In the 1930s, African-Americans Fought for the Spanish Republic — And Equality
Three stories of black Americans in Spain
by SEBASTIEN ROBLIN
In the 1930s, African-Americans were systematically disenfranchised, barred from participating in many arenas of civic life and subject to frequent violence and systematic discrimination.
Yet many not only organized against racism at home, but saw themselves as part of an international struggle against colonialism and fascism.
When a nationalist rebellion with heavy support from fascist Germany and Italy assailed the Second Spanish Republic in 1936, nearly a hundred African-Americans were among the U.S. citizens who volunteered to defend the republic.
Many were members of the communist party, drawn to its rhetoric of racial, economic and gender equality. Others simply believed opposing Nazi Germany and fascist Italy was the right thing to do.
This is the tale of three of their number — a fighter pilot, a soldier and a nurse.
Oliver Law — from corporal to battalion commander
In January 1937, Oliver Law disembarked from a liner in France and crossed the border into Spain to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. A Texan, Law had served as a corporal in the U.S. Army for six years before later working as a taxi cab driver, restaurateur, stevedore and factory worker.
He also became active in the communist party and was beaten by police for a leading a protest of the unemployed.
The Abraham Lincoln Brigade was, for the most part, a communist organization. One third of its membership was Jewish, but it also included nearly a hundred African-Americans.
These volunteers went in defiance of the Neutrality Act forbidding Americans from participating in the conflict. The brigade was a racially integrated fighting unit 11 years before Pres. Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, requiring the U.S. military to desegregate
They would serve alongside other International Brigades including volunteers from Germany, France and England, including writer George Orwell. The brigades provided critical fighting strength for the Spanish Republic, as only a minority of the military had remained loyal.
The Spanish Civil War was complicated.
The Popular Front governing the republic was composed of diverse groups — anarchists, trade unionists, communists, centrists, Catalonian nationalists — that frequently squabbled, sometimes with bullets. Soviet premier Joseph Stalin also attempted to assert control over communist factions in Spain and the International Brigades, resulting in intrigues in which dissenters were executed or disappeared.
Although the nationalists systematically massacred between 120,000 and 200,000 of their political opponents in the White Terror, the republicans were also guilty of atrocities that killed up to 50,000 people.
But there was also revolutionary excitement in the air as the movements within the republic sought to create a new social order.
Law’s military experience landed him with command of a platoon-size machine gun unit in the Lincoln Battalion, the American infantry unit inside the Lincoln Brigade.
Given only token training, in February the battalion was thrust into the Battle of Jarama, a successful but bloody republican defensive action. The Lincoln Battalion charged the nationalist lines without air or artillery support it had been promised — and lost two-thirds of its soldiers killed or wounded, including the battalion commander.
Having performed with distinction, Law was made commander of the machine gun company. As losses among officers mounted, he was promoted to captain and given command of the entire Lincoln Battalion, becoming the first black American to lead an integrated military unit.
When an observing American colonel asked him why he was wearing an officer’s uniform, Law replied, “Because I am a captain. In your army, I could only rise as a high as a corporal, but here people feel differently about race and I can rise according to my worth, not according to my color.”
On July 10, 1937, Law led a charge across a wheat field at Mosquito Ridge during the Battle of Brunete, a republican offensive attempting to relieve the pressure on Madrid.
“He was 20 yards ahead of us, standing there yelling and waving his pistol,” fellow soldier Harry Fisher recalled. “Okay, fellas, let’s go. Let’s go! Let’s keep it up. We can chase them off that hill. We can take that hill. Come on! He got hit just about then. That was the last I saw of him. You could see the dust rising around him, where hundreds of bullets seemed to be converging.”
Struck in the stomach by machine gun fire, Law soon died of his wounds.
James Peck — drummer, writer & fighter pilot
Born in 1912 in Stoops Ferry, Pennsylvania, Peck was a pilot and aviation enthusiast at a time when barely any African-Americans were permitted to fly.
He quit the University of Pittsburg to study flying at the Curtiss-Wright Flying School, but had to move to Ohio because the Pennsylvania flight examiner refused to license black flyers.
Upon receiving his license in Cleveland, Peck was one of only five African Americans to have one in the entire United States. Among the first black flyers were Bessie Coleman, a manicurist turned barnstormer, and Eugene Bullard, who flew with the French army in World War I.
Peck attempted to join both the Army Air Corps and the Naval Air Service, but was refused because of his race.
A true renaissance man, Peck pursued careers as a touring drummer and an aviation writer for Aero Digest magazine. Some of his early success may have come from the anonymity of the written medium, a sadly common experience for black writers at the time.
In August 1937, Peck enlisted with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and took the Queen Mary to France. He was accompanied by Paul Matthews, a Youngstown, Ohio native who had graduated from the Ohio School of Aeronautical Engineering.
Matthews had already worked as a test pilot, engineering instructor at Wright Patterson, and the designer of two airplanes. Together, they crossed over the Pyrenees Mountains into republican territory, where they were commissioned as lieutenants by the Spanish air ministry.
Peck later said he was opposing “a species of that thing which at home had kept me, a trained pilot, grounded, while keeping hundreds of thousands of other Negro youths from being what they wanted to be.”
The Soviet Union was the only country to provide significant assistance to the Spanish Republic in the form of military advisors, tanks and hundreds of aircraft and pilots.
Peck trained at Valencia on these Soviet fighters, the Polikarpov I-15 and I-16. The I-15, nicknamed the Chato — “snub nose” — by the Spanish for its blunt propeller hub, was one of the best of the last generation of biplane fighters. The gull-wing aircraft were highly maneuverable, but had a top speed of just 230 miles per hour.
By contrast, the I-16 Type 5 Mosca — “fly” — was a first-generation monoplane fighter that could attain speeds over 280 miles per hour. The I-16 was underarmed with just two machine guns, and the positioning of the fuel tank next to the cockpit left the pilot at significant risk of burning to death if the plane got hit.
But speed gave the I-16 an edge over its opponents — a state of affairs that would soon change.
Salaria Kea — militant nurse
Another African-American volunteer, Georgia-born Salaria Kea, arrived in March 1937 all of 20 years old. Three Ohio nursing colleges rejected her because of the color of her skin before she got her degree at the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing and became head nurse of Sea View Hospital’s tuberculosis ward.
Before going to Spain, she successfully agitated for the desegregation of the hospital cafeteria, organized a campaign to send medical supplies to Ethiopia when it was invaded by Italy in 1935 and applied to work with Red Cross to assist in Midwest Flood Relief — and was refused.
Her reason for going to Spain? “Here’s the thing that brought everything to me. It was the way Germany was treating the Jews. What Hitler was doing with them, it was like the Ku Klux Klan.”
Her first assignment in Spain was at Villa Paz, where an abandoned royal palace had been converted into a hospital. She came to see parallels in the plight of Spanish peasantry, who saw themselves as inferior to nobility, and that of the African Americans in the United States.
“The [Spanish] peasants had been psychologically just as imprisoned, had accepted the belief that nothing could be done about their situation as had the Harlem nurses earlier accepted racial discrimination in their dining room,” Kea said. “Like the Harlem nurses, too, the peasants were now learning that something could be done about it. … There was nothing inviolable about the old prejudices … they could be changed and justice established.”
Kea would encounter black poet Langston Hughes, who was reporting in Spain for six months. He wrote an account of how Kea, dealing with the primitive conditions of the hospital, had substituted hot soup from the mess hall in hot packs when heated water became unavailable.
Hughes also wrote poetry reflecting on the irony that dark-skinned colonial soldiers under Franco fought against the republican cause.
At Villa Paz, Kea fell love with a wounded Irish volunteer soldier, John Patrick O’Reilly, who wooed her with long discussions, poetry and a marriage proposal in which he pleaded that she not “let the reactionaries take away the only thing a poor man deserved, and that thing is his right to marry the one he loved and believed loved him?”
Swooning to the ground, she sat down on a cactus by accident. They were eventually married in the palace-turned-hospital.
Kea became a minor celebrity in republican newspapers and even the films Heart of Spain and Return to Life. She also became famous in the United States. A pamphlet from 1938 shares harrowing anecdotes of her service, but makes no mention of her taboo-smashing relationship.
Air war over Spain
From the onset of the war, Germany and Italy both contributed tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of aircraft to the nationalist cause. Hitler and Mussolini were eager to test their new warplanes, both in support of ground armies and as terror weapons bombing enemy cities.
However, the German Heinkel 51 biplane fighters from early in the war fared poorly against republican I-15s and I-16s. The Italian Fiat CR. 32 biplanes, however, were agile dogfighters that more than held their own. Their success led the Italian air force to wrongfully infer that it should continue to invest in biplanes going into World War II.
Deployed to the Aragon front, James Peck reported that over four months of combat he shot down two Heinkel 51s and three CR. 32s and was credited with half of another downed airplane.
This would make him the first African-American fighter ace — a pilot who has shot down five aircraft in combat. He stated that he had flown “seven [air-to-air] combats, 40 convoy missions, five strafing missions and 11 attacks on Italian and other fascist vessels.”
During this time, Peck reportedly dined often with writer Ernest Hemingway who had come to report on the conflict. Hemingway would write about the war and its international volunteers in For Whom the Bell Tolls. He even worked Italian fighter planes and tanks into the novel.
Peck was honorably discharged in December, and he, along with Paul Williams, returned home “with full scrapbook, many tales and pleasant memories of a France and Spain in which there exists little color discrimination.” A few months later, Sportsman Pilot published his article “Flying in the Spanish Air Force.”
German Messerschmitt Bf. 109 fighters had begun to arrive on the Spanish front by the mid-summer of 1937. Maneuverable and capable of outrunning the opposition at 300 miles per hour, the Bf. 109 was a generation ahead of even the I-16, and later models would serve through the end of World War II in 1945.
The Messerschmitts soon secured air superiority for the nationalists, who went on to make extensive use of air support, while their bombers had free reign to bomb republican-held cities.
Peck said he never encountered Bf. 109s, but upon returning he warned a journalist that based on other pilots’ reports, the U.S. Air Force’s new P-40s fighters were likely not up to the task of defeating it.
Having repulsed a republican assault on Teruel during the freezing winter, Franco’s troops went on the offensive in March 1938, cutting the republic in two. Fascist air power proved decisive in decimating Republican units and clearing the way for rapidly advancing German tanks. The International Brigades were especially hard-hit.
Deployed to the front lines near Teruel in April, Kea recounted how fascist aircraft strafed and bombed her medical unit repeatedly for nearly six hours — their attacks only briefly interrupted by republican fighters.
“After that I heard one explosion, then I went to sleep,” Kea said. “I was waked by Dr. Barsky shouting to know if I was hurt. I told him, ‘No.’ I heard screams. Helen Freeman, an American nurse, had been badly wounded. A Spanish nurse, and later we learned, an English nurse were also seriously injured.
“Many of the patients had been killed. Already newly wounded were being brought in. We began at once to work on them. Suddenly we ran out of sterile supplies. Just up the hill our mobile operating car was parked in charge of an American ambulance driver. Two of us rushed up the hill to get more supplies. When we reached the ambulance the driver was lying outside with his head blown away.”
As her unit fell back, Salaria was separated from her unit and made her way to Barcelona, now cut off from Madrid. Fascist bombers, facing less opposition in the air, had free reign to bomb Republican cities.
Kea was assigned to care for the casualties of the bombing. A pamphlet describes her experience excavating survivors from a Barcelonan school hit by the nationalists.
“A tiny hand protruded. A bright calico sleeve covered the arm. She put aside the shovel and began gently disengaging the earth about, so that no further injury would be done the child to whom the arm must belong. With all the earth aside she lifted carefully. There was only the little arm.”
During another bombing raid, Kea took cover with her unit in a slit trench. A bomb fell farther up the trench, burying her under six feet of soil and stone. Her wounds were so severe she was furloughed back to the United States in May.
The Spanish republic surrendered 10 months later.
The American Ace’s Association honored James Peck for his aerial victories. However, in 1978 historian Allen Herr published an article claiming that he was unable to find any Spanish or American pilots who corroborated Peck’s account of flying over Aragon.
He reported Spanish-Japanese pilot Chang Sellés, who served with the Lincoln Brigade’s American squadron, saying that “James Peck’s service in Spain as a fighter pilot is utterly impossible.”
The Abraham Lincoln Brigade’s records say this about Peck and Paul Williams’s service. “Neither pilot, however, was allowed to fly in Spain. The completion their training coincided with the arrival of Spanish pilots who had been trained in Russia and France. Consequently all international pilots were summarily withdrawn. Williams and Peck agreed to act as ground crew at a coastal base.”
Were Peck’s combat exploits a fabrication? There are some possible explanations in Peck’s defense.
First of all, Peck may have served in a Republican air unit that wasn’t the Lincoln squadron. As the republic was defeated, no records today could verify that this occurred. It’s true that nearly as many Russian pilots as planes deployed to the conflict — but the republic also paid significant sums to employ American mercenary pilots. That suggests a “free” pilot might have been desirable.
Another possibility is that racial prejudice may have caused Peck’s record to be suppressed or distorted. Even the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was known for its internal feuds which may have resulted in misrepresentation of what occurred.
Unfortunately, there is a historical precedent. William Herrick, a former Lincoln volunteer who became a devoted anti-communist, published a number of stories and articles claiming that Oliver Law was shot by his own men for his incompetence and his body desecrated — a claim which has been debunked.
When confronted later in his life with challenges to his record, Peck reportedly stuck to his guns — but maintained that his later deeds were of greater importance, anyway.
Peck went onto become an influential aviation writer, penning the books Armies with Wings and So You’re Going to Fly. He also wrote “When Do We Fly?” in the NAACP newsletter Crisis. In addition to dishing exquisite technical details such as “12 maintenance men are required per pilot per plane during operations,” Peck forcefully argued for opening the Army Air Corps to African Americans.
“The issue becomes one of Negroes fighting for a chance to fight for the greatest democracy in the world. We must lick a certain bigoted clique in Washington — and points north and south — before we can get at Adolf.”
But though such outcry would lead to the forming of the of the Tuskegee flying program for black pilots, Peck was unwilling to submit to the racism in Alabama where it was located. He instead served as a lieutenant commanding anti-aircraft guns in the Merchant Marine during World War II.
Through the 1940s and ’50s, Peck’s writing appeared in Harper’s, Air News, Science Digest, The New York Times and Popular Science — which in 1945 finally published Peck’s photo alongside his article “How Radar Sees the Invisible.” An Air Force planner described him as “the most-quoted aviation writer in the English language.”
In 1959 Peck entered into the field of space flight work for Space Technology Laboratories, including doing work on the Mercury and Gemini rocket boosters. “I was the first black guy to be employed at Cape Canaveral in an engineering capacity,” Peck said. “I got to know all the original astronauts.”
His later projects included work on a spy satellite and, finally, the B-1 bomber. He continued to write about aviation after his retirement in 1981 and was working on a book on the B-1 when he passed away in 1996.
As for Salaria Kea, it would take two years of lobbying to convince the U.S. State Department to recognize her marriage to O’Reilly so that the two could reunite. Shortly afterward, the couple parted again as they both entered U.S. military service in World War II.
After the war, Kea lived with her husband and worked together on hospital integration programs, first in New York and then in Akron, Ohio, where they retired. Sadly, the couple had to put up with harassment and threats throughout their lives. Kea wrote several memoirs about her experiences before her death in 1990.