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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Uncle Arnold and Aunt Aurelia

I come from a large family. Each of my parents had many sisters and brothers.

My dad's siblings included Louis (b. 1900), Charles (b. 1902), Frank (b. 1910), Victor (b. 1916), Helen (b.1917), Elia (b. 1914), Jean (b. 1912), Aurelia (b. 1906), and Mary (who was born in 1905, but died that same year of influenza).

Aurelia’s husband was Arnold Johnson, but they had no children. They were fixtures at our family celebrations, along with other uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbors, friends, and various guests.

Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving were times when our large family congregated.

This photo of Aunt Aurelia (or "Aunt Ray")
was taken in Florida in 1975

Here is Aurelia with my cousin Audra

Uncle Arnold was a quiet, soft spoken and gentle man. He and Aurelia lived in Greenwich Village, but they liked to come visit us in the “burbs” to escape the heat of NYC in the summertime. Arnold in particular loved the outdoors, and would volunteer to pull weeds from the garden while Aurelia would collect fresh tomatoes and make her famous tomato sauce with a recipe that she inherited from her mother.

Arnold had a voracious appetite, and could eat us out of house and home, although he somehow managed to remain thin as a rail throughout his life. He also had a fondness for good wine and scotch whiskey, but never acted or displayed his intoxication. My mom theorized that “he had a wooden leg.”
My uncle Arnold, in the center of the photo, eating voraciously

Arnold listened more than he talked, but when he said something, it was deliberate and well-considered. He had the aura of a learned professor, but also seemed down-to-earth. Arnold had an interest in art and music, and sincerely wanted to learn more about what my brothers and I were up to. On one visit, Uncle Arnold had read the liner notes of a John Cage album I had left lying around. He found it fascinating, and wanted to listen to the music to hear what “Chance Music” sounded like. I found him to be very open minded, clear-headed, and logical.

Thanksgiving dinner. Seated in the back row (left to right) is Arnold, Aurelia, Larry, aunt Elia and her husband Joe. Seated in the front (left to right) is my mom, Ricky, me, and aunt Helen

Arnold and Aurelia had vacationed in Florida at Sanibel Island where together they amassed a large collection of sea shells. Arnold, an amateur painter, skillfully created collages with these flowers or shells, and also painted numerous more traditional landscapes of the Florida coastline in both oil and watercolor. He loved fly-fishing, a sport he had acquired during his youth in the Pacific Northwest. It was obvious that he found solitude in painting and enjoyed the fresh air of the outdoors. They were both avid bird watchers and naturalists. This collage titled "With Love" was made with dried flowers...

Up to my teenage years, that is all I knew about my uncle Arnold. He was a mystery, and I had no idea what he did for a living. My parents had done a very good job of suppressing that part of his history.

One summer day, while the family sat on the back porch sipping lemonade, I asked uncle Arnold how he got interested in painting. He replied, “I picked it up in prison.”

I didn’t understand. “What? You were in prison? I can’t believe it!”

The cat was out of the bag. My father blushed and uncle Arnold looked at him with an expression that indicated “Sorry, what do I say now?”

Over time I gradually learned more about Arnold’s past, and his political activities as a leftist.

They say that blood is thicker than water, and my parents (registered Republicans and rather conservative) liked my uncle as a person, but were not in agreement with his views. There was probably a tacit agreement between them to avoid all discussion of his activities and politics in an effort to “protect” us from any possible repercussions.

Vestiges of McCarthyism still existed in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. Folk singer Pete Seeger was banned from performing in my town by the American Legion because he had been a member of the Communist Party. The scars, pain, and ruined careers of people associated with the party were still fresh in people’s minds. Frankly, the Communist Party was a hot potato that no one wanted to touch, and its’ leader in America was sitting on my porch sipping lemonade.

To be more accurate, uncle Arnold wasn’t THE leader of the Communist Party USA, but he was the number two man, working closely with Gus Hall who held the title of General Secretary. The CP-USA had 60,000 members and was growing as a major legitimate American party in the early 1920’s. It was closely associated with the labor movement and the creation of trade unions in America. During WWII many Americans identified with Socialist ideals, and sided with our nation’s ally against Hitler, only to be disillusioned later when the atrocities of Stalin became known.

One day I did a simple library search, and found a US Government publication with a report from a Senate investigation. It had a photograph of my uncle Arnold and Gus Hall standing along side Leonid Brezhnev in the Soviet Union.

I made a photocopy of the document had showed it to my parents, who grabbed it out of my hands and tore it up in anger.

We rarely spoke with Arnold and Aurelia by phone, since it was assumed that their line was tapped. Even letters to and from were mentally self-censored since we would never know who was reading them.

I would learn more about the life of my aunt and uncle when I visited them at their apartment in New York. Uncle Arnold, weak and in ill health, had retired in 1979. Matters of family always overshadowed politics. But as they attempted to clear the enormous clutter of their one-bedroom apartment, interesting items would be imparted to family various members. For example, I have a commemorative booklet of mint postage stamps that Arnold received as a memento from the first Communist Party Congress in Cuba in 1975. It contains postage stamps issued by Cuba in the 60’s and 70’s. I’m sure he met Castro, but he never dropped names or bragged.

However, my aunt did tell a story about how her husband had been at an International Congress in Leningrad, and afterward wanted to visit the Hermitage Museum to view the artwork. He was disappointed when he learned that the museum would be closed that day, and he would not be able to return. Senior Communist Party officials then arranged for him to have a private viewing of the artwork in the Hermitage, for which uncle Arnold was very appreciative.

Aunt Aurelia with my dad in January of 1989. Arnold's artwork hangs on the walls of the NYC apartment

My uncle Arnold and aunt Aurelia both combated illness in their final years together, but they managed to maintain close contact with family members, friends, and neighbors. There were some difficult years after he had a stroke and had to go into a nursing home. Aunt Aurelia fell into depression, but was supported by her sisters – Helen in particular. “A&A” as we called them always maintained a kindness and compassion for the disadvantaged. They also never gave up believing in the party line.

Cousin Robert, Aurelia, and Willemien looking at photos in 1989

Sometime after my aunt and uncle died, the CP-USA held a memorial service at their dingy headquarters in NYC and invited my family. There were speeches by party officials and some of my relatives. Behind the podium stood a large poster of Karl Marx. I remember a humorous story that Gus Hall told about my aunt Aurelia… “She was a city girl, but one time when she and Arnold were meeting with farmers in Kentucky, Aurelia asked the farmer about his livestock. She said, ‘I see the chickens, pigs, goats, and cattle, but where are the veal?’” My brother Larry spoke emotionally about his aunt and uncle, and the changes the world had gone through. The memorial service featured an art exhibit with the many paintings my uncle had made over his lifetime, and Gus Hall mentioned that they could be purchased and all funds would go to support the operations CP-USA.

Gus Hall speaking at the memorial service

On the right is a painiting by Arnold Johnson of a sunset. It was on display and for sale at his memorial service at CP Headquarters in NY.

In 2006 the CP-USA cleaned out the non-descript large Manhattan building they owned on 23rd street, and donated all of its’ documents, photos, and memorabilia to the Tamiment Library of NYU. Speaking to the Associated Press, Michael Nash, director of the Taminent Library indicated that 20,000 books, journals, pamphlets, and a million photographs had been removed from the party’s offices. The Tamiment Library specializes in scholarly research documenting the history of American labor and the Left. Among the documents donated are directives smuggled in from Moscow with secret code words used for communication during the Cold War.

I have written a short bio about my uncle Arnold based on information drawn from a number of different sources.

Arnold Samuel Johnson was born in Seattle Washington on September 23rd, 1904. His parents had moved west from Minnesota, where both had come as immigrants – the father from Sweden, the mother from Finland. When he was twelve, the family moved to Hoquiam, Washington where he graduated as the valedictorian of this 1922 High School class. The family moved to Los Angeles where he entered Christ College (now Chapman College) and graduated magna cum laude. He then left for Washington D.C. where he worked nights in a legal office while studying law for a year at Washington University. Later, he took a degree at Teacher’s College in New York and a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary (B.A. 1932), where he was drawn to Christian Socialist philosophy.

In 1929-30 he was secretary to the lecturer Sherwood Eddy, who conducted a series of tours – including to the Soviet Union – for Congressmen, educators, and others. In 1931 he visited the Soviet Union for the first time.

In 1931 Johnson went to Harlan County, Kentucky as a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union. The backwoods miners of Kentucky, hard hit by the depression, had attempted to organize to improve their conditions. The coal bosses fought back viciously, bringing in squads of hired killers, and bribing police and judges to ride roughshod over their most basic civil rights. Blood flowed freely. Johnson naively decided to talk with the mine operators to improve conditions. He was issued a warning “Get out of the county within 24-hours or stay here forever.”

He ignored the warning. As Johnson was walking along a Harlan County road, a man driving a horse and wagon overtook him. “Want a lift?” the driver asked, and Johnson mounted the wagon. They rolled along for several miles, and John told the man what he’s learned of the Kentucky miners struggle. Then Johnson looked at his watch apologetically, and said to the driver, “my time is up.” The driver then replied, “Yeah, I know your time is up, because I’m the guy that’s supposed to bump you off. Now get down.” Johnson got off of the wagon and expected to be shot. But after a moment, the man said “but I guess I’ve plumb changed my mind” and drove off down the road. However, Johnson was later arrested in Harlan County on criminal syndicalism charges.

As the Great Depression intensified, Johnson decided to work with the quickly mounting ranks of the unemployed. In 1932 he became the Ohio organizer with the Unemployed Leagues. Johnson officially joined the Communist Party in 1936, and was the Ohio State party secretary from 1940 to 1947. In 1943 he ran for the Cleveland Board of Education as a Communist candidate and received 43,000 votes. He later ran for Mayor of Cleveland. In 1947 moved to New York and became the party’s National Legislative Director.

On June 20th, 1951, he was arrested on the Smith Act. The indictment reads that he authored an article on the Fourth of July that contained a quotation from Abraham Lincoln: “All that serves labor, serves the Nation. All that harms labor is treason to America.”

The nine-month federal trial began on March 31st, 1952. He was convicted, and sentenced to 29 months in jail by Judge Edward J. Dimock in the Federal Court at Foley Square, NY. On February 2-3, 1953, at the end of his extensive closing remarks at sentencing, Johnson said to the court “your decision to jail us does not make us guilty. I am confident that the American people will not yield the Bill of Rights and their desire for peace so easily. They will know that we are innocent and that they are also the victims of this frame-up.”

Johnson served his sentence on the Smith Act conviction from 1955 to 1957. He took up painting in prison to pass the time.

He was indicted on two other occasions. In 1962 under the McCarran Act for refusing to register as a Communist Party member, and in 1970 by the House Internal Security Committee for refusing to cooperate with the investigation of the New Mobilization Against the War in Vietnam.

He served as Vice Chairman of the New York State CP, where he ran for Governor of the State of New York.

While Public Relations Director for the CP, he received and responded to Lee Harvey Oswald’s inquiries about the CP-USA in 1963. These letters are at the focal point in various conspiracy theories about the JFK assignation. They support the view that Oswald acted on his own initiative.

After suffering a stroke and a heart attack, he retired form the Communist Party USA in 1979, and died in 1989.

His papers are maintained at the Tamiment Labor Library, at New York University.