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Herbert Aptheker

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Herbert Aptheker

Herbert Aptheker
Born (1915-07-31)July 31, 1915
Brooklyn, New York
Died March 17, 2003(2003-03-17) (aged 87)
Mountain View, California
Alma mater Columbia University
Occupation Marxist historian, editor, activist
Notable work American Negro Slave Revolts, Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, History of the American People, The Correspondence of W. E. B. DuBois, Anti-Racism in U.S. History
Political party Communist Party USA, Peace and Freedom Party
Spouse(s) Fay Aptheker (1942–1999)
Children Bettina Aptheker

Herbert Aptheker (July 31, 1915 – March 17, 2003) was an American Marxist historian and political activist. He wrote more than 50 books, mostly in the fields of African-American history and general U.S. history, most notably, American Negro Slave Revolts (1943), a classic in the field, and the 7-volume Documentary History of the Negro People (1951–1994). He compiled a wide variety of primary documents supporting study of African-American history.

From the 1940s, Aptheker was a prominent figure in U.S. scholarly discourse. David Horowitz described Aptheker as "the Communist Party’s most prominent Cold War intellectual".[1] Aptheker was blacklisted in academia during the 1950s because of his Communist Party membership.


  • Biography 1
    • Early life and education 1.1
    • Marriage and World War II 1.2
    • Work in the South 1.3
      • Research in African American history 1.3.1
      • Post-war activism 1.3.2
      • Allegation of child abuse 1.3.3
  • Works 2
  • Footnotes 3
  • Further reading 4
  • Research resources 5
  • External links 6


Early life and education

Herbert Aptheker was born in Brooklyn, New York, the last child of a wealthy Jewish family.[2] In 1932, when he was 16, he accompanied his father on a business trip to Alabama. There he learned first-hand about the oppression of African Americans under Jim Crow Laws in the South. On his return to Brooklyn, he wrote a column for his Erasmus Hall High School newspaper on the "Dark Side of The South."

Aptheker attended Columbia University in New York City, from which he obtained a Bachelor's degree in 1936. Aptheker also earned his Master's degree in 1937 and a Ph.D. in 1943 from the same institution.[3] He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in sociology in 1945. In September 1939, he joined the Communist Party USA.

Marriage and World War II

In 1942 Aptheker married his first cousin, Fay Philippa Aptheker (1905–1999), also of Brooklyn.[4] She was a union organizer and also an activist. They were married for 62 years, until her death.[1] Their daughter, Bettina Aptheker, was born in 1944 at the U.S. Army Hospital in Fort Bragg, North Carolina during his service in World War II.[4] Aptheker participated in Operation Overlord, the invasion of France; by 1945 he had been promoted to the rank of Major in the artillery. Aptheker commanded the all-black 350th artillery unit (The Journal of American History, Vol. 87 No. 1 ) In December 1950, after failing to respond to the U.S. Army's letter of inquiry about his Communist political activity, he lost his commission after an honorable discharge (The Journal of American History, Vol. 87 No. 1).

Work in the South

Returning with his family to the South after the war, Aptheker became an educational worker for the Food and Tobacco Workers Union. Shortly afterward, he served as secretary of the "Abolish Peonage Committee." "Peons" in the South, the vast majority of whom were African American, were typically sharecroppers who became tied to plantations by the debt they owed to the plantation owners. This practice effectively maintained slavery beyond the Civil War in all but name.

Research in African American history

Aptheker's master's thesis, a study of Nat Turner's slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831, laid the groundwork for his future work on the history of American slave revolts. Aptheker revealed Turner's heroism, demonstrating how his rebellion was rooted in resistance to the exploitative conditions of the Southern slave system. His NEGRO SLAVE REVOLTS IN THE UNITED STATES 1526–1860 (1939), includes a table of documented slave revolts by year and state. His doctoral dissertation, American Negro Slave Revolts, was published in 1943. Doing research in Southern libraries and archives, he uncovered 250 similar episodes.

Aptheker challenged some writings, most notably those of Ulrich Bonnell Phillips. The latter had characterized enslaved African Americans as childlike, inferior, and uncivilized; argued that slavery was a benign institution; and defended the preservation of the Southern plantation system. Such works had been common in the field before Aptheker's scholarship.

Aptheker long emphasized W. E. B. Du Bois social science scholarship and lifelong struggle for African Americans to achieve equality. In his work as a historian, he compiled a documentary history of African Americans in the United States, a monumental collection which he started publishing in 1951. It eventually resulted in seven volumes of primary documents, a tremendous resource for African-American studies.

Post-war activism

During the 1950s and the period of McCarthyism, Aptheker was blacklisted in academia because of his membership in the Communist Party. He was unable to obtain appointment as a university lecturer for a decade. Aptheker served on the National Committee of the CPUSA from 1957 to 1991; for several years in the 1960s and 1970s, he was executive director of the American Institute For Marxist Studies. In 1966, he ran in the U.S. House of Representatives election in New York's 12th Congressional District for the Peace and Freedom Party; he received 3,562 votes.

A strong opponent of the Vietnam War, Aptheker lectured on the subject on college campuses nationwide.

From 1969 to 1973, Aptheker taught a full-year course annually in Afro-American History at Bryn Mawr College. Aptheker died at age 87 on March 17, 2003, in Mountain View, California. His wife had died in 1999.[2]

Allegation of child abuse

Bettina Aptheker is a professor of feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In her 2006 memoir, Intimate Politics, she claimed that she was sexually abused by her father from the age of 3 to 13. Her memories of the events began to arise in 1999, after her mother's death and when she was working on a memoir. She sought counseling for her dissociation and recovered memory.[5] She also wrote that she and her father reconciled before his death in 2003.[6]

Her assertion caused great controversy among historians and activists. Some raised questions about her credibility; others questioned the Old Left's desire to bury the news, and still others wondered at how to look at Aptheker's work in view of this information.[6] The historian Mark Rosenzweig wrote, "the truth about Herbert and Bettina is inaccessible to us."[7]

In her memoir, Aptheker wrote more at length about her father's work on African-American history. She thought that he celebrated black resistance in part "to compensate for his deep shame about the way, he believed, the Jews had acted during the Holocaust."[6]

The controversy continued for months, with many essays and letters published on the Christopher Phelps published an overview of the issues. He also wrote that he had interviewed Kate Miller, who had been present during Aptheker's 1999 conversation with her father about the abuse, and confirmed her account.[8]


  • American Negro Slave Revolts (1943)
  • Documentary History of the Negro People (1951–1994), 7-volumes, available in paperback
  • "Imperialism and Irrationalism", TELOS 04 (Fall 1969)


  1. ^ a b
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^ Francis X. Gannon, Biographical Dictionary of the Left: Volume 3. Boston: Western Islands, 1972; pp. 215-218.
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b c
  7. ^
  8. ^ Christopher Phelps, "Herbert Aptheker: His daughter's partner confirms molestation charge", The Nation, 5 November 2007, reprinted at History News Network, accessed 18 January 2012

Further reading

  • Anthony Flood, "C. L. R. James: Herbert Aptheker's Invisible Man," The C. L. R. James Journal, vol. 19, nos. 1 & 2 (Fall 2013), pp. 276-297.
  • Robin D.G. Kelley, "Interview of Herbert Aptheker," The Journal of American History, vol. 87, no. 1 (June 2000), pp. 151–167.
  • Gary Murrell, "Herbert Aptheker's Unity of Theory and Practice in the Communist Party USA: On the Last Night, and during the First Two Decades," Science & Society, vol. 70, no. 1, (Jan. 2006), pp. 98–118.

Gary Murrell, "The Most Dangerous Communist in the United States":A Biography of Herbert Aptheker (University of Massachusetts Press, 2015).

Research resources

  • "Herbert Aptheker Papers, 1842-2005" (122 linear ft.), Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, CA.

External links

  • Bettina and Herbert Aptheker, History News Network.
  • Christopher Phelps, "Herbert Aptheker: The Contradictions of History", Chronicle of Higher Education, 12 July 2006
  • My Communist Mentor, Anthony Flood website
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