Dusting Off American Communist Archives

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Part of the Communist Party archive collection

The Tamiment Library at New York University recently received the entire archive of the American Communist Party. Margot Adler hide caption

itoggle caption Margot Adler

The last will and testament of Joe Hill, the famous labor organizer and songwriter who was shot by a firing squad in Utah in 1915.

My will is easy to decide,

For there is nothing to divide.

My kin don't need to fuss and moan.

Moss does not cling to rolling stone.

My body, oh if I could choose,

I would to ashes it reduce,

And let the merry breezes blow

My dust to where some flowers grow.

Perhaps some fading flower, then,

Would come to life and bloom again.

This is my last and final will,

Good luck to all of you, Joe Hill.

Imagine inheriting the entire archive of an infamous political party.

Last month, the Tamiment Library at New York University announced it had received the complete records of the American Communist Party, including 20,000 books, some 5,000 journals and every pamphlet the party ever published.

The haul even included one million photographs from the party's newspaper, The Daily Worker, going back to 1917.

Michael Nash, the library's director, said there were long negotiations with the party, but in the end, all the materials were given to the library without restrictions.

"They didn't review anything," Nash said, "and I have been in this business for 35 years, and that has never happened."

For years, the Communist party had kept all their materials in a Manhattan building on 23rd Street. But facing renovation and financial distress, party officials decided to give the archive away to Tamiment Library, which documents the history of the labor movement and the American left.

Some of Nash's most interesting finds include a 90-minute tape of the noted African-American writer W.E.B. DuBois. Nash found the recording — a memoir recorded in 1961 just before his death — lying on the floor of a cleaning closet that was filled with toilet paper and paper towels.

Nash also found a box under a desk filled with the prison correspondence of Joe Hill, the labor organizer and songwriter immortalized by singer Joan Baez and others in "The Ballad of Joe Hill."

The archive also contains many of the Communist Party's founding documents, and even code names for early party members. Nash says that he is receiving constant calls from scholars who want to do research on the history of the Cold War, labor, on political cartoons and poster art.

Michael Zwieg, a professor of economics at the State University of New York at Stonybrook, says that the archive will allow historians to get an inside look at primary documents, letters and correspondence. But it may take a decade to catalog and preserve.

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