Book Review: Prowell’s Letters

March 7, 2016

Alphaeus DanfourthShedding Light on a Volunteer for Liberty

Alphaeus Danfourth Prowell: Letters from an American Volunteer in the Spanish Civil War
Compiled and Self-Published by Dawn Rolland.
Sold through Amazon, Apple iBooks, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and OverDrive.


Dawn Rolland’s self-published compilation of letters written by Alphaeus Danfourth Prowell is short but fascinating.  This work adds to the growing body of information on African American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War.  Prowell, was living in Los Angeles when he volunteered to serve in the Spanish Civil War.  College-educated and a teacher by vocation, Prowell was part of a small but active group of African American leftists in his native city.

Upon his arrival in Spain in September 1937, Prowell trained with other recruits in Tarazona the XV Brigade’s training base.  After completing training as an infantryman he was retained to serve as part of the training cadre. Prowell volunteered for frontline service during the March 1938 Nationalist breakthrough in the Aragon, and was killed in action on April 3, 1938.

The published collection consists of five typed-copies of letters drawn from the Lisette and Sam Kutnick Abraham Lincoln Brigade Collection, in the Labor Archives and Research Center, San Francisco State University.  The letters are written to “Harry”, an unidentified friend, and date from shortly after Prowell’s arrival in Spain through November 1937.  The letters discuss a mixture of family matters, observations from his travels to Spain, and reports of events in Spain.  Prowell also provides updates on the activities of several other African American volunteers from his circle of friends in LA: Frank Alexander, Otto Reeves, Norman Lisberg, and Aaron Johnson.  He also makes pointed observations on race relations in Spain discussing not only the reaction of Spanish civilians, but also those of his fellow International Brigade volunteers.  Prowell also provides a critique of the reaction to perceived racism by African American volunteers.

This collection of letters is part of a larger, in-depth, genealogical study by Dawn Rolland.  During her research, conducted over the past five years, Rolland expanded her search to include Prowell’s circle of friends from Los Angeles who also fought in Spain. Her larger work Alphaeus Prowell: An Unordinary Life, which promises to shed additional light on Prowell and these West Coast volunteers, is scheduled for publication in March.


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