Patterson, Louise 1901–1999
Louise Patterson 1901–1999
Cultural critic, activist
Before her death in 1999, Louise Thompson Patterson was the last surviving personality of the Harlem Renaissance. Although she was not actually one of the creative names associated with this flowering of African American culture in New York during the 1920s and 1930s, Patterson was a friend and confidant of many of the writers, musicians, and artists of the movement. She also played a key role in developing the movement’s leftist political stance. An economist who worked for a variety of labor-friendly political organizations, Patterson was also attractive and vivacious, a popular hostess known for her ability to gather leading radical and creative minds at her Convent Avenue apartment for elegant dinners and raucous discussions.
Patterson was born Louise Alone Thompson in Chicago in 1901. Her family moved several times during her formative years, and they eventually settled in Oakland, California in 1919 after living in several western cities. In 1923, she became one of first African Americans to earn a degree from the University of California at Berkeley. A woman of any color with an economics degree from a prestigious school still faced discrimination in the job market, and Patterson was unable to find work. She moved to Chicago to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Chicago, but left school to become a teacher in the South. She took a job in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in 1925, and was hired the following year at the Hampton Institute in Virginia.
Patterson was already of a firm mind about certain issues, and she experienced problems with Hampton Institute’s predominantly white administration. When students protested some rather demeaning official campus policies—such as a movie theater that was brightly lit to discourage necking, or a Hampton chorale’s practice of serenading white visitors on Sundays with plantation songs—Patterson supported the demonstrators. She was frequently at odds with the school’s administration, and was strongly encouraged to seek employment elsewhere.
In 1928, Patterson moved to New York after she had been awarded an Urban League fellowship to study at the New School for Social Research. She initially considered pursuing a career in social work as an excellent means of addressing social and economic injustice. However, Patterson quickly realized that the social welfare agencies of the day fostered a sense of
At a Glance…
Born September 9, 1901, in Chicago, IL; died August 27, 1999, in New York, NY; married Wallace Thurman (a writer; separated after six months and divorced) married William L. Patterson (a political activist), 1940; children: Mary Louise. Education: Earned degree (cum laude) from University of California at Berkeley, 1923; studied at the University of Chicago, c. 1924, and at the New School for Social Research, late 1920s.
Career: Worked for a Chicago firm, c. 1924; teacher in Pine Bluff, AR, 1925–26; Hampton Institute, Hampton, VA, 1926–27; affiliated with the Congregational Educational Society, New York City, 1930–33; worked for Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston as an editorial secretary; National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, assistant national secretary, 1933–34; International Workers’ Order, organizer after 1934, and national recording secretary; affiliated with the Civil Rights Congress in the 1950s; co-founder of its Sojourners for Truth and Justice women’s auxiliary.
dependency. At the same time, she was living in Harlem and meeting some of the more radical thinkers of the era. Patterson became a friend of William Patterson, an African American lawyer who had been part of the legal team on the infamous Sacco and Vanzetti case. Through the influence of people like William Patterson, her political convictions began to shift even more to the left.
For a brief time, Patterson was married to a Harlem Renaissance writer, Wallace Thurman, but the couple separated after only a few months. She lived in one of Harlem’s affluent areas, and became friends with other figures associated with the burgeoning arts scene there, including the painter Aaron Douglas and his wife Alta. By 1930 Patterson had found work with the Congregational Educational Society, an organization that promoted better race relations through the growing organized labor movement. Patterson worked as an organizer for the CES, and also found work as an editorial secretary for Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston when they were working on Mule Bone, a folk comedy written in a rural black dialect. After Hurston allegedly became jealous of Patterson, work on Mule Bone was discontinued. For the rest of her life, Patterson was forced to deny rumors that she and Hughes had been romantically involved.
During the Great Depression of the early 1930s, Patterson continued to become increasingly involved in the American Communist Party, which was thriving in Harlem at the time. With Augusta Savage, an artist, she founded the Vanguard, a leftist Harlem social club, and from their soirees formed the Harlem branch of a group known as the Friends of the Soviet Union. Patterson served as secretary of the local chapter for a time, and organized a much-publicized, months-long excursion of several prominent members of the Harlem Renaissance and other rising young African Americans to the Soviet Union at the invitation of a state-run film studio in Moscow. A film was planned, entitled Black and White, that would portray the historical and contemporary oppression of both African American and leftist movements in the United States. Langston Hughes accompanied Patterson as one of the 22 African Americans who sailed for the Soviet Union in June of 1932. When the group arrived in the Soviet Union, they were treated like royalty. “For all of us who experienced discrimination based on color in our own land, it was strange to find our color a badge of honor,” Patterson wrote in an unpublished memoir, according to New York Times Magazine journalist Robert S. Boynton.
The film Black and White was never made. The film’s German director spoke neither Russian nor English, and was rather surprised that none of the African Americans slated to star in the film could sing or dance well. In addition, a Russian screenwriter who knew little about African American culture or history wrote the script. Reasons for the project’s cancellation were varied. Some claimed that the Soviet government had abandoned the film as part of a diplomatic-recognition deal with United States, “while Patterson’s group insisted that the movie had simply fallen victim to its own best intentions,” wrote Boynton, “a sentiment that earned her [Patterson] the sobriquet ‘Madame Moscow.’”
During her time abroad, Patterson traveled through Central Asia, and eventually returned to the United States when her mother fell ill. After 1933, she worked for the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, serving as assistant national secretary. She also officially joined the Communist Party. The infamous Scottsboro trial of the early 1930s also rallied Patterson’s organizational skills. In Alabama, nine African American youths from Scottsboro had been accused of sexually assaulting two white women on a train. All of the youths received death sentences or lengthy prison terms, despite dubious legal evidence against them. The Scottsboro case achieved tremendous notoriety, and was emblematic of the harsh, institutionalized injustices of the Deep South during that era. Patterson organized several Harlem events and a march on the nation’s capital to protest the plight of the Scottsboro defendants.
By 1935 Patterson was working on behalf of a strong, organized group called the International Workers’ Order, which had many chapters across the United States. The IWO was organized into chapters according to ethnicity, and offered low-cost insurance and other benefits to its members. The organization also fostered a political awareness through its newspapers and social halls. In 1938, Patterson and Langston Hughes founded the Harlem Suitcase Theatre. The tour company, funded by the IWO to provide a forum for African American playwrights, presented Hughes’s Don’t You Want to Be Free? as its debut performance.
Patterson married her longtime friend, William L. Patterson—by now one of the leaders of the American Communist Party—in 1940, and moved with him to Chicago. The couple worked for the IWO on the city’s predominantly African American South Side. After the IWO was ordered to dissolve by a 1947 decree from the U.S. Attorney General, the couple devoted their energies to the founding of the Civil Rights Congress. In its decade-long existence, the CRC grew in strength to 10,000 members, and helped forced passage of some early, significant laws that protected civil rights in the years before the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. The CRC also worked to publicize cases of racial injustice in the South, defended Communists convicted in the tense atmosphere of the McCarthy hearings and anti-Communist sentiment of the 1950s, and provided a training ground for many of the leaders of the civil-rights protests of the 1960s.
Patterson was active in the CRC’s women’s auxiliary, Sojourners for Truth and Justice, and continued to involve herself in political causes long after its dissolution. She even raised money for the defense fund of Communist Party member Angela Davis in the 1970s. Widowed in 1980, Patterson died in a New York nursing home in 1999. A daughter, Mary Louise Patterson, survived her. Langston Hughes’s 1942 collection of poetry, Shakespeare in Harlem, is dedicated to her.
Encyclopedia of the American Left, edited by Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas, Garland Reference Library of the Social Sciences, Garland Publishing, 1990.
Facts on File Encyclopedia of Black Women in America, edited by Darlene Clark Hine, Facts on File, 1993, pp. 149–150.
Los Angeles Times, September 19, 1999, p. 2.
New York Times, September 2, 1999, p. C20.
New York Times Magazine, January 2, 2000.
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