U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Mabel Byrd’s race-conscious internationalism

These are the first two paragraphs of the chapter I’m currently polishing.
In the summer of 1927, black Oregonian and Harlem transplant Mabel Byrd prepared to leave the country of her birth for the first time. The Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) industrial secretary had won a Quaker scholarship to study settlement houses in England. To wish her well, Harlem society rallied around the 31 year old for a proper goodbye party. Roberta Bosley, librarian at the New York Public Library branch on 135th street (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), hosted a musical tea in Byrd’s honor on Easter Sunday afternoon. The Chicago Defender reported that “two hundred prominent social, literary, and musical persons enjoyed the program.”[1] Listening to the music and nibbling on tea sandwiches were Harlem Renaissance personalities, and veterans of European travel, including poet Countee Cullen, painter Aaron Douglass, and Crisis literary editor Jessie Fauset. Also in attendance were Mr. and Mrs. Charles S. Johnson, editor of the Urban League’s Opportunity. In between piano, soprano, and tenor solos, Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps read poetry. Many of her Delta sorority sisters eagerly shared with Byrd their own stories of international travel. Soror Yolande Du Bois and her parents, W. E. B. and Nina, would miss their feisty and intelligent friend, but promised to write.

During her journey abroad, Mabel Byrd increasingly inhabited a race-conscious internationalism, which united respect of black accomplishments with attraction to communist ideology about workers’ rights. She was able to unite what white leftists thought immutably separate—race consciousness and socialism.[2] Her travels led her to protest against pacifism and interracialism, articulating an understanding of activism much more common during the Civil Rights Era than her own.  When Byrd arrived in England to study the settlement house movement, she wrote to Du Bois asking for materials on the Fourth Pan-African Congress to distribute to her new acquaintances. She was sad to miss the Congress, but excited to be taking in the complicated reality of Europe. By the end of the summer, she had found a position at the International Labor Organization (ILO), connected to the League of Nations. Her job was to research the status of African workers in the Mandate regions. Countee Cullen and Juliette Derricotte visited her in Geneva and she stayed with the Robesons and Alain Locke in London. She distributed New Negro Renaissance literature to the young people of other races working at the League of Nations, sharing ideal visions of a harmonious world with them. In her letters to New Negro leaders, Byrd articulated a passionate political perspective rather than concentrating on the tourism part of her journey. While Derricotte returned from her trips abroad advocating a “spirit of cooperation,” Byrd argued that the only way forward was by directly confronting white supremacy, whether it was embodied in imperialist government or patient, sweet-seeming Christian ladies.[3] Throughout her journey, Byrd challenged black male radicals who “replicated contemporary gender notions of women as wives and mothers of the race who should be concerned with maintaining their physical beauty and raising future revolutionaries,” as Minkah Makalani explains.[4] The challenge was implicit in her actions rather than communicated in her few extant letters and speeches.

[1] In 1933, Byrd reported her age as 34, but the census names her as 14 years old in 1910. “1910 Census” (Canonsburg Borough, Washington County, Pennsylvania, April 29, 1910), www.ancestry.org; “Mabel Byrd Registration Blank, Second Amenia Conference”, 1933, Box 95-13 Folder 523, Spingarn Papers MSRC.
[2] Minkah Makalani, In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 88–89.
[3] Juliette Derricotte to YM and YWCA Presidents, November 20, 1924, Box 90-2 Folder 45, Slowe Papers MSRC.
[4] Makalani, In the Cause of Freedom, 48.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Lauren, this is nicely written, and it seems to me that you “cut to the chase” quite nicely in the second paragraph.

    I cannot even imagine — though soon enough I won’t have to — the process of writing even a dissertation, though theoretically I know how it’s done:

    One. Paragraph. At. A. Time.

    No way to shortcut that process. But nice to know that it’s possible to get through it. I am guessing that the process of dissertation -> book is *slightly* less fraught. But maybe that’s a story I’m telling myself so I can just get to the next step in the process…

  2. Lauren, I found this blog via your posting on H-AFRO-AM. This is a timely academic gift to my own projects! I look forward to reading more about Mabel Byrd thanks to your work. I wish you the best as you continue your project.

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