Herndon, the county’s assistant solicitor, John Hudson, charged him under 1804 and 1861 laws used to prosecute slaves for “inciting to insurrection,” which included a death sentence, and cited him for possession of Communist literature. As a result, he was indicted by an all-white grand jury and held for nearly six more months in the Fulton County Tower prison. While there he was forced to stay in a cell with a dead body, was given spoiled food to eat, became sick himself, and was denied medical treatment.

Chronology

1913

Born in Wyoming, Ohio on May 6

1926

Leaves home with brother to work in Lexington, Kentucky coal mine

1930

Becomes labor activist and Communist after moving to Birmingham, Alabama

1932

Organizes multiracial protest in Atlanta, Georgia; is arrested and jailed

1933

Tried and convicted of inciting insurrection; returns to prison

1934

Released on bail after case becomes international cause for activists

1937

Publishes autobiography; conviction is overturned by U.S. Supreme Court

1938

Marries Joyce M. Chellis

1942

Edits Negro Quarterly publication with writer Ralph Ellison in New York City

1950

Lives quietly in Chicago after leaving Communist Party and other activism

1997

Dies in obscurity on December 9

Leaves Communists and Activism for Quiet Life in Chicago

By the mid-1940s Herndon had become disillusioned with the CP; he left both the party and New York for a very private existence in Chicago. He shared details from his radical past with only a few close friends and consistently declined public appearances and interview requests.

Angelo Herndon died on December 9, 1997. His notorious life as a young man stood in sharp contrast to his obscurity in middle and later years, but he made an important contribution to the African American community with his courage and great personal sacrifice. The Chicago-based playwright OyamO staged a production based on Herndon’s life, Let Me Live , in 1991 and 1998, demonstrating that Herndon’s life and activism continued to have significance.

Herod [next] [back] Hernandez, Juano (1901–1970)

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