The following biographical article was written in 2005 by Karen Juanita Carillo who is a writer and photographer in Brooklyn, NY, that contributes to Amsterdam News...Herman Ferguson, who is 84 years old and a former political fugitive, could be living easy in Guyana today. He could be spending his retirement years in the South American nation that granted him asylum back on July 2,1970, when he left the United States rather than face seven years in Sing Sing prison on government charges that he'd plotted to kill the leaders of the National Urban League and NAACP.
Ferguson could have retired on a comfortable Guyanese pension, after having served as a lieutenant colonel in the Guyana Defense Force. He'd spent 19 years in Guyana living and working under the pseudonym "Paul Adams." When his wife joined him there in the 1970s, the two moved to the nation's capitol. Georgetown, and after a meeting with Guyana's Minister of the Interior, they were hired by the national service to help revamp the country's educational system. By the time "Paul Adams" retired, Guyana was grateful. He was awarded an honorable discharge for his service to the nation.
But Ferguson didn't want to stay retired in Guyana. A longtime Black Power activist who had cut his teeth on New York City housing and community school control battles during the 1960s, Ferguson longed to end his days back home.
In 1988, he had his lawyer and other contacts in New York advise the U.S. government that he was ready to return. His friends set up the "Defense Committee for Herman Ferguson," but the government wasn't ready to make any concessions: if he returned, they said, the old charges still applied. He would still have to serve seven years for attempted assassination and one year on federal charges for having fled the country to avoid arrest. Against his wife's wishes, Ferguson accepted the deal.
Hundreds of Black Power Movement activists were jailed, murdered or driven into political exile in the U.S. during the 1960s and '70s. In May 2005, the Justice Department announced an unprecedented $1 million bounty for the capture of Assata Shakur, the former Black Liberation Army member now living in exile in Cuba.
Considering the circumstances, Ferguson counts himself lucky to have made it back.
"I just didn't want to spend my years in retirement in Guyana, away from my family, my childhood friends and the movement," Ferguson explains. "That was the reason I decided to come back."
In 1989, he booked a ticket for a non-stop flight from Georgetown to New York. A local CBS television news crew heard about his planned return and flew to Guyana to record the homecoming.
When the plane landed at Kennedy Airport, federal officers came on board to arrest him. The local news programs that night featured video of the 69-year-old former fugitive Herman Ferguson being led away in handcuffs.
No Reason to Stay
For those who'd known of him in the 1960s, this unexpected sighting of Ferguson brought back memories. Ferguson had been a prominent member of Malcolm X's Muslim Mosque Inc. and later his Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). Malcolm X--or El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (as he was more properly known after his 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia)--had created both organizations in 1964, after leaving the Nation of Islam. Ferguson met Malcolm after he and other Blacks in Queens set up the Rochdale Movement, which sought to stop the construction of a new housing development in Queens.
In 1959, New York City was set to erect Rochdale Village on the site of the Old Jamaica racetrack in Queens, but word soon got out that Blacks would not be hired to build the site and would be excluded from living in any of the developments' soon-to-be available 5,280 apartments. The Rochdale Movement couldn't halt the construction of the development, but it went on to become a major voice on issues of economic and community development for Blacks in Queens.
The Rochdale Movement caught the attention of Nation of Islam members working in Queens. So when Ferguson attended one of Malcolm X's services at his Mosque No. 7 in Harlem and then asked if Malcolm would be interested in coming to speak at a rally in St. Albans, Queens, the minister welcomed the invitation.
Malcolm X spoke in Queens on Thanks-giving Day, 1963. Prior to his speech, few of Queens's Black residents knew much of him beyond the inflammatory image widely broadcast in the media.
But having Malcolm in Queens, in person, was an unexpected boost: "He was able to convert a lot of people into his way of thinking, although they weren't all ready to join the NOI and become Muslim," Ferguson recalls.
After his return from Africa, Malcolm X conceived of the OAAU as a non-sectarian organization that would fight for the human rights of Black people throughout the diaspora. Just as the OAAU was ready to petition the United Nations about the plight of 22 million African descendants in the United States, Malcolm X was murdered in Harlem's Audubon ballroom in 1965.
"It was a vicious execution," Ferguson says. "It just sent a signal to his family and to his followers. The signal was that if you stand up as a revolutionary, a vicious elimination could happen to you."
With the fear of violence and assassination that permeated the times, Ferguson had created the Jamaica Rifle and Pistol Club.
"People were concerned about self-defense. We knew we had a right to self-defense, but I think that in the back of our minds, many felt there was now a need for self-defense," adds his wife, Iyaluua Nehanda, a former teacher and activist. With urban riots, the FBI's COINTELPRO and the CIA's Operation CHAOS infiltrations, and shootouts between police forces and Black Nationalists, the summer of 1967 went down in history as one of this nation's most violent.
By June 1967, Herman Ferguson and 17 fellow members of the Jamaica Rifle and Pistol Club were arrested by the New York City Police Department and accused of plotting to kill Whitney Young and Roy Wilkens, the heads of the National Urban League and NAACP, respectively. Ultimately, only two people, Arthur Harris and Ferguson, were charged with the plot; their motive to kill was supposedly based on their hatred of "Uncle Toms."
According to official FBI documents later obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Ferguson had been under surveillance since 1965 based on his involvement with the OAAU. The New York Police Department and FBI had enlisted a rookie police recruit named Edward Lee Howlette to work as an undercover agent. Howlette became one of the most active members of the Jamaica Rifle and Pistol Club and had urged club members to think of ways to get rid of "Uncle Toms" who were selling out the Black community. When Harris and Ferguson came to trial, Howlette was the prosecution's number one witness against them.
Both were convicted by an all-white, all-male jury and sentenced to three and one-half to seven years in prison. They fought their convictions up to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the case was turned down there. Harris and Ferguson decided they no longer had any reasons to stay in the United States.
Old Stomping Grounds
Today, at age 84, Ferguson is once again a prominent New York City activist. He is involved with organizing for political prisoners and reparations, serving on the board of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. Ferguson lives in the same Rochdale Village apartment complex that he once fought the city to keep from building. He also sits on its board of directors.
After 19 years abroad, he and Iyaluua (who spent 16 years there) say they're more satisfied living in the States again, because they're able to stay involved in the political movements that shaped them.
"I don't think people really understand the nature of exile," Iyaluua says. "People think that you set up a new life, and everything's fine. But exile is death. No matter what you set up, your life is just different. Spiritually it does something to you."
The U.S. government did not take it easy on Herman Ferguson when he returned. He served three years behind bars, two years on work release and two years on parole.
While he was on work release at the Queensboro Correctional Facility, the New York State Division of Parole continually denied Ferguson a parole. But in 1996, the late New York State Judge Bruce Wright ordered Herman Ferguson's release. "There is a sad and melancholy ghetto joke ... that says, 'Any Black man in America who is not paranoid is sick,'" Wright wrote in his decision against the Parole Board. "All Black nationalist activists were targets, not only of local police, but of the FBI as well. J. Edgar Hoover bragged in the press that his investigative troops were arresting and re-arresting those regarded as Black radicals until their bail money ran out and they could then be held in preventive detention."
Today, Ferguson says that when he talks to people about his experiences in Guyana, he emphasizes the importance of having seen the practical application of many of the ideals he fought for.
"Living in Guyana was a chance to experience living in a nation where the politics are Black," Ferguson says. "If you have a government that is opposed to you, it's very difficult to get them to do anything for you. I talk about my culture shock at seeing Black people making so many decisions that affected the lives of Black people. There was not a white wall to climb over to get things done."
He returned to the States because he believes that Blacks have fought, lived and died in this nation and now deserve a part of it. He could easily live in comfort elsewhere, but the movement to liberate African Americans is here, in the United States.