The songwriter, labor organizer and folk hero Joe Hill has been the subject of poems, songs, an opera, books and movies. His will, written in verse the night before a Utah firing squad executed him in 1915 and later put to music, became part of the labor movement’s soundtrack. Now the original copy of that penciled will is among the unexpected historical gems unearthed from a vast collection of papers and photographs never before seen publicly that the Communist Party USA has donated to New York University.
The cache contains decades of party history including founding documents, secret code words, stacks of personal letters, smuggled directives from Moscow, Lenin buttons, photographs and stern commands about how good party members should behave (no charity work, for instance, to distract them from their revolutionary duties).
By offering such an inside view, the archives have the potential to revise assumptions on both the left and the right about one of the most contentious subjects in American history, in addition to filling out the story of progressive politics, the labor movement and the civil rights struggles.
“It is one of the most exciting collecting opportunities that has ever presented itself here,” said Michael Nash, the director of New York University’s Tamiment Library, which will announce the donation on Friday.
Liberal and conservative historians, told by The New York Times about the archives, were enthusiastic about the addition of so many original documents to the historical record. No one yet knows whether they can resolve the die-hard disputes about the extent of the links between American subversives and Moscow since, as Mr. Nash said, “it will take us years to catalog.” But what is most exciting, said Mr. Nash and other scholars, is the new areas it opens up for research beyond the homegrown threat to security during the cold war.
Hill’s last rhyme — which begins, “My Will is easy to decide/ For there is nothing to divide” — was discovered in one of the 12,000 cartons. (Hill was convicted, some thought wrongly, of murder.) In other boxes were drafts of the party’s programs with handwritten editing changes and a stapled copy of its first constitution. “The Communist Party is a fact,” C. E. Ruthenberg, the executive secretary wrote on Sept. 18, 1919, days after the founders met in Chicago. A 1920 document marks the merger of the Communist Party and the Workers Party. It lists “Dix” as the secret party name of Earl R. Browder, who would later become general secretary of the party, “L. C. Wheat” as Jay Lovestone, who later turned against communism and worked with the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and the C.I.A., and Alexander Trachtenberg as “one of the confidential agents of Lenin in America.”
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