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Law, Oliver (1900-1937)


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Oliver Law was the first African American in history to lead an integrated group of American soldiers. Born in west Texas on October 23, 1900, from 1919 to 1925 he was a private in the U.S. 24th Infantry. He moved to Chicago where he became a taxi driver, a stevedore, and worked for the Works Project Administration.

Radicalized during the Great Depression, in 1932 Law joined the Communist Party and led the southside Unemployed Council. He married Corrine Lightfoot, the sister Claude Lightfoot, a prominent African American in the Communist Party. He was targeted by the Chicago Police Department; members of its "Red Squad" repeatedly arrested him and once seriously beat him.

On August 31, 1935, Law organized a protest against Benito Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia. Although the protest was banned by Mayor Edward Joseph Kelly, who sent 2,000 police to break it up, 10,000 people attended. Law spoke to the crowd from a rooftop before he was arrested.

Law was among the first 2,800 Americans (including 90 African Americans) who formed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain. He received his passport on January 7, 1937, and left for Europe aboard the SS Paris on January 16, 1937. Joining 40,000 volunteers from 52 nations, the brigade sought to prevent General Francisco Franco from overthrowing Spain's republican government. 

Oliver Law's military experience, bearing, and leadership qualities were highly valued as the commander of a machine-gun company. In March 1937, he was promoted to Lincoln Brigade Commander. On July 9, Law led his men in an attack on Mosquito Ridge without air, artillery, or tank support and was mortally wounded by enemy machine gunners. Pulled to safety, he said, "I'll be back in a week or two," but soon died. His comrades buried him under a sign that read: "OLIVER LAW, THE FIRST NEGRO TO COMMAND AMERICAN WHITE SOLDIERS." 

William Loren Katz and Marc Crawford, The Lincoln Brigade: A Picture History (New York: Apex Press, 2001); William Loren Katz, “Fighting Another Civil War,” American Legacy (Winter 2002);


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