The Deportation of Claudia Jones

This is the final installment in a three-part series on Claudia Jones. Read the first and second installments.

Claudia Jones in a group portrait with Harry Winston and others in Moscow, 1962-1963 (Photo: Schomburg Center).

At the height of the Cold War, the United States federal government used one of its most important tools against foreign radicals; deportation. Established during the first red scare, deportation capitalized on the fear that radical ideas were imported by foreigners rather than homegrown. In 1919, Attorney General Mitchell Palmer tasked the young J. Edgar Hoover to find a way to legally punish foreign radicals, since it was not illegal to be an anarchist, communist, or socialist. Using left-wing literature, Hoover began to create the legal framework that would be used to deport foreign born radicals. A 1918 Immigration Act allowed for the legal deportation of individuals linked to radical organizations. This would lay the foundation for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s treatment of radical foreigners during the Cold War.

Claudia Jones, a Trinidad-born communist leader, was arrested first in 1948 under the 1918 Immigration Act, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began to try to build a case to get her deported. She was arrested again in 1951 with other Party leaders and charged under the Smith Act. The Smith Act made it illegal to advocate or be a member of an organization that advocated the violent overthrow of the United States government. Before Jones’ trial even started, the federal government gained a new tool in its conflict with foreign radicals, the McCarran Walter Act of 1952, popularly known as the Immigration and Nationality Act. The Act allowed for the deportation of “dangerous, disloyal, or subversive” persons. Even US citizens were not safe, as it was used to revoke Black activist’s passports if they refused to sign an affidavit claiming they were not members of the Communist Party. The State Department used this to seize Paul Robeson’s passport effectively destroying his ability to make a career as an entertainer. The implications for Jones and other foreign radicals were dire. In the fall of 1952, Jones and her fellow Smith Act defendants went on trial, with deportation for the foreign born, like Jones, a distinct possibility. Found guilty in January 1953 and sentenced to one year and one day in jail and a $2000 fine, Jones began serving her sentence after a failed appeal in January 1955, at a segregated Federal Reformatory for women in Alderson, West Virginia.

Her imprisonment and the constant threat of deportation weakened Jones’ already compromised health. Jones’ health had been precarious since she contracted tuberculosis as a teenager and spent time in a sanatorium. Her health worsened throughout her legal ordeal and lengthy imprisonments. In 1953, only thirty-eight years old, she suffered heart failure and spent nearly a month in the hospital. She was also treated for hypertension and had to get a salt-free diet in prison. Supporters tried, to no avail, to secure early release because of Jones’ poor health, and would later fight her deportation based on her poor health and inability to receive adequate healthcare abroad.

The FBI bided its time until Jones’ deportation. Her sentence was to last until January 1956, but she could be credited seventy days for good behavior as long as the second component of her sentence, the two-thousand dollar fine, was taken care of as well. The Bureau watched intently for her release date so that Jones could be turned over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and sent to Ellis Island to await deportation. INS officials, in turn, were waiting for word of her final release to take her into custody. The question of where Jones would go was not just on American minds. While in prison, Jones was visited by a British representative. She was told that they would accept her entrance into England, though the government did not exactly welcome her back because of her political affiliations. Jones suspected that she was allowed in England rather than Trinidad because British officials did not want to send a radical agitator to a colony where locals were organizing.

Meanwhile her friends were organizing to try and keep Jones in the country and ensure proper treatment in prison. A delegation of friends, including her father Charles Cumberbatch, Paul Robeson, and communist leaders James Ford and William Patterson went to the board of parole to get her out of the segregated facility and ensure that her health was being attended to. The INS and other government offices regularly received letters from social justice organizations, both in the United States and from Europe, protesting Jones’ pending deportation. The American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born, a New York-based civil rights defense group, began organizing for the repeal of the McCarran Walter Act and in Jones’ defense.

In addition to these legal initiatives, her supporters also sought out the media. William Foster, Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) leader and Jones’ friend, wrote an article for the Daily Worker to urge organization on Jones’ behalf. He noted the fiction represented by the Statue of Liberty; the statue was meant to represent refuge, but the reality was that immigrants could not find that in the US. Foster noted that under both imperialist and capitalist influence, the US welcomed in “reactionaries, adventurers, and riff-raff” while rejecting social justice advocates. Foster also noted the false charges Jones was convicted of, i.e. the claim that she advocated the overthrow of the government, describing them as “stupid,” and noted that Jones’ ill-health did not stop the authorities from trying to remove her immediately from the country. Foster called Jones’ deportation a crime against civil liberties and urged all progressives to stand up against the tyranny inherent in anti-communist policies.1

All these efforts, however, were in vain in the face of the violent anti-communist hysteria that gripped Cold War America. Jones had permanent resident status, but it could not protect her from continued legal assaults. Jones was finally released from prison in October 1955, her lawyers managed to secure a stay on the deportation orders while they challenged it. After trying to challenge the deportation order and secure a stay, Jones’ health would not permit her to continue her legal challenges. She made an agreement to leave voluntarily on December 9, 1955. After living in the United States for thirty-two years, Jones was officially deported. A delegation of her friends and family saw her off and her friend Mildred Edelman traveled to England with her on the ship Queen Elizabeth. The FBI followed her to the ship and watched to make sure she did not leave her cabin once there.

Carol Boyce Davies claims that with Jones’ deportation, the radical Black feminist was deported. But while many of Jones’ contemporaries would be imprisoned, or scared into silence, later generations would pick up the mantle and redefine Black left feminism. Jones’ influence on Black feminist socialism is seen in the Combahee River Collective, and in figures like Angela Davis. However, Davies’ claim that deportation served as another tool to limit the American left’s influence is irrefutable. Davies has argued that deportation is one of the ways the United States creates and defines “desirable citizens.” Jones never accepted her deportation and instead described it as an exile. For Davies, that language meant that Jones was embracing her identification as a Black American.

In an interview after her expulsion, Jones argued that the state sought to expel her because of her identification with oppressed Black Americans, and because of her West Indian descent. Both her radical political activity and her diasporic identity made her what Davies calls a “deportable subject” and an undesirable citizen. Jones made it clear that she became a communist because of her Black American and foreign identification. American racism led Jones to communism and Jones in turn influenced American communists by introducing the lens of race to their analysis. She argued that Black Americans, despite class status, experienced “second-class citizenship,” despite the CPUSA mantra that class identity was most significant. Jones argued that communism taught her that race and class status were man-made and therefore, by finding their origin, they could be eliminated. These efforts led to her conviction and deportation.

Jones’ influence as a Black Nationalist socialist has left a mark in the Black Radical Tradition. Another legacy of her repression is the use of deportation against foreign radicals. While advocating radical ideologies by itself is protected first amendment speech, federal agencies found ways to argue that Jones, and other communists, were calling for the violent overthrow of the American government. They did so by creating an apparatus on questionable legal authority that allowed for the expulsion of undesirable elements. But in their zeal to alienate and eliminate Black Radicals, the federal government made an important omission, that it was right here in the United States where Jones forged her radicalism. Claudia Jones maintained a devotion to her radical beliefs until her life was cut short less than ten years after her deportation. Though her time in England was short, Jones left a legacy there as well as a member of the British Communist Party and the founder of Notting Hill’s Carnival. Today she is buried in London, at Highgate cemetery next to Karl Marx.

  1.  William Foster, “Defend Claudia Jones!” Daily Worker, 10 November 1955, p. 5.
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Denise Lynn

Dr. Denise Lynn is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Indiana. Her research centers on women in the American Communist Party during the Popular Front. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLynn13.