Grace Lumpkin earned a teacher’s certificate from Brenau College (1911) and then held various jobs in the Carolinas and in France as a teacher, home demonstration agent, and social worker.
Writer, social activist. Lumpkin was born in Milledgeville, Georgia, the ninth of eleven children born to William Wallace Lumpkin and Annette Caroline Morris. Her year of birth is uncertain, but cemetery records suggest that she was born on March 3, 1896. Like many prominent southern families, the Lumpkins suffered a reversal of fortune after the Civil War. William, a Confederate army veteran and devout proponent of the “Lost Cause,” moved his family to Columbia around 1900, installing them as parishioners at Trinity Episcopal Church. In 1910 the Lumpkins moved to a farm in Richland County. William Lumpkin died shortly afterward, leaving his large family to fend for itself.
Grace Lumpkin earned a teacher’s certificate from Brenau College (1911) and then held various jobs in the Carolinas and in France as a teacher, home demonstration agent, and social worker. At home she conducted night classes for adult farm and mill workers and attended meetings of the nascent interracial cooperation movement. She harbored a desire to write, and in 1925 she moved to New York City, where she took a job with The World Tomorrow, a pacifist Quaker publication. Her coverage of the Communist-led textile strikes in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1926 struck a militant chord. Almost immediately Lumpkin went to work for a Soviet-affiliated trading company and joined a chapter of the John Reed Club for leftist writers. Her first published piece, “White Man, a Story,” appeared in the September 1927 issue of New Masses. Five years later Lumpkin published her first novel, To Make My Bread, the material for which she had gathered as a witness to the Gastonia, North Carolina, textile strikes of 1929. The book, winner of the 1932 Maxim Gorky Prize, chronicles the farm-to-factory transformation of the McClure family; it has been excerpted, anthologized, republished in England, and adapted for the New York stage by Alfred Bein as Let Freedom Ring.
Lumpkin’s second novel, A Sign for Cain (1935), appeared during a frenetic period of speech-making and investigative work in the South on behalf of the Communist Party (which she never officially joined). Her personal life was similarly complicated. She lived with (and perhaps married) Michael Intrator, a labor organizer who had been expelled from the Communist Party in 1929, and another, married couple, Whittaker Chambers and Esther Chemitz, who became Communist spies. Lumpkin and Intrator broke up in the late 1930s, allegedly after an abortion that left her distraught. She subsequently took refuge with an ardently anti-Communist organization run by an Episcopal priest in New York, the Moral Re-Armament Movement.
In 1948 Whittaker Chambers, now an editor at Time, accused former State Department official Alger Hiss of spying for the Russians. Investigators interviewed Lumpkin, hoping that she might discredit Chambers’s testimony. Instead, she took up her former housemate’s defense in a New England speaking tour, lauding Chambers’s role in her own renunciation of Communism. She testified before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 1953, telling the panel that she had written “the fundamental philosophy of communism” into A Sign for Cain after party functionaries threatened to “break” her literary career.
Lumpkin’s final novel, Full Circle, which appeared in 1962, is a fictionalized account of her peculiar ideological and spiritual life journey, which she delineated as her Communist and “return to God” phases. She died in Columbia on March 23, 1980. Though her grave is unmarked, Lumpkin is buried in her family’s plot at Elmwood Cemetery in Columbia. She was inducted posthumously into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 1996.
Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd. “Women Writers, the ‘Southern Front,’ and the Dialectical Imagination.” Journal of Southern History 69 (February 2003): 3–38.
Lumpkin, Grace. Papers. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
–––. To Make My Bread. 1932. Reprint, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.