Mystery surrounds the life of alumnus Homer Smith, who spent decades on an international odyssey to find a freedom in a place he could call home.
By Jack El-Hai
Illustration by Jean-François Martin
In the middle of World War II, Homer Smith was based in Moscow while working as the only black war correspondent on the Eastern Front. One day, after he paused in a rail station to write down a friend’s phone number, Soviet police seized him and accused him of spying by making drawings of the station and a nearby bridge. They found no drawings on Smith and soon released him, but this wasn’t the first time the police had detained him without cause. A longtime resident of the U.S.S.R., he began to feel that his life was at risk. Russia had grown dangerous for foreigners. The Soviet Union was no longer the sanctuary for seekers of racial freedom and opportunity that Smith had sought years earlier.
Smith was about to start a new chapter in his singularly unpredictable life. As he had done before, he decided he must leap across the globe to find a new home.
Today, 45 years after his death in 1972, Smith remains a mysterious figure, a man who seemingly fit in nowhere. He wrote under an invented name, discarded political beliefs like old clothing, fictionalized his life in his memoirs, and spent a lifetime searching for a home that would accept him. What was he looking for, and did he ever find it?
Fighting racism at the University
Even the circumstances of Smith’s birth are a puzzle. In its extensive investigations of him over several years, the FBI never determined whether he was born in 1898 or 1899 (other sources say 1910), and whether his hometown was Natchez or Quitman, Mississippi. As a young man of intense gaze and medium build, he moved to Minneapolis sometime after 1916 and, according to the University’s records, was enrolled between 1922 and 1928. By then he was already working as a postal clerk in Minneapolis. Advancing within the clerical ranks of the Post Office was one of the few professional career paths open to black men in the early 20th century.
At the University, Smith studied journalism and joined the staff of the Minnesota Daily. He often wrote about racial bias and discrimination in Minneapolis, and in 1922 he sent a letter to the editor of the Minneapolis Tribune protesting the newspaper’s inequitable inclusion of racial information in crime stories. On campus, he took an interest in the case of a fellow student, Frances McHie. In 1929, McHie, who was black, tried to gain entry to the School of Nursing. University President Lotus Coffman and Dean Elias Lyon blocked her, saying there was no local hospital that would allow McHie or other black nurses on staff to gain clinical experience. Hearing of her treatment, Smith wrote a critical letter to Coffman and was dissatisfied by the president’s response that McHie would be better off learning in a black school and working in a black hospital. Smith then published an editorial in the black-owned Twin City Reporter accusing the University of resistance to advancing equal rights. (McHie eventually prevailed when the Minnesota Legislature banned racial discrimination in the University’s admissions.)
This bigotry dispirited Smith. He wanted to get on with his life, and he was convinced that America offered no future for black Americans with skills and ambitions. Although he had brains, drive, and an incisive pen, no major daily newspaper would hire a black reporter, and Smith had to keep working at the Post Office, whose payroll was full of black students and college graduates. “I yearned to stand taller than I had ever stood[,] to breathe total freedom in exhilarating gulps, to avoid all the hurts that were increasingly becoming the lot of men (and women) of color in the United States,” he later wrote. His patience was running out. But what Smith was learning as a Post Office clerk would unexpectedly help him overcome his dismal prospects in his own country.
A casting call
In the early months of 1932, Smith heard that Mezchrabpom, a Soviet film production company, was interested in casting black Americans to appear in a movie project titled Black and White. Details of the film were sketchy, but a U.S. committee charged with choosing the cast and sending it to Russia described the movie as a sweeping panorama of the black American experience, one that would correct the lies of racists, capitalists, and imperialists who often twisted the history of blacks in America.
Smith wasn’t sure if he should abandon his home and career to be in a faraway movie. But the choice forced itself upon him. “One day, after some heated words in a restaurant about not getting waited on,” he wrote, “I made my decision.” He would have to pay his own way to Europe, but the chance to witness the social experiment underway in the Soviet Union, with its professed veneration of the working classes and disdain for racism, was irresistible.
Although only two of the 22 people selected for the cast had any acting experience, the group included an impressive mix of people who would play important roles in black American culture and politics for years to come. Langston Hughes, probably America’s best-known black writer, signed on, along with Harlem Renaissance author Dorothy West, future civil rights lawyer and California Superior Court Judge Loren Miller, National Urban League leaders Frank Montero and Henry Lee Moon, social activist Louise Thompson, and journalist Ted Poston.
In Russia, work on the film began badly. The director, a German named Carl Junghans, spoke English and Russian poorly and knew almost nothing about the lives of black Americans. He complained that many of his actors were too light-complexioned to convincingly play real American blacks, and he lamented their inexperience as singers of spirituals and slave work songs. Georgii Grebner, a Russian screenwriter, and Lovett Fort-Whiteman, a black American Communist who had lived in Russia for many years, had cooked up a highly improbable script that had pre-Civil War enslaved women dancing in ballrooms with their masters and climaxed with the invasion of Alabama by the Red Army to help striking black steelworkers.
Hughes declared this screenplay too absurd and ill informed about black American history to be filmed. He wouldn’t even try to doctor it. For weeks the cast had no script, rehearsals of musical numbers went terribly, and the film’s progress halted. Mezchrabpom officials sent the Americans to Odessa to get them out of the way until the movie’s future could be untangled.
Despite these setbacks, Smith and the other cast members felt at ease in the U.S.S.R., having lost what one American called “the ever-present thought that my dark skin must circumscribe my activities at all times.” Muscovites treated them as honored guests, insisted they take places at the front of buses and queues, invited them to a slew of parties, and viewed them as venerated representatives of an oppressed American working class. The cast enjoyed active social lives. “If I had been looking for racial equality in Russia, I found it so abundant that it proved . . . to almost amount to racial inequality,” Smith wrote.
Soon, under American pressure, Russian authorities cancelled the film. Smith and most of the cast members signed a statement protesting the decision, but it had no effect. Smith was among several of the Americans who chose to stay in Russia, and his experience in the U.S. Post Office made him a desirable catch. For three years he worked on a high salary for the Soviet postal system as a consultant, helping launch special delivery service in that vast nation.
In an interview with an American socialist newspaper, he expressed the benefits of working in the U.S.S.R. “For me, as a Negro worker, it is like being released from a straitjacket,” he said. “Here, for the first time in my life, I know my color is not a handicap.” The only racial discrimination he encountered in the U.S.S.R. came from white Americans, including a visiting woman who refused to share a train compartment with him, and U.S. Ambassador William Bullitt, who objected to a black man calling him “comrade.”
Political purges and war
In 1935, Smith’s supervisor in the postal service vanished in one of Joseph Stalin’s political purges, and the Soviet secret police suddenly seemed to be everywhere. Smith was shocked to learn of the disappearance and death of the Black and White scriptwriter, Lovett Fort-Whiteman, after another roundup. Smith then left government service and began contributing articles, under the pen name Chatwood Hall—a pseudonym he began using as a U of M student—to American black newspapers, often reflections on the life of a person of color in the U.S.S.R. By this time fluent in Russian, he profiled singer/actor and U.S.S.R. visitor Paul Robeson, tracked down the writer Alexander Pushkin’s great-granddaughter to learn about the family’s black ancestry, and reported on the ratification of a new Soviet constitution by a vote of 2,016 to 0 at the Eighth Congress of Soviets, where he was chilled to encounter Stalin in a back room.
Meanwhile, Smith had met at a New Year’s party and married a Russian woman, Marie Petrovna, and together they settled into a Moscow apartment. When Stalin took the country into World War II in 1939, Smith began writing for the Associated Negro Press, which fed war news to such black American newspapers as the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier. No other black American war correspondents covered events in Eastern Europe. “This was not a calculated achievement,” he later said. “I had just happened to be on the scene when the shooting started, and all of the civilian correspondents were placed on war footing.”
After the 24-month siege of Leningrad, Smith toured the city, entered the Russian Museum, and described to his readers how an enormous bomb left a crater in the center of the building, “stark witness that the Germans aimed only at military objects!” he wrote. In early 1944 he reported on the gruesome discovery of bodies from a notorious massacre of 22,000 Polish military officers in the Katyn Forest four years earlier. Soviet secret police had committed those murders, but censors prevented Smith from even hinting of that possibility. Smith was also on hand in Poland to report on the liberation of the Majdanek concentration camp, where he found evidence that the Nazis had sent to the gas chambers captured black Senegalese soldiers fighting for France.
His University experience unexpectedly flashed before him during a 1944 train trip. The train skirted Russia’s western border, and the man next to him remarked how similar the landscape looked to Minnesota’s. “That’s a fact,” Smith replied, and he learned that his companion was the war correspondent Harrison Salisbury (B.A. ’30). Together they searched their memories for a shared Minnesota experience. They discovered they had worked together at the Minnesota Daily and taken the same University classes. Smith unburdened his growing disenchantment with the Soviet system, along with its purges and privations. “And yet here he was still there,” Salisbury later remembered, “with no apparent way to get out.”
Escape from the U.S.S.R.
But Smith felt he must get out. As a foreigner, his safety in the U.S.S.R. was precarious, despite help and protection from fellow correspondents. In Moscow, Smith had met Lorenzo Taezaz, the Ethiopian ambassador. Taezaz invited Smith to move to Ethiopia to write for the government. In 1946 Smith obtained an exit visa without trouble from Soviet officials, but they would not surrender Petrovna. Smith had to leave his wife behind.
After arriving in Ethiopia, Smith edited the country’s only English language newspaper and badgered Soviet embassy workers to issue an exit visa for his wife. With the assistance of Taezaz, Petrovna joined him in 1947. Their two children were born in Addis Ababa.
Now feeling more secure in Ethiopia, Smith confided to American embassy officials his ultimate goal to renounce his Soviet citizenship and return to America. And that’s when the FBI began compiling a dossier on his past and present activities. The agency suspected Smith had been a Communist and Soviet mouthpiece. One FBI memorandum declared that he used his position as a journalist “to disseminate Russian propaganda in the form of protest against alleged racial discrimination and inequality in the United States.” It also warned of “the possibility that he may attempt to reenter this country . . . for the purpose of engaging in espionage or spreading propaganda for the Soviet Government.”
Those fears were all baseless. Smith simply wanted to see his American relatives again and resettle in a country where he didn’t feel anxious and out of place. In 1962, the U.S. State Department at last allowed him to return, 30 years after his departure from Minneapolis to Moscow. With Petrovna and their children, he came to Chicago, where his sister lived. In America’s anti-Red climate, he tried to establish himself as a critic of the Soviet Union. He wrote for Ebony magazine about the political purges, poverty, starvation, and disenchantment he had witnessed in Russia. Although black people did not face racism in the U.S.S.R., he reported, they certainly experienced state terror and a dismal standard of living. Black Americans, he concluded, “must certainly have been better off in the United States. . . . [t]he promised land we sought is here, in the country I left so long ago.” He was “a better American, I am sure, for having been so long away.”
Smith became an editor for a Chicago educational publisher and wrote a memoir, Black Man in Red Russia, in which he detailed his ideological and political transformation. Tellingly, he opened the book with a Spanish proverb: “A wise man changes his mind, a fool never.” Perhaps fearing the taint of Communist associations, Smith also withheld the truth about his involvement in the Black and White movie project—he denied being a cast member and told the story of the film as an outsider simply observing events. Smith died in a Chicago convalescent home in 1972, and his newspaper obituary did not mention his wife and children among his survivors. Another mystery.
Homer Smith’s contributions to journalism inspired the National Association of Black Journalists to posthumously grant him its Legacy Award in 2006. But his life represents more than praiseworthy journalism. It also shows how societies can fail their citizens. Starting at the University of Minnesota, he protested racism and struggled to feel that he lived in a just world that respected his worth and ambitions. In Minneapolis, the Soviet Union, and Ethiopia, he never believed he found freedom and opportunity, and it’s doubtful he reached his full potential when he returned to America. He deserved better.
Jack El-Hai is the author of The Nazi and the Psychiatrist, and he often writes about history.