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Elizabeth Bentley. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-109688).

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Bentley, Elizabeth Terrill (01 January 1908–03 December 1963), Communist party activist and government witness, was born in New Milford, Connecticut, the daughter of Charles Prentiss Bentley, a newspaper editor and department store manager, and Mary Burrill, a schoolteacher. After growing up in small towns in Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania, Bentley enrolled in Vassar College and in 1930 received an undergraduate degree in English. While at Vassar, she became involved in a variety of Socialist causes but did not demonstrate any interest in more radical left-wing ideas. For two years following graduation, she taught languages at the Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Virginia, but left in 1932 for Columbia University, where she earned her M.A. in Italian in 1935. While working on her graduate degree, she accepted a fellowship that took her to the University of Florence for the 1933–1934 academic year....

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Browder, Earl Russell (20 May 1891–27 June 1973), American Communist party (CPUSA) leader, American Communist party (CPUSA) leader, was born in Wichita, Kansas, the son of William Browder, an elementary school teacher, and Martha Hankins. Acute poverty and early politicization marked Browder’s childhood. Kansas was the epicenter of Populism—agrarian protest against federal mercantilist economic policies that protected industry but not agriculture. Wichita suffered a separate calamity: real estate speculation had brought sudden collapse and flight of 30 percent of the population. Even greater hardship befell the Browder family directly. When Earl was nine years old, a nervous breakdown disabled his father, forcing the boy to drop out of third grade to help support his parents and five siblings. At night William Browder tutored him in the “three r’s,” praised Populist heroes, and preached class struggle. Martha Browder imparted passionate anticlericalism, love of literature, and high expectations to all her children. Earl joined the Socialist party in 1906 but never fully overcame his intellectual deprivation. Indeed, he pursued self-improvement projects until his death....

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Burnham, Louis Everett (29 September 1915–12 February 1960), journalist, activist, and radical, was born in Harlem, New York, the son of Charles Breechford Burnham, a building superintendent, and Louise St. Clair Williams Burnham, a hairdresser. His parents had emigrated from Barbados to the United States in search of a better livelihood, and they bought their own property in Harlem and began providing rooms for new Caribbean immigrants. Burnham attended New York City public schools and graduated from Townsend High School in 1932. In the fall of 1932 he enrolled in City College. He became actively involved in student political activities, serving as president of the Frederick Douglass Society and vice president of the student council. Affable, charismatic, and a powerful orator, he often spoke on campus about racial injustice, the threat of fascism to world peace, unemployment, and the plight of American youth. He graduated from City College in 1936....

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Cannon, James (11 February 1890–21 August 1974), revolutionary communist and founder of American Trotskyism, was born in Rosedale, Kansas, to Ann and John Cannon, first-generation Irish immigrants. With the death of his mother in 1904, Jim Cannon began to fend for himself. He lived in a boardinghouse and worked in the rail yards. At the age of sixteen Cannon began to read socialist literature prominent in his father’s house. He returned to school, where he anchored the debate team for a year, but he ran out of money and had to again leave. Meanwhile Cannon and a young teacher, Lista Makimson, cultivated a relationship....

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Childs, Morris (10 June 1902–02 June 1991), Communist official and American intelligence double agent, was born Moishe Chilovsky in Kiev, Ukraine, the son of Joseph Chilovsky, a cobbler, and Anna Chilovsky. Joseph Chilovsky, a Jew, fled Tsarist oppression, arriving in America in 1910; he sent for the rest of his family late the next year. (In 1926 the spelling of their name was Americanized, and Morris became a naturalized citizen the following year.) In 1916 Morris went to work as an apprentice in his father's business; then he became a milkman. In 1919 he joined the Communist party in Chicago. Twice arrested for participating in street demonstrations, he soon became a protégé of future party leader ...

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Crouch, Paul Michael (24 June 1903–18 Nov. 1955), communist and later anticommunist informant for the United States government, was born in Moravian Falls, North Carolina. He was the first child from the 1899 union of Isaac Milas Crouch, a Baptist minister, and Emma Brewer. As a child Crouch enjoyed little formal schooling but read widely and enjoyed telling stories....

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Benjamin J. Davis. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-111435).

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Davis, Benjamin Jefferson (08 September 1903–22 August 1964), Communist party leader, was born in Dawson, Georgia, the son of Benjamin Davis, Sr., a publisher and businessman, and Willa Porter. Davis was educated as a secondary-school student at Morehouse in Atlanta. He entered Amherst College in 1922 and graduated in 1925. At Amherst he starred on the football team and pursued lifelong interests in tennis and the violin. He then attended Harvard Law School, from which he graduated in 1928. He was a rarity—an African American from an affluent family in the Deep South; however, his wealth did not spare him from the indignities of racial segregation. While still a student at Amherst, he was arrested in Atlanta for sitting in the white section of a trolley car. Only the intervention of his influential father prevented him from being jailed. As he noted subsequently, it was the horror of Jim Crow—the complex of racial segregation, lynchings, and police brutality—that pushed him toward the political left....

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Eugene Dennis. Front row, left, next to William Z. Foster and Benjamin Davis. Second row, left to right: John Williamson, Henry Winston, and Jacob Stachel. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-111436).

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Dennis, Eugene (10 August 1905–31 January 1961), American Communist party leader, was born in Seattle, Washington, as Francis X. Waldron, Jr.; he was to adopt the name he came to be known by in 1935. His father, the son of Irish immigrants, gave his son his own name but little else. The senior Waldron was a railroad worker and ne’er-do-well investor who drank heavily. Dennis’s mother, Nora Veigs, of Norwegian immigrant stock, died when he was eleven. Dennis attended the University of Washington for a single semester, dropping out to support himself....

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Amanda Khiterman and Michal R. Belknap

Dennis, Peggy (01 January 1909–25 September 1993), communist Party activist and journalist, was born Regina Karasick in New York City to Meyer and Berta Karasick, Jewish-Russian revolutionaries who in 1904 had traded the confines of czarist oppression for the capitalist society they despised. Determined never to assimilate once they settled in America, the Karasick family remained active in the socialist movement, even after the failed Russian Revolution of 1905, which dashed their hopes of returning home....

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Eisler, Gerhart (20 February 1897–21 March 1968), Communist journalist and politician, was born in Leipzig, Germany, the son of Rudolf Eisler, a philosopher, and Marie Ida Fischer. Eisler grew up in Vienna, Austria, where his father was an assistant professor without tenure (Privatdozent) at the university. The socialist sympathies of his parents, his own studies in anarchist and Marxist literature, writing for his school journal, and eventually his experiences as a young officer during World War I were all factors that influenced Eisler’s future. He was active in the revolution in November 1918 and joined the Communist party of German-Austria....

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Fischer, Ruth (11 December 1895–13 March 1961), Communist activist in Germany in the 1920s and later an American opponent of Stalinism, was born Elfriede Eisler in Leipzig, Germany, the daughter of Rudolf Eisler, a Jewish savant and writer, and Maria Ida Fischer. She became active during World War I in socialist politics as a student at the University of Vienna, where her father lectured in philosophy after 1901. In 1915 she married Paul Friedländer, a journalist, with whom she had her only child. She helped found the Communist party of Austria early in November 1918 and was placed under arrest on several occasions. Frustrated by the lack of revolutionary élan in Austria, she decided in August 1919 to leave her family and move to Berlin, which she saw as the key to social revolution in Central Europe. She divorced Friedländer and assumed the name Ruth Fischer....

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Ford, James William (22 December 1893–21 June 1957), labor leader and Communist party official, was born James William Foursche in Pratt City, Alabama, the son of Lyman Foursche, steelworker, and Nancy Reynolds, a domestic. Not long after his birth, the family began to use a new surname when a white policeman questioning his father insisted that “Foursche” was too difficult to spell and changed the name to Ford. The most traumatic experience of Ford’s boyhood was the lynching of his grandfather, a Georgia railroad worker. Ford started work at thirteen, joining his father at the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, where he worked as a water boy, mechanic’s helper, and then steam-hammer operator. Nevertheless, he managed to complete high school....

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Fort-Whiteman, Lovett (Dec. 1884–13 Jan. 1939), African American communist, was born Lovett Huey Whiteman in Dallas, Texas, the son of a former slave, Moses Whiteman, and his wife, Elizabeth Fort. In 1917 he changed his name to Lovett Fort-Whiteman, importing his mother’s maiden name into his own, when he joined the Socialist Party in Harlem and started his new career in the theater....

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William Z. Foster. [front row: left to right] Eugene Dennis, William Z. Foster, Benjamin Davis. [back row: left to right] John Williamson, Henry Winston, Jacob Stachel. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-111437).

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Foster, William Z. (15 February 1881–01 September 1961), American Communist party leader, was born in Taunton, Massachusetts, the son of James Foster, an Irish immigrant who worked as a carriage washer and livery stableman, and Elizabeth McLaughlin, an English immigrant. Foster grew up in poverty in Philadelphia’s Irish-Catholic slums, where his family moved when he was six. His mother bore her husband twenty-three children, most of whom died in infancy. Elizabeth had hoped that Foster would grow up to become a priest. Instead, he dropped out of school at age ten to support himself with a series of menial jobs....

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Gitlow, Benjamin (22 December 1891–19 July 1965), founder of the American Communist party, was born in Elizabethport, New Jersey, the son of Louis Albert Gitlow and Katherine “Kate” Golman, Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father operated a sewing machine in a New York shirt factory, and his mother took in boarders and did piecework at home. He attended Stuyvesant High School in New York City before becoming a clothing cutter. Growing up in dire poverty in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Gitlow heard tales of the Russian Socialist movement. He frequented Frederick C. Howe’s forum at Cooper Union and in 1909 joined the Socialist party, becoming the first native-stock member in his Harlem branch. Within a short time Gitlow was named branch organizer and was a member of the party’s county and state committees. He also headed the Retail Clerks Union of New York. Drawn to the ranks of the radical union, the Industrial Workers of the World, Gitlow drew the line at violence. He studied law for two years and in 1917 was nominated by his Socialist party district in the Bronx to run for the state assembly. A stirring orator, he was one of ten Socialists elected to office that year, and he adopted an antiwar stance. The outbreak of the Russian Revolution in November 1917 proved catalytic for Gitlow, who became a leader of the Socialist party’s militant left wing. Initially Gitlow refused to heed the call, largely emanating from foreign-language federations, for a Communist party, believing that the Socialist party could be radicalized. Consequently, Gitlow, along with ...

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Gold, Michael (12 April 1893–14 May 1967), radical intellectual and writer, was born Itzok Isaac Granich on the Lower East Side of New York City, son of Chaim Granich and Gittel Schwartz, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father was a storefront manufacturer of suspenders and a peddler but remained destitute all his life. Forced by economic stringency to leave school at age twelve, Mike Gold (at this point calling himself Irwin Granich) held a variety of jobs including night porter and clerk. He said he “had no politics … except hunger,” until he was nineteen. But Gold was radicalized in 1914 when he witnessed and experienced police beatings at a demonstration by the unemployed at Union Square in New York City....