(b. 31 July 1915 in Brooklyn, New York; d. 17 March 2003 in Mountain View, California), historian, author, Marxist theoretician, and political activist.
Aptheker was the youngest of five children of Benjamin Aptheker, a successful manufacturer of women’s undergarments, and Rebecca (Komar) Aptheker, a homemaker; his parents were wealthy immigrants from Russia. When Aptheker was young a Trinidadian woman, Angelina Corbin, worked as the family domestic, dressing, bathing, and feeding Aptheker and inspiring a maternal love akin to his feelings for his mother. When the family later lost its fortune in the Great Depression, Corbin returned as a friend, further reinforcing Aptheker’s fondness for African Americans. He traveled with his father to Alabama on a business trip in 1932 and was stunned by the racial discrimination he witnessed. When Aptheker retuned north he described what he had seen in columns about racism in his school newspaper at Erasmus Hall High School. Still in high school, Aptheker became acquainted with the black activists Angelo Herndon and Richard B. Moore; the trio created the Negro Publication Society and reprinted classic books about black resistance.
Aptheker enrolled in Brooklyn’s Seth Low Junior College, where, he claimed, Jews and Italians studied to qualify for admission to Columbia University. After he graduated from Columbia University with a BS in geology in 1936, Aptheker studied history at Columbia University and wrote an MA thesis on Nat Turner, the nineteenth-century slave and leader of a famous slave revolt; he earned his MA in 1937. The precocious graduate student published articles in the journals Science and Society and Journal of Negro History and became a regular contributor to the Negro Digest. He joined the Communist Party in 1939.
Between 1938 and 1941 Aptheker published a series of history pamphlets on black revolts, military service by African Americans during the Civil War and the American Revolution, and the abolitionist movement in a format reflecting his desire that the black masses would find them inexpensive and accessible. He married his first cousin, the Communist Party labor organizer Fay Philippa Aptheker, on 2 September 1942. They had a daughter, Bettina, who would become a writer and activist.
Aptheker enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 and was sent to officer training school. Later he commanded an otherwise all-black unit, which saw action in Europe during World War II. Aptheker gained the rank of major before his discharge in 1946. While in the service he authored History of the Armed Ground Forces of World War II. Returning to civilian life, he finished graduate studies, earning a PhD from Columbia University in 1943; his doctoral thesis, American Negro Slave Revolts (1943), became a famous and controversial refutation of then-current racist historiography that emphasized black servility in servitude. The historian Herbert Shapiro later contended that, whatever the responses to Aptheker’s study were, “discussion of slavery has never been quite the same.”
Despite his scholarship and military service, Aptheker’s Communist Party membership meant no university would hire him. Undaunted, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship (1946–1947) and in 1951 published the first of seven volumes of The Documentary History of the American Negro. In 1946 he had become secretary to the African-American activist and historian W. E. B. Du Bois, initiating a friendship that lasted until the latter’s death in 1963. During the next decades Aptheker edited a forty-volume reissue of Du Bois’s works, a massive bibliography, Du Bois’s last autobiography (1968), and a three-volume edition of his letters. Aptheker also conceived of a twelve-volume Marxist history of the United States, of which International Publishers printed three volumes covering the colonial period through George Washington’s first presidential administration before the project was suspended in 1976. In his work Aptheker criticized the cult of objectivity in historical writing, contending that only careful but partisan scholarship could describe the horrors of slavery or of Jim Crow segregation.
Aptheker was an associate editor for the important journal Masses and Mainstream (1948–1953) and was an editor at Political Affairs (1953–1963) while writing pioneering articles and pamphlets on black history and contemporary affairs. He founded the American Institute of Marxist Studies in 1964. His 1957 book, The Truth about Hungary, caused controversy when Aptheker, a supporter of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, argued that the majority of Hungarians supported the Soviet invasion of their country that year. In 1966 Aptheker made a controversial trip to Hanoi, Vietnam, and Beijing, China, accompanied by Staughton Lynd, a professor at Yale University, and Tom Hayden, a founder of the activist group Students for a Democratic Society. Although the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned the government’s ban on passports for Communists, the State Department continued to try to restrict Aptheker’s travel.
Despite academic blacklisting of his scholarship and politics, Aptheker lectured frequently at college campuses, first at Bryn Mawr College in 1969, then as the Du Bois Lecturer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1971 and 1972, at the Hostos Community College of the City University of New York between 1971 and 1977, and at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1970s. But trustees and professors at universities met any attempt to give him a regular position with stony opposition. Most notorious of these rebuffs was at Yale University, where the famed scholar C. Vann Woodward in 1975 publicly opposed Aptheker’s proposal to teach a course on Du Bois. After demonstrations by angry students, the university relented, and Aptheker offered the course in the political science department to throngs of listeners.
In 1976 Aptheker ran for U.S. Senator from New York on the Communist party ticket. He was opposed by the incumbent Republican Senator James Buckley and the Democratic candidate, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Aptheker received twenty-five thousand votes, losing the election. During his campaign a professional hit man blackjacked Aptheker in the street. After the election the Apthekers’ daughter invited her parents to join her in San Jose, California. They moved there in 1977 and lived there until their deaths. The African-American activist and academic Angela Davis’s sister, Fania, a student at the law school at the University of California, Berkeley, arranged for Aptheker to teach there. He also taught undergraduates at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, in the early 1980s. Aptheker died of complications of pneumonia in 2003.
As younger historians became inspired by his courage and his prolific work matured, Aptheker received acclaim later in his life. He published more than three dozen works in his lifetime. The historians Herbert Shapiro and Gary Okihiro edited Festschrifts in Aptheker’s honor, featuring articles about him by many noted scholars. Even Aptheker’s obituary in the New York Times (20 March 2003) was controversial, as critics denounced it as a whitewash of a man they condemned as a party hack. Others contended that the obituary failed to recognize Aptheker’s uncompromising Left politics.
A bibliography of Aptheker’s work to 1986 is included in Gary Y. Okihiro, ed., In Resistance: Studies in African, Caribbean, and Afro-American History (1986). Discussion of Aptheker’s work is in Herbert Shapiro, ed., African American History and Radical Historiography: Essays in Honor of Herbert Aptheker (1998). Some biographical information is in Robin D. G. Kelley, “Interview of Herbert Aptheker,” Journal of American History 87, no. 1 (June 2000): 151. An obituary is in the New York Times (20 Mar. 2003).
Graham Gao Russell Hodges