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Sat, 10.28.1893

Otto Huiswoud, Political Activist born

Otto Huiswoud

*Otto Huiswoud was born on this date in 1893. He was a black Surinamese political activist and journalist.

Otto Eduard Gerardus Majella Huiswoud was born in Paramaribo, a South American coastal city in Suriname. He was the son of Rudolf Huiswoud, a formerly enslaved person who had gained his freedom as a boy and was a tailor, working in the trade until he died in 1920. His mother, Jacqueline Bernard Huiswoud, originally hailed from the island of Curaçao. He was the fifth child and the second son in a family of eight siblings. As a boy, he was educated in Roman Catholic schools, with the educational system of the day for children aged 7 to 12. Huiswoud remained in school for five years, gaining exposure to Dutch, French, and German. Huiswoud attended the Roman Catholic Church on Sundays as an altar boy.

After school, he worked as an apprentice to a carpenter. After completing his education, he began a second apprenticeship, working under a printer. 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 in New York. He settled in Brooklyn, where he made ends meet by working various jobs as a printer, cook, and janitor.

In New York, Huiswoud encountered socialist arguments and literature for the first time. By 1916, he had become a member of the Socialist Party of America (S.P.A.), participating actively in the Young People's Socialist League at Cornell University, 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. The International Seamen's Union did not organize black crew members, 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.

News of the young leader of this Boston strike reached Socialist Party leaders, who offered Huiswoud a one-year scholarship to attend the Rand School of Social Science, the S.P.A.'s training school for party activists and trade union workers. He acquainted several influential figures in the history of the American worker.  Among them trade unionists and newspaper editor A. Philip Randolph and his associate Chandler OwenRichard B. MooreLovett Fort-WhitemanFrank Crosswaith, and Edward Welsh. Huiswoud found himself a supporter of the Left-Wing Section of the Socialist Party and participated in the formation of the Communist Party of America on September 1 of that year. Historians have recognized him as the first black member of the American Communist Party.

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 to promote black liberation and self-defense against the Red Summer of 1919. In the summer of 1922, Huiswoud became 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. Huiswoud was an official delegate of the Workers Party of America to the 4th World Congress of the Comintern, held in Moscow from November 5 to December 5, 1922. He addressed the assembled delegates on the situation facing black workers in the United States. He was elected head of the Congress's Negro Commission. He was instrumental in helping draft the thesis of the Comintern on the so-called "Negro Question" and four resolutions, all of which Huiswoud presented on the floor of Congress. Owing to his presence in Moscow, in the first week of December 1922, Huiswoud briefly served as the Communist Party's representative to the Communist International. 

He returned to America in 1923, legally entering the country on March 1 as a passenger on a ship called the Ryndam as a permanent resident of the United States. He served as the National Organizing Secretary of the African Blood Brotherhood. In February 1924, Huiswoud attended the so-called "Negro Sanhedrin," a national anti-racism conference, as one of two official delegates of the African Blood Brotherhood until the organization's termination. In June 1924, Huiswoud was a delegate to the St. Paul Convention of the Farmer-Labor Party, an attempt by the Workers Party of America to create and harness a mass political organization including the organized labor movement and disaffected farmers.

In October 1925, the Workers Party launched a new organization directed at American blacks to replace the defunct African Blood Brotherhood. The new group was called the American Negro Labor Congress. With the New York group in control of the party apparatus for most of this period, Huiswoud remained one of the organization's top-ranking black leaders. In March 1929, Huiswoud was a delegate to the 6th National Convention of the Communist Party, held in New York City. Following the 6th Convention, Huiswoud was chosen as one of ten delegates to travel to Moscow in support of the National Secretaries policies. Although the delegates presented a united front, the powerful American Commission ultimately decided to take decisive action by removing opposing factional leaders and sending them to work in other communist parties abroad.

In July 1928, the Red International of Labor Unions established a "Negro Section" dedicated to coordinating the activities of black workers from the Caribbean region and Sub-Saharan Africa. This would serve as the directing center for the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (I.T.U.C.N.W.), established in Hamburg, Germany, in July 1930. Headed by Trinidadian George Padmore, Huiswoud was named the editor of the I.T.U.C.N.W.'s monthly publication, The Negro Worker.  In 1933, after the nazi party came to power, Huiswoud moved to Copenhagen, Paris, the Netherlands, and back to Paris. In 1941, he arrived in Suriname. On January 31, 1941, he was sent to Copieweg internment camp as a communist propagandist until September 25, 1942. In 1947, he moved to the Netherlands and worked for the Dutch telephone company.

He was an active member in promoting the interests of Surinamese people living in the Netherlands. In 1954, he became the chairperson of Vereniging Ons Suriname. During his tenure, they started to demand a dominion status for Suriname. Otto Huiswoud died on February 20, 1961, in Amsterdam. He was 67 years old at the time of his death. His papers, archived under his wife, Hermina "Hermie" Dumont Huiswoud, reside at the Tamiment Library at New York University in two archival boxes. The use of the collection is open to scholars without restriction.

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