Hewing to the party line wasn't always easy

September 24, 1991|By Mike Bowler and Gilbert Sandler

THE COMMUNIST PARTY, if we are to believe the pundits, is dead. Gone! Kaput! Given the ultimate "nyet!" by people around the world. It took more than 70 years for the people of most of the Soviet provinces to give up on the idea; but for a foreshadowing of what was going to happen, they should have come to Baltimore in 1951. More about that later.

Baltimore's Communist Party traces it origins to a strike against the B&O Railroad in 1877. In elections following the strike, half the voters in Baltimore voted for socialist candidates of the "Workingman's Party." From that strength, and nurtured by the problems of the Depression, the Communist Party emerged.

In the 1930s, Baltimore was designated by national party leaders as District 4 and was made up of about 20 "cells" -- separate units of 20 or 30 members. Some of the shadowy history of communism in Baltimore came to light in the life and times of Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers. Hiss, a Baltimorean and City College graduate, was the darling of the Department of State who was accused by Chambers, a former editor of Time and admitted communist, of being a "fellow traveler." The case made headline news. Hiss was found guilty of perjury in 1950 and served a term in prison. He lives in retirement in New York.

The party focused its recruiting on companies with many blue-collar workers: Bethlehem, Glenn L. Martin, Maryland Shipbuilding and Drydock. Often, national leaders such as Earl Browder and William Z. Foster were guest speakers. The party held rallies, often in War Memorial Plaza across from City Hall, to mark Lenin's birthday and May Day, and fielded candidates in local elections (it never garnered more than a tiny percentage of the vote).

After World War II, during which the American communists supported the Allies and were among the earliest to recognize the evil in Adolf Hitler, most of Baltimore's communists went underground. They maintained low-profile headquarters, successively, on Eutaw Street, Franklin Street and in the 200 block Liberty Street.

The communist witch hunts of the late 1940s and early '50s were not among the city's shining hours. In 1949, complying with laws requiring loyalty oaths and federal acts that effectively outlawed the party, city, state and federal authorities began to arrest known communists and to sentence them to jail, often for minor or fabricated crimes. Among those who served time were Maurice Braverman, the party's lawyer; Leroy H. Wood, its treasurer and George A. Meyers, a long-time local and national party leader. In 1952, Meyers spent 30 days in jail for refusing to name others in the party. One Evening Sun headline of the time: "FBI Informer Calls Meyers Key State Red."

What was left of the membership lacked the resources to carry on. Postwar prosperity and ideological differences with Soviet communism proved too much for Baltimore's communists, and the local party all but disappeared. It held no more rallies; it fielded no more candidates.

A few months after the wave of arrests, in August, 1951, a reporter visited party headquarters on the third floor of the 200 block Liberty Street.

He wrote, "The mailboxes were jammed with unopened mail, mostly periodicals. All three of the windows were shut tight. The shades of two of them were neatly evened; the third deviated from the party line."

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