By Victor Grossman, living in Germany:
A few days ago Frank Lumpkin died, a true American hero. I am still
grateful that I was lucky enough to know not only him but his whole
big fighting family!
I was fresh out of Harvard, a red diaper New York radical in 1949, set
on working in a factory and the union movement, where, I was
convinced, the main decisions would be made. There were no jobs in
Syracuse, where I first landed, so the party organizer gave me a tiny
note saying: Hattie Lumpkin, 263 Watson St. He had no money, nor did
I, so I hitched my way and found the address, right in Buffalo's black
ghetto. In a rocking chair on the veranda of a rickety wooden house
was a rather plain looking woman; maybe the grandma, I thought. Could
she tell me where to find Hattie Lumpkin? With just a little twinkle
in her eye she answered the naïve looking white kid: "That's me, son!"
She took me in, fed me some southern dish (with okra), and sent me to
stay with white comrades across town. "No sense being conspicuous if
you want a job!" But first she slipped a ten dollar bill into my hand.
I got a job and kept strictly to myself for the 3 month probation
period. Even after that, often on late shift, the next year and a half
was very lonely for me, a technical imbecile, trying not to betray my
college upbringing in the worsening McCarthy hysteria. The one thing
that saved me was the warmth I found in the Lumpkin house. I found
that Hattie, her husband, the grandma and ten sons or daughters had
moved up from Orlando to find a halfway decent life. One daughter,
Jonnie, later known as Pat Ellis, got in with a leftist crowd and
joined the Young Communist League. Hattie, still religious, wanted to
throw her out. But one by one Jonnie won them all over, including her
mother, who became a leading Buffalo Communist - a fighter loved by
all in the neighborhood, especially those whose evictions she helped
reverse. Jonnie, a leader in the youth movement, she recruited over a
hundred new members in one campaign, got a job at Bell Aircraft, and
made a fighting speech from the wing of a new plane while leading the
campaign to get African-Americans including herself off jobs like
sweeping and into production. She was a fighter.
And so was her brother Frank, a powerful boxer and then a steelworker,
like several of his brothers, when there were jobs, that is. Frank
told me in those days of his dreams of a better world, and even
thought of how good life might be some day on a genuine cooperative
But the world was cold in Buffalo in those McCarthy years. Spiting it,
young ghetto people and white ex-students like myself formed a
defiantly jolly, singing group of the new Labor Youth League- that was
the child of American Youth for Democracy which was the child of the
Young Communist League, with each child smaller than its parent.
When the pleasure liner to Crystal Beach in Canada decided not to sell
tickets to "single males" the group went to test them; our white
"single males" got tickets; our black "single males" got none. We
complained. Before we knew it two cops appeared. We continued to
complain, peacefully, until one cop hit Frank over the head. While the
blood poured, and we shouted, the second cop drew his pistol.
Immediately Jonnie (Pat), nine months pregnant, threw her arms around
her brother's neck, weeping loudly and hysterically. It was an act,
all right, one which probably saved him. Months later we were able to
get Frank acquitted of attacking a cop. Before Buffalo, I knew nothing
of ghetto life; my only acquaintance with African-Americans had been a
couple of intellectuals. I hated racism but knew very little about it.
I learned plenty!
I was drafted soon afterward, had Mcarthy trouble and fled the country
(and the army). So I never met Hattie, Frank, Bessie Mae or Gladys
From abroad, over the decades, I heard occasionally about Jonnie, a
leader in Harlem and then, with her active, fighting husband Henry
Ellis, in Chicago. And even more about Frank, and how he led laid-off
steelworkers of Chicago in the long, hard battle for their rights.
What an extraordinary family, a real American epic of fighters and
leaders! For me, the Lumpkins were an education and an inspiration for
as long as I have lived. For Frank, a true hero, we can only say