Charles A. Doyle: Buffalonian whose only crime was being a Communist

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

His only crime was being a member of the Communist Party.

Charlie Doyle’s story is one that I learned not from McCarthy-era newspaper articles, but from sitting in kitchens and on front porches on Seneca Street in South Buffalo.

The Buffalo Evening News reports on February 20. 1948, “Charles A. Doyle… has been arrested.. for prosecution and for deportation as a Communist. (Buffalo Stories archives)

“He was a commie, but he was always trying to help people,” I’d hear. “A good guy.”

You’d expect that kind of talk from his family — from my family. Charlie Doyle was my grandmother’s uncle. Aunt Agnes’ brother.

Charlie Doyle had dozens of close relations living on or just off Seneca Street in South Buffalo in the late 1940s when the move began to deport him. (Buffalo Stories archives)

I grew up in the ’80s, not the ’50s, but Communists still weren’t good.  They were the bad guys, but there was still Doyle, the Communist who caused people to smile when they talked about him.

The Doyle family, 1912, in Coatbridge, Scotland. The Irish Catholic family family had moved from Down, Northern Ireland to near Glasgow, Scotland in the 1880s. When father William died. his widow Mary and many of their children moved to South Buffalo, including my great-grandmother Peggy (third from left), Agnes (standing in front of Peggy), and Charlie– the baby– standing to the right of his father. (Buffalo Stories archives)

I didn’t realize until later that the story of Doyle was a bigger deal than just family lore. Though he continually denied it publicly for his safety and the safety of his family, he was a member of the Communist party. He was also a talented labor organizer and helped workers force safer working conditions and better pay at places such as Bethlehem Steel, Republic Steel and Carborundum.

A pamphlet entered into evidence in the House Un-American Activities hearings in the 1950s. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Despite having been a legal U.S. resident for 25 years with an American wife and family, because he was born in Scotland, he wasn’t allowed to re-enter the U.S. after a trip to Canada in 1949.

Doyle guilty of illegal entry, jury decides after quick trial: “The trial was one of the fastest in Western New York Federal Court history. A jury headed by foreman Nelson Barlett, a Forestville mechanic, which had been selected in 25 minutes, returned the verdict in an hour and five minutes.” (Buffalo Stories archives)

He spent the next several years in and out of prison based on illegal entry charges before– at the height of the McCarthy era– he was deported in 1953.

Communists Gerhard Eisler, John Williamson, Ferdinand C. Smith and Charles A. Doyle wave to crowd as they step on ferry on Ellis Island– where they’d spent months imprisoned.

Being deported from the US wasn’t the end of Charles Doyle’s trouble.

Upon landing on the shores of Britain, Doyle spoke of “insidious forces and McCarthyite scoundrels” back in the US. He attacked those “who in the name of patriuotism would destroy the Bill of Rights and bring our country to the brink of disaster.” This Reuters storyt was carried in newspapers around the world. (Buffalo Stories acrhives)

In London, Doyle picked up where he left off in Western New York– leading  labor organization efforts at a nearby power plant.

The resulting nationwide labor slowdowns caused massive power outages, including at London’s famously lit Piccadilly Circus. Those outages came during one of the coldest snaps of weather on record in London, and nearly two dozen people died from the cold. Doyle was tried in their deaths but exonerated.

In 1963, London’s Daily Mirror tabloid front page was filled with his photo and the bold-faced underlined words, “The most hated man in Britain.”

London tabloid “The Daily Mirror” called South Buffalo’s Charlie Doyle “the most hated man in Britain.” (Buffalo Stories archives)

And it wasn’t just America that didn’t want him. Despite having being deported from the US to his native UK, the House of Lords discussed trying to send him back.

Discussion from Britain’s House of Lords on whether the UK might be able to deport Charles Doyle. (Buffalo Stories archives)

 

Buffalo’s most famous Communist– labor leader and playwright Manny Fried– wrote about Doyle in a piece which was rejected for publication by The Buffalo News called “Democratic Leaders Are at a Fork in the Road.”

When (John L.) Lewis broke with the American Federation of Labor and sponsored the Congress of Industrial Organizations to organize production workers, he said that he hired the communists to organize the workers because communists were the best organizers, idealists sacrificing everything to get workers organized — and when they got the workers organized, he fired them.

Charlie Doyle, the leading open Communist Party activist in Western New York, was hired by Lewis to work for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. Charlie played a major role in organizing workers into the union at the Lackawanna Bethlehem Steel plant. Then Lewis fired Charlie, and others were credited with
what Charlie had done.

When Lewis subsequently split with CIO leaders and formed District 50 of his Mine Workers Union to organize chemical workers in Niagara Falls, he again hired Charlie Doyle. When Charlie finished organizing those chemical workers into the union, Lewis again fired Charlie.

The CIO Chemical Workers Union then hired Charlie — and the unions Charlie had organized switched from District 50 to CIO. Then CIO fired Charlie. And then Lewis rehired Charlie – and those unions switched back to District 50 with Charlie. AFL and CIO merged into one organization and their AFL-CIO Chemical
Workers Union hired Charlie — and all those same unions of chemical plant workers switched over to the AFL-CIO with Charlie.

Carborundum workers went out on strike in connection with contract negotiations and leaders of the union in Washington held a meeting about the strike across the river in Fort Erie, Canada. U.S. Customs and Immigration wouldn’t let Charlie back across the bridge into U.S. But Canadian authorities looked the other way while Charlie crossed the river back into U.S. in a boat.

FBI and U.S. Immigration then picked up Charlie for deportation on grounds that years earlier when he came here from Scotland he was a communist. Charlie had his first papers to become a citizen, but hadn’t been granted his second papers to complete the process. Jailed for deportation, Charlie staged a hunger strike, but
finally agreed to be deported to England in return for U.S. government authorities persuading his Catholic wife to agree to end their marriage so he could marry the woman he loved.

(Several decades later the Buffalo AFL-CIO Central Labor Council passed the resolution offered by University of Buffalo Chapter of United University Professions recognizing Charlie’s contribution to organized labor in Western New York.)

Democratic Leaders Are at a Fork in the Road, Emanuel Fried

Doyle died in London in 1983. His obituary appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

 

Published by

Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon is a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. writing about the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The storyteller and historian has written six books, worn bow ties since the 80s, and is the News Director at WECK Radio. A 25 year Buffalo media veteran, Steve's contributed more than 1400 Buffalo History stories to The Buffalo News, worked at WIVB-TV, Empire Sports Network, and spent ten years as a newsman and News Director at WBEN Radio. He's also put his communication skills to work as an adjunct professor, a producer of PBS documentaries, and even run for Erie County Clerk. Steve's Buffalo roots run deep: all eight of his great-grandparents called Buffalo home, with his first ancestors arriving here in 1827.