Deep in the heart of Texas lives an indomitable woman radical – Laura Brode

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Barbara Brown: What kind of a childhood did you have in New York City?

Laura Brode: A daily struggle to live. We were on welfare or on charity. I was sick a lot, and at the hospital I saw how the social workers talked down to us poor people. Then, when I was about 17, there was the bank failure, in 1929 or ’30. I had a job assembling jigsaw puzzle pieces in a factory and we couldn’t get our pay. All the workers were struggling — most of us were unemployed and all were immigrants.

BB: When did you first get interested in politics?

LB: People were organizing into Unemployed Councils. I was naive, didn’t know much about Marxism, but I had studied European history. My friends or family didn’t influence me, but some teachers did. I knew there had to be some changes, and I found the Young Communist League in 1931 and joined.

The group I first joined was mostly women. We were organizing unemployed women office workers. We would leaflet the employment offices where there were always long lines of women.

BB: Was the Woman Question ever discussed?

LB: Well, we believed women would be liberated after the revolution, and that the struggle would go on after the revolution. We read Marx and Engels about the family. But it was nothing like today — no women’s groups. And the YCL leaders were all men.

BB: When did you leave the YCL?

LB: After 1934, and the treachery of the French and German Stalinists.

They didn’t oppose Hitler, that was the basic problem. And their line was changing all the time, so you couldn’t trust what they would do. I heard about the Trotskyists, and had to go all the way up past 14th St. from the Lower East Side to find them. I initiated that on my own.

They weren’t the Socialist Workers Party yet, but they had a kind of headquarters, I think on 20th St., where they had meetings and dances. I’d go in, but I couldn’t get my Stalinist friends to go in with me. It turned out they had just followed me there to report on me. And when the YCL heard I was talking Trotskyism, I was expelled, but I was never officially informed about it!

Those were exciting times. The Socialist Party, Norman Thomas’s group, was falling apart, and the Trotskyists were invited to join them in 1936. Then we were expelled in 1937 and we took a good many Socialist Party comrades with us. And in 1938 the Socialist Workers Party was started.

BB: Why did you move to Texas?

LB: Fred and I lived in tenement buildings, and even there the rents were sky-high. My job was low-paid filing for WPA. And at the 1938 Socialist Workers Party convention, comrades from Texas said we could find better jobs there. So we gave away our warm clothes, and hitchhiked. It took 8 days. And in our first winter in Texas, there was a blizzard!

BB: Were there jobs?

LB: Oh, it was terrible! I could never get a job because I was too dark; I had very black hair. They said I looked like a Cajun. It was my first experience with discrimination.

BB: Where did you live?

LB: Outside Houston in a Hooverville shanty — just some boards and no foundation and like a fisherman’s tent on the sides. I was on low land that would flood. The water got thigh-deep. We lived there over two years, and then we chopped down some dead trees, took them to the sawmill, and built the little house where my son was born in 1942.

BB: What was that like, living in an isolated area with a new baby?

LB: It was so hot all those months before I had him. We had the first Norther when I came home, and we had no windows. Someone helped us board up the hole where a window should have been. I had to carry water from the pump and get the formula ready on a kerosene plate with two burners. We washed on a board with a pot of boiling water. I never thought I’d live like that.

BB: What jobs did you have?

LB: I worked for WPA again in ’41 as a proofreader on a writer’s project. I was a sales clerk at Grant’s, and sold milk for Foremost Dairy. Sometimes I would go from house to house showing farmwives how to whip cream. Those women came from farming families and knew their children would be farmers. They accepted the system, but they were interested in me because I was from New York.

BB: Were you politically isolated?

LB: Yes. We would get the Militant sometimes. During the ’50s — the McCarthy era — they came wrapped. No one ever came here to see us. Fred worked for the railroad and was gone for long periods. I was mostly alone.

Then, with the civil rights upsurge, we had lots of activity. When Malcolm X was still in jail, his book came out, and I went house to house in the Black neighborhoods talking to the grandmothers who were babysitting the children. They understood Malcolm that we must all fight to free ourselves. Some people say we won’t have to struggle — can you imagine? Life’s a struggle!

Then came the sit-ins at Woolworth’s. The lunch counter in the basement was for Blacks — whites sat upstairs. The Blacks picketed outside and would sit in upstairs. Some whites would go and sit in with them, and I would go every day. Finally, the other whites ignored us.

BB: What was it like during the anti-war years?

LB: A lot of violence. Someone who didn’t like our anti-war beliefs would drive by after dark and shoot at the house. One night I was standing at the sink washing dishes, and was almost hit. It went on for years. One time I was sick, just out of the hospital and a shot went through. Fred, of course, was away. This is the life of a revolutionary — you’re sick, the husband is off, and you take care of yourself!

BB: Did you ever consider moving?

LB: Of course not! This is our home. Why should we leave?

BB: How did you like the CRSP Conference, where feminism was a main topic of debate?

LB: Oh! It was the first time for me! It was so exciting. I was like Rip Van Winkle — waking up and seeing all those women radicals! All those women speakers and organizers. I don’t think all the men think it’s that important, but for me it was thrilling. I just loved it. Naturally. I’m a woman!

BB: How do you feel about the way women on the Left are demanding their rights today?

LB: This should have happened in Left political parties a long time ago! We would have been much further ahead. I would have loved for it to happen before. But of course, as revolutionaries, we women did what we could. Even then!

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