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Both fighting for independence: Black volunteers in Spain

This extract from ‘The Book of the XV Brigade’ honours three African-American Lincoln Battalion volunteers. It serves as a reminder of the egalitarianism and internationalism at the heart of the International Brigades. The book was a collective work composed by the volunteers of the XV International Brigade during the quiet intervals of the civil war. Originally published in Madrid in 1938, it provides first-hand accounts of the experiences of the volunteers, particularly the English-speaking units.

 

Oliver Law in Spain. He briefly commanded the American volunteers at the Battle of Brunete until his death in battle (Photo: ALBA).

 

The three belonged to the same oppressed race. They were men who carried their heads high. It was more than natural for these three men to come to Spain, to help the Spanish people in their fight against their oppressors. Three men, three Negroes, three machine gunners. 

 

Captain Oliver Law, later Lincoln Battalion Commander, came from Chicago. His former army training, his coolness under fire, his ability as leader of men soon lifted him out of the ranks and put him in command of the Machine Gun Company in the Lincoln Battalion. He was a leader in every sense of the word, a strong disciplinarian. 

 

He once said to a visiting newspaperman who wanted to know why Negroes came here: 'We came to wipe out the Fascists; some of us must die doing that job. By doing it, here in Spain, maybe we’ll stop Fascism in the United States, too, without a great battle there. The Spanish people have the same aim as the Negro people we are both fighting for our national independence.'

 

During the Brunete offensive, Capt. Law was always at the spot where the danger was the greatest. He died at the head of his troops, taking the Machine Gun Company into a new position a leader to the last.

 

Doug Roach, the second machine-gunner, was one of the first American volunteers in Spain. A short, powerful body muscles that literally bulged under the skin, mountainous shoulders topped by a large head that was usually lit up by an infectious smile. Doug was a source of strength to everybody around him. It was not merely his physical strength he could carry a heavy machine gun over the hills of Brunete when others were too exhausted to walk it was his moral fibre, his courage which earned him a citation for bravery. 

 

Doug Roach was at his best when the fighting was going on. He had a rich command of invectives which he could pour out as fast as his machine gun could spit bullets. His whole being seemed to become concentrated on one job to mow down the Fascists. But once the fighting was over, he again became the warm human being, happy and joking, the delight of all.

 

When the Battalion would visit a Spanish village the children would all crowd around him, attracted by his dark color and it was hard to tell who had a better time playing, he or the children. 

 

The Estampa Spanish newspaper devoted a long article to him in a November issue. In the article, Garcia Ortega, famous Spanish writer, says this of him among others: ‘At Brunete Douglas Roach was wounded by a tank shell, shrapnel piercing his left shoulder. But he continues with the same enthusiasm as always, with the characteristic smile which still brightens his face. He remembers with great emotion the comrades who fell on the field of battle. And he has a great confidence in the triumph of the Spanish people.’ Doug Roach is now convalescing in the States. 

 

Walter Garland, the third machine-gunner, twice wounded in action, rose from the ranks to be Lieutenant and Commander of the Machine Gun Company of the Lincoln Battalion. 

 

He was first wounded in the fighting in the early days of Jarama, a bullet in the abdomen. Recovering, he was sent to an Officers’ Training School and was later placed in charge of training a Machine Gun Company.

 

In the early days of Brunete he got wounded again, this time in the hand. That took him out of action for twelve days. Following the offensive he took command of a Battalion in the Training Base a very swift but merited promotion for a man so young. 

 

Walter Garland is 23 years old, by profession a radio orchestrator. A few months ago he returned to his native Brooklyn, NY a real credit to his race and to the American people as a whole.

 

 

Posted on 18 June 2020.