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Thyra J. Edwards

Black Activist in the Global Freedom Struggle

Gregg Andrews

Publication Year: 2011

           In 1938, a black newspaper in Houston paid front-page tribute to Thyra J. Edwards as the embodiment of “THE SPIRIT OF AFRAMERICAN WOMANHOOD.” Edwards was a world lecturer, journalist, social worker, labor organizer, women’s rights advocate, and civil rights activist—an undeniably important figure in the social struggles of the first half of the twentieth century. She experienced international prominence throughout much of her life, from the early 1930s to her death in 1953, but has received little attention from historians in years since. Gregg Andrews’s Thyra J. Edwards: Black Activist in the Global Freedom Struggle is the first book-length biographical study of this remarkable, historically significant woman.


            Edwards, granddaughter of runaway slaves, grew up in Jim Crow–era Houston and started her career there as a teacher. She moved to Gary, Indiana, and Chicago as a social worker, then to New York as a journalist, and later became involved with the Communist Party, attracted by its stance on race and labor. She was mentored by famed civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, who became her special friend and led her to pursue her education. She obtained scholarships to college, and after several years of study in the U.S. and then in Denmark, she became a women’s labor organizer and a union publicist.


In the 1930s and 1940s, she wrote about international events for black newspapers, traveling to Europe, Mexico, and the Soviet Union and presenting an anti-imperialist critique of world affairs to her readers. Edwards’s involvement with the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, her work in a Jewish refugee settlement in Italy, and her activities with U.S. communists drew the attention of the FBI. She was harassed by government intelligence organizations until she died at the age of just fifty-five. Edwards contributed as much to the radical foundations of the modern civil rights movements as any other woman of her time.


This fascinating new biographydetails Thyra Edwards’s lifelong journey and myriad achievements, describing both her personal and professional sides and the many ways they intertwined. Gregg Andrews used Edwards’s official FBI file—along with her personal papers, published articles, and civil rights manuscript collections—to present a complete portrait of this noteworthy activist. An engaging volume for the historian as well as the general reader, Thyra J. Edwards explores the complete domestic and international impact of her life and actions.

Published by: University of Missouri Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-xii

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Introduction: “The Spirit of Aframerican Womanhood”

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pp. 1-6

Thyra J. Edwards, the granddaughter of runaway slaves, was an important labor, civil-rights, and peace activist and an internationalist, Pan-Africanist, and advocate of women’s rights in the first half of the twentieth century. A Texan who in her early twenties joined the Great Migration to the North, she was among a number of radical black women at that time who put their faith...

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1. Texas Roots of Rebellion under the Chinaberry Tree

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pp. 7-22

Born in Wharton, Texas, on December 25, 1897, Thyra Johnson Edwards was the oldest of five children, including sisters Thelma, Anna Bell, and Marian and brother George. Her parents—Horace Ferdinand Edwards and Anna Bell (Johnson) Edwards—had married in San Antonio but then moved to Wharton...

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2. Social Work and Racial Uplift in Gary, Indiana

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pp. 23-33

Between 1920 and 1932, Thyra Edwards built a national reputation as a social worker, club woman, speaker, and interracial activist in Gary, Indiana. So, too, did her sister Thelma. Although Thyra did not have the formal education that Thelma had at the time they moved to Gary, she took courses in nearby Chicago, where she established friendships and associations with some of the...

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3. Getting a Labor Education in Illinois, New York, and Denmark

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pp. 34-53

After moving to the South Side of Chicago in late 1931, Edwards continued her vocation as a social worker but stepped up her labor activism in the community. In the context of the deepening global economic crisis, she gained increasing exposure to radical politics. A growing commitment to labor education soon led her to attend a labor college in New York, and her search for answers...

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4. Chain Smoking and Thinking “Black” from Red Square to Nazi Germany

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pp. 54-70

Between April and August 1934, Edwards further immersed herself in international affairs through additional travels and independent field investigations in Sweden, Finland, the Soviet Union, Poland, Germany, Austria, and France. She did not leave Elsinore, Denmark, until April 9, but nothing could stop her from reaching Moscow in time for the May 1st festivities in Red Square. She...

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5. Building a Popular Front in Chicago

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pp. 71-87

Edwards played an important role in building Chicago’s Popular Front in the mid- to late 1930s. Because of her recent labor education at home and abroad, she was in demand as a speaker, writer, and labor publicist in community organizations and coalitions, especially those in which the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) was involved. Encouraged by her recent experiences in the...

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6. Conducting Educational Travel Seminars to Europe

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pp. 88-99

Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 underscored the importance of the Popular Front to check the spread of fascism. The grave threat to world peace posed by Hitler and Mussolini reinforced Edwards’s determination to link civil rights at home to the struggles against imperialism, theories of racial supremacy, and fascism in...

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7. With Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War

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pp. 100-116

Along with Constance Kyle, a white Chicago social worker and member of the National Negro Congress, Edwards left Paris for Spain in early October 1937 on behalf of the Social Workers’ Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy. For Edwards, the Spanish Civil War represented the central battleground...

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pp. 117-128

Thyra Edwards wearing a cap and robe made in Uzbekistan, circa 1936. Thyra Edwards addressing a group of Chicago women to raise money for a chil-dren’s home in Spain, February 1938. Photo courtesy of Chicago History MuseumThyra Edwards, left, and nurse Salaria Kea on a fund-raising tour for the Ameri-can Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy, with the ambulance they raised ...

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8. With Health Problems and Spanish Loyalist Refugees in Mexico

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pp. 129-143

By the summer of 1939, Edwards, disturbed by the Spanish Loyalists’ defeat and the outbreak of war in Europe, was facing ever-worsening health problems. The relentless pace of her political activities on behalf of Republican Spain had exhausted her, and to make matters worse, the Popular Front was dead as an...

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9. The Double V Years and Marriage in New York City

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pp. 144-165

In broken health, out of money, and politically depressed over the state of world affairs, Edwards virtually withdrew from public life after returning from Mexico in early 1940, but the United States’ entry into World War II would soon give her renewed energy for the Double V campaign—the fight for victory against fascism abroad and victory in the war against Jim Crow at home...

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10. The Final Years in Italy

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pp. 166-178

As Edwards looked to the postwar period to continue her efforts on behalf of civil rights, labor, and women’s rights, she at long last received a correct diagnosis of the health problems that had plagued her for nearly ten years. In 1946, a specialist in New York diagnosed her condition as arthritis deformans, or rheumatoid arthritis. When told by the doctor that there was no cure for the illness...

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pp. 179-184

From crawfish ponds in Wharton, Texas, to the bright lights of European capitals and the Kremlin, Edwards’s rebellion against “man’s inhumanity to man” was the driving force behind her global quest for freedom. As a black woman and left-wing activist who negotiated in a white man’s world, she spoke...


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pp. 185-210


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pp. 211-228


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pp. 229-243

E-ISBN-13: 9780826272416
E-ISBN-10: 082627241X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826219121
Print-ISBN-10: 0826219128

Page Count: 255
Illustrations: 14
Publication Year: 2011

Edition: 1