Herbert Aptheker

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Herbert Aptheker
Herbert Aptheker.png
Aptheker transferring W. E. B. Du Bois papers to University of Massachusetts, 1973
Born(1915-07-31)July 31, 1915
DiedMarch 17, 2003(2003-03-17) (aged 87)
Alma mater Columbia University
Occupation Marxist historian, editor, activist
Notable work
American Negro Slave Revolts, Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, History of the American People, The Correspondence of W. E. B. Du Bois, Anti-Racism in U.S. History
Political party Communist Party USA, Peace and Freedom Party
Spouse(s)Fay Aptheker (1942–1999)
Children Bettina Aptheker

Herbert Aptheker (July 31, 1915 – March 17, 2003) was an American Marxist historian and political activist. He wrote more than 50 books, mostly in the fields of African-American history and general U.S. history, most notably, American Negro Slave Revolts (1943), a classic in the field. He also compiled the 7-volume Documentary History of the Negro People (1951–1994). In addition, he compiled a wide variety of primary documents supporting study of African-American history. He was the literary executor for W. E. B. Du Bois.


From the 1940s, Aptheker was a prominent figure in U.S. scholarly discourse. David Horowitz described Aptheker as "the Communist Party’s most prominent Cold War intellectual". [1] Aptheker was blacklisted in academia during the 1950s because of his Communist Party membership. He succeeded V. J. Jerome in 1955 as editor of Political Affairs , a communist theory magazine.


Early life and education

Herbert Aptheker was born in Brooklyn, New York, the youngest child of a wealthy Jewish family. [2]

In 1931, when he was 16, he accompanied his father on a business trip to Alabama. [3] There he learned first-hand about the oppression of African Americans under Jim Crow Laws in the South. [4] The trip proved shocking and life-altering for Aptheker, who upon his return to Brooklyn began writing a column called "The Dark Side of The South" for his Erasmus Hall High School newspaper [5]

Aptheker graduated from high school in the spring of 1933, during the Great Depression. Although admitted to Columbia University, he was unable to gain admission to the main campus of Columbia College, which had already filled a quota set for Jews by college president Nicholas Murray Butler. [5] Instead, Aptheker was relegated to enrolling at Seth Low Junior College in Brooklyn Heights, [5] a satellite school established by Butler as a de facto dumping ground for Jews [6] and ethnic Italians admitted in excess of Butler's quotas. [5]

During his time at Seth Low, Aptheker was first drawn into political activity, helping to organize anti-war rallies and speaking on behalf of the communist-backed National Student League (NSL) and the socialist-backed Student League for Industrial Democracy. [7] He began reading the Communist Party's daily newspaper, The Daily Worker, at this time as well as the party's literary-artistic monthly, The New Masses, [7] although he did not yet become a member of the party.

After two years at Seth Low, Aptheker was allowed to enroll at Columbia's main campus in Morningside Heights in Manhattan, but not with full status as a member of Columbia College. Instead, he was classified as a "university undergraduate", which placed him on track for a lesser Bachelor of Science degree rather than the higher-status Bachelor of Arts, which he received in 1936. [5] At Columbia, Aptheker continued to engage in the anti-war movement, both through the NSL and the American League Against War and Fascism, a broader mass organization of the Communist Party during its Popular Front period. [7]

Aptheker earned his Master's degree from Columbia in 1937 and a Ph.D. in 1943 from the same institution. [8] In September 1939, he joined the Communist Party USA. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in sociology in 1945.

Marriage and World War II

In 1942 Aptheker married Fay Philippa Aptheker (1905–1999), a first cousin who was also a native of Brooklyn. [9] She was a union organizer and political activist. They were married for 62 years, until her death. [1] [ unreliable source ] Their daughter, Bettina, was born in 1944 at the U.S. Army Hospital in Fort Bragg, North Carolina during Aptheker's service in World War II. [9]

Aptheker participated in Operation Overlord, the invasion of northern France; by 1945 he had been promoted to the rank of Major in the artillery. He commanded the all-black 350th artillery unit. [10] In December 1950, after failing to respond to the U.S. Army's letter of inquiry about his Communist political activity, he lost his commission after an honorable discharge. [10]

Work in the South

Returning with his family to the South after the war, Aptheker became an educational worker for the Food and Tobacco Workers Union. Shortly afterward, he served as secretary of the "Abolish Peonage Committee," which had been established in 1940 by activists in New York and Chicago, with the support of the International Labor Defense (IDL), an arm of the Communist Party. "Peons" in the South, the vast majority of whom were African American, were typically rural sharecroppers who became tied to plantations by the debt they owed to the plantation owners, or to local merchants. This practice had effectively maintained African-American slavery after the Civil War in all but name. [11] [12]

Given repeated publicity about peonage abuses, in 1941 Attorney General Francis Biddle had directed all federal prosecutors to "actively investigate and try more peonage cases." On the verge of entering World War II, the US would make more effort to reduce rural peonage. [12]

Similarly, southern states had run convict leasing programs, hiring out convicts to industries and taking the fees as revenue. Several southern states had banned convict leasing to industries in the early 20th century: Tennessee, South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Arkansas and Florida by 1923. [12] [11]

Research in African-American history

Aptheker's master's thesis, a study of Nat Turner's slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831, laid the groundwork for his future work on the history of American slave revolts. Aptheker revealed Turner's heroism, demonstrating how his rebellion was rooted in resistance to the exploitative conditions of the Southern slave system. His Negro Slave Revolts in the United States 1526–1860 (1939), includes a table of documented slave revolts by year and state. His doctoral dissertation, American Negro Slave Revolts, was published in 1943. Doing research in Southern libraries and archives, he uncovered 250 similar episodes.

Aptheker set forth historiographical arguments, challenging some conservative histories, most notably the perspective in the writings of Georgia-born historian Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, who was considered part of the Dunning School at Columbia University. Historians of this group had been critical of Reconstruction and argued that slavery was no worse than urban labor conditions. Phillips had characterized enslaved African Americans as childlike, inferior, and uncivilized; he argued that slavery was a benign institution; and defended the preservation of the Southern plantation system. Such works had been common in the field before Aptheker's scholarship.

Aptheker long emphasized W. E. B. Du Bois' social science scholarship and lifelong struggle for African Americans to achieve equality. In his work as a historian, he compiled a documentary history of African Americans in the United States, a monumental collection which he started publishing in 1951. It eventually resulted in seven volumes of primary documents, a tremendous resource for African-American studies.

Post-war activism

During the 1950s and the period of McCarthyism, Aptheker was blacklisted in academia because of his membership in the Communist Party. He was unable to obtain an appointment as a university lecturer for a decade. Aptheker served on the National Committee of the CPUSA from 1957 to 1991. For several years in the 1960s and 1970s, he was executive director of the American Institute For Marxist Studies. In 1966, he ran in the U.S. House of Representatives election in New York's 12th Congressional District for the Peace and Freedom Party; he received 3,562 votes. Given his work on African-American documents and history, Aptheker was chosen by W. E. B. Du Bois to be his literary executor.

A strong opponent of the Vietnam War, Aptheker lectured on the subject on college campuses nationwide. From 1969 to 1973, Aptheker taught a full-year course annually in Afro-American History at Bryn Mawr College. Aptheker died at age 87 on March 17, 2003, in Mountain View, California. His wife had died in 1999. [2]

Allegation of child abuse

Bettina Aptheker is a professor of feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In her 2006 memoir, Intimate Politics, she claimed that she was sexually abused by her father from the age of 3 to 13. Her memories of the events began to arise in 1999, after her mother's death and when she was working on a memoir. She sought counseling for her dissociation and recovered memory. [13] She also wrote that she and her father reconciled before his death in 2003. [14]

Her assertion caused great controversy among historians and activists. Some raised questions about her credibility; others questioned the Old Left's desire to bury the news, and still others wondered at how to look at Aptheker's work in view of this information. [14]

In her memoir, Bettina Aptheker wrote more at length about her father's work on African-American history. She thought that he celebrated black resistance in part "to compensate for his deep shame about the way, he believed, the Jews had acted during the Holocaust." [14]

The controversy about her claims about her father continued for months, with many essays and letters published on the History News Network hosted by George Mason University. In November 2007, the historian Christopher Phelps published an overview of the issues. He also wrote that he had interviewed Kate Miller, who had been present during Bettina Aptheker's 1999 conversation with her father about the abuse, and confirmed her account. [15]


Works featuring an introduction or foreword by Aptheker

Works edited by Aptheker


  1. 1 2 Horowitz, David (November 10, 2006). "The Political Is Personal". Front Page Magazine. Archived from the original on December 27, 2012. Retrieved February 11, 2011.
  2. 1 2 Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher (April 19, 2003) [March 20, 2003]. "Herbert Aptheker, 87, Dies; Prolific Marxist Historian". The New York Times. Retrieved December 18, 2010.
  3. Gary Murrell, "The Most Dangerous Communist in the United States": A Biography of Herbert Aptheker. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015; pg. 4.
  4. Murrell, "The Most Dangerous Communist in the World," pp. 4-5.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 Murrell, "The Most Dangerous Communist in the World," pg. 5.
  6. Leeza Hirt, "Columbia for Jews? The Untold Story of Seth Low Junior College," The Current, Fall 2016.
  7. 1 2 3 Murrell, "The Most Dangerous Communist in the World," pg. 6.
  8. Francis X. Gannon, Biographical Dictionary of the Left: Volume 3. Boston: Western Islands, 1972; pp. 215-218.
  9. 1 2 Aptheker, Bettina F. (2006). "Beginnings". Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel . Emeryville, Calif.: Seal Press. pp.  9–10. ISBN   1-58005-160-X.
  10. 1 2 Robin D.G. Kelley, "Interview of Herbert Aptheker," The Journal of American History, vol. 87, no. 1 (June 2000), pp. 151–167
  11. 1 2 Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, 2009
  12. 1 2 3 [https://bento.cdn.pbs.org/hostedbento-prod/filer_public/SBAN/Images/Classrooms/Slavery%20by%20Another%20Name%20History%20Background_Final.pdf Nancy O’Brien Wagner, "Slavery by Another Name: History Background", Twin Cities Public Television, 2012
  13. Aptheker, Bettina (2006-10-15). "'Did I ever hurt you when you were a child?". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 2006-10-30. Retrieved 2008-01-17.
  14. 1 2 3 "Doubts expressed about his daughter's story". 2006-10-30. Archived from the original on 2007-01-21. Retrieved 2008-01-17.
  15. Christopher Phelps, "Herbert Aptheker: His daughter's partner confirms molestation charge", The Nation, 5 November 2007, reprinted at History News Network, accessed 18 January 2012
  16. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40399859?read-now=1&seq=32#page_scan_tab_contents

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