Biographies/Israel Erwin Sandipher

Tags: Black Auto Mechanic WWI Veteran Ohioan Brunete WWII Veteran Ebro Offensive Aragon Offensive Member Of Communist Party

Researcher: Oliver Hollmann, Stuyvesant '23

Israel Erwin Sandipher was born on March 9, 1890 in Hamilton, Ohio, the fifth of seven children to James (b. 1855) and Pocahontas (b. 1862, nee Hebron) Sandipher. As African American southerners, James coming from South Carolina and Pocahontas from Washington, D.C, both parents were most likely freed slaves: James freed at 7 years old and Pocahontas as a newborn. Although the exact origin of the name Sandipher is unknown–their family is the only documented use of that name on record–it is likely that James took and slightly modified his owner’s name (many slave owners, including a number in South Carolina, had the surname “Sandifer”), as did many other freed slaves.

After a childhood and young adulthood in Hamilton, at age 27 Sandipher was drafted for World War 1, at the time living at 931 Wade St. in Cincinnati, Ohio. After his return he settled in New York City, eventually finding residence at 50 E. 13th street. He took up a job as an Auto Mechanic, and likely maintained a stable income until the stock crash of 1929, sending millions into economic hardship and poverty. Whether due to his own economic hardship, disillusionment with the recently collapsed American system of capitalism, or both, Sandipher joined the American Communist Party in 1932.

The party itself had begun as a coalition completely lacking black members, despite the socialist perspective on slavery being extremely antagonistic at the time. However by 1920 the party began a campaign to intensively recruit black members, especially those of an internationalist bent. During the early 1930s, the party was particularly active in urban areas. including New York City. It was here, in fact, where the party launched an economic boycott of Jewish and Italian businesses that refused to hire black workers, under the slogan “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” This might have been attractive to Sandipher, as a black worker in New York City.

At this point the party had begun to tailor its campaign for unity against fascism to appeal to the black community, specifically in its opposition to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Continuing this trend, black members, including Sandipher in 1937, went to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

Sandipher is documented in the Jewish Virtual Library’s catalog of Jews who fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, seemingly conflicting with Sandipher’s African-American heritage. To clear this up, the catalog points out that many of the names documented are not confirmed to come from actual Jews, rather non-Jews with Jewish-sounding names. Sandipher’s mother, Pocahontas, was born with the surname Hebron, a name of distinctly semitic origin, which may indicate either Jewish faith or connection to it, explaining in part Sandipher’s first name. (His siblings had similar, biblical names including Joseph, Aaron, and Mary)

The racial makeup and dynamic of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was unprecedented in the history of American military forces. In all previous wars, including World War 1, black soldiers served under the command of white officers, whereas here, many African-Americans rose to prominent commanding roles.

Sandipher arrived in Spain on April 2, shortly after the largely futile Battle of Jarama on February 27, in which the Brigade suffered great losses, losing two-thirds of its fighting body. As a result of this loss Sandipher was likely met with minimal, rushed training in an attempt to quickly bolster the Brigade’s then diminished forces. The first documented battle Sandipher fought in was the Battle of Brunete, a well-prepared offensive against Nationalist forces in the Nationalist-controlled town of Brunete. By the end of the battle the ALB had joined forces with the George Washington Battalion, who had already sustained heavy casualties in previous engagements. This partnership of regiments led to general military success at the following series of Battles at the Aragon Offensive, including both Quinto and Belchite, the intense house-to-house combat of which Sandipher and many of his peers were lucky to survive. After the final, unsuccessful engagement at Fuentes de Ebro, where casualties were heavy due to an uncoordinated advance of Russian tanks, the Brigade was able to enjoy an extended period of rest and relaxation, to the relief of many of its troops.

Sandipher would fight in his last major battle in the Ebro offensive, a first stalwart push back into captured territory that ended in a last - minute shift to defense for the Republicans after crossing the Ebro River. The sentiment of African-American fighters at that time was largely against returning to America. Tom Page, a fellow black New Yorker, remarked that Spain was “the first time that I ever felt like a free man.”

Returning to New York again from his second international war, by 1942 Sandipher was left unemployed. In perhaps an effort to continue his crusade against fascism, or a way out of a jobless existence, he registered for service on the 15th of February, 1942. His participation in World War Two likely saw a regression from his last experience in active duty, as, like in World War One, black soldiers were often assigned non-combatant roles, behind the front lines. Israel Erwin Sandipher died on December 27, 1969, by then a veteran in three wars, all fought overseas. Although it is unknown whether he continued his membership in the Communist Party of USA until his death, his values still likely centered on socialism, despite the souring and destruction of Stalin and the U.S.S.R’s image.


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