The Bell Tolls at Jarama

Walter Fairbanks Grant was an idealistic young man.   Born in Michigan to the family of Congregational minister Martin Grant, he grew up in Marion, Indiana. He was an exceedingly bright young man, concerned about others and musical.  All in all, the epitome of what parents wanted in a son.  Marion, one of the gas boom towns, was a quiet Hoosier town in Grant County  of no great notoriety until August 1930.  But on August 7th, Walter was among those who saw 3 young Black men dragged from the jail by a mob.  Two of them were lynched.  Two more strange fruit dangling from a Hoosier tree.  The Dantean scene may have thrilled some as photos show, but to young Walter, who pleaded with the mob and prayed to god, it was a dark epiphany.

His sister later recalled to a friend that Walter “did not talk for two days.”   It shook his faith.  Walter carried his doubts and questions to Indiana University.  Meanwhile his father took up the post as minister at the Congregational church in West Terre Haute.  Walter visited his family in West Terre Haute on weekends and vacations.  He prospered at IU, becoming an editor of various student publications and seems to have been honored and respected.  Still he brooded on what he had witnessed and pondered thoughts of injustice and violence.

After attaining his masters in English, he taught at IU until budget cuts ended his job.  He worked briefly for Anaconda, but that did not last long as he appears to have been fired due to union organizing.  Walter then left for New York where he stayed in cheap hotels.  Eventually, he got a job with the WPA Writers Project.  There again he saw what he was beginning to view as fascist violence, as when he witnessed mounted police mercilessly dispersing the jobless demonstrating in a park.

The son of a minister became a secular activist, joining the Communist party.  As author Peter Carroll noted, for Walter it was “a short step from evangelical Christianity to the Communist party.

Walter, stirred by what he had seen, and like many other like-minded Americans, saw the Spanish Civil War as the first major battleground to confront Fascism.  There, forces eventually led By Franco (and supported by Hitler’s Germany) fought a civil war with loyalist republican government forces (supported by Stalinist USSR).  Around the world (but especially in the US and Britain), the Left looked for some way to aid the republican army.  For some it meant taking up arms

Walter Fairbanks Grant, late of West Terre Haute and New York, was one of those.  He joined what became known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and sailed for Spain via France.  In Spain they offered there services to the republican cause.  The volunteers were under-trained and oftten ill-equipped.  Few had military training.  Sources disagree whether Walter had ROTC training at IU or not.  In any case, in February, 1937 Walter Fairfield Grant was one of those huddled in the lead truck of a convoy to reinforce republican lines along the Jarama River.

It was just a wrong turn.  The lead driver of the convoy turned left along a road instead of right.  Another truck followed.  A third driver, realizing the mistake turned right.  Walter and his colleagues were lost, unknowingly stumbling their way into an enemy stronghold.

Little was known of their fate until later.  Were they captured or killed?  In the months afterward there was hope that Walter and his group were taken prisoner.  The US State Department thought they might be alive.  Indiana Congresswoman Virginia Jencks called on Spain to release Walter.  The Grant family anxiously awaited word.

Later it was learned that Walter’s truck was driven off the road by gunfire.  The other truck rammed it.  The troops scurried into a gully.  Soon they were overwhelmed by nationalist forces.  Twenty of them were killed.  Walter Fairbanks Grant was among them, becoming one of the first Americans klilled in the Spanish Civil War.

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14 thoughts on “The Bell Tolls at Jarama

  1. I am wondering if you have any written sources – interview with sister, letters? I’m beginning to research Indiana volunteers in Spanish Civil War. Thank you.

    1. Peggy, I was unable to track down any of his relatives that might have remained in this area. I seem to remember that the Lincoln Brigade ( Archives had some information on him. In my files I have some local newspaper articles about him, including articles about Indiana Congresswoman who pressed for more information. I would be glad to scan them and send your way if they will help.

      1. Wonderful, please send what you have available. I am willing to cover any costs if applicable. Thanks very much, Peggy

    2. Peggy,

      Contact me through the VALB/ALBA office. I may be able to point you toward some useful information.

      Chris Brooks
      ALBA Biographical Dictionary Project

  2. Hello- Peggy Seigel has been in contact with me regarding Walter Grant. What a great story. I am following this with great interest. I am also looking into Martin Grant. I understand that Martin Grant may have publicly spoken out against the the time. If this is the case it would be the only recorded instance. I have access to the Marion news papers. If something turns up, I will be happy to share.

    Your piece on Grant is excellent.

    Bill Munn
    Grant County Historian

    1. Thank you, Bill. I would be interested to know if his dad did speak out. They were certainly an idealistic and committed family.

      1. Perhaps sometime we can talk. I have been interested in Socialist and Communist activity in Grant County. As you may know, Eugene Debs spoke in Marion on several occasions. There was some evidence of IWW activity during WWI. In the 1970’s I had a contact that was a CPUSA organizer in Marion during the period 1935-1940, who would talk but didn’t give me enough to go on. Grant is the first really well documented story.


    2. Martin Grant was my Grandfather, Walter was my uncle. I have Martin Grants Compete daily diaries from the early years of the 20th century until his burial in 1955. His wife Margaret kept up his diary from the day he died until he was buried a few days later. Richard L. Grant

      1. Richard, I am a Grant descendent also. But not as close as you are to Walter. Your line has some amazing people. You may contact me if you like. I am from the Thomas and Mariah Peel Grant line.

      2. Richard L. Grant July 13, 2015 — 6:54 pm

        Thank you Mathew, I suppose we are umpteenth cousins.

      3. If you are from Donald L. Grant. it would be 3rd cousins 3x removed. Close to umpteenth.

      4. Richard L. Grant July 14, 2015 — 2:52 pm

        Yup, thats me, oldest son of Donald L. Grant. So, who is our common ancestor?

  3. Was Grant a graduate of Marion High School? He does nor appear in the yearbooks. Also, when he worked for Anaconda- was that in Marion?

  4. Husband Martin Lee Grant1,2

    February 22, 1877 Springfield, Clark County, Ohio
    About 1901
    December 14, 1955 Sedalia, Pettis County, Missouri
    Other Spouse(s)
    Parents Martin McCormick Grant8 and Charlotte Amelia “Lottie” Smith9,10

    Wife Margaret Laura Lawrence11,12

    December 22, 1876 Bloomington, McLean County, Illinois
    February 16, 1959 Sedalia, Pettis County, Missouri
    Buried16 December 18, 1959 Houstonia Cemetery. Houstonia, Sedalia County, Missouri
    Other Spouse(s)
    Parents Roland Lawrence17 and Lida Lawrence18

    1 F Margaret Louise Grant19,20

    June 27, 1904 Dowagiac, Cass County, Michigan
    Died23 February 4, 1927 Chicago, Cook County, Illinois
    2 M Martin Lawrence Grant24

    January 31, 1907 Chelsea, Washtenaw County, Michigan
    Spouse Dorothy Irene Sweet27

    March 26, 1930 Minneapolis, Hennepin County, Minnesota
    June 22, 1968 Cedar Falls, Black Hawk County, Iowa
    3 M Walter Fairbanks Grant31,32

    February 8, 1909 Chelsea, Washtenaw County, Michigan
    February 17, 1937 Zargoza, Spain
    4 M Clifton Phillip Grant37,38,39

    July 17, 1910 Chelsea, Washtenaw County, Michigan
    Spouse Alice Caroline Fitts43,44

    Married45 August 19, 1935
    December 16, 1990 Columbia, Howard County, Maryland
    5 F Charlotte Alida Grant48,49,50

    June 18, 1912 Chelsea, Washtenaw County, Michigan
    Spouse Herbert Jr. Kaufman53

    August 20, 1934 Grant County, Indiana
    March 22, 1997 Reston, Fairfax County, Virginia
    6 M Robert Yates Grant57,58

    June 20, 1917 Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan
    Spouse Louise E. Gray61,62

    August 8, 1942 Indianapolis, Marion County, Indiana
    March 27, 2008 San Francisco, San Francisco County, California
    7 M Donald L. Grant65,66

    Born December 1919 Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan

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