Williana Burroughs was born on January 2nd, 1882 in Petersburg, Virginia. At age four her mother, an ex-slave, moved them to Manhattan shortly after the death of her father. Barely a generation removed from slavery Williana Burroughs would grow up to be a dedicated and highly effective Black communist woman. She would organize poor, Black, and immigrant communities in New York, run for public office on the Communist Party (CP) ticket, and spend almost 12 years of her life working in the Soviet Union. This phenomenal life, however, began in abject poverty.
While in New York, Williana’s mother worked as a cook and struggled to support her family. Eventually, Williana would be made to spend seven years in Harlem’s Colored Orphan Asylum and would not be reunited with her mother until age 11. Nevertheless, Williana excelled as a student and in 1902 she graduated from what is now Hunter College and began work as a public-school teacher. In 1909 she married Charles Burroughs, a postal worker. Burroughs was soon fired from her teaching job when New York Public Schools implemented a ban on employing married women. It was the loss of this job that would further radicalize her.
Frustrated and searching for ways to alleviate her people’s suffering Burroughs eventually joined the American Negro Labour Congress in 1926 and then became a local and national organizer for the Communist Party in 1927. Burroughs’ political activity would increase drastically with her membership in the Communist Party.
Under her party name, “Mary Adams,” Burroughs was an active contributing writer for left and Black publications such as The Daily Worker and Working Woman. She penned numerous articles tackling issues of education and racial discrimination. In 1928, Burroughs made her first four trips to the Soviet Union and in the summer of that was one of two Black Communists chosen to attend the Communist International’s (Comintern) Sixth Congress held in Moscow. She traveled to Moscow with her two children, ten-year-old Charles, and seven-year-old Neal. While in Moscow Burroughs was an active participant in the discussion on the Negro Question. She courageously took the CPUSA to task for its “underestimation” of women’s work and Black women’s issues. Standing before the Comintern as the first Black woman ever to address the Third International, Burroughs also criticized the US, French, and British communist parties for their shameful work on issues of race and anti-colonialism She argued that the CPUSA had failed to develop a practical plan for organizing the rural south and charged that it had only devoted a handful of effective organizers to other black communities. She also drew attention to the CP’s lack of providing resources to the ANLC and the absence of any Black communist in the Party’s leadership.
As a solution to these issues, Burroughs called for more resources for organizing Black communities and more Black communists in the CPUSA’s leadership. She also argued that a successful campaign to organize Black people would depend on organizing Black women, West Indian and African immigrants, youth, and the unemployed as well as building strong ties with anti-imperialist struggles in the Caribbean. Of the many resolutions adopted by the Sixth Congress including the Black Belt Nation Thesis, none incorporated Burroughs's attention to women in thinking about organizing Black people. Despite this disappointment, Burroughs' time in Moscow was not wasted as she became crucial in organizing key initiatives among Blacks in the Comintern.
When the Comintern’s Red International of Labor Unions took charge of organizing Black workers in the African Diaspora, Burroughs was key to developing its organizational rationale. In several reports, she outlined the specifics of discriminatory practices carried about by US trade unions that led to a decrease in union membership among Black people. She also worked alongside James Ford, William Patterson, Garan Koyaté, Jomo Kenyatta, and Frank Macaulay to define the basis for the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers a dynamic organization with an anti-imperialist, communist, and Pan-African focus. In preparation for the organization’s founding in Hamburg, Burroughs produced reports covering child labor, trade union organizing among Black women in the US and Caribbean, and the need for a party apparatus for Negro Women in the United States.
After her return from Moscow Burroughs became active in the leadership of the Harlem Tenants League (HTL) one of the crucial sites of Black communist women’s activism. The HTL was committed to facilitating Black people’s economic survival and alleviating Black women’s exploitation. They organized protests, rent strikes, stopped evictions, and demanded enforcement of housing regulations that protected tenants’ rights. Burroughs also served on the executive board of the League of Struggle for Negro Rights (LSNR) and led the group’s women’s division. She also worked on the editorial board of the group’s newspaper the Harlem Liberator and helped organize mass action around Scottsboro and housing issues. It was her work in LSNR that boosted Burroughs' reputation as an effective Communist.
Taking notice of Burroughs’ competence and popularity the Communist Party nominated her to run for Comptroller of New York City in 1933 and Lieutenant Governor of New York State in 1934. She was the running mate for gubernatorial candidate and CP organizer Israel Amter. Together they advanced a political platform that called for jobs and insurance for the unemployed, an anti-lynching bill, and the right for workers to form unions and demand higher wages. Though Burroughs and Amter did not win the election they received almost 31 000 votes the most any Communist candidate running for New York public office had ever received.
In June of 1933, Burroughs was fired from a teaching position for a second time. This time for “conduct unbecoming of a teacher” as she and a white colleague Isidore Begun marched into the New York City school board meeting to protest the horrible conditions of Harlem schools and the city’s failure to provide lunch to children of unemployed parents. In October 1935 Burroughs decided to go back to the Soviet Union and would not return to the United States for 10 years. During WWI Burroughs worked as the only English-speaking shortwave radio editor and announcer for Soviet State radio. She earned a commendation at the war’s end and became known as the “Voice of Moscow.” Nevertheless, as early as 1940 Burroughs wanted to return home and petitioned Soviet officials for leave but they would not allow it as she was the only competent English-speaking radio announcer they had. Her husband Charles became ill in 1941 and died while Williana remained in Moscow.
Burrough was finally able to go back to New York in 1945 however, she was in ill health. A couple of months after her return to the US on December 24th, 1945 she died. The national Black Press and the New York communist press reported her death and lamented the loss of a distinguished and dedicated Black communist woman. While the voice of Williana Burroughs would no longer be heard on the airwaves of Moscow or in the streets of Harlem, she left behind an incredible legacy of educating and advocating for the poor and jobless, raising Pan-African consciousness, building worker’s anti-imperialist institutions, and insisting on the importance of the Black woman’s role in the revolutionary reorganization of society.
Harris, Lashawn. "Running with the Reds: African American Women and the Communist Party during the Great Depression." The Journal of African American History 94, no. 1 (2009): 21-43. Accessed November 28, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25610047.
Makalani, Minkah. "An Apparatus for Negro Women: Black Women's Organizing, Communism, and the Institutional Spaces of Radical Pan-African Thought." Women, Gender, and Families of Color 4, no. 2 (2016): 250-73. doi:10.5406/womgenfamcol.4.2.0250.
McDuffie, Erik S. Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism. Durham [NC]: Duke University Press, 2011.
Williana Burroughs. (2021, May 27). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Williana_Burroughs#/media/File:Burroughs-Williana-1933.jpg
Author: Khaleel Grant