Excerpts: Chapter One

Off and on for close to eighteen years I was a Communist Party leader from the South. I came from a very distinguished Southern family which had been in Virginia and then North Carolina since 1623. My paternal grandfather was a big slave-holder, and my father was born in 1870. He became a lawyer, politician and real estate developer, and fabulously wealthy. By the time I was born in 1920 he was many times a millionaire, so I grew up pretty much in the lap of luxury. We lived in a thirty-six room house on a lake on a marvelous wilderness estate a half mile from anyone …


Junius Scales, 1980

Photo: Courtesy Nickson Family

My relationship with both my parents were very close. My father was warm and gregarious although he was quite ill with several varieties of heart disease and substantially invalided by the time I was nine. He had to stay in bed half the time and could go up stairs only once a day …

Aunt Lou, my old black nurse until I was about seven or eight, was one of the people who meant most to me. She had been born in slavery. She was twelve years old at the very end of the Civil War and remembered seeing Johnston’s section of the Confederate Army as it retreated through Greensboro. She was particularly close to me. She was a family servant, I guess ‘til she almost went blind and then she was sort of pensioned off.

The outdoor man, Nereus Foster, must have been close to sixty at the time, and as strong as a rock. He had a beautiful face, just as black as he could be, so kind and tolerant. He had such a moral strength about him, which he’d go out of his way to impart to me. I valued his opinions immensely. He’d be working out in the woods and I was always underfoot, waiting for the pearls of wisdom he was so generous with. I’d forget to go to dinner when I was with him.

We’d talk about everything. He couldn’t read but like many Negroes he would talk in parables, and there’d usually be a moral point to his stories. He recognized that he was dealing with a spoiled brat, and, with the utmost patience, set out to set me straight. He knocked an awful lot of egocentricity out of me.

Much of my “moral sense” came from my family, and, to a very great degree, from various Negro servants …

It was in Chapel Hill that I got my first acquaintance with radical politics, largely through a bookstore known as Abernethy’s Intimate Bookshop. Or, as I used to call it, Abernasty’s Illegitimate Bookstore.

Well, once I left high school I really didn’t know what to do. It was just a matter of course in my family that you went to college. So just barely sixteen, I entered the University of North Carolina …

I began to meet more and more stimulating people and met some of the Northern radical students down there. The New York people were a varied lot, mostly Jewish and mostly from New York City; some were from very poor families, and some from quite wealthy families. They were a real delight. They provided a little intellectual yeast because, by God, there was damn little of that among the Southern students. The civil war was happening in Spain then, and we would have marvelous discussions and drink beer …

In my junior year I joined the American Student Union chapter in Chapel Hill. The ASU was a student organization formed by a merging of Communist and Socialist student organizations, and while effective, it was faction-ridden. It was perfectly obvious that there was sort of an elite in the ASU, the Communists, and I knew who they were. Although I got along fine with them, I wasn’t prepared to join the Communist Party at the time. In fact, I was greatly critical of them. They seemed doctrinaire and arrogant and very narrow in their intellectual approaches to things. While I liked them as people, and respected them, I didn’t have the slightest intention of getting involved with them.

But a number of things came along that got me tremendously concerned with Communism. One was the civil war in Spain. It suddenly dawned on me what was going on there. Ralph Bates, the short story writer and novelist who had been in Spain, was on a speaking tour and impressed me tremendously. As a result of his speech and talking with him, I decided I would volunteer to fight against Franco with the International Brigade. The odd thing was that this all happened about the same time I was so anti-militarist, so opposed to compulsory ROTC, and it didn’t seem the least inconsistent to me. At this point, though, they were already demobilizing the brigade, so that fell through before it even got started. But the threat of fascism really hit me hard. The Communists seemed to be the consistent anti-Nazis and that further endeared them to me.

In 1938 I attended a student-labor conference in nearby Durham, North Carolina. And, for the first time in my life I sat down to a table with Negroes on a basis of complete equality. My previous acquaintance with Negroes had been as servants and I knew no Negroes otherwise. It was a shattering experience. It seems incredible these days but it was one of the most exciting experiences of my whole life. It just opened up a new world to me.

This meeting was also my first contact with the labor movement. I began to learn of and meet Communists, mostly Northerners, who were down South organizing in the trade union movement with great difficulty and great risk. Some of them had been beaten half to death, others killed. It was a time of terrible attacks on the trade unions. And so I got an even greater respect for the Communists.

So in that junior year of mine, I discovered Negroes, the student movement, the trade union movement, and the Communists and Socialists. At that point in my life I suppose I had an academic career in mind. The line of least resistance was to be a professor of something and I was oriented towards comparative literature. But it was during that summer that I got quite serious about the Party, and in the course of days made up my mind to be a revolutionary.

It was always easy for me to remember how long I’d been in the Communist Party because I joined on my nineteenth birthday.

Be Sociable, Share!