Otto Huiswoud (1893-1961)

Otto Huiswoud and Claude McKay in Moscow, 1922
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Otto Huiswoud and Claude McKay in Moscow, 1922
Image Ownership: Public domain

Otto Huiswoud was the first black member of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), as well as one of its founders. He was born in Paramaribo, Suriname (then the Dutch colony of Surinam), on October 23, 1893, to Rudolf Huiswoud, an ex-slave, and Jacqueline Bernard Huiswoud. In Surinam, Huiswoud worked as a printing apprentice until shipping out on a Dutch banana boat in 1910. In 1913 he jumped ship in Brooklyn, New York, to escape poor conditions on board and began working odd jobs in New York City to support himself.

In New York, Huiswoud was exposed to Socialism by speakers in Union Square, a park and political action hub in Manhattan. When working on a pleasure boat in the summer of 1918, he led a strike of black crew members and drew the attention of the Socialist Party leadership. They offered him a one-year scholarship to the socialist Rand School, which he accepted. As a result, he began a lifelong involvement in politics.

Huiswoud was a charter member of the CPUSA, which began as an underground organization in 1919. As an official American delegate, he attended the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, held in Moscow, Russia, in 1922, where he spoke about challenges facing African-American workers. In response, the Congress established the Negro Commission, a body responsible for addressing these issues, and appointed Huiswoud its chairman.

During the 1920s, Huiswoud also was involved in the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), a radical black liberation group. With his help, the CPUSA absorbed the ABB in 1924. He helped found a similar organization as an official arm of the Communist Party, the African Negro Labor Congress, in 1925. His involvement in Communism continued, and he became the editor of The Negro Worker, a Communist publication, in 1933 while living in Europe.

Due to anti-Communist pressure from European governments, Huiswoud had to move between Belgium, Holland, and France in the 1930s before returning to the United States in 1939. Dutch authorities arrested him when he moved to Surinam in 1941, and upon his release the next year, the United States refused him entry. Huiswoud moved to the Netherlands after World War II, where he lived for the rest of his life. Otto Huiswoud died in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, on February 20, 1961.