“A Lost American Hero.” – Original 1916 Portrait of Douglass Roach of Provincetown, Massachusetts by Arthur Vidal Diehl.
“Roach received a hero’s funeral” – “Thousands lined the streets for his impressive Harlem service.”
“25 minutes from life.” An oil portrait of Douglas Roach (1909–1938), as a seven year-old Provincetown boy, painted on-the-spot, by the prolific Cape Cod artist Arthur Vidal Diehl.
As historian Tukufu Zuberi discovered, Roach would later become “one of the best machine gunners in the entire Spanish war. Franco had nobody like him and he was an army by himself.” (“Episode 902, Story 2 – Spanish Civil War Eulogy” –History Detectives, via PBS)
Provincetown on Cape Cod claims Roach as one of its distinguished citizens and one of the few Black Americans who lived there in the early decades of the twentieth century. Roach’s father, Alexander Roach, established family roots in the town. He was an émigré whaler from St. Vincent. By way of a whaling ship, he arrived on the Cape in the nineteenth century and decided to stay on as a farmer and raise a family.
Douglas Roach was one of the few African-Americans to attend UMass Amherst in 1929, where he was a star wrestler. He worked as a carpenter and as a merchant marine and then he joined the International Seamen’s Union. Soon after, he joined the Communist Party, serving as the secretary of the Provincetown Unit, arguing forcefully and publicly, at one point, that the Constitution protected free speech and allowed its citizens to petition its government to redress grievances.
After the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936, Roach signed up to fight as a member of the Lincoln Battalion. The Lincoln Brigade army units were the first non-segregated units in American military history.
Formed in the United States by Communist sympathizers, the Lincoln Battalion was a volunteer and integrated military force that went to fight in Spain. It counted ninety African-Americans among its members. Roach, then twenty-eight, was among them. A comrade in arms stated:
“Doug was proud of his race. He felt deeply the oppression under which it struggles, and gladly gave his aid to help free it. He knew that the cause of the Spanish people was the cause of his own people, the cause of all the oppressed races of the world. He spoke many times of his plans to work among the American Negroes when he got back, how he was really beginning to see the tremendous role they must play in the fight to preserve democracy in America. He bitterly repented not having done more when he was home.” (Building Provincetown)
According to Benjamin J. Davis, Jr.’s eulogy, Roach was “one of the first Americans to volunteer in defense of Spanish democracy in the early days of the Madrid siege. An outstanding member of the Tom Mooney machine gun company, he often carried his machine gun single-handedly during long marches.”
In a letter he sent home published as “Douglas Roach Tells of War in Spain,” The Advocate ( September 30, 1937), Roach wrote:
“I believe the fight for democracy in Spain is connected with the fight against reaction everywhere, against aggressive countries such as Italy, Germany and Japan, who are dragging the world into another world war. I hope that the people of Provincetown will defend Americanism in this country as bravely as the Spanish people are defending their democratic rights: a government of their own choice, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of worship. I hope that we will not allow our American traditions of liberty and justice to be distorted by reactionaries who preach Americanism and practice the opposite.”
Roach suffered serious shrapnel wounds from a tank shell in the battle at Brunete. He was “treated at a makeshift Brigade hospital and furloughed to the States. When he got to New York, the State Department interrogated him and confiscated his passport before allowing him to return home to Provincetown [...] He died of pneumonia July 13, 1938 [...] After a memorial service at the Mother A.M.E. Zion Church conducted by Benjamin Robeson, Paul Robeson’s brother, two Lincoln vets, Walter Garland and Paul Burns brought his body home to Provincetown.” (Douglas Roach Biography via Provincetown History Project)
Roach’s portraitist was the self-taught and well-known Provincetown artist Arthur Vidal Diehl. Diehl had exhibited at the Royal Academy (1899) and came to New York c. 1891. “Penniless, he painted piecework such as snuff box tops [...] He was best known for his paintings of sand dunes, beach scenes, and harbor scenes of Cape Cod —and was known to have completed his pictures rapidly, from memory, while carrying on conversations with prospective customers and onlookers at his studio.” (Falk)
Made in the fleeting youth of Roach’s boyhood, we surmise that Diehl’s study of Roach was the result of a chance encounter, undertaken by the artist in a moment of complete spontaneity. Diehl’s portrait of Roach captures the ethos of American Realism, a noted departure from Diehl’s typical naturescapes.
With the recent discovery of this portrait, Roach’s fleeting life, which lasted only twenty-nine years, is further documented and memorialized.
Description: “A Lost American Hero.” – Original 1916 Portrait of Douglass Roach of Provincetown, Massachusetts by Arthur Vidal Diehl.
[Provincetown, “Douglas Roach August 31st 1916”]. Oil painting on masonite board, 20 x 12 inches. Unframed, some scuffing along bottom edge, verso with old staining.
Refs. Roach, Douglas Bryan – The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives and Building Provincetown…, both accessed online. Davis, “The Death of a Black Communist” within Black Americans in the Spanish People’s War Against Fascism 1936–1939. Note: Several online sources state that Roach was born in 1900. This is incorrect. He was born June 1, 1909. Roach is described as “...a lost American hero” (Tukufu Zuberi, speaking within “Episode 902, Story 2 – Spanish Civil War Eulogy” –History Detectives.