Pettis Perry, Communist Party official and Smith Act defendant, was born January 4, 1897 in Marion, Alabama, the son of tenant farmers.
Following his mother's death when he was four months old, he was raised by an aunt and uncle on their farm. His formal schooling totalled fifteen months. At age seventeen, Perry left home for a series of jobs at a plantation, lumber company, and pipe foundry. The discrimination and violence he witnessed in Alabama had a deep impact on him and he later said, “I was convinced that there must be some place in the United States where Negroes were treated as men and women--as Americans with the full rights as other citizens. I went everywhere--north, south, west and east--constantly searching.”
During World War I, Perry was a civilian employee of the United States Army in Tennessee and Georgia and a construction worker in Norfolk, Virginia. In 1919 and 1920, he worked in the Midwest as an iron moulder, construction worker, hod carrier, and meat packer.
In December 1920, he arrived in San Bernadino, California where he was employed in a cement plant for two years. From 1922 to 1930, he worked primarily as a migratory worker in California and Arizona, in the agricultural fields during the spring and in cotton seed oil mills during the fall and winter. During this period, Perry was also a laborer and railroad gang worker throughout the West and a salmon canner in Alaska. From 1930 to 1934, he worked solely in the cotton seed oil mills in California. At this time he began a period of intensive “reading and study” in an effort to better understand current political issues.
In February 1932, while employed at the Pacific Cotton Oil Company, Perry met members of the International Labor Defense (ILD) and became familiar with the Scottsboro Case through the Daily Worker and the Liberator. In September 1932, he joined the Communist Party, “convinced by now in everything I had heard and seen, and from everything I had learned, that the best fighters in these struggles--in Imperial Valley, in the fight for the Scottsboro boys, in the unemployed councils, in the fight for freedom--were the Communists”. Perry served as Executive Secretary of the ILD for Southern California and Arizona and was the Communist Party's candidate for Lieutenant Governor of California in 1934. By 1936, he had left the ILD to work as a section organizer for the Communist Party. He ran for office again twice, for the State Board of Equalization in 1938 and for California Secretary of State in 1942.
Perry moved to New York in 1948 to become Secretary of the Party's Negro Commission, where he had a voice in ideological questions and recommended policies and programs concerning discrimination, increased job opportunities, equal pay, the right to vote, and membership in unions. In 1950 he became Chairman of the Farm Commission which attempted to improve the conditions of small farmers and sharecroppers and to forge alliances with industrial workers. Perry was also elected an alternate member of the National Committee in 1950. With the 1949 trial and subsequent imprisonment of eleven of the Party's front-rank leaders, including Eugene Dennis, Benjamin J. Davis, Harry Winston, and Gus Hall, for conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the government by force or violence under the Smith Act, Perry assumed a greater leadership role in Party affairs and was himself indicted with sixteen others for conspiracy on June 20, 1951. Perry represented himself during a nine-month trial in which he argued that his activities and writings were an effort “through democratic means--by organization, legislation, and education in the marketplace of public opinion--to secure the Constitutional rights of the Negro people.” He was convicted in February 1953 and sentenced to three years in prison.
Following the appeals process, he entered the federal prison at Danbury, CT in January 1955. He was released in May 1957, having spent much of his sentence in the prison hospital suffering from high blood pressure.
Following his release, Perry returned to California and served on the Party's Southern California District Board. He began working on an autobiography and a history of the Congo (now Zaire), but by the early 1960s suffered increasingly poor health. In April 1965, he travelled to Scandinavia and the Soviet Union for sightseeing and medical treatment. He died of heart disease in a Moscow hospital on July 24, 1965. Perry, who was known to his friends as “Pete,” was married twice, in 1941 to Amy Foster, from whom he was later divorced, and in 1949 to Rose Manosa, who assisted him with his writings and was active in the Families of Smith Act Victims Committee. From his second marriage, he had two sons, Pettis Dennis and Frederick Douglass, and one stepson, Richard.
From the guide to the Pettis Perry papers, 1942-1967, (The New York Public Library. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division.)
|referencedIn||Guide to the James S. Allen Papers, 1920-1994||Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives|
|creatorOf||Pettis Perry papers, 1942-1967||The New York Public Library. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division.|
|referencedIn||Guide to the Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Photographs, 1895-1967||Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives|
|referencedIn||Guide to the Communist Party of the United States of America Records, 1892-2009||Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives|
|referencedIn||Guide to the Reference Center for Marxist Studies Pamphlet Collection, 1900-2004||Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives|
|associatedWith||Allen, James S.||person|
|associatedWith||Communist International. Negro Commission||corporateBody|
|associatedWith||Communist Party of the United States of America.||corporateBody|
|associatedWith||Families of the Smith Act Victims Committee||corporateBody|
|associatedWith||Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley||person|
|associatedWith||Reference Center for Marxist Studies.||corporateBody|
|Place Name||Admin Code||Country|
|African American communists|