May 5, 2021

Reviewed by Denise Lynn

Alphaeus Hunton: The Unsung Valiant (NY: International Publishers, 2021),  186 pp. $19.99

International Publishers 2021 reprint of Dorothy Hunton’s biography of her husband Alphaeus Hunton Alphaeus Hunton: The Unsung Valiant comes at a prescient time in United States politics. As politicians in the country move to criminalize Black Lives Matter activism and disenfranchise Black voters, the present echoes the not so distant past when radical Black politics were marginalized and dismissed as a communist plot and activists were arrested, imprisoned, harassed, and deported. Alphaeus Hunton was active in radical Black and class politics and paid a steep price; but persevered in the face of state harassment. He is an activist that is not well-known but deserves to be.


Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly, whose own scholarship is devoted to the explication of radical Black activists, writes in the forward that Hunton was “one of the great Pan-Africanists” who wrote and acted in service of justice. He was “steadfast” in his anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism, in his attacks on racism, and in his commitment to a “socialist world devoid of the violence and inhumanity” of the capitalist state. Burden-Stelly credits Dorothy Hunton, Alphaeus’s third wife, with preserving his legacy. She wrote the biography, and she collected his papers which were donated to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York, the central research center on Black Radical activism in the United States. Dorothy Hunton’s text is the basis for most of the biographical work on Hunton today, and thus remains an essential source in understanding both the man and the activist.[1]


Burden-Stelly argues that Hunton belongs in something she calls the “Tradition of Radical Blackness” which describes the Black “communist, socialist, and leftist analyses” of “structural and material conditions of local, national, and global Blackness.” This analysis leads to “efforts to imagine” the “liberating possibilities” of “all oppressed people.” Ultimately this tradition seeks the “overthrow of capitalism” and the creation of a more just society. For Burden-Stelly, this tradition often focused on the United States as many of the activists in the tradition, including Paul Robeson, Esther V. Cooper Jackson, and Doxey Wilkerson, were born there but also because the United States emerged as a “global” hegemon and engaged in colonial and imperial violence, along with its “anti-Black terror” at home. Alphaeus Hunton’s activism, which including “movement building, organizing, and militant journalism,” are part of this tradition.[2]


Burden-Stelly argues that his “militant journalism” included explicit critiques of the capitalist tradition; specifically, how profit-driven states exploited labor, land, and resources by relying on the “super exploitation” of people under “imperialism, colonialism” and within the United States. These relationships created dependence between metropoles and the colonies that relied on “expropriation, dispossession, and plunder” all at the expense of the people within those nations. Ultimately this led to “arrested development” in nations in Africa and elsewhere. The revolutionary independence movements that came out of these places emerged because of this exploitation. For Burden-Stelly, Hunton’s devotion to peace and “mutual cooperation” came out of his understanding that “war and militarism were endemic” to these processes. Perpetual war, like the United States has waged since its founding, is necessary to secure the “way of life and standard of living” of some people in the metropole against those “on the darker side of the color-line.” This also means resistance to the “socialist redistribution” of resources. War secures profit but requires the “continual construction of enemies and threats;” these enemies are seen as threats to democracy, when in fact it is the war makers who threaten democracy. Hunton and those within the “Tradition of Radical Blackness” understood this, lived it, and resisted it.[3]


Burden-Stelly’s forward highlights the importance of Hunton’s work, but also the consequences of it. He was monitored by the U.S. Government’s intelligence officials. These officials worked “tirelessly” to silence Hunton. When pressed to reveal the names of Civil Rights Bail Fund donors he refused and was jailed for six months. Eventually Hunton and his wife would leave the country; Alphaeus Hunton died an expatriot in Zambia. For Burden-Stelly the reprint of his biography is an important contribution to the next generation of “scholar-activists,” to understand the “contemporary world situation.” The forward is an important scholarly framing of Hunton’s place in US history, but also how his ideas help us to understand the damage that capitalism has wrought in our time and in his own. If anything, globalization has accelerated the exploitation of other nations via the breakdown of official state regulation and borders and unfettered corporate colonialism has moved into the void; supported by the most expensive and expansive military in world history. Hunton understood that this was rooted in “capitalist exploitation, imperial domination, coloniality, white supremacy, and perpetual war.” Hunton’s ideas remain relevant in understanding how we got here and how we can imagine a just future.[4]


Dorothy Hunton begins the story of her husband’s life by noting the “urgency” she felt in paying a “modest tribute” to a “unique and noble man.” Her contribution was meant to inspire others to “service” the same way Alphaeus spent his life and offer her own “evaluation of his life and work” as his wife. She recognized that her book would contribute to a body of knowledge that future scholars would produce about him, but as Burden-Stelly has argued, the book became an essential text for scholars to understand the man from a personal and political perspective.[5]


Alphaeus Hunton was the grandson of a freedman who bought his freedom and moved to Ontario, Canada where he started his own family. His grandfather, Stanton Hunton, knew John Brown and was an active abolitionist. Hunton’s father was also an activist who moved to the United States to work for the YWCA. There he met Addie Waite and the two were married. Hunton’s parents were both well-educated having graduated from college, they were also both educators and socially minded. The couple eventually settled in Atlanta, Georgia where William Alphaeus Hunton Jr. was born in 1903, named after his father. After the 1906 race riot in Atlanta, the Huntons decided to relocate their growing family for fear of racist violence. They settled in Brooklyn, New York. Hunton’s parents were active in missionary work as well as leading social organizations for Black Americans at the time. Addie Hunton worked in the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) as well as the YWCA. She also worked on a survey of industrial working conditions in 1912. The young Alphaeus showed promise as a scholar; he and his sister Eunice traveled to Germany with their mother. For two years their mother studied while the children attended school and learned the language. His father was interested in Africa and often gave his young son books on the continent. Unfortunately, the senior Hunton suffered from tuberculosis and died when Alphaeus was just a teenager. When the Great war broke out his mother traveled overseas to tend to the wounded; she and a fellow Black woman authored a book titled Two Colored Women with the American Expeditionary Force, about their experience.[6]


As Dorothy Hunton writes, the senior Hunton was deeply religious and believed in service to others. His son began to depart from the strict Christian dogma of his youth and began to believe that to help others required “radical social change.” His religious upbringing continued to influence his belief in the “moral obligation” to others, but it was not a guiding principle and Alphaeus Hunton would begin to reject the notion that it was religion that would lead to justice. Though he departed from his father’s religious beliefs, Hunton did follow his father’s example and remained devoted to education. He received a Masters Degree from Harvard and accepted a teaching position in English at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Here he taught British literature which struck some observers as odd but Dorothy Hunton claimed, it gave him insight into British imperialism.[7]


It was during the Depression years that Hunton became more politically active, especially as campus youth became more agitated against racist violence. Hunton held office in the American Federation of Teacher’s Union and urged its members to affiliate with the radical Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). He also worked toward his PhD at New York University where he studied with Marxist scholar Edwin Berry Burgum. It is here where Dorothy Hunton argues her husband began to accept that Marxist principles were the way to achieve an equitable society.[8]


Dorothy Hunton devotes a chapter to the National Negro Congress (NNC), its founding in 1936, its appeal to Black radicals seeking to confront the economic and social plight of Black America, and Alphaeus Hunton’s work with it. The NNC was one of the early voices for radical Black organizers and Hunton became an officer in the National Executive Board and leader in the Washington branch. Hunton focused on labor and worked to encourage increased Black unionization and the end of Jim Crow, a barrier to work opportunity and advancement. He was especially focused on segregation in D.C. which kept Black workers away from white-collar jobs and work in public utilities. Hunton became active in local strikes and he also pushed for taxpayer-funded recreation facilities to be available to Black families, he organized against police brutality, and collected data on health inequalities for Washington’s Black residents. As New Deal programs emerged to address widespread poverty and unemployment, Hunton and the NNC pushed its leaders to include Black workers. His role in the NNC was important and he devoted much of his time outside of work, but as one colleague noted, he may not have been making headlines or speeches but he was the “mainstay of the struggle.”[9]


The problems the NNC faced mounted even as the nation went to war. Hunton and other activists pushed Franklin Roosevelt to back up his mandate to end segregation in defense industries. He also pushed to integrate the Glen L. Martin Aircraft plant in nearby Baltimore. This became Hunton’s first interaction with the anticommunist state as the Die Committee, the precursor to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) claimed that the NNC’s efforts were a communist plot to sabotage war production. The United States was not yet at war, but officials immediately branded Hunton a communist and claimed he was an agitator. Hunton wrote a statement accusing the government of focusing on him rather than those who undermined democracy by attacking Black Americans. Eventually, the Federal Security Agency cleared him, but it would not be his last brush with the security state. Eventually the NNC was forced to disband after being red-baited, but as Dorothy Hunton wrote, it made “significant progress” in exposing racial injustice and seeking change.[10]


Dorothy and Alphaeus connected in 1939, though she had met him years before when he was courting her sister. After a long and distant courtship, the two were married in 1943 in Alexandria, Virginia. That same year Hunton took a leave from Howard University to take up work in New York as the Educational Director of the Council of African Affairs (CAA) under the leadership of Dr. Max Yergan. The Huntons began working with the Brooklyn NAACP chapter, which Dorothy wrote needed a progressive element. At the same time, her political education began starting with classes at the Marxist Jefferson School of Social Science where Alphaeus taught along with other Black radical luminaries like W.E.B. Du Bois and Doxey Wilkerson.


In 1937, Paul Robeson and others founded the International Committee on African Affairs, later called the CAA. The organization was created in solidarity with African Liberation movements and in opposition to colonial policy that ruthlessly exploited the continent’s people and resources. As Educational Director, Hunton wanted to bring news of liberation movements to the United States and educate people on imperialism. He began publishing New Africa (later called Spotlight on Africa) to facilitate his goals and turn a critical lens toward the US’s colonial ambitions. As Burden-Stelly discussed in the forward, much of Hunton’s militant journalism dealt with confronting the colonial powers and their exploitation of Africa and Asia. Hunton was also focused on holding US officials accountable to the tenets of the Atlantic Charter and its ostensible commitment to anti-colonialism; to that end he met with government officials and compiled data and reports that were shared with officials. With the creation of the United Nations (UN) Hunton attended meetings, spoke with officials, and urged attention on African issues, particularly in South Africa who was formalizing white control under apartheid. Not only did he edit and write for the CAA publication, he also issued press releases to dozens of other media outlets and produced detailed pamphlets.


As conditions in South Africa deteriorated for the indigenous Africans in the post-World War II years, the CAA focused much of its attention and organization on that nation. Hunton organized fundraising events and food drives, he attacked the mainstream press for ignoring the humanitarian crisis that was evolving there, and he supported South African workers in their campaigns for higher wages. He also attacked Prime Minister Smuts who frequently downplayed his administrations abuses for a global audience. At the same time, Dorothy Hunton writes, Max Yergan began to withdraw from the militant struggle just as the need for the CAA became more acute; Hunton gradually took over organizing things independently. But Yergan’s withdrawal from the CAA’s mission was more insidious as the Cold War began to focus attention on Black radicalism; Yergan issued statements denouncing the alleged “communists” in the CAA and he thwarted programs that were critical of the US. Yergan’s red baiting led to his ouster and Hunton’s promotion to Executive Director.[11]


Dorothy Hunton argues that the danger of the Cold War and US anticommunist policy was that in its obsession with containing communism, it lost sight of what she called the “real danger to world peace,” the oppression of the “darker races.” In the US, Hunton noticed a pattern of “linking the advocacy of full equality” for Black Americans with “Un-Americanism,” and this tendency led to severe legal consequences for her husband and their friends. Alphaeus Hunton became one of four trustees of the Civil Rights Bail fund which was created to help raise funds for the endless legal fees faced by people like W.E.B. Du Bois facing indictment for failure to register the Peace Information Center as a foreign agent. Unfortunately, Hunton and the three other trustees (Dashiell Hammett, Frederick Vanderbilt Field, and Abner Green) were arrested and sentenced to six months detention for refusal to hand over donor lists. Dorothy Hunton’s chapter on her husband’s arrest and imprisonment and the harassment of their friends is an important look into the personal toll of anticommunism. Scholarly studies have explored the racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia inherent in anticommunist legislation, but it is personal experience that drives home its true cost. She also wrote about the support of their friends, including the Sojourners for Truth and Justice, the organization to which she belonged that brought together radical Black women to push to end racist violence, police brutality, and war and militarism. Unfortunately, anticommunism’s toll was steep and in 1955 the CAA was ordered to register as a foreign agent. The Executive board chose to dissolve the organization rather than register.[12]


Alphaeus Hunton began focusing on his writing and in 1957 published his book Decision in Africa in which he details the US government’s support of South Africa’s apartheid regime. Hunton’s radicalism meant that his life in academia was over so he took a series of odd jobs while maintaining his interest in and research on Africa, especially as independent nations like Ghana emerged. He was particularly interested in the leaders of the independence movements like Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Touré and the efforts to organize the All African People’s Conference in 1959, which Hunton attended. He traveled around Africa after the conference and met with other leaders including Nnamdi Azikiwe, Premiere of Eastern Nigeria, and later first president of Nigeria who helped secure the nation’s independence. At the end of his tour of Africa, the Huntons traveled to the Soviet Union where they celebrated their sixteenth anniversary. After spending a month there, they traveled throughout Europe and finally returned to New York; for Alphaeus it was an eight-month sojourn, for Dorothy it lasted four. But upon their return, Alphaeus’s job prospects were still slim.[13]


By 1959, Joseph McCarthy, the symbol of anticommunism had been censured and the American public had become weary of the purges. But this did not restore anyone’s reputation, nor did it stop intelligence gathering on Black radicals. Alphaeus Hunton made some income from speaking engagements about his African tour; as Dorothy described it, the income kept them “slightly above” a “depressing situation.” In January 1960, Sekou Touré invited Hunton to teach at the Lycee; the Huntons eagerly accepted the offer and moved to Conakry, the capital of Guinea in May. He remained connected to his radical colleagues in the US as the Associate Editor of Freedomways, a radical Black magazine founded in 1961. He wrote about African liberation and the struggles to achieve and maintain independence.[14]


Dorothy Hunton wrote her observations about the challenges of independence. Old colonial bureaucracies were retained in some places slowing things down, infrastructure was not available to help extract resources for profit, in Guinea much of the nation was rural so the challenges of finding employment were large. For two Americans, some of the difficulties lay in limited access to the consumer goods they were used to and adapting to different housing amenities. For Alphaeus, one of the greatest frustrations was finding teaching material that was not European oriented, he found readings from his colleagues and contacts he had made over his many years doing research on Africa to supplement his teaching. The biggest challenge to independence came with Western interference; the Huntons were in Guinea when Patrice Lumumba was assassinated; an event that resonated deeply in Guinea and among activists in the United States.


In 1962, Alphaeus Hunton was invited by W.E.B. Du Bois to move to Ghana and assist him in compiling the Encyclopedia Africana. Du Bois and his wife Shirley Graham had moved to Accra that same year for the same reasons as the Huntons, anticommunist harassment had led to limited financial and job prospects. President Kwame Nkrumah had invited Du Bois to Ghana explicitly to work on the Encyclopedia, a project he had hoped to complete for years. Even while the Huntons worked to help an independent Guinea and later Ghana, they kept an eye on the US. Alphaeus led a march to the US embassy in solidarity with the August 1963 march on Washington. The marchers left a letter to be transmitted to President Kennedy demanding an end to racist indiginities. Du Bois died only the day before the march, leaving Alphaeus with organizing the Encyclopedia’s future.


While Du Bois was still alive they were informed that the Encyclopedia would be under control of the Ghana Academy of Sciences. This was not the news Hunton or Du Bois wanted, they both envisioned the Encyclopedia as an independent effort that would include all of Africa and scholars from abroad and to that end Hunton toured African University’s and spoke with politicians across the continent to stir up excitement and secure cooperation. The Organization of African Unity endorsed the Encyclopedia, and an editorial board drew up plans for ten volumes. In 1965, Alphaeus was appointed director of the project, but the Ghanaian Academy overrode the decision and appointed their own director. When his contract expired in 1966, he was demoted to an editor despite all his work. Dorothy Hunton wrote that this was a humiliation that Alphaeus himself did not dwell on, much to her chagrin as it angered her deeply. In February of that year a military coup deposed Nkrumah, nine months later the Huntons were deported. Dorothy Hunton wrote that she suspected their deportation was engineered or at the least encouraged by American officials and eager Ghanaian officials complied to stay in the US’s good graces. After briefly returning to New York, the Huntons traveled to Zambia to pursue the possibility of continuing work on the Encyclopedia.


Dorothy Hunton’s book is of course a biography, but it also serves as a travelogue and a testimony. Hunton describes in great detail the couple’s opportunities to travel across Europe, Asia, and Africa and offers insight into the politics and culture in each country. She also wrote her observations about the difficulties newly independent African nations faced, and her hopes as an American activist observer. The book is also filled with the anxiety of a wife watching her husband overwork himself into poor health. Alphaeus Hunton suffered a heart attack in October 1964 and he faced poor health for years, his wife suspected, from his endless devotion to the Encyclopedia. In January 1970, Alphaeus Hunton died from pancreatic cancer in Zambia.


Reviewing a biography written by an intimate of the subject is difficult because of course the author was predisposed to look favorably on their subject. Hunton seemed to strike a balance between admiration of her husband, and the occasional criticism of his behavior and attitudes. For example, she was aware of his exacting nature as an instructor, someone who would have had little patience for the tempestuous nature of youth, therefore he sought to teach at the collegiate level. She notes his own criticisms of other ideas and his tolerance of dissent, while also noting his fastidious and serious nature. But she does not write in detail about her husband’s previous two marriages except to say when the two connected and began dating he was separated from his unhappy marriage but not yet divorced and that he was suspicious of marriage altogether. She does not mention who he was married to or for how long and little mention is made of the years when he was married. But objectivity was hardly the point for the book and there is value beyond looking for it here; Hunton did serious research into Alphaeus’s family, his career, and his ideas. She lays a foundation of study for later generations, and she elucidates the life of a man devoted to others. This coupled with the preservation of Hunton’s papers and their housing at the Schomburg center guarantees that later scholars and activists could learn about Hunton and this is the true value of her work.


-Denise Lynn is Associate Professor of History & Director of Gender Studies at the University of Southern Indiana, Evansville, IN.  She is also Vice President, Historians of American Communism.



[1] Charisse Burden-Stelly, “Forward,” in Dorothy Hunton, Alphaeus Hunton: The Unsung Valiant (International Publishers, 2021), vii-viii. See more of Charisse Burden-Stelly’s scholarship: Charisse Burden Stelly, “W.E.B. Du Bois in the Tradition of Radical Blackness: Radicalism, Repression, and Mutual Comradeship, 1930-1960,” Socialism and Democracy Vol 32, 3 (November 2018); Charisse Burden-Stelly, “In Battle for Peace During Scoundrel Time: W.E.B. Du Bois and United States Repression of Radical Black Peace Activism,” Du Bois Review, Vol. 16, 2 (2019).

[2] Burden-Stelly, “Forward,” viii.

[3 ]Burden-Stelly, “Forward,” ix-x.

[4] Burden-Stelly, “Forward,” x-xi.

[5] Hunton, Alphaeus Hunton, xii-xiii.

[6] Hunton, Alphaeus Hunton, 14.

[7] Hunton, Alphaeus Hunton, 22, 26.

[8] Hunton, Alphaeus Hunton, 29.

[9] Hunton, Alphaeus Hunton, 48-49.

[10] Hunton, Alphaeus Hunton, 51-52, 55.

[11] Hunton, Alphaeus Hunton, 77-78.

[12] Hunton, Alphaeus Hunton, 79, 82, 91.

[13] Hunton, Alphaeus Hunton, 93, 99.

[14] Hunton, Alphaeus Hunton, 112.