Sammie Abbott Appreciation
Sammie Abdullah Abbott waged a lifelong struggle against economic and social injustice. Abbott was studying architecture at Cornell University when he was radicalized by the economic catastrophe that was called the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Abbott became active with the Communist Party and his father’s grocery business failed when a local bank pulled financing because they felt threatened by the younger Abbott’s radicalism. Abbott ran for Congress in 1934 in New York’s 37th District on the Communist Party ticket.

Abbott became an organizer for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in Buffalo’s steel mills and met his wife Ruth when he was jailed for picketing. They married and moved to Washington, D.C. in 1940 where he worked as a hod carrier on construction jobs and later worked for a local union.

When the US entered World War II, Abbott joined the Air Force where he received a Bronze Star. After the war, Abbott worked as a commercial artist for the Henry J. Kauffman agency. During this time he was head of the local committee that gathered thousands of signatures demanding the US never use nuclear weapons again.

In 1954, when members of the Communist Party were being sentenced to prison for their beliefs (not for any acts), Abbott was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Abbott stood up to the committee and refused to “name names” and wouldn’t even confirm the license plate number on his automobile. He was fired from the Kauffman agency for being a “red.” To his friends, Abbott described himself as a marxist, but not a communist.

After being blacklisted, he worked as a freelance commercial artist and later started his own firm that operated out of the Dupont Building at 1350 Connecticut Ave. NW. He remained active in the civil rights and peace movements throughout the 1950s and 1960s and was repeatedly questioned by the FBI and local police about his politics.

When the District of Columbia proposed building a new freeway that would slash through African-American neighborhoods, Abbott lay down in the path of the proposed Northeast Freeway. At that time, planned freeway routes had largely been moved out of white neighborhoods and pushed into black neighborhoods. Abbott joined a young African-American civil rights activist named Reginald Booker to head the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis.

Abbott designed a number of the great anti-freeway posters including the “White Man’s Roads Thru Black Man’s Homes” posters. Together Booker and he led demonstrations, sit-ins and mass protests at Washington, DC city council meetings and other local and federal government sites that stopped the North Central Freeway and Three Sisters Bridges and instead diverted the funds toward building the Metrorail system.

Abbott continued his activism against the Vietnam War and helped young students in Maryland publish the “Radical Guide to the University of Maryland.” Later he was active in the anti-apartheid movement. He started the Takoma Park Folk Festival that continues today and ran for mayor of the town in 1980 and won. Abbott led the fight for rent control in the city, offered sanctuary to undocumented workers and established the town as a “nuclear free zone.”

Abbott died in 1990 and his wife Ruth carried on their activism until her death in 2009. Sammie Abbott was arrested more than 40 times for his activism and was quoted once saying, “I'm a perpetually mad person. I hate injustice. As far as I'm concerned, I'm living to fight injustice. I'm living to fight the goddamned thing. I'm too mad to sleep.”

His own favorite quote was from Dante’s Inferno, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality.”

Some say, however, that Abbott's favorite hot pepper sandwiches might have been hotter than anything Dante imagined. Abbott wolfed down the fire of those sandwiches and breathed it back against injustice wherever he encountered it.

Photos reprinted with permission of the DC Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post. Others are scans of Emergency Committee on Transportation Crisis flyers and posters. These were not part of the original Washington Area Spark collection and have been added to provide context to the period.
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