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by Reginald Smith

Poster: All of the world’s nations are in international brigades by the side of the Spanish people

Of all wars fought, often times civil wars tend to be bring out the passionate worst in people. Spain’s Civil War was no exception in this regard. The Spanish Civil War occupies a special place in 1930s history. It is often regarded as the dress rehearsal for the later and much more devastating World War II given that sides taken and the weapons and strategies used presaged the new warfare that World War II would represent.

The Spanish Civil War was the culmination of years of conflict between conservative forces that supported the monarchy, landowners, a strong role for the Catholic Church, and the fascist innovations of Benito Mussolini, and liberal forces which demanded abolition of the monarchy, separation of church and state, and sweeping land reform. There had been tensions for years leading to political violence. By 1936, things had come to a boil when a coalition of liberals, socialists, and communists narrowly won a plurality in the Cortes (parliament). When the socialists refused to help form a government, a minority government was formed under a liberal Prime Minster Manuel Azaña. Tensions rose which culminated in a military coup d’etat against the Republican government by General Francisco Franco on July 17, 1936. However, their success was incomplete and left much of the country, including the capital Madrid, under the control of the Republicans.

The outbreak of conflict triggered an immediate global response. In addition to Moroccan mercenaries, Franco drew huge support from fascist regimes and sympathizers in Europe. Mussolini sent battle hardened troops direct from Ethiopia to support him while Hitler provided 25,000 tanks, artillery, and technical and military advisors. Hitler and his generals also used Spain to test new tactics that would be employed with ruthless effectiveness in World War II including the blitzkrieg and aerial bombardments of cities such as the complete destruction of the civilian town Guernica.

The Republican side was less fortunate, however, and was met with an arms embargo from the United States, United Kingdom, and France. Only Stalin from the Soviet Union was willing to provide support with vehicles, aircraft and other support. This proved to be a detriment to the Republican cause despite any other help as Stalin and the Communist International worked tirelessly to support the communist elements of the Republicans against the more liberal elements which often caused conflicts and made other nations more reticent to help a cause which some felt was linked to communism.

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade flag held by unidentified black soldier. This black soldier was one of the first Americans to die fighting fascism. The Spanish authorities had a quest in 2009 to put a name to him as they wanted to present his picture to President Barack Obama during his visit to Spain.

The tepid response of the liberal Western powers to support the elected government against an increasingly fascist rebellion by Franco galvanized many citizens to provide their own assistance. Eventually, the International Brigades, military units made up of volunteers from many countries, began to arrive in Spain to support the Republicans with funds, equipment, and manpower. There were many brigades including the famous American Abraham Lincoln and George Washington Battalions, the Irish Republican John Connolly column which was part of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, the Thaelmann brigade made of German anti-fascists and communists, culminating in as many as 35,000 total volunteers from around the world.

The Abraham Lincoln Battalion eventually included 3,000 volunteers. Most were communists, anarchists, or others with left-leanings from the US but others were liberals appalled by the rise of fascism and what it represented for the world. Between 80-100 of the Battalion volunteers were Black Americans. They were drawn to the cause for similar reasons but often with a twist due to the conditions Black America saw itself in at the time. With Jim Crow, lynching, and discrimination rife, there was a division on how to best obtain equal rights. There were the legacies of Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey which emphasized business and vocational training, with Garveyites also advocating immigration to Africa. There were also those who favored political activism to change US laws towards Blacks including liberals such as W.E.B. Dubois and the NAACP.

One of the key catalysts for Black American involvement in the Battalion was the invasion and occupation of Ethiopia by Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini. This act, and the cowardice in opposing it shown by the League of Nations and the wider international community, emboldened the fascists and angered Blacks worldwide. The war was over so quick, there was no organized effort to get foreign volunteers to intervene on Ethiopia’s behalf. Many Black Americans saw Spain as an alternate theater to strike back against the fascists.

The soldiers came from many backgrounds including adventure seekers, sympathizers, left-wing activists and communists. There were unskilled laborers who served in infantry and transportation and there were skilled personnel such as trained medical doctors and nurses. Overall, it was the first integrated fighting unit of Black and White Americans since the War of 1812.

Oliver Law photos: left with Jerry Weinberg (left), Oliver Law (right), center: Oliver Law behind the lines, right: Water carriers with Oliver Law

There were many memorable characters amongst the many Blacks who fought in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. Foremost was Oliver Law, who was a labor organizer and communist from Chicago. He fought with the brigade and ended up leading it for several days until his untimely death. He would be the first Black man to command a majority White military unit in war time.

Photo of James Yates
Though not prominent in war time, James Yates autobiography covering his service in the war gives us the most detailed recollection of the battalion and its Black soldiers. James Yates was born in Quitman, Mississippi as the son of sharecroppers but eventually hopped trains north to find jobs, landing in Chicago. He became a labor organizer amongst the service staff on the trains and it seems (though not directly stated in the book) he later became a close affiliate or member of the Communist Party after a move to New York City. Upon hearing about the plight of Spain he joined up with a group of other Americans who entered into Spain via France and fought for the Republican cause as a trucker for suppliers. He participated in various roles in the battles of Jarama and Brunete. During his time he met both Langston Hughes, who was acting as a war correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American, and Ernest Hemmingway. He finally had to return home after being seriously injured in battle in 1938. There were other valiant fighters such as two pilots, Paul Williams and James Peck, among whom Williams recorded five kills.

Photo left: Taken during ground training. James Peck is in the second row, second from left, to his right is Paul Williams. Photo right: Salaria Kee O’Reilly in Spain.

There were also members who provided medical assistance. Salaria Kee O’Reilly was the first Black nurse in the conflict. Hailing from Ohio, she went as part of a medical team to the International Medical Unit at Villa Paz. She provided medical assistance through the war and was injured three times. She eventually befriended and married one of her patients, John O’Reilly and they retired together to Akron after the war. At least two medical doctors also came, Arnold Donawa, a Howard trained dental surgeon from Harlem and another unnamed Howard medical student. In addition, Black American groups raised money in the US to purchase an ambulance for the Republicans.

Many famous persons visited including the already mentioned Langston Hughes and Ernest Hemmingway. Paul Robeson, the famous thespian and singer who was also known for his communist leanings and later persecution by McCarthy, came to sing for the troops.

In the end, the Republicans were not successful and they surrendered to Franco on April 1, 1939 from whence he went on to head a fascist dictatorship until 1973. In 1986, after democracy had been restored, surviving members of the International Brigades met in Spain to commemorate their involvement with the Republican cause. Oliver Law was one of them and then decided to write his memoirs so that this story and the men who participated in it would not disappear from history.

Photo: Langston Hughes
Photo credits: Poster and members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade images are from the website of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives – http://www.alba-valb.org/ – Please do visit their site, you can read more about the AL Brigade and the volunteers featured in this article. Langston Hughes – blackpast.org
References
Brandt, Joe (ed.) Black Americans in the Spanish people’s war against fascism, 1936-1939, New York: Veterans Abraham Lincoln Brigade, no date, ca. 1979
Collum, Danny Duncan & Berch, Victor A. (eds.) African Americans in the Spanish Civil War: “This ain’t Ethiopia, but it’ll do” New York: G.K. Hall, 1992.
“O’Reilly, Salaria Kee”, in African Americans in the Military by Reef, Catherine, New York: Facts on File, 2010.
“Spanish Civil War (1936-1938)” in African Americans at war: an encyclopedia, Volume 1, Sutherland, Jonathan (ed.) Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004.
Yates, James Mississippi to Madrid: memoir of a Black American in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Greensboro: Open Hand Publishing, 1989.

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  • Alfred

    Great article. Absolutely great article. But only because it was well written but also it shows how black people did not just sit on the side-lines of great historical events. They were active participants of them and shake them. Some think as a black person I was not taught in school and sadly not much has changed since then.

    I also think it’s great because I’m writing a book about the influential roles black Europeans played in European civilisation. Here in Europe the history of black Europeans is as unknown as Atlantis. So thanks for that one.

    Once again great article.

  • Paulutions

    This is a wonderful, if brief, article. I’d like to see it as part of a series.

  • Reggie

    Thanks for your comments on the article! Given the scope of the magazine, we unfortunately cannot do a full series on this topic, however, the books quoted below the article give a wonderful and greater detail description of the events and characters involved. I would highly recommend them or any other book about foreign volunteer regiments in the Spanish Civil War.

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