Race, Citizenship, and Red Scares: Robert Robinson and Foreign Service Officer Bill Davis
When U.S. citizens travel abroad with their official documents, like visas and passports, they expect to be able to travel freely. And they also expect to be able to return to the United States after their trip, whether it be for leisure or work travel. When they are abroad, they expect to be able to turn to diplomats at U.S. embassies or consulates if they run into trouble.
But for many years in the 20th century, racism and fears of communism denied American citizens these rights. Robert Robinson, a naturalized Black American citizen, was trapped in the Soviet Union for 44 years. The practice of diplomacy and the work of American diplomats caused this to happen, but it was also diplomacy and the advocacy of diplomats that eventually righted the wrong.
The Story of Robert Robinson
Robert Robinson was born in Jamaica in 1906. His parents moved to Cuba when Robinson was five, and soon after, his father deserted the family. In his teen years, Robinson studied tool and die manufacturing, hoping eventually to become a mechanical engineer. He also dreamed of going to the United States to find work in this industry and financially support his mother.
Robinson took that leap in 1923 when he was 17 years old, moving to Harlem in New York City. His passion for manufacturing and interest in the auto industry drew him to Detroit a few years later. Applying for a tool and die maker job at Ford Motor Company, he quickly found that the white managers refused to accept the experience of a young black man. To get his foot in the door, he applied for a job sweeping floors. Within four months, he was able to enroll in the factory’s tech school, and ten months later, he graduated as the only Black toolmaker in the company. In 1929, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
A group of Soviet Russians arrived at the factory in 1930. The United States had broken off diplomatic relations with Russia in 1917 after the Russian Revolution and had not yet established bilateral relations after the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was formed in 1922. That didn’t stop citizens from traveling between countries, and the Russians were very interested in learning about American methods of industrial and agricultural production.
The Russians asked Robinson to work at a Soviet Union state-owned factory on a one-year contract. They offered him $250 a month, rent-free housing, 30 days paid vacation, and passage to and from the Soviet Union.
Robinson Travels to the Soviet Union
Robinson made $140 a month working for Ford and had not yet been able to bring his mother to the United States. At 23, Robinson had no interest in communism or politics. He wanted professional and economic advancement and eagerly accepted the Russians’ offer, traveling to the Soviet Union with a group of fellow Ford workers. He was the only Black person selected.
Living and working under the Russian Soviet communism system was a radical change for Robinson. When his white American coworkers refused to eat or bunk with him, insisting on segregated facilities, the Soviet captain sternly told them that, in that case, they would not eat or sleep, as they were now bound by Soviet laws prohibiting racial segregation.
Robinson Is Attacked by Two White Coworkers
Intent on exacting revenge, two white coworkers jumped Robinson shortly after they began their factory work. Robinson fought back, beating his attackers. He feared the worst. Experience in the United States had taught him that Black people were often jailed or killed in similar situations.
Much to his surprise, the Soviet police listened to his side of the story and arrested his white coworkers.
Russian newspapers quickly covered the story, using it as a propaganda opportunity to portray Soviet communism as a system that treated everyone equally and claiming it was superior to American democracy. The Soviet courts prosecuted Robinson’s attackers, found them guilty of “national chauvinism,” and ordered them deported back to the United States.
We will not tolerate the practices of bourgeois America in the USSR.
– Trud (USSR newspaper), August 9, 1930
Robinson After the Trial
For Robinson, the verdict meant he could live and work in peace. His year contract up, Robinson accepted another year contract and would continue to do so for the next few years. With the money he earned, he had been able to move his mother from Cuba to Harlem and support her comfortably. He was even able to visit her for six weeks in 1933 and noted that the Great Depression was getting worse.
Because of the notoriety of the racist assault and trial, Robinson assumed he would not be able to return to the Ford Motor Company or comparable work. He was determined to keep working in the Soviet Union as long as he could.
Robinson is Elected to Moscow’s City Council
But Robinson’s feelings of peace and security would not last long. In 1934, his Russian factory coworkers nominated him to serve on Moscow’s city council, and he was elected—even though he was an American citizen and not a member of the communist party.
Horrified at being put in this new role but afraid if he refused, he would lose his contract, Robinson agreed and secretly resolved to return home after his contract expired.
In the widely read TIME Magazine in the United States, the article “Black Blank; Russia” about Robinson used racist language similar to 19th-century rhetoric defending slavery. The author implied that Black Americans would turn to violence because of communism. The article said, “Negroes, so every Soviet child is taught, are the Black Hopes of Communism in the U.S. Sooner or later, if properly primed by Moscow, they will ‘arise and slash [their] thraldom’s chains’ as the Soviet anthem puts it. Nowhere else in the world is a Negro so pampered as in Russia.”
Robinson’s American Citizenship At Risk
In 1933, the United States established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and opened an embassy in Moscow. U.S. diplomats now had on-the-ground access to information and were well-informed about the activities of Americans living and working in the Soviet Union.
Robinson was already under suspicion of being under communist influence after the 1930 assault and trial. He began receiving letters from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow notifying him that he would have to return to the United States immediately.
The reason? The letters stated that since Robinson had not returned to the United States within five years of leaving for the Soviet Union, he was at risk of losing his U.S. citizenship.
A 1907 immigration law stated that any naturalized citizen leaving the United States could not remain abroad for over five years without returning. The U.S. government considered naturalized citizens who left and did not return to have voluntarily given up their rights to U.S. citizenship. But Robinson had returned to the United States in 1933 for six weeks to visit his mother.
He pleaded his case to the embassy, but officials refused to look at his documentation and told him again that he must return immediately.
Robinson was in a bad spot. He knew finding work in the United States would be difficult, but he also was getting increasingly nervous about staying in the Soviet Union.
He appealed to the U.S. Ambassador, William Bullitt, who agreed to see him. Robinson asked his friend, African American journalist Homer Smith to accompany him to help plead his case.
Bullitt listened sympathetically at first but also refused to look at Robinson’s documentation and told him he had to return home. Smith then interjected, calling Bullitt “comrade,” the common expression used between Soviet citizens. Bullitt erupted in fury, yelling that he was an American and not a communist, and threw both men out of his office.
Robinson’s heart sank. To make matters worse, Smith smiled at Bullitt and said, “Goodbye, comrade ambassador.” Robinson knew then his cause was lost.
Robinson Stripped of his Citizenship
Faced with economic hardship back in the United States, Robinson asked his boss at the Soviet factory what to do. The boss assured him that these cases had arisen in the past, but U.S. citizens had always been allowed to return. He promised Robinson he would receive Soviet citizenship allowing him to work and live in the country as long as he wanted.
Robinson decided to stay, and within the next few years, the U.S. courts stripped Robinson of his naturalized citizenship, declaring that he had expatriated himself under the 1907 law.
Despite the obstacles caused by World War II and its aftermath, Robinson resolved to try and leave the Soviet Union for good. The only way that seemed possible was to obtain a vacation passport, then never return. After the War ended in 1945, Soviet laws made it nearly impossible for its citizens to travel outside the country.
In 1953 Robinson received a telegram from his brother, letting him know that their mother was critically ill. Robinson requested a vacation passport to see her, but it was denied, and his mother passed away. He began to doubt he could ever leave but never lost an opportunity to make a personal connection that might help him in the future.
A Fortunate Meeting: Robert Robinson and Bill Davis
An opportunity arose in 1959 when Moscow was the site of an international exposition. Expositions are public events where countries are invited to showcase the best their country has to offer.
The United States had American tour guides who spoke fluent Russian to describe the exhibits to Russian attendees. William (Bill) B. Davis, an African American government employee, was one of the guides. Davis was eager to join the U.S. Foreign Service, and thought that his work at the exposition would help his application.
Davis was assigned to demonstrate the IBM exhibit. He noticed a Black man in the crowd listening to his presentation.
The two made an instant connection. Davis spent several hours listening to Robinson’s story. While he had empathy for Robinson’s plight, Davis told him that he could not do anything for him, as Robinson was a Soviet citizen. He did promise to help him in any way he could if Robinson’s situation changed.
Robinson Receives Help from Uganda
In the 1960s, Robinson persevered in making people-to-people connections. This was also the time of independence movements in Black African nations, and both the Soviet Union and the United States sought to gain allies in the region. The Soviets invited Black African students to study in Moscow, and Robinson became friends with Ugandan students. They, in turn, introduced him to the Uganda ambassador to the Soviet Union, Matiya Mutyaba (Mathias Lubega, anglicized name).
Ambassador Mutyaba and Robinson became fast friends, and Robinson trusted the ambassador with his story. Mutyaba promised to help him. Upon his return to Uganda, Mutyaba issued a formal letter of invitation for Robinson to vacation in his country. The Soviets did not risk offending an ally they wished to cultivate and granted Robinson the travel passport.
Once safely in Uganda, Ambassador Mutyaba introduced Robinson to high-level officials in the Uganda government, including none other than Idi Amin, who had established himself as president after a 1971 military coup.
In order to stay in Uganda, Robinson needed a job, and his personal connections with senior officials helped land him one–teaching mechanical engineering at Uganda Technical College. The Uganda government sent a letter to Soviet officials, notifying them that Robinson would not be returning to the Soviet Union any time soon. Once again, unwilling to risk offending the Ugandans, the Soviets did not contest the request.
Robinson’s Return to the United States
It was at the Technical College that Robinson would make another fortunate connection that would change his life dramatically. He met a fellow instructor, Dr. Zylpha Mapp, an African American woman. Their fast friendship led to marriage in 1976.
As political tensions within Uganda and an impending war with neighboring Tanzania loomed, the Robinsons decided it was time to try and return to the United States for good. Robinson worried that his 1930s troubles with the U.S. government would prevent him from entering the country.
He turned to his old friend, Bill Davis, for help. Davis, now a long-serving Foreign Service Officer, sprang into action, working with his connections in the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Department of State to obtain a travel visa for Robinson in 1977.
Robinson arrived unannounced at his brother’s door in New York. They had not seen one another since 1930. He didn’t know his brother had traveled to Washington, DC, to the Department of State to plead his case. His brother said State Department officials told him that Robinson did not wish to leave.
Robinson Regains His U.S. Citizenship
Robinson also visited Bill Davis in Washington and expressed his desire to move back permanently to the United States. Davis again promised to help and was able once again to advocate on Robinson’s behalf with USCIS and the Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs to get him a Green Card in 1978. This official U.S. documentation enabled Robinson to live and work permanently in the United States.
In 1986, at the age of 80, Robert Robinson once again became a naturalized citizen of the United States of America.
Robinson’s self-advocacy, coupled with his natural diplomatic skills of diplomacy, led him to make connections with Ambassador Mutyaba and FSO Bill Davis to restore his citizenship.
Bill Davis encouraged Robinson to write his autobiography detailing his case and his life inside the Soviet Union. Published in 1988, Robinson’s suggestions on how the United States and the Soviet Union can improve relations are still relevant today–and are some of the foundations of American diplomacy and foreign policy.
Sources Consulted and for Further Reading
Robert N. Robinson with Jonathan Slevin, Black on Red: My 44 Years Inside the Soviet Union (Washington, D.C.: Acropolis Books, 1988).
Joy Gleason Carew, Blacks, Reds, and Russians: Sojourners in Search of the Soviet Promise (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008).
Allison Blakely, Russia and the Negro: Blacks in Russian History and Thought (Washington: Howard University Press, 1986).
Kate A. Baldwin, Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain: Reading Encounters in Black and Red, 1922-1963 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002).
Barbara Keys, “An African-American Worker in Stalin’s Soviet Union: Race and the Soviet Experiment in International Perspective,” The Historian (Spring 2009, Vol. 71, No. 1), pp. 31-54.
David E. Greenstein, “Assembling ‘Fordizm’: The Production of Automobiles, Americans and Bolsheviks in Detroit and Early Soviet Russia,” Comparative Studies in Society and History (April 2014, Vol. 56, No. 2), pp. 259-289.
This State Department ledger records information about the issuance and renewal of passports for Americans living in or traveling to the Soviet Union (USSR), including details of specific individuals’ cases, dating from 1926 through the late 1930s. The case of Robert N. Robinson, an African American engineer who ended up trapped in…