Herbert Aptheker was born in Brooklyn on 31st July, 1915. When he was 16 he went with his father to Alabama. He was shocked by the operation of the Jim Crow Laws and on his return to New York City he wrote an article for his school newspaper about racial segregation in the south.
Aptheker was educated at Columbia University and after he received a degree in 1936 he worked as an educational worker for the Food and Tobacco Workers Union. He joined the American Communist Party and also served as secretary of the Abolish Peonage Committee. In 1943 he published American Negro Slave Revolts.
Aptheker later admitted: "I studied history to attempt to solve a series of political problems. When I was an undergraduate, I chose history as a discipline that would allow me to look at social movements in the most holistic way... So I went to graduate school to study history not to be a history professor, but to be a professional Communist. That was my thing, and I was a member of the Communist Workers' Party."
During the Second World War he served in the United States Army and took part in Operation Overlord and by 1945 had reached the rank of major. He was editor of Masses and the Mainstream (1948-53) and in 1951 he published the first volume of a Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States.
Aptheker suffered from the effects of McCarthyism and was unable to obtain a full-time appointment as a university lecturer in the 1950s. On one occasion he was denied the right to speak at the Ohio State University and so while he sat in silence on the stage, students read from some of his writings. During this period he was editor of Political Affairs and served as executive director of the American Institute for Marxist Studies. He also published Laureates of Imperialism (1954) and The Era of McCarthyism (1955).
In 1957 Aptheker published the polemical, The Truth about Hungary. This attempt to justify the Red Army suppression of the Hungarian Uprising came under attack for being Soviet propaganda. One of his researchers, Anthony Flood, later commented: "He defended, against the sensibilities of even most American Communists, the Soviet invasion of Hungary and crushing of the revolt of its slaves. A refrain in Aptheker’s writings is that partisanship with oppressors is a reason to suspect the suppression of truth. Tragically, he did not see that precept’s relevance to the reception of his own scholarship."
As his biographer, Fred Whitehead, has pointed out: "From the beginning of his career, Aptheker has been devoted to Afro-American history. This included several volumes of his Documentary History of the Negro People. Colonial Times to 1910 appeared in 1959. This was followed by Reconstruction Years to the Founding of the NAACP, Beginning of the New Deal to the End of the Second World War and Alabama Protests to the Death of Martin Luther King Jr.
After the lifting of the blacklist Aptheker held posts at Bryn Mawr College, the University of California, City University of New York and the University of Santa Clara. During this period he was one of the main leaders of the opposition to the Vietnam War. Aptheker also edited the correspondence of William DuBois.
Other books by Aptheker included Nature of Democracy, Freedom and Revolution (1968),World of C. Wright Mills (1976), Unfolding Drama (1979), Afro-American History: the Modern Era (1986), American Revolution,1763-1783: A History of the American People (1987), Abolitionism: a Revolutionary Movement (1989), The Literary Legacy of W.E.B. DuBois (1989), Early Years of the Republic 1783-1793 (1989) and Anti-Racism in US History (1992).
Herbert Aptheker died 17th March, 2003.