African Blood Brotherhood

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African Blood Brotherhood

The African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) was the first black organization in the twentieth-century United States to advance the concept of armed black self-defense on behalf of African-American rights. It was founded in September 1919 by the West Indian radical Cyril Valentine Briggs.

A semisecret, highly centralized propaganda organization, the ABB was a product of the upsurge of militant racial consciousness enshrined in the New Negro movement that arose following America's 1917 entry into World War I. Formally entitled the African Blood Brotherhood for African Liberation and Redemption, it was organized specifically in response to the convulsions spawned by the race riots that swept various cities in the United States during the summer of 1919 and caused it to become known as the Red Summer.

Formation of the brotherhood was announced in the October 1919 issue of Briggs's magazine Crusader, which became the official organ of the ABB. With Briggs as its executive head, the group was governed by a supreme executive council that included Theo Burrell (secretary), Otto E. Huiswoud (national organizer), Richard B. Moore (educational director), Ben E. Burrell (director of historical research), Grace P. Campbell (director of consumers' cooperatives), W. A. Domingo (director of publicity and propaganda), and William H. Jones (physical director).

Combining revolutionary Bolshevik principles with fraternal and benevolent features, the ABB warned in its recruiting propaganda that "Those only need apply who are willing to go to the limit!" (Hill, 1987, vol. 2/2, p. 27). From its inception, the brotherhood was aligned with the nascent Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Along with fellow West Indians Otto Huiswoud (from Suriname) and Arthur Hendricks (from Guyana), Briggs was among the party's charter members at the time of its founding.

As the first black auxiliary of the CPUSA, the brotherhood served as a vehicle for Communist recruitment efforts in black communities. It also was the mechanism through which the party attempted to exert ideological influence on other black organizations, most notably against Marcus Garvey's leadership of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).

Although it derived symbolic inspiration from the "blood brotherhood ceremony performed by many tribes in Black Africa" (Hill, 1987, vol. 5/3, pp. 6, 32), the ABB was modeled on the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which dated back to 1858 and the founding of the Irish Fenian movement. The group's ritual was said to resemble that of a fraternal order, with the regular trappings of degrees, passwords, signs, initiation ceremony, and a brotherhood oath. Organizationally, it comprised a series of posts, such as the Menelik Post in New York, directed by individual post commanders.

Membership in the brotherhood was by enlistment, making it difficult to reconstruct even an approximate number of members. It is doubtful, however, that membership ever consisted of more than a few hundred. Commentators such as W. A. Domingo and Claude McKay, who were adherents of the brotherhood, even asserted that the ABB was never more than a paper organization.

The only public demonstration the ABB is known to have mounted occurred in August 1921, during the second annual international convention of Garvey's UNIA in Harlem, at which the ABB attempted unsuccessfully to lobby convention delegates outside Liberty Hall in support of the link proposed by the ABB with UNIA. Prior to this, in June 1921, the group was catapulted into national attention, if only briefly, by a race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma; the media linked the resistance raised by the Tulsa African-American community with ABB organizers. The ABB was also involved in the All Race Conference of Negroes, better known as the Negro Sanhedrin, which met in Chicago in February 1924, with Briggs as secretary.

Self-described as a workers' organization, the ABB claimed to be "an organization workingopenly where possible, secretly where necessaryfor the rights and legitimate aspirations of the Negro workers against exploitation on the part of either white or black capitalists." In terms of its political program, one of ABB's distinguishing ideological features was its attempt to marry the principle of racial self-determination to the goal of revolutionary class consciousness. As stated in its program, the ABB sought "a liberated race" while working to achieve "cooperation with other darker races and with class-conscious white workers."

Liquidated in 1924 to 1925 by decision of the CPUSA (following the latter's shift from an underground organization to an aboveground movement), the ABB was replaced by a succession of front organizations subsequently set up by the party, most notably the American Negro Labor Congress and the League of Struggle for Negro Rights.

See also Black Power Movement; Communist Party of the United States; Huiswoud, Otto; Red Summer; Universal Negro Improvement Association


Foner, Philip S., and James S. Allen, eds. American Communism and Black Americans: A Documentary History, 19191929. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986.

Hill, Robert A., ed. The Crusader (19181922), 3 vols. New York: Garland, 1987.

Kuykendall, Ronald A. "African Blood Brotherhood: Independent Marxism During the Harlem Renaissance." Western Journal of Black Studies 26 (Spring 2002): 16.

robert a. hill (1996)
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African Blood Brotherhood