Williana “Liane” Jones Burroughs (1882–1945) was an American teacher, communist political activist, and politician. She is best remembered as one of the first African-American women to run for elective office in New York.
Williana (Liane, Liana) Jones was born in 1882 in Petersburg, Virginia. Her mother had formerly been a slave for 16 years, her father died when Williana was just 4. Her widowed mother left Virginia for New York City, bringing Williana together with her siblings, Gordon and Nellie. She found work as a live-in cook, but no children were allowed, so Williana, Gordon and Nellie were enrolled in the Colored Orphan Asylum, a charitable institution founded by Quakers and primarily run, by the late 19th century, by wealthy New York society women and men and located at the time on the corner of 143rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem. Nellie soon died of pneumonia, but Williana and Gordon spent the next seven years at the Asylum, visited occasionally by their mother and others. Their mother retrieved them when Williana was 11; the three settled on the West Side of Manhattan.
Williana attended public school in New York, where she was an excellent student. After graduation, she attended New York City Normal College, known today as Hunter College, where she achieved credentials to become a teacher, graduating in 1903. She was the only African American in her class of approximately 50. Her grades put her near the top of her class, and her classmates noted, “She is not afraid to state her own convictions, and what is more, she’ll stick to them, at any time and under any circumstances.” Between 1903 and 1909 she taught first- and second-graders at P.S. 188 on the Lower East Side; she was the only African American teacher at this school. Many of her students were the children of recent Jewish immigrants, and she began to specialize in teaching English-language learners. In 1909, probably pregnant with her daughter Alison, she married her longtime beau Charles Burroughs, a one-time student of W. E. B. Du Bois and a renowned Shakespearian “reader” who earned a steady income from the U.S. Post Office. She left her teaching position and took her husband’s last name, as was the custom in the day. In 1910 she obtained her first teaching position, in charge of a first-grade classroom.
In 1925, having in the intervening years raised four children, Burroughs returned to teaching, first as a substitute in Flushing and then as a teacher at P.S. 48 in Jamaica, Queens, where she again worked with English-language learners, this time from Italy and the Caribbean. She was soon recruited into the New York City Teachers Union, in which she was active as part of the Communist-led “Rank and File caucus.”
Williana Burroughs joined the Workers (Communist) Party in September 1926. Owing to the tenuous nature of her employment position — a black woman public educator — Burroughs did not make public her Communist Party membership until years later, after she had already lost her job. Instead, Burroughs made use of the pseudonym “Mary Adams” in her activities in the communist movement during the 1920s and early 1930s. Between 1928 and 1935, she published about two dozen articles in The Negro Champion (1928–29), the Harlem Liberator (1933–34) and the more widely circulating Daily Worker under her own name and her pseudonym.
Burroughs and her two youngest children, Charlie and Neal, visited the Soviet Union in July, 1928. She attended the 6th World Congress of the Communist International in Moscow as a representative of the American Negro Labor Congress, a Communist Party auxiliary group, as a non-voting delegate, and also toured schools and summer camps. By the end of the tour, she had decided to place Charlie and Neal in Soviet boarding schools. She visited her sons in the Soviet Union in 1929, after attending the Anti-Imperialist League Conference in Frankfurt.
Burroughs was also an alternate delegate to the 6th National Convention of the Communist Party USA in March 1929.
In 1930, having earned a year-long teaching sabbatical, she told those near her she was going to Germany and instead headed to the Soviet Union, where worked as a junior functionary (“praktikant”) in the Communist International and saw her sons regularly. Upon returning in January 1931, she resumed teaching, and also became active in the campaign for defense of the Scottsboro boys and was chairman of the Blumberg Defense Council, an organization formed to defend Isidore Blumberg, a teacher removed from the New York public schools system due to his political views.
In 1933 Burroughs spoke out at a meeting of the New York City Board of Education, and in June 1933 Burroughs was dismissed from her post for “conduct unbecoming to a teacher and prejudicial to law and order.”
After loss of her teaching position, Burroughs was the Communist Party’s candidate for New York Comptroller in the fall of 1933 and the Communist Party’s candidate for Lieutenant Governor of New York in 1934. She also ran the Harlem Worker’s School from 1933 to 1934.
Burroughs was regarded as one of the CP’s most effective witnesses during the public hearings over the 1935 Harlem riot.
She returned to the Soviet Union in October 1935, on the same boat as the African American actress Frances Williams and the prolific leftist writer Anna Louise Strong. She began working as a copyreader at the English-language newspaper Moscow News, and in 1937 joined the staff at the All-Union Radio Committee as an announcer and editor for the English-language broadcasts of Radio Moscow, the international shortwave news service of the Soviet government.
In 1937, she was joined by her son Charlie, who soon graduated from high school and worked at various places, including a circus and the Stalin Auto Factory. Williana Burroughs hoped to guarantee her sons’ future and then return to the United States; she began suffering health problems and asked to be relieved from her radio duties in 1940 and again in 1942.However, she was told that she was needed, given the scarcity of native English speakers in Moscow during the war, and her requests were denied. In the meantime, her husband Charles died a suicide in August 1941, and the family’s eight-bedroom home in Jamaica, Long Island, was lost.
Burroughs and her sons remained in Moscow until 1945, when she finally managed to return to New York with the younger boy. The FBI was on high alert: J. Edgar Hoover hoped to detain her, and had his agents watching boats arriving at New York Harbor. However, Williana and Neal arrived at Baltimore.
Williana Jones Burroughs died on December 24, 1945, just two months after her return to the United States, at the Manhattan home of her friend Hermie Huiswoud.
Her son Charles Burroughs, the oldest of the boys who had been left in Moscow, retained his American citizenship and was inducted into the U.S. Army early in 1945. After his military service he returned to the United States and in 1961 co-founded the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, of which he remained curator until 1980. A Chicago high school is named after him.
Her granddaughter Carola got interviewed by Yelena Demikovsky for the documentary Black Russians – The Red Experience, about African-Americans who moved to the Soviet Union (source).