By Thomas Wirth, Lecturer, State University of New York at Cortland
Political Prisoner, National Woman’s Party, Occoquan Workhouse
Nina Samorodin grew up an educated woman in a stronghold of the Russian Empire. Born to an orthodox Jewish family in Kiev, Ukraine, Samorodin took advantage of increasing educational opportunities available to Jews in the city, despite ongoing persecutions that called into question Jewish residency rights. She graduated from Kiev University, an institution that matriculated more Jewish students than any other Russian university by the early twentieth century. Samorodin left Kiev in 1914 to visit the United States, following her interest, she later told a friend, in American “industrial and political democracy.” Samorodin remained in America at least through the late 1920s after finding work in a garment factory in New York City. Outraged by injustices she witnessed against immigrant laborers in the city’s shops, she threw herself into the struggle to organize women workers, and by 1917 had joined the National Woman’s Party (NWP) in the fight for female political equality.
While relatively little is known about Samorodin’s role within the NWP, she did participate in at least one of the well-known suffrage pickets at the White House during the summer of 1917. On September 13, she was arrested along with other NWP members for carrying a pro-suffrage banner. Charging Samorodin with obstructing traffic, a judge sentenced her to pay a fine or serve thirty days at the Occoquan workhouse in Lorton, Virginia. Like most other picketers, she chose the jail sentence. Occoquan gained notoriety in 1917 for its harsh conditions after jailed NWP members and their supporters drew public attention to the inhumane treatment the picketers received as prison inmates. Samorodin’s sister, Vera, who had left Kiev behind for Baltimore, visited Nina at Occoquan and was appalled by the “cruelty of the treatment” for a “simple political offense.” Vera noted a decline in her sister’s health, observing that she had “lost in weight and strength since her imprisonment” and suffered “a constant headache from hunger.” After seeing Nina, Vera appealed in writing to the Russian ambassador, asking him to lobby District of Columbia commissioners to amend Nina’s status from “inmate” to “political prisoner,” a change that would have afforded her protections against prison abuse not granted to the common criminal. However, the political prisoner designation was not recognized in the United States.
Samorodin’s prison experience perhaps served to embolden developing commitments to industrial protest and political radicalism. Upon release from Occoquan in the fall of 1917, she traveled to New York and taught a course in Russian language instruction at the Rand School of Social Science, a Socialist workers’ school located near Union Square. In 1919, she was hired as a general organizer for Local 153 of the Shirtmakers’ Union, an affiliate of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA), in Philadelphia. Samorodin’s proficiency with three languages—Russian, Yiddish, and English—and her NWP connections proved an asset to the ACWA at a time when Pennsylvania locals were fighting to smooth over tensions between ethnic and native-born garment workers, the latter of whom often harbored deep suspicions of “immigrant unions” such as the ACWA. Samorodin recruited fellow NWP member and Bryn Mawr graduate Pauline Clarke to organize among native-born workers in Pennsylvania. For a time in 1920, Samorodin also shared a room on Spruce Street in Philadelphia with Ann Washington Craton, who went on to organize women in the Schuylkill Valley region of Pennsylvania.
Samorodin shifted her focus in the early 1920s from union activism to immigrant advocacy and propaganda work for the Communist Party of America. Although it is unclear when she joined the Communist Party, by 1921 she was working on behalf of Communist front organizations such as the American Labor Alliance for Trade Relations with Russia. As secretary of the Labor Alliance, Samorodin pressed for a formal American trade agreement with Russia and urged American trade unions to petition Congress to open diplomatic negotiations with the country. In 1926, Samorodin accepted a post with the National Council for Protection of Foreign Born Workers, a Communist organization founded originally in 1924 by the Workers Party of America at its Third National Convention. She served as the group’s executive secretary, with headquarters at 41 Union Square in New York. Samorodin sought to attract working-class opposition to “anti-alien” legislation in Congress and protect immigrants, especially radicals and Communist Party members, threatened by unlawful prosecutions or deportations. The National Council proved a forerunner on immigrant rights, paving the way for longer lasting organizations such as the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born, established in 1933 by Roger N. Baldwin of the American Civil Liberties Union.
During the late 1920s, the Communist Party press occasionally referenced Samorodin in connection to her work with immigrants, yet the record of her activities in America appears to end abruptly in 1930. That year, a House of Representatives special committee charged with investigating Communist propaganda identified Samorodin as “a well-known agent of the Russian communist government.” The committee’s final report also pointed to the allegedly subversive ambitions of the National Council for Protection of Foreign Born Workers, claiming that Communists had “expected more from it than any other organization in the United States except the Communist Party itself.” Despite these characterizations, the National Council was defunct by 1929 and Samorodin had likely moved on to other work.
- Prior to 1920, particularly in references to her work with the National Woman’s Party, her name is misspelled “Samarodin.” In the majority of sources I have consulted, her name is spelled “Samorodin.” This includes a letter she wrote to The Nation published in 1922.
- Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1920), 179, 346, 367.
- On Kiev’s treatment of Jews in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, see http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/kiev
- Jean H. Baker, Votes for Women: The Struggle for Suffrage Revisited, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 183-184, 188.
- Alice Kessler-Harris, “The Autobiography of Ann Washington Craton,” Signs (Summer, 1976), 1019-1037. https://dokumen.tips/documents/the-autobiography-of-ann-washington-craton.html
- Nina Samorodin, Shirtmakers’ Union, Local 153, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Box 5 Folder 11, Sidney Hillman Correspondence, 1911-1929, Amalgamated Clothing Workers records, 1914-1980, Kheel Center Archives, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.
- Nina Samorodin, “Trade With Russia,” The Nation (November 15, 1922), 524.
- National Council for Protection of Foreign Born Workers, Box 63, Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York, New York.
- Several Daily Worker articles quote Samorodin in her capacity as secretary to the National Council for Protection of Foreign Born Workers, including “Labor Secretary Davis Changes ‘Hymn of Hate,’” Daily Worker January 31, 1927, p. 5.
- Part 1, Issue 4 of Investigation of Communist Propaganda: Hearings Before a Special Committee to Investigate Communist Activities in the United States of the House of Representatives, Seventy-first Congress, Second Session, Pursuant to H. Res. 220, Providing for an Investigation of Communist Propaganda in the United States (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1930), 148.