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Tired of reading crime stories that noted when the perpetrator was Black, a postal clerk studying journalism at the University of Minnesota fired off a letter to the editor of the Minneapolis Tribune.
“Whenever a man of Scandinavian, Greek, Italian, or any other descent commits a crime, no mention is made of his nationality,” Homer Smith Jr. wrote in a letter published Feb. 15, 1922. “However, if a Negro commits an offense it is blazoned forth that he is a Negro. This impious practice serves only to warp the public mind into believing the Negro is unlawful.”
Smith’s disdain for racial injustice only deepened as he sorted mail to earn money for tuition and living expenses at the U, where he graduated in 1928.
“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,” Jack El-Hai wrote in a 2017 profile of Smith for the U’s alumni magazine (https://tinyurl.com/HomerSmith).
Born in Mississippi, Smith moved to Minneapolis after 1916. Fed up with discrimination, he immigrated to the Soviet Union in 1932, writing later that he was convinced Blacks “would never achieve freedom and equal status in these United States no matter how long or stubbornly he fought to do so.”
Smith was paid a monthly salary of 500 rubles when he joined the Rationalization Department of the Soviet postal system in Moscow, more than his pay with the U.S. postal service. All the while, he was sending stories back to Black newspapers in the United States under the pen name Chatwood Hall, a moniker he had adopted at the U. When World War II erupted, he reported from the Eastern Front for the Associated Negro Press.
His globetrotting career took him and his Russian wife, Marie Petrovna, to Ethiopia for 15 years after the war. He renounced his Soviet citizenship and settled in 1962 in Chicago, where he penned a memoir, “Black Man in Red Russia,” and died in 1972.
Smith chronicled his global pursuit of racial justice in a 1958 Ebony magazine article, flashing back to his early years in Minneapolis. “In those days I was a youth of little patience and even less vision,” he wrote.
A heated argument over service at a U.S. restaurant had “clinched” his decision to move to Russia, where he hoped to escape discrimination. “I yearned to stand taller than I had ever stood,” he wrote, “breathe freedom in great exhilarating doses.”
Things went well at first but eventually soured during Smith’s 14 years in the Soviet system as poverty, hunger, censorship and political purges eclipsed his early exhilaration. Two quotes, one from early in his stay and another from the Cold War era, reflect his changing attitude.
“For me, as a Negro worker, it is like being released from a straitjacket,” he told an American socialist newspaper in the 1930s. “Here, for the first time in my life, I know my color is not a handicap.”
Two decades later, he said he had been wrong.
“Russia proved to be no promised land,” he wrote in 1958. “Although it has been able to put sputniks in the sky ahead of us,” the Soviet Union “lags behind America in human values.”
I learned about Smith’s remarkable life from Mark Meister, director of the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis. As Black History Month opens this week, the museum is exhibiting a Soviet-era portrait of actor Lloyd Patterson, who was among more than 20 African Americans — including Smith and renowned writer Langston Hughes — who trekked to Russia in 1932 to make an anti-American movie that was ultimately scuttled.
When Germany invaded Russia in 1941, Smith became what Meister called a “distinguished WWII correspondent for Black newspapers in the U.S.”
Smith later said his role as the lone Black war correspondent in Eastern Europe “was not a calculated achievement. I had just happened to be on the scene when the shooting started.” He was one of two correspondents in the Moscow bureau of the Associated Press in 1944.
Smith reported on the siege of Moscow and Nazi death camps in Poland. In one small-world twist, Smith was riding a train in Russia when the journalist next to him said the landscape reminded him of Minnesota.
“That’s a fact,” Smith joked with United Press correspondent Harrison Salisbury, a Minneapolis native who later won fame with the New York Times. He and Smith discovered they had both attended the U and reported for the Minnesota Daily in the 1920s.
The Smiths had two children in Ethiopia, where he worked for the government news agency after the war before returning to the United States.
“I have come home to the land of my birth — a better American, I am sure, for having been so long away,” he wrote.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.
This content was originally published here.