Joy in the Struggle
My Life and Love
by Beatrice Lumpkin
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
In the mid-1950s, Frank and I were driving in upper New York State. We saw a small stream flowing into a cave. A sign invited "good swimmers" to swim through the
cave. I decided to try.
The water was not deep, but the stream plunged into darkness. Only a tiny pin­point of light could be seen. It was far downstream, maybe a mile. Cautiously, I pulled myself through the water, towards the light. I was scared there was no turning back.
For a long time I swam, but the light was still tiny and faint. After a while, it got a little larger, as though someone was holding a small flashlight, a long ways away. At least it's not getting smaller," I thought. "I am headed the right way."
Ten minutes later, the light was definitely larger, and I picked up speed. I was swimming freely, no longer touching the bottom of the stream. It was easier going because the light got bigger and bigger until it became the size of a small room.
At last, I emerged from the cave into broad sunlight. A lot of people were swimming in the river, and I was no longer alone. My love was waiting for me on the river bank. That was an experience I never forgot.
I feel very lucky to have joined the workers' movement at a young age and to have learned about socialism and communism. There was a light at the end of the tunnel.
There is a way out!
Joy in the Struggle, My Life and Love
By Beatrice Lumpkin
Parti (1918-1943) — Growing Up in East Bronx
1.  Born in East Bronx
2.  Public School. Kindergarten - College
3.  Mama - Laundry Worker and Poet
4.  Papa in the Revolution of 1905
5.  Surviving the Great Depression
6.  "Country" and Ocean
7.   Organizing Laundry Workers
8. Working in a Machine Shop
9.  Defense Worker in World War I]
Part 2 (1943-1965) — My Love is a Steel Worker
10. My Buffalo Family
13.  In Chicago. Fighting Racism
14.  Evicted!
15.  Gary. Cirv of Steel
16. The New Cuba Is Born
17. Working Class Suburb
18.  Camping - from Yellowstone to Moscow
Part 3 (1965-1990) — Schools and Steel Mills
19.1 Become a Teacher
20.  Malcolm X College and Fred Hampton
21.  Equality for Women - CLUW
22. Teaching Truth 23 STRIKE!
24.  Socialist Cuba
25.  People's Power in Chile
26.  Steeltown - A Good Life?
27. Annihilation of Wisconsin Steel
150 154 162 169 175 185 189 198 203
Part 4 (1990-2008) — Old Age—The Fight Goes On
28.  Bowen High School
29.  "Always Bring A Crowd!"
30.  Heat or Eat?
31.  Living while Old under Capitalism
32.  Sixty Years with Frank
33.  Living and Loving with Alzheimer's Disease
34. Yes We Can, and We Did Postscript
213 217 220
224 228 232 243 249
Part 1
(1918-1943) — Growing Up in East Bronx
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1. Born in East Bronx
Mostly, our play was vertical, up and down the fire escapes.
Bronx Intercom
I was born in 1918 in a very unionized and class conscious neighborhood of the East Bronx. Nearly all of our neighbors were East European Jews who worked in the garment industry. Many were active unionists. Some were Communists and a number were Socialists. My parents were among the few who were not factory workers.
My mother had worked in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory before I was born. Fortunately, pregnancy forced her to leave that job before the fire broke out. Just months after she left Triangle Shirtwaist, the terrible fire of 1910 killed 148 of the young women workers.
Perhaps that fire was a factor in my father's decision to "go into business," a decision they regretted 20 years later. The "business" was a hand laundry. My mother did the ironing, and my father ran around on foot, picking up and delivering laundry. They did harder physical work and made less money than if
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they had stayed in the factory. Over the years, they retained their pro-worker, leftist socialist outlook. I can say that I was born knowing "which side I was on."
Fire Escape Playgrounds
All children like active play. But there really wasn't room in the overcrowded apartments. That did not stop me from turning my parents' bed into a trampoline. I loved to jump off the dresser top and bounce on the mattress and springs. I realized vaguely that sooner or later the bed frame would break. But it was soooh... much fun that I could not restrain myself. I also enjoyed swinging on the towel bar on the bathroom door. Unfortunately, the bar was glass. That was fun until my younger brother Lenny tried it. The bar broke and cut his hands.
We found a way to play in the crowded streets of the East Bronx. Mostly, our play was vertical, up and down the fire escapes. Nobody bothered us there. The iron fire escapes zigzagged from apartment to apartment. The ladders gave us a handy way to visit friends, or play "house," or other games. A few families had turned the horizontal stretch of the "zigzag" into a miniature garden, with beautiful plants and pillow seats. On a hot summer day, they sat in relative comfort on their fire escape and tried to catch a breeze.
The modern air conditioner had been invented but was still a "downtown" luxury. The stuffy tenements did not cool off at night. Whole families would drag their bedding to sleep in nearby parks. Sometimes we slept on "tar beach," the flat tenement roof.
Windows were another wonderful opening to the world. In good weather, bedding was hung out of the window to "air." There was no need for an intercom system, or a "house" telephone. Anyway, that was years before we got our first telephone. All you had to do in the old neighborhood was throw up the bottom window, stick your head out and holler for your neighbor. Every subject was fair game from, "What are you cooking for dinner tonight?" to advice about raising children, to complaints about husbands who came home late, causing the dinner to get cold.
Strangely, I don't remember any talk about husbands who did not come home at all. All the children seemed to have two parents. We did not know then how lucky we were. Of course there were divorces, but not in my small world. Later in college I met children whose parents were divorced. Some divorced parents had remarried. Their children had four, not two, parents and had to divide their time between two households. I sympathized with those children. It was enough to deal with two parents, let alone four.
The Merry-go-round
A child could yell up from the street, "Mama!" and the right mother would open the window. "Throw me two pennies for the merry-go-round." Two pennies would be wrapped in newspaper and accurately aimed to hit the sidewalk near the right child. Two pennies bought a short ride on the hand-cranked, traveling merry-go-round. The small merry-go-round was pulled by a horse from street to street. The ride was long enough for me because I always got motion-sick. Still, when I heard the music as they came to my street, I always wanted to ride.
One of our summer treats was ice off the ice wagon. The ice man came every few days. His cries would bring a rush of orders, shouted down the stairs or out the window. Orders were for 10-cent or 15-cent blocks. We kids marveled at how exactly the iceman scored and split each order from the huge blocks of ice in his wagon. Then he hauled the ice up the stairs and placed it in the oak ice boxes. The ice man's job was seasonal because we used an outside window box in winter. There was an ice-making plant near our house. It was a wondrous place to visit. Sheets of water flowed down the side of the ice building and miraculously turned to ice. I watched for a good while but never figured out how it worked.
Most of our active play was outdoors. That was especially true on humid summer days when apartments became stifling hot. On weekends, parents sat outside, on chairs near the curbs, giving us kids
the rest of the pavement for play. Strangely enough, the old English group games hung on in New York, even for our East European immigrant community.
We kids lined up in two opposing rows. Then we marched towards each other chanting, "Walking on the green grass, green grass, green grass/ Walking on the green grass, all on a summer day." Sometimes we played, "Rover, red rover/ Why don't you come over?" It was fun to bounce a rubber ball with one hand, twirling an outstretched leg around each bounce, saying, "Hello, hello, hello Sir/ Meet me at the grocer/ No Sir/ Why Sir/ because I have a cold, Sir." In school we played "London Bridge is falling down/my fair lady," "Bluebird, bluebird, through my window," "Ring around the rosy/ Pocket full of posies/ Ashes, ashes/ All fall down," and more. I liked the lines, "Ashes, ashes/All fall down," because it was fun to fall down on the floor.
Instead of Halloween, we kids dressed in costumes and went begging on Thanksgiving. We asked for money, and got two or three pennies. The threat was indeed, "tricks." Some of us carried stockings with chalk dust or even stones that we swung to show how tough we were. It had something to do with the British Guy Fawkes Day. After my time, Halloween began to take over. That was a good thing. Better to beg for candy than for money.
I don't remember how we survived the winters indoors. There was no television, not even radio. Of course there were card games and board games such as checkers and Parcheesi. That was even before Parker brought out the first Monopoly game in 1934. Better-off families had hand-wound, spring-loaded Victrolas and player pianos. I don't remember those luxury items in our tenement house. After I learned to read, my preferred indoor sport was reading books. I do not remember that we did any chores. I am afraid we left all the housework to my mother.
Before I was old enough for school, my vertical play brought me to grief. One day, I was climbing up an iron gate. Across the top were iron points. Somehow I lost my footing, slipped, and was impaled on one of the points. Someone pulled me off and rushed me to the doctor across the street. Doctors had offices on the street in those days (1923). The up side to the accident was that it made me a star attraction. I was able to satisfy my nearly insatiable sweet tooth. For two licks of candy, I unwrapped my bandage and displayed the stitches in my neck. Anyway, the tear healed nicely. Years later I would have to explain that the stitch marks were not thyroid surgery, just a lack of safe recreation.
Almost all of the adults on my block had children. But my mother's friend above us did not. That meant I got some extra attention that I did not always appreciate. Maybe that attention was necessary because my mother always worked. She and my father were small "business people," with emphasis on the "small." Their hand-laundry store required long hours of hard labor. It was not a nine-to-five job, not even an eight-to-five job.
Hand Laundry
My father pushed a covered cart in which he picked up the wash and delivered the finished bundles. He also used a pen and laundry-proof ink to mark identifying numbers on the dirty clothes before they were sent in bulk to the wholesale steam laundry. Everything was cash and carry. My mother ironed shirts and washed and stretched curtains. That meant standing on her feet long hours. Her legs were thick with swollen veins. It hurt my heart, watching my mother stand on swollen legs every day. But that's the way it was.
In fact, the laundry store is my earliest memory. While my mother starched and ironed clothes, a babysitter would push me around in a carriage. Her name was Gladys. I was in training pants, perhaps prematurely. I remember one day when I had a big problem of wetting my pants. Gladys took me to the laundry store where my mother gave me dry pants. Near the ceiling, a long wood board hung with rows of pegs on both sides. Hand washed items hung on these pegs to dry. Pairs of my just-washed panties filled a long row of the pegs. "Please don't wet this one, too," my mother pleaded. "It's the last pair."
You guessed it. I could not help it and wet the last pair too.
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When I was almost four, my baby brother was born. I remember being so lonely while my mother was in the hospital. The neighbors upstairs took care of me until my mother returned. Everybody said my brother Lennie (Leon) was such a beautiful baby. People would "ooh" and "ah" about how cute he was when we rode the subway train. Jealousy dug its evil fangs deep into my soul. I felt left out when my mother rocked the baby on her lap. "Mama, pick me up," I begged. She laughed, reached over and scooped me up so she could rock both of us. That made me feel good and I thought my mother was wonderful. As she was.
"This used to be such a nice neighborhood," some women complained as they sat on chairs near the curb to allow people to pass on the sidewalk. Later in life, it seemed to me I was always moving into neighborhoods that "used to be so nice." It wasn't clear to me who or what had "spoiled" the neighborhood. Did we do it? The block had a few landlords, a candy store, a doctor's apartment-office, a barber shop, a shoemaker shop and "Shapiro, the laundry man." Everybody else was a unionized clothing worker. Most had come from "the old country," some part of the old Czarist Empire.
With one exception, everyone I knew was just surviving, if not downright poor. The exception was my friend Eli. His father was the landlord and his brother went to medical school and became a doctor. Then his family moved and invited me to visit. I did that two or three times. You couldn't just run up to his apartment door and ring the bell as I had done when he lived in our building. His new house had a doorman. You had to give your name, and the doorman would call the apartment. Then, if you were accepted, you could go up and visit. I didn't like that at all. Emotionally, I felt I was being singled out for being poor. Of course, intellectually I knew that all visitors had to be approved. I quit going to see Eli and he did not come back to the old neighborhood any more.
Speak English
Except for the janitors, everyone who lived on my crowded block was Jewish, mostly from Russia. In fact, my parents were from Byelorussia, but I was not aware of that fine point. Yiddish was spoken everywhere. Russian was used when parents didn't want the children to understand. Usually the children replied in English. "You're in America, speak English," my parents told me. So the children lost the richness of the old culture and a language barrier sprang up between parents and children. I was lucky to be sent to an after-school class where I learned to read and write Yiddish and learned something about the rich literature. But I never became really fluent. I did learn something about anti-Semitism in Czarist Russia. The teacher in our Jewish school wanted us to understand the impact of anti-Semitism in those times. She told us a story about a Jewish boy in old Russia.
The boy was told, "There are many, many Russians." "How many?" he asked.
"So many that each time you draw a breath a Russian dies." "Really?" Then the boy began to breathe as rapidly as he could.
As a child I heard many stories of attacks on Jewish ghettoes. Some stories were very bloody. But the story I remember most was about that little boy who breathed faster to make more Russians die. How bad the oppression must have been to have provoked such hate!
Actually, I did not have to go that far to see fear turned into hate. I remember a shameful incident on my street. The daughter of a janitor was wearing a cross on a chain. She was the only Christian in the group of Jewish children around her. The children began to jeer and taunt her about the cross until she began to cry and run home. I was there and I did nothing. I was only six but I knew it was wrong. I could not forget it. I think that shameful memory helped push me into speaking out against injustice.
Why did my friends do such a horrible thing? I still don't fully understand it. I know that in our community in the 1920s, memories of East European pogroms were fresh and painful. These murderous attacks on Jewish ghettos were carried out by Czarist troops under cover of religion, under cover of "the
* 5 *
cross." It was something like the fearsome image of the flaming cross of the Ku Klux Klan. That's not an excuse. These children were acting out another form of prejudice that they had been taught.
Hebrew was the language of the religion, but not used in the community except for prayers. There were a number of synagogues in the neighborhood that were crowded on the high holidays. Many in our community, including my parents, were not believers. Still, they were part and parcel of Jewish culture. That was certainly true of our food. Although my mother did not follow the religious laws, she neither bought nor cooked pork, shellfish, or other traif (non-kosher) foods. In later years, she would sometimes fry bacon for us. But she never ate it.
Smells and Sounds of Home
Pickle juice ran in the street creating an always-present sour smell. It wasn't too bad because we were used to it. By the age of eight I was old enough to be sent to the store to get a schmaltz (fat) pickled herring. Proud that I had been entrusted with this important task, I plunged my arm into the herring barrel. Then I squeezed the herrings in the pickling juice until I felt a thick one. That was it. "Get a fat one," my mother had said.
I, myself, never cared for the pickled or smoked stuff. I did drink the kvass, sold by the glass from barrels on the street. It was all right but not my favorite. I did not taste kvass again until I visited the Soviet Union in 1965. Then I loved the kvass, for old times' sake. Only late in life, did I look it up on the Internet and learn that kvass is made from fermented rye bread. In some countries kvass is fermented mare's milk.
Many a time I turned up my nose at lox and bagels, food I now gobble up at $20 a pound. Nor did I care for the sweet and sour stews or the mushroom barley soup that I now find exotic. My taste went to the sweets in which my neighborhood excelled. Tall vendors, who I thought were Turks, came through our street carrying trays on their heads. The trays were covered with clean white cloths and held sesame candy bars, sold by the piece. Halvah, another sesame treat, I found irresistible. Also, the candy store had a glass shelf full of charlotte russe, sponge cake topped with rich, thick whipped cream swirls and a red candied cherry. About the only part of my mother's cooking that I appreciated were her cakes. But then nobody ever begged me to eat the cakes. Her sponge cakes and almond breads were superb.
Early in life I found out that I could gain power through food. As a child, I was normally thin. My sallow complexion and dark rings under my eyes made me look sickly. My parents begged me to eat their good food and I usually refused, even though they reminded me that children were starving in Europe. Calorie-wise, I more than made up for skipping meals by stuffing myself with cake and gulping down a pint of milk.
When I became a mother, I remembered the bad food habits I acquired so young. I also remembered the misery I put my parents through, begging me to eat. That memory made me stick to a "take it or leave it" policy at my own dinner table. It worked, although I am sure I made every other possible mistake in child-rearing.
Along with the smells and the tastes of my neighborhood were the sounds. First in the morning was the milkman. We could hear the thud of the horse's hooves, the creak of the wagon and the milkman's quick steps up three flights of stairs. Later, we heard the cries of the peddler with his horse-drawn vegetable wagon, advertising his wares. On some days the "secondhand" man called out for old clothes or other used goods. The back-yard violinists and opera singers often poured out their song. From their apartment windows, appreciative women tossed down coins, wrapped in newspaper. The musicians, playing in the back yard for food money, made me sad. I thought such talented people should have a more secure way to earn a living. Added to the music was the occasional organ grinder, advertising his hand-cranked carousel. In all, I did not mind the symphony of sounds because I never felt alone. The sounds of human activity were all around. But we did not have the blare of television sets cranked up high, not even radios.
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When the snows came to the East Bronx, I took my sled to Prospect Park. There was a steep hill that emptied into a traffic artery. The thrill was to go down the hill at top speed and avoid being hit by a car at the bottom of the hill. It was wonderful fun. But on my way home a much larger child grabbed my sled and ran away with it. I was utterly miserable when I arrived home. My fingers hurt with frostbite, and my sled was gone. My mother, too, was upset when I told her what happened. For once I did not get the comforting I could normally count on. "You'll just have to learn to hold onto your things if you want to have anything," she told me. There was no money to buy another sled. So that's the way it was.
Learning to Read
I am sure I was the only child who was expelled from kindergarten. Somehow, the kindergarten teacher and I had a difference of opinion. I came home visibly scratched. Perhaps my mother thought I was being mistreated and maybe I was. No doubt Mama took me out of school, but I thought that I was kicked out. I had plenty of time to cool my heels at home. All my friends were in school, and I was very lonely. So I was ready, more than ready, when the new school year began. I plunged into my lessons and quickly learned to read.
I can remember learning to read because it made a big change in my life. Reading was my main entertainment. We had no radio and television was in the realm of science fiction. We did enjoy the silent movies, especially in the summer when an outdoor theater was used. A real, live pianist sat at a piano, up front, and provided the musical background. But that was only on the weekend.
My first reader was easy to memorize. "Dickey Dare was going to school. On the way he met a cow. 'Good morning cow,' said Dickey Dare. 'Moo, moo,' said the cow. Said Dickey Dare, 'I am going to school.' And Dickey Dare walked on. On the way he met a horse, pig, dog, cat...." After I had learned it by heart, which did not take too long, there was nothing left to read in school.
Learning to read unlocked the world of imagination for me, but it brought its own problems. I borrowed books from the public library. Unfortunately, children were only allowed to borrow two books at a time. They were small books, and the library was about a half mile from my apartment. I would start reading the books as I walked home. By the time I reached my tenement building, I had finished the two books and once again had nothing to read.
It was very frustrating. I tried to save the books to read until after I got home. But I had no self-control. It was as bad as being sent to the store for a "glass" of sweet cream. I knew that I should not sip the cream. But I thought if I took just a little, nobody would know and it wouldn't make any difference. But I could never quit after just one sip. Fortunately, we were only one block from the store so I didn't have time to consume the whole glass of cream. We supplied our own containers and Mama was always sure to give me a large glass.
First grade was a challenge. We called our school, "the chicken coop"; it was so old. The building probably predated the Civil War. PS. 20 continued to use that building for another 50 years after I left. Some of us were doubled up, two to a seat. The teacher had a very large class. The slogan on the front page of the Daily News, or perhaps the Daily Mirror, called for a "seat for every school child."
I wanted so much to do well, to show what I could do. But I failed abysmally on my first homework assignment. I had to copy all of the capital letters and numbers one through nine. The first time I drew a letter it was not quite right. So I erased and erased until it looked like the model. It was a big mess. I guess the erasers weren't very good in those days. Finally, I was ready. The next day I brought my grubby homework page into class. All around me, I saw lovely clean sheets with beautifully formed letters, especially on the desks of the Shirley Temple look-alikes. These little girls had their hair curled to hang perfectly, just like our movie idol, Shirley Temple. In contrast, my hair was cut in the practical "Buster Brown" style with straight bangs; nothing glamorous there. It didn't occur to me at the time that the beautiful clean homework I saw may have been done by parents.
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The schools were so crowded that they would often move up half a class to a higher grade. Such mass emergency promotions were common at RS. 20 in 1924. When the principal came into our class, she called out the names of all the "better" students, the ones with the neat homework. They were instantly promoted, or skipped, to second grade. My name was not called. I thought that was an injustice. Perhaps if I had been selected, I would have escaped one of the most traumatic experiences of my childhood.
Psycho-terror in First Grade
To control the large class, or for whatever other reason, our teacher did not hesitate to use terror tactics. She did not try to mask her contempt of us, the children of Jewish immigrants. In later years I learned that female teachers in New York City had been forbidden to marry. Those who married secretly lived in constant fear of being found out and fired. That inhumane pressure on female teachers may have contributed to the hostility we felt in the school. Still, nothing excuses the mental torture we suffered in my first grade class.
Our teacher told us that she had eyes in the back of her head so we had better not try to talk when she turned her back. We didn't know whether to believe that or not. Sure enough, some children began to talk while Miss F's back was turned. She grabbed two boys and hauled them up to the front. That's when the torture began. Miss F put a slip knot in a length of the stout red cord that we used for craft projects. Then she said she would slip the knot over the boys' tongues and pull out their tongues so they couldn't talk any more. Each boy could save himself from this horrible fate by saying he was sorry and promising never to talk when her back was turned. One of the boys immediately said he would never talk in class again. The other boy stood speechless, struck dumb by fear.
"Well then," Miss F said, "I'll just have to pull out his tongue." And she told him to stick out his tongue so she could adjust the slip knot to the right size. We sat there, horrified, as she slipped the cord over his tongue to adjust the knot. We did not know what to believe. After all, if Miss F had eyes in the back of her head, anything could happen.
My Older Brother, Max Shapiro "I'll give you one more chance," Miss F sneered. "Say you're sorry you talked and I won't pull out your tongue." The frightened child still stood there, silent. "What's the matter with you? Don't you understand English?" Miss F persisted. The child shook his head, "No." What do you talk, Jewish?" She
pronounced the word Jewish with a derisive sneer. Then Miss F turned to the class and asked, "Who will come up here and explain it to him in Jewish?"
None of the children were very fluent in Yiddish. With the rest of the class, I sat there paralyzed. Finally one brave boy stepped forward and went through the charade. He asked, in his broken Yiddish, "Do you want your tongue pulled out?" The poor child shook his head to say, "No!"
"All right," Miss F said. "Now, you can sit down."
It never occurred to me to tell my parents what had happened. Probably none of the other kids did either.
In second grade I finally got my first "promotion." One day, the principal came in to our class and instantly promoted a third of us to third grade. We "skipped" a semester. Still, the pace of instruction seemed slow but I did not complain. In fact, I did not realize the pace was slow until I had to miss a few weeks. I was crossing Southern Boulevard with my father and saw my mother on the other side of the street. "Mama!" I shouted and broke out of my father's grasp. I ran into the path of a car that bruised my leg badly. It took some weeks for the leg to heal. When I returned to school, it was as though time had stood still. Nothing was new; I had not missed a thing.
My Brother Maxie
My older brother, Maxie, was seven years older than I was. We were in the same house and same family. But we lived in different worlds, with little chance to interact. He did "all right" in his classes. But in sports, Maxie was outstanding. His name was often in the newspaper because high school basketball was big in New York. He liked to hang out at garages and mess around with cars. All of this was alien to our Old World, East European Jewish culture. Maxie had adopted early twentieth century technology with enthusiasm.
Author, 12, and Brother Leon, 8, on Dickie Estate There had been another brother born between us who died in the hospital during the 1918-1919 flu epidemic. I could not remember him because I was only a year old when he died. But I often thought we
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could have been playmates. So, I asked my mother about him, more than once. That made her cry and my father told me not to talk about the dead brother. Once again, I had done something wrong. My Brother Lenny
I did have a chance to play with my younger brother, but Lenny was almost four years younger. I am sure that I bossed him around. He loved animals and was always bringing stray dogs to our apartment. But they were never allowed to stay. However, there were uninvited animals that did stay. In fact you could not get rid of them. Our old tenement building was infested with vermin of all types.
One day I stepped on a bump in the linoleum. The bump was a mouse that had made its way under the loosened floor covering. It was one of the mice that had evaded my mother's traps. I am afraid that my step was not very delicate. Somehow, Lenny and I dragged the carcass out and discovered that the mouse was quite dead. There was nothing left to do but give the creature a proper funeral. We put the remains on some heavy paper and walked around the block in our funeral procession. The ceremony done, we flushed the carcass down the toilet, the same way Mama disposed of the rodents she trapped.
The animals that cohabited in our apartment with us did not bother my brother and me. But even at a young age I was conscious of the less-than-ideal layout of the apartment. The kitchen was in the back of the apartment. Behind the kitchen and projecting into it was the toilet and bath. The bathroom had no exterior window, just a window that vented into the kitchen. Perhaps I was so conscious of it because the grownups were always making jokes about that unsavory arrangement. I guess in the "old country" there was plenty of space between toilet and kitchen because toilets were outside. That memory helped me appreciate an old European joke about customs in the United States. "They like to cook outside and go to the toilet inside."
The "Old Country"
Our parents had been in New York more than ten years when I was born. Once in a while, I heard them talk about the "old country." "It was so cold, we had to have double windows," my mother told me. I could not imagine anything that cold. Our ancient Bronx tenement house had single panes. And that seemed enough for New York. I had no way of knowing then that most of my life would be spent in places just as cold as Byelorussia in winter. Putting up and taking down storm windows in Buffalo, Gary, and Chicago would be just another chore. Put the storm windows up by October. Take them down by June.
Byelorussia sounded like a hard but wonderful place. "One day a wolf came and I ran home terrified," my mother told us. "Mama could have been Red Riding Hood," I thought. But instead of visiting her grandmother, my mother was picking mushrooms in the woods. When my mother cooked mushrooms in Byelorussia, she took precautions. Even in New York, she took the same precautions. "Throw a quarter in the frying pan with the cooking mushrooms. If the silver of the quarter turns green, don't eat the mushrooms! They are poisonous." I have not researched this practice and cannot recommend it to the reader.
His friends called my father, Avrom, although Morris was his legal name. My mother was Ruhd-eh; her English name was Dora. Her father was a building contractor, much better off than most of the Jews in the ghetto of Bobruisk, Minsk Province. Young Avrom was a brilliant student from a poor family. He earned his living by teaching Jewish youths how to read and write Russian. (Jewish students were not allowed to attend the Russian schools.)
Ruhd-eh wanted to become a nurse, so her family hired Avrom to teach her Russian. But my mother's ambition was never realized. She could not get a permit to go to the big city to attend nursing school. The Czar's government controlled all travel, and few Jews from Bobruisk were allowed to go to the big city. In general, Jews were confined to a ghetto.
The Flame of Revolution
Father was afire with the revolution. Mother caught the flame. Not necessarily from father because the tinder was everywhere in Czarist Russia. A much treasured picture shows Mama sitting in a strike committee meeting, about the year 1905. Many strikes were political, not only for economic needs but for political freedom. Jews, as a whole, wanted to get rid of the Czar and his feudal/capitalist dictatorship.
Many of the young Jewish youth wanted to go further. They wanted to do more than just replace feudal with capitalist rule. They wanted to get rid of all exploitation. These radical youth sympathized with Lenin and the Bolshevik majority that had just split away from the Social Democrats on the issue of revolution. My parents belonged to the more revolutionary sector of the Jewish Socialist Bund.
The people of the Russian Empire rose up in 1905 against the Czar. But their revolution was suppressed in blood. After the Czar suffered a humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese war, he unleashed a series of pogroms against the Jews. A pogrom was a murderous raid on a Jewish ghetto. Typically, Cossack cavalry conducted the pogroms. Jews were made the scapegoat to divert people's anger away from the corrupt government.
Both of my parents were active participants in the anti-Czarist Revolution of 1905. "I brought ammunition to our fighters," Mama proudly told me. "I went out through the snow and the mud, and dodged the bullets. I hid the ammunition in my long skirt. When our fighters sent me a note to bring them 'bread,' I knew that meant ammunition."
Avrom was among the thousands taken prisoner by the Czar's army. Not until I was grown did I learn that Papa was actually a hero to the Jews of Bobruisk in 1905; but more on that later. From my parents, I picked up the idea of revolution to end exploitation. They wanted to build socialism, a society free of
Grandpa Shapiro
* 11
exploitation. As far back as I can remember, I knew that there was something wrong with the system under which we lived. I saw how hard Mama and Papa worked and had nothing to show for it. I knew that was not right.
My interest in politics had started early. For whatever reason, my friends thought the Democrat, Al Smith, was more for working people than Herbert Hoover. A classmate enlisted me to raise money for the Smith for President Campaign in 1928. We tried and I suppose we raised a few pennies. Smith lost and Herbert Hoover won by a landslide. Hoover went on to become one of the most hated presidents when he refused to help starving Americans during the Great Depression.
Grandpa (Zaydeh)
When I was about eight, my mother's father left Soviet Byelorussia and came to New York City. He lived with us for a few months. It was my job to take him to the synagogue, two blocks away, for his daily prayers. It was a rare opportunity for me to step inside the synagogue, a building not frequented by my parents. There was a main floor where my grandfather (zaydeh in Yiddish) joined the other men. Around the main floor were balconies, shielded by curtains from the men. That was where the women prayed.
The second-class status of women in the synagogue was strange and repulsive to me. I was glad to leave after I delivered Grandpa. Other synagogue-goers would make sure that he got home safely. I had heard about some of the sacrifices that pious Jewish women were expected to make. Married women shaved their heads and wore a wig. There was also something about monthly baths for a ritual cleansing after menstruation. That made no sense at all when I was eight. Now that I am over 90, and have learned about menstruation, it still makes no sense to me.
At 70, Grandpa was a tall, strong-looking man with a light step. The Soviet Union had won the civil war and rebuffed invasions by 13 countries intent on restoring capitalism. Zaydeh was a building contractor and had prospered under the Soviet Union's New Economic Policy. After Grandma died, he left all that behind and came to "America" to be with his daughters in New York City and a son in Newark. No longer working and with nothing to do but pray at the synagogue, grandpa began to shrink. Every day he seemed a little weaker. I began to wonder if Grandpa would have been better off if he had stayed in Byelorussia. Now that I am old, I look around and see many old people who shrank. All I have to do is look in the mirror.
Go Back to Top
2. Public School, Kindergarten - College
The YCL provided a group social life that required no money.
When I was nine, we moved a few blocks away from 165th and Tiffany Streets to Hunts Point. It was a slight move up. Our new apartment was across the street from my parents' hand laundry. The school and tenement buildings in Hunts Point were somewhat newer than in the old neighborhood. The culture was the same. Neighbors were typically unionized needle-trades factory workers, mostly East European Jewish immigrants. My new school also resorted to "skipping" as many students as possible. I skipped another semester and moved up to fifth grade. That put me a year ahead of my age at school.
\ The Young Pioneers
A year after we moved, I joined the Young Pioneers. They were a left-wing movement for children. In later years, my two younger children became active Boy Scouts. But in the 1920s, my parents thought the Scouts looked too much like a junior army. Instead of the Scout slogan of "Be Prepared," the Young Pioneers said, "Always Ready." I guess that meant, "Always Ready to Help the Working Class." Our "uniform" was almost the same as my junior high school uniform, a white middy blouse and dark skirt. The only difference was that Pioneers wore red instead of black ties with the middy blouse. There was a lot of discussion at our Pioneer meetings, none of which I remember. I remember only two experiences from my Young Pioneers days, one good and one bad.
I remember a wonderful Young Pioneer train trip to New Jersey. The trip was in solidarity with striking textile workers in Passaic, or was it Patterson or Trenton? What I remember clearly is the train itself. It was my first train ride. Of course I rode the subway train many times. But that wasn't a "real" train that went out to the "country." Subway train seats were wood, not upholstered, something like the streetcars of the '20s. But wonder to behold, real trains had toilets right in the cars and a sink where you could wash your hands. The toilet was flushed right on to the tracks in those days. The bottom of the toilet opened and you could see right down to the tracks. Even at the tender age often, I wondered about the sanitary aspect of that. I understood and approved when the conductors locked the toilets as we approached a station.
The train ride helped me realize that "America" was a big country. I stared and stared at the passing scenery until I became quite motion-sick. All in all it was a wonderful experience. Unfortunately, I don't remember a thing about the solidarity action itself except some of the songs we sang. At the time I thought they were such brave songs. We certainly got the attention of all who heard these unusual lyrics:
One two three
Young Pioneers are free,
We're fighting for the working class
Against the bourgeoisie
Four, five, six
We're happy Bolsheviks,
We're fighting for the working class
Against the dirty dicks [cop/detectives].
A bad experience cut short my time with the Pioneers. Their meetings took place after dark, at least in the winter time. There was a well-lit route from the meeting to my apartment. Instead, I took a much shorter route along a hilly street that was deserted at night. On one side of the street was the American Banknote Company, locked up tight at night. The monastery on the other side was surrounded by a high brick wall. For all I knew, it was always deserted because it never showed any sign of life.
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I had almost made it up the dark hill when I heard a man walking behind me, I picked up speed. The man started to run. I did too, but not fast enough. He grabbed me and ripped my middy blouse. By this time I had reached the corner of a neighborhood hospital. Fortunately, some people came out of the hospital just then and the man ran away. The hospital visitors came up to me and asked if I was all right. I was shaken but I said, "Yes, I'm all right." I never took that short cut at night again.
Of course, I did not tell my parents about my narrow escape. That was probably the last meeting of the children's group that I attended. At nineteen, I came under attack again and did not get away. That experience was so painful that I cannot write about it, not even now, seventy-three years later.
Junior High School 60—A School for Girls
At eleven, I entered Junior High School (JHS) 60 in the East Bronx. I gained (or lost depending on how you look at it) another year. I was in a "rapid advance" class that completed seventh, eighth and ninth grades in two years. That made me a high school sophomore at barely 13. JHS 60 was a school for girls. There was a lot of "girl talk" and that included talking about sex. An older girl had already told me some facts of human reproduction, including monthly menses. She described the menses in a way that made no sense to me. Probably it made no sense to her either. My brother's biology textbook did not explain such subjects. In the old neighborhood, I felt sorry for poor Miss Smith who was disrespected by most of the other women. I could not understand their reasoning. It was not her fault if God sent her a baby when she wasn't married.
At JHS 60,1 was with older girls. Some were, as we called it then, boy-crazy. The year before, I had been in a coed sixth grade class. In my class, there was a boy I really liked. If I saw him on the other side of the street, I would cross over in hopes that he would notice me. But that's as far as it went. In the all-girls JHS 60,1 barely thought about "boys." But I did care how I looked. I realized that I would never meet the Hollywood standard for beauty. No matter how I turned my profile, my nose was too big. That bothered me. Of course, my skin was way too dark for Hollywood. That did not bother me. I liked being dark enough to stay in the sun and not get sunburned.
The junior high school dress code was a white "middy" blouse with a big, dark middy tie, a dark skirt, andblack cotton stockings. The girls thought the black stockings were very unsexy. Those who "cared about boys" did not want to be seen in black stockings. So they wore normal, beige-colored stockings on their way to school. Before entering the school, they changed to the required black. I was not among them although I, too, resented the dress code. For my part, I did not like any kind of stockings.
Unfortunately, in 1928 pants were only for males. So the choice for females was bare legs, bobby sox or some kind of stockings. My preferred dress was bobby sox, winter and summer. Girls/women who could afford it wore silk stockings; nylon had not yet been invented. Silk was imported from Japan and expensive. After the 1933 bombing of Chinese cities by Japan, silk stockings were boycotted by progressive women. The slogan was, "You don't get nott'in unless you wear cotton."
The junior high academic work was on a higher level and there were extracurricular activities. I became editor of the school paper and a member of Arista, an honor society. For each edition of the school paper, I wrote an episode of a science fiction story. I also won an award for excellence in French. That achievement I blush to mention because I retain so little of what I had learned. All of these positions and awards came to an abrupt end International Workers Day, May First, 1931.
May First, International Workers Day
For workers all over the world, May First is a holiday. Workers put down their tools, and demonstrate to demand their rights. The day had its origin in Chicago. In 1886, McCormick Reaper workers went on strike for an eight-hour day in Chicago. Police attacked the strikers and a worker was killed. On May 4, 1886, a protest against the killing turned into the Haymarket Massacre. The massacre was followed by the legal frame-up and hanging of the Haymarket Martyrs. May First is a legal holiday in many countries, but
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not in the United States where the holiday was born. On the contrary, the May First march was red-baited. In 1931, attending the march was not accepted as an excuse for a school absence.
Many children did attend the big May Day march in New York. Their absence from school was excused because their parents gave them a note saying they had been ill. But it was considered more loyal to the cause to stand up for your beliefs and say: "I was absent May First because it is a worker's holiday." I had not done that because I did not have the nerve. Sadie Nussbaum was responsible for shaming me into being more courageous. Sadie Nussbaum was my role model, except that I knew I could never be great like her.
As a child, Sadie had already been to the Soviet Union. She made brilliant speeches about the evils of capitalism. In the school play, Sadie had the main role of Abraham Lincoln. My role was the mother of a young soldier sentenced to death for falling asleep on sentry duty. I had only one line, but on stage, I could not remember the line. Sadie saved me and whispered the line to me. My voice showed real anguish as I said, "President Lincoln, please spare my son." When Sadie challenged me to do the right thing and tell my teacher I had marched on May Day, I could not refuse. So I gathered up my courage and told my division teacher, "I was absent May First because it is a worker's holiday."
Poor Mrs. DuBois! She reacted as though I had just said, "I have just killed my mother!" Real tears rolled down her face as she sent me to the principal's office. I really felt sorry for her. The school authorities sent for my parents who were unable to save me. Punishment was swift and harsh. I felt like Dreyfuss, the French Jewish officer who was court-martialed and stripped of his epaulets. I was expelled from the Arista Honor Society and removed as editor of the school paper.
Completing my "continued" science-fiction story was a little bit of a challenge for the school authorities. Given the turn of events, I wrote a class struggle ending for the story. The school authorities had the nerve to write another ending and to publish it over my name. Where was the First Amendment when I needed it? But of course, I was only a child so I had no rights. In any case, there was no great work of fiction involved. Years later, looking over the copy, I ran across a sentence that was unintentionally hilarious. In the story, I had created a Frankenstein-type robot. I wanted to say that the robot looked at the floor. What I wrote was, "His eye fell on the floor."
I survived the last year at Junior High School 60. Just before I left, Miss Nice, my English teacher, wished me luck and added, "Come back and tell me about socialism." I never returned. Teenagers are so busy. At 13,1 became a sophomore at James Monroe High School Annex. The Annex was close to our apartment. I had some time on my hands. That allowed me to chase around after butterflies with a cousin who was a graduate student in biology. I think she did the studying and I did the legwork, catching butterflies and other winged insects.
A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. With the materials my cousin gave me I decided to make my own insect collection. Catching them was not bad but I must have goofed when I terminated them with carbon tetrachloride. I caught all kinds of insects, including fat bugs, and mounted them on a board with long, sharp pins. All was well for the first day or two. Then the bugs began to move. Seems I had only put them into a stupor and they were not terminated at all. Mercifully, I don't remember how I solved that gruesome problem. Humanely, I hope.
High School and Free Speech
In 1933,1 became a high school junior and moved to the main building of James Monroe. It was a long walk to school but seemed shorter when I kicked a can all the way. James Monroe had 10,000 students, including an evening high school and adult classes at night. The school had a swimming pool and a biology lab. I joined the swimming team and loved the biology lab. I was in heaven! Science had been my love since I was nine years old and read my brother Maxie's high school biology book. I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up. Our school did not have science fairs but New York City had wonderful museums and zoos. For the five-cent fare, I could and did travel everywhere. Museum, zoo and aquarium
* 15 *
admissions were free. It was a great crime against working class children when museums and zoos closed their doors in later years. Their high admission fees have barred poor children from visiting at will.
Monroe High School offered two years of biology. Mrs. Sweet, the advanced biology teacher, let me work in the lab after school. My cousin, the biologist, got me mutant strains of fruit flies, Drosophila melanogaster. I felt very important as I peered into microscopes and decided who could mate with whom (flies of course). Swimming practice also took a lot of time because I was on the team for backstroke. All that changed the next year when the whole school was convulsed by a free speech fight.
One day I saw hundreds of students running down the steps. "What's going on?" I asked Anita, my swimming team buddy. "Oh, you wouldn't be interested," she said. "How do you know?" I demanded. "Tell me, what's happening?" I learned that a guest speaker, at an after-school club meeting, had been forcibly removed from the school. The speaker, a rabbi, had urged that the United States recognize the Soviet Union! Word of the speaker's "radical" position spread to the principal. He ran up to the club meeting and ordered the rabbi out of the building. There was so much tension, perhaps because of the Depression, that the school exploded.
Then everybody was running. International Club members ran through the building alerting students. The coach was running to get the football squad out to stop the radical students by a show of force. Thousands of students massed to protest the violation of free speech. At one of our later rallies, Norman Thomas, presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, came to speak to the students. J.B. Matthews of the War Resisters League was another noted outside speaker.
The Young Communist League
Things began to move very fast for me. I joined the free speech fight led by the National Student League. I was ready to go further. I wanted to work to change the system. Should I join the Young Peoples Socialist League (Yipsels) or the Young Communist League (YCL)? I looked them both over and followed my original leaning to the YCL. I saw that the best organizers of the free speech fight were Communists so I wanted to be one of them.
From the moment I joined the YCL, and for the next 77 years, I can truly say that I have never had a moment when I had nothing to do. There were always picket lines for workers on strike, demonstrations to demand food for a hungry family, knocking on doors to sell the Daily Worker or bringing people out to vote. There were many meetings, parties, dances and dinners to attend or plan. We worked to bring people together and raised the money to organize. There were also books to read and articles to write. All of that, of course, was in addition to the basic need to work for a living and the joy and work of raising a family.
Membership in the Young Communist League was a time of commitment, comradeship and exploration. I must admit that our high school YCL meetings went on for hours. We kept getting off the subject. It could take four hours to decide the date for a protest rally because most of the time we were playing around and not getting down to business. We hung out together but did not pair off although we kind of knew who had a "crush" on whom. Our high school YCL provided a group social life for us teenagers that required no money. It was depression times (1933), and we were all short of money, really short. My friends' parents were low-paid factory workers, often unemployed. I was among the poorest because my family was on relief and my parents were ill.
That was the time of the rule of the nickel, one-twentieth of a dollar. The dollar has lost so much of its value, there is now (2008) talk of discontinuing the penny. The nickel may be next. But in 1933, the nickel was "king." It got you on the subway train, made a phone call, and paid for a big candy bar that substituted for lunch. Candy bars are much smaller nowadays. I had to laugh at myself one night when I tried to open my apartment door lock with a nickel. Using the pay phones was itself a challenge. My family could not afford phone service so we did everything face to face. After I became a student activist, I could not avoid making phone calls. At first I was nervous. Would I handle the technology correctly? Would I know how to talk into a phone?
As a busy member of the YCL, I somehow found time to attend classes at The Workers School downtown. I remember how fascinated I was when I ran across Frederick Douglas's autobiography in The Workers School library. I could not leave until I finished the whole book. Of course, I got hungry. But there was a candy machine in the hallway. I put a nickel in and the machine emptied itself in my arms. What to do? Mercifully, I don't remember what I did. I must have solved that moral dilemma in the right way, because it is not on my conscience. I remember only the bonanza of all that good eating. No wonder I lost most of my teeth in old age.
Classes in the Park
We YCLers also organized some classes for ourselves. In good weather, we met in the park. In between playing ball and just running around, we studied Marx and Lenin. We took turns reading out loud. After each page, we would stop for a discussion. Everybody had something to say. In recent years, we tried that with four or five working women. It is still a good way to learn and probably had its origin in the nineteenth century workers' reading circles.
One of the ways we spread our message was to hold outdoor meetings on streets with heavy pedestrian traffic. We also used these meetings to raise money for our YCL work. Instead of a soapbox, we carried a short ladder and a U.S. flag. We believed that the display of the flag made our public meeting "legal." In a short time a curious crowd gathered. The challenge was to capture and hold their interest. If the speaker fumbled, the crowd would leave. One approach was to talk about the Nazi takeover of Germany. Workers were very nervous about fascism. Could it happen here? Word of Nazi atrocities and death camps for Jews was trickling through. I, myself, had many nightmares of Nazis chasing me in Europe. I used to wake up in a sweat but happy to realize it was only a nightmare.
At our street-corner meetings, I talked about how Hitler won over many frustrated youth in Germany. These young people had never had a chance to work and to learn the lessons of unity on a job. Millions of young Americans, too, I warned, had no chance to work and to learn about labor solidarity. The Young Communist League, I said, was bringing unemployed youth the message of unity and the need to fight racism and fascism. Then we passed the hat with good results. Periodically, an elevated train would pass overhead. If I stopped talking, the crowd would leave. So I out-yelled the train. Maybe that is why my voice is so weak today.
A reliable resource for my YCL club was the Communist Party club in my neighborhood. We turned to them when we needed money to buy paper for a leaflet. It was a thrill for us kids to attend the grownups' meeting and explain why we needed a leaflet. In no time, a collection was made and they raised a whole dollar. A dollar bought a lot of paper in 1933! The serious atmosphere at the Party meetings impressed us. We looked forward to growing up and joining the Party, the "big league." We also had the help of one of our high school teachers, Isadore Begun. To write this page, I did a Google search for Begun. No wonder Begun was so helpful. About the time we were fighting for free speech, he was leading a fight for democracy in the teachers union. But that went over our heads at the time.
In April 1933, our YCL led hundreds of Monroe High School students in the National Student Strike for Peace. Things continued to move quickly. By June, I was among the student leaders who were removed from the school against our will. We were transferred to Morris High School some distance away. It was a smaller school without a swimming pool and they did not even teach French! Everything at Morris High School was on a smaller scale than at Monroe. But Morris High did have one resource that Monroe High School did not have. Morris had a wonderful physics teacher, Irving Mossbacher.
Death in the Bronx
Mr. Mossbacher let our YCL leaders, mostly good physics students, hang out at his house. He let us eat all the candy we wanted and did not kick us out at 8 p.m. We were in heaven! We stayed as long as we liked, discussing heady subjects. That included the stuff the universe was made of. And we dreamed of
* U *
socialism and how we could win it. I changed my passion from biology to physics. But first we had to win the revolution because that was more urgent. That summer, we all graduated. Then Mr. Mossbacher took a cruise to Europe on a well-deserved vacation. He came back in a box. Only 34, he suffered a fatal heart attack on board the cruise ship. He had no children and had never married. He remained single, as the story went, because he knew about the heart condition. But in a way, we were his children.
For many of us, it was the first death that struck so close. Years before, I had seen my eight-year-old friend crying as I walked to school. Her eyes were blood shot and she looked so sad. "My sister died last night," she told me. I knew her sister and I was sad, too. There had also been a death in the family above us in my old apartment building. "Shhh! Be quiet," we were told. Our parents stopped us from playing and laughing for fear we would disturb the grieving family. "They are sitting shiva," we were warned. That meant they sat on the floor, tore their clothes and smeared ashes on their face. And then, of course, there was the baby brother who had died when I was an infant. My mother had cried when I asked about him. Death was hard to accept and we did not believe in life after death. But over the years, we learned to see our immortality in a better future for humanity.
Hunter College
Our physics/YCL group scattered to different places. In 1934, The Bronx and Manhattan city colleges were free of tuition. They even issued free textbooks that we returned at the end of the semester. Only those with higher grades on statewide "Regents" exams were admitted. Very few students of color made it into the city colleges. No women could attend City College of New York (CCNY). CCNY was only for men, and Hunter College was only for women. So I had to attend Hunter even though they did not have the engineering classes or the advanced physics classes that were offered at CCNY. We Hunter freshmen attended a separate branch at 32nd Street because the main building at 68th Street was overcrowded. I had classes at both buildings. I had a nickel to take the subway between classes but no money for lunch. It was an easy decision. I spent the nickel for a big candy bar and walked from 32nd to 68th Street several times a week.
In the freshmen school lunchroom, a half-pint of milk cost five cents. To our dismay, a sign went up warning that milk was going up to six cents. Students, coming from depression-struck homes, were outraged. The price for a whole quart of milk was then nine cents. Our YCL club decided to organize a boycott. We stayed up all night producing a leaflet to announce our boycott. First, we had to write the leaflet. That wasn't too hard because BOYCOTT SIX-CENT MILK took up two-thirds of the page. Then we had to make 500 copies. That was hard. Wet-ink mimeograph duplicators seldom worked right and we ended up putting in the sheets one at a time. In the process, we got ink over everything. The next morning we weren't sleepy because excitement kept our adrenaline flowing.
The boycott was a huge success. Students massed around our table. I had to climb on top of the table to be heard. I did not realize that the dean of students had come into the lunchroom. The first I knew of her presence, she was standing on a table, too, trying to break up our protest. It was too late to be diplomatic; I am afraid that I had already called her a fascist. We were saved by the bell because it was time for class.
The next day, milk was back to five cents. That was "joy in the struggle." More than saving a penny, we had proved that students had the power to change things for the better. That was the power of unity. As for the dean, I suspect that she was not really a fascist. She was best known for insisting on proper dress for "ladies." "Only Communists or prostitutes would be seen in public without a hat," was one of her pearls of wisdom.
The 5tuuJe*Sts answer'
fellow studentst
In eahpel yesterday, Ethel Schwartz, Pros ident of Student Coun­cil, haa together with 1cm Pay taken a stand. Bgainst the Inter­ests of the student tody and for ef milk. They have exeus'ed the raise In the milk pries on the flimsy pretext that "Student Council must be the organ to carry on sueh a enmpnlgn'.It is now tna task of our student bodyto show in action that we will not permit the mass of false technicalities raised bid- tl.i, real issue THE necessity FOR E* milk and the fact that Miss fe-smer HAS VIO* LATEE AN AGREEMENT TO REDUCE THE MILK PBICE.
The petition which peined the reduction in milk w.-s filed in duo orderr proceeding without waiting for Student Council was a pro­cedure not in violation of any college regulation hut an example of common sense. Faced with the fact that Btu.'ent Council was not in session, and the even more Important fact that student council had previously shown itself indisposed to act in student's intoreats( Antl- War conference delawed all term, the Ruth Rosen­thal enc the Beatrice Shapiro cases otc), no other course of action was open to the student s except INDEPENDENT ACTIOS. W MOST NOW C.FRI THIS ACTION TO KB LOGICAL CONCLUSION I
BOICOTT THE                        UILK COCNTB!"
Issued by Hunter College
DEMAND FIVE CENTS MILKl ts.marchers of Nationr.l Student League
Student Strike for Peace
Miraculously, none of the milk boycott organizers was disciplined. I was not that lucky in the spring when we organized for the National Student Strike for Peace. This was not a one-cent issue limited to the freshman campus. The strike was college-wide, citywide and nationwide. The strike leaders at Hunter College, four juniors and me, a freshman, were called into the dean's office. We were told that we would have to bring our parents to the dean's office for a conference about our "behavior." We refused as a matter of principle. As college students, we said we were adults and responsible for our own behavior. We condemned the dean's tactics as intimidation for the purpose of breaking up our student organization. We stuck to our guns and the school administration stuck to theirs. The five of us were suspended from school and allowed to cool our heels for seven weeks. In addition, I lost my state scholarship—money that was paying my family's rent.
With no classes to attend, I had a lot of time on my hands. I put some of that time to use by producing an eight-page newsletter for the Hunter College Freshman YCL Club. I am afraid that I wrote all of the articles myself. It was a lot of work. Then, when it came time to distribute the newsletter, I was in for a shock. Nobody was interested. No one volunteered. I had done it all myself and ended up having to distribute it by myself. It was a lesson I tried to remember always.
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The next year I moved on with my class to the Bronx campus of Hunter College. Next door was a high school, and I was an advisor to the YCL club there. Indirectly, that advisorship led me to drop my chemistry major. I was following the lab "cookbook" in my qualitative analysis class. For two weeks, off and on, I had been working with an unknown solution. I was in the final stages of heating the solution in an evaporating dish. Just then a high school YCL member came into the lab for advice on their latest "emergency." By the time I returned, the dish had cracked and my unknown solution was lost. Two weeks' work was gone. I would have to start all over. That was the last straw, the one that broke the camel's back.
Much as I liked chemical theory, I decided to change my major. During the Depression, job prospects in chemistry were dim. They were practically zero for Jewish women. Why put in long hours in a chemistry lab if it was not going to lead to a job? That same year I had started studying physics which was much more to my taste. Not that there were more jobs in physics. But for me, it was more fun. Sadly, Hunter College did not offer a physics major. CCNY did, but did not admit women. And that is how I ended up as a history major and political science-economics minor. I decided to try to get a general education, even if it did not lead to a job. Of course, 30 years later I began to give young people different advice. Then I advised, "Get as much education as you can. It will be useful later.
Author marching May 1, 1936 with Hunter College YCL
From Picket Line to Jail, a Short Walk
The year 1935 was a year of heightened working class struggle. Calls for help in strikes or demonstrations came frequently. Our YCL responded to as many as we could. One call for strike support brought me to a familiar street, 14th Street near Union Square. Union Square was the site of the big rallies that climaxed the May Day parades. To support striking clerks at Ohrbach's Department Store, we formed a mass picket line in front of the store. It was peaceful, even dull. Along came a bunch of police wagons. They herded the whole mass picket line into the vans and drove us to the police lockup. Neither I nor most of my fellow arrestees had ever seen the inside of a jail cell before, except in the movies. One non-smoker was so nervous that she begged a cigarette. Turned out she did not know how to smoke it. After a
few hours, they let us all go. I learned that a common tactic used to break a strike was to call in the police to break up the picket lines. Later, the police dropped the charges. Meanwhile, the picket line had been broken.
I was lucky enough to avoid jail in some other demonstrations where large numbers were arrested. The Wall Street clerks were on strike and called for mass picketing. In the narrow streets of the Wall Street district, the police horses pinned people in against doorways, holding them there until the police wagons took them away. There are few things more humiliating than to be herded off the scene of a demonstration by a horse's rump. I was pinned by a horse into a doorway until some kind-hearted soul opened the door and let me in. A few of us escaped that way. Everyone else who was pinned in by the horses was arrested.
It was not for nothing that East European immigrants hated the mounted police whose horses had been trained for "crowd control." Mulrooney's Cossacks, they called them. Edward Mulrooney was the New York City Police Commissioner in 1930. Workers charged him with using the same tactics that the Czar's Cossacks used in pogroms against the Jews.
Pulling Down the Nazi Flag
I was present at another large confrontation with New York's mounted police in the SS Bremen protest. The SS Bremen was a German ship that took passengers between New York and Hamburg. In 1935 she was arrogantly flying a swastika flag. Word had reached us of the Nazi atrocities against Jews, Communists and trade unionists. A large group of Communist seamen decided they would not let the swastika fly over New York City. They were determined to pull it down. With 10,000 other demonstrators, I stood along the dock, shouting slogans against fascism. We demonstrators were peaceful, and not aware of the Communist seamen's plan. At least I wasn't. Then the mounted police swung into action. With their horses, they ran us down one street, away from the dock. Then they ran us down another street. It seemed they did it just because they could. They pushed us this way; then they pushed us that way, as though we were a herd of cattle. It was humiliating as well as frightening. People can get trampled in a stampede.
Suddenly the huge crowd let out a roar. The swastika had been pulled down! We all rejoiced, not knowing that six of our heroes were still aboard, being beaten by the police. Goebbels blamed Mayor Fiorello La Guardia for not sending enough police. La Guardia responded to the request for guards at the German consulate by sending ten Jewish police and detectives. When the seamen who pulled down the swastika came to trial, Congressman Vito Marcantonio, the progressive, defended them in court. I heard both Mayor La Guardia and Marcantonio speak many times. They had similar styles. They started out in low, slow tones and ended up in rapid, fiery deliveries. I was always afraid they would have a heart attack as they wound up their speeches, waving their hands, getting red in the face and almost frothing at the mouth. I loved them both.
The last time I sustained a movement arrest, I was all by myself. In the summers I often sold the Daily Worker in public places. One likely spot was the entrance to the main New York Public Library. Talking to a potential reader one day, I walked up the steps with him to the library entrance. One of New York's finest came rushing over and arrested me for "peddling on park property." This time I did not see the inside of a jail cell; I just posted my ten dollar bond. It seemed too small a case to bother the International Labor Defense (ILD). I could have just paid the fine, but I wanted to defend the principal of free speech. So I showed up for the "trial." Case was dismissed and I got my bond back.
Bus Girl at the Automat
In the summer of 1936,1 worked as a bus girl in the automat, also known as Horn and Hardart. "A coin-operated glass-and-chrome wonder," was the description I found on the Internet. You put in your coins, turned the lever, opened the glass door and removed your fresh meal. That eliminated waiting time
21 *
but it also eliminated waiters. However, low-paid labor, like me, was still needed to clear the tables and "bus" the dirty dishes.
I have a vivid memory of being unable to sleep all night after coming home from my first day's work at the automat. After my first day at the Eby Factory, I kept assembling radio tube sockets in my sleep. It was much the same after day one at the automat. I got into bed at night and fell asleep. It was an uneasy sleep. I had vivid dreams of carrying glasses of water to the tables and of carrying away the dirty dishes. And it has been the same for me on every one of the many jobs I had after the automat. After the first day at a new job, scenes from the job kept floating through my dreams. Probably the reader has had similar experiences.
Busing dishes was a simple job; no college education needed. However, I did receive some useful on-the-job instruction. "Your legs are stronger than your arms," I was told. "Don't load up your trays too high. Just make more trips." I disregarded that good advice one day when the pressure became extra-heavy. We were always understaffed.
I could not see over my tray because it was stacked sky-high with dishes and glasses. So I did not see the watermelon seed under my foot. Or perhaps it was a piece of watermelon. As I stepped on the mess, my foot slipped back. The dishes and glasses, however, kept moving forward. They made the loudest crash. A sudden hush silenced the lunchtime crowd. No, I had not dropped my tray. In fact, two dishes were still on the tray. Devastated by the catastrophe, I thought, "What's the use!" and let the tray and the two dishes drop. My supervisor came running out. To my surprise, he gently led me to the back. The lunchtime din quickly resumed.
No, I was not fired. Perhaps I would have been better off. I probably gained ten pounds that summer eating all the free pie and ice cream I could stuff. By the end of the summer, my feet broke down at their weak point, my arches. And ever since, I have looked like an orphan around my feet, to use my husband Frank's expression. That was his apt description of my orthopedic shoes. On the good side, however, that job allowed me to hear the only compliment about my looks I ever heard—except, of course, from boyfriends or husbands. And they were prejudiced. As I was bustling about, I heard an older female customer say, "They have such beautiful girls here." She did make that plural but I chose to take it personally.
The other good thing that I learned was to carry several glasses of water to a table without putting my fingers into the glasses. It was a customer, not a supervisor, who taught me that. I proudly brought him four tall glasses of water, carrying two in each hand. To hold them by the rims, I had a thumb inside one glass and two fingers in the other glass. "Now that you've put your fingers in them," he said, "you might as well take a bath in it." Well, there are all kinds of sanitation standards. My standards were instantly elevated. Someone had to teach me.
Langston Hughes
My last years at Hunter College were in the big time, the main campus at 68th Street and Park Avenue. I fondly remember the glorious experience of hearing a lecture by the poet, Langston Hughes. What I remember of his talk are his funny stories, his contagious smile and his dashing good looks. Hughes had just returned from a writers' conference in Republican Spain. That was during the Spanish Civil War. We hung on every word of his report. Hughes had also visited and worked in the Soviet Union. That was in their early days of building socialism. In 1953, Hughes was hauled before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy. He told them that he was not a Communist. I bet Hughes, like Galileo, never gave up his beliefs. Galileo is said to have affirmed on his death bed, "But the earth does turn!" I think Hughes knew that capitalism does not work for us and that socialism is the future of humanity.
I was able to pass my social science courses at Hunter with a minimum outlay of time. Thanks to the Marxism I had studied, my classes were easy. But I could not cut classes. Hunter College was free but
more than three unexcused absences and you were put out of the school. Fortunately, most professors covered the course material in class; I needed to do little more than listen intently and take notes. In my history and economic courses, I am afraid that I provoked a lot of discussion. Unfortunately, a couple of my professors took the heated debate personally. My economics teacher became very upset. I was sorry because I truly respected her. I knew my grade would be either an A or an F. It was an A.
One physics teacher, in a course misnamed "Modern Physics," was sadly out of date. She was describing the vacuum far out in space, a vacuum she said was "truly devoid of matter." Marxists are materialists and believe matter/energy in motion or change is fundamental. So I raised my hand to ask, "Could you have the hole in the doughnut without the doughnut around the hole?" My teacher shouted her reply. "I will not have the existence of God questioned in my class!" I was flabbergasted. To her credit, my teacher knew exactly where I was going. Of course, today we know that space is chock full of radiation, magnetic fields and other cosmic stuff.
Although I never cut class, my academic work was just a sideshow to the social activism that stirred the student body. Since 1933, the Nazis had controlled Germany. War clouds gathered and hung low as Mussolini's troops invaded Ethiopia in 1935.1 remember walking in a huge protest march in Harlem. "Hands off Ethiopia!" we shouted. The next year, fascist generals began a war against the elected government of Spain. On campus, we organized a Conference against War and Fascism to rally support for Ethiopia and Republican Spain. At that time, Hunter College was restricted to women. It was hard not to notice the small army of male detectives who invaded our campus. The police showing was probably intended to intimidate students, not ferret out information. Everything we did was public. We issued the slogan, "Keep the dicks off campus." The conference itself was very successful and well attended. However, it was followed by the usual repression. Once again, I was kicked out of school, suspended. My crime? Organizing a Conference against War and Fascism!
Make Madrid the Tomb of Fascism!
The plight of democratic Spain had grabbed our hearts. We hung on the reports of each town that was in the headlines, Guernica, Madrid, Teruel. If I had been a boy, I would probably have gone to Spain to fight. Over 3,000 from the United States went to Spain as volunteers to stop the fascist tide. They joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a part of the international brigades of anti-fascist volunteers. Half never came back. They lie buried in the soil of Spain, including some of my best friends.
It was hard to bear the loss of my buddy, Jack Freeman, a mathematics whiz on the New York city wide mathematics team. As high school students, Jack and I spent a lot of time together, solving really hard geometry problems. Sometimes we rode the subway line from end to end, absorbed in a problem. At 17, Jack went to fight against fascism in Spain. I never saw him again. Jack was one of the 1500 Abraham Lincoln Brigade volunteers who fell to fascist fire.
I remember walking with Paul Siegel one evening long ago. I can still smell the fragrance of the privet hedges, then in bloom. Paul had just graduated from New York University with an engineering degree. "What are your plans, now?" I asked. "I'm going to Spain to fight the fascists," he replied. He went to Spain in June 1937 and was killed four months later.
I had a lot of respect for Wilfred Mendelson, a young Communist leader of the National Student League. At 21, four years older than me, he was a brilliant leader. The day he arrived in Spain, he got a rifle and went to the front lines. That was also the day he died. He had never held a gun before in his life.
My friends died in the noblest of causes. I truly believe that World War II could have been prevented had the U.S. allowed the legally elected government of Spain to buy arms. Instead, the U.S., Britain and France clapped an arms embargo against the Spanish government when General Franco attacked. While the legitimate government of Spain was not allowed to buy arms to defend itself, the Nazis shipped huge quantities of arms to Franco. With the aid of the German Nazis and the Italian fascists, Franco won the war in Spain.
23 *
I think the Western Powers bear some of the responsibility for the victory of fascism in Spain. Soviet ships tried to bring military supplies to the Spanish government. But German and Italian bombers blew most of the ships out of the water. Franco's victory paved the way for World War II with its frightful loss of 100 million lives. We would be living in a much, much better world today if the United States, France and England had supported the elected Republican government of Spain. But they were blinded to the fascist danger by anti-Communism and the desire to overthrow Socialism in the USSR.
The summer after the Hunter College Conference against War and Fascism, I went to work as a volunteer organizer for the laundry workers and left school. That was a turning point in my life, as I will describe later. But I was still just 19, and the weekends were mostly free. The union had dances, and the athletic lindy-hop was in fashion. I burned up a lot of nervous energy on the dance floor. And whenever I got the chance, I hit the hiking trails.
After the laundry workers' organizing drive, I went back to school. But my interests were elsewhere. I was never intensely active in the student movement again. I finished my degree (history/political science) and retained my interest in science. When jobs opened for military production for World War II, I began to work in electronics. To get more background for the job, I took an electrical engineering course in "AC Circuit Analysis" at a city college. Women were allowed to take evening courses there although the day program remained off limits to females. Had women been allowed to enroll, I would have gone there in the first place.
The rest of my formal education, scattered over the years as a part-time student, was in mathematics and science. My informal education, gained in the workers' struggle through the Young Communist League and the Communist Party USA, has been most valuable. A lot of what I learned I must credit to my husband Frank. He did not get past ninth grade. But self-study, reading the Marxist classics and a world of experience gave him a broad education.
At the beginning of this chapter, I described a visit to the picket line of the striking textile workers in 1929.1 end this chapter with a poem that gives the essence of what that strike was about. The song was written by martyred Ella May Wiggins (1900-1929), murdered on her way to the picket line. A sister textile striker sang it at her funeral. The poem describes, better than prose, what life was like for many workers before the unions gained strength.
The Mill Mothers' Song
We leave our home in the morning,
We kiss our children good bye, While we slave for the bosses, Our children scream and cry.
And when we draw our money, Our grocery bills to pay, Not a cent to spend for clothing, Not a cent to lay away.
And on that very evening, Our little son will say, "I need some shoes, dear mother And so does sister May."
How it grieves the heart of a mother, You every one must know, But we can't buy for our children, Our wages are too low.
Now listen to the workers Both women and you men Let's win for them the victory I'm sure 'twill be no sin.
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My New Year Poem in Yiddish
Go Back to Top
25 *
3. Mama - Laundry Worker and Poet
Mother invested some of her dreams in me.
On legal documents she was named Dora. Perhaps that's how "Ruh-deh," Mama's Hebrew name, sounded to immigration officials at Ellis Island. Many a family ended up with anglicized names after coming through Ellis Island.
My mother was substantial. She was short, heavy and with a lap and arms big enough to hold my baby brother and me. She had large black eyes, ample black hair and a face that was pale, as I remember. Relatives told me that she had been a beauty in her youth. No doubt she once had glowing cheeks. I think of her pale face and the slightly mocking, deeply tragic song about the immigrant girl, "My Cousin, the Greenhorn."
According to the song, this young, East European Jewish immigrant came to New York expecting to find "gold in the streets." In the song, she arrived with "cheeks red as an apple and feet that loved to dance." Instead of gold, she found poverty and killing labor in the garment sweatshops. The roses faded from her cheeks, and her feet lost their spring as she prematurely aged. The song ends, "Well my green cousin, how do you like this golden country now?"
In Yiddish it rhymes. It sounded something like, "Meine greene koozineh, vee gleichst du die goldene medineh?"
Always Working
My mother always worked, as did many of the women in our working class neighborhood of Southern Boulevard in the East Bronx. Most of our neighbors worked in the garment district of New York City. By the time I was born (1918), they had won union protection. Mama started working in the needle trades soon after coming to the United States in 1906. That was before the union. As described earlier, Mama left her job at Triangle Shirtwaist just a few months before the horrible fire of March 25, 1911. No doubt she had friends among the 145 women who were killed, either burned in the fire or jumped to their death from eighth floor windows. The company owners had locked the exit doors. I had heard it was to keep the union organizers out.
As a child, I never knew a time when my mother was not working. After my brother Max was born, my mother did not go back to work in the factory. Instead she did the fine washing and ironing in my parents' small store, a hand laundry. She did the hand wash, starched and stretched curtains, and hand ironed, especially dress shirts. The store also had a small mangle to iron small, flat pieces. All of this work required standing. I was dismayed and felt helpless when I watched my mother do her daily routine of wrapping her swollen legs with a long, continuous bandage. The varicose veins would pop up and look as though they might burst. I believed my mother's swollen legs were painful, but I never heard her complain. It was just something she felt she had to do: stand all day on her feet, iron shirts and ignore the pain.
Mother invested some of her dreams in me. "You will be a writer," she urged, and gave me a notebook to carry around so I could record my pearls of wisdom, if any. My mother had to give up on her first choice for my career, music. I did not succeed in convincing my mother that there was no hope for me in music. My cousin, the piano teacher, did. My mother loved to sing and had a very pleasant voice. As a cancer patient in the city hospital, she cheered up the whole ward by singing as she lay in bed. As it turned out, I inherited my father's voice.
I had no strong feelings either way about becoming a writer. I entered essay contests and actually won a medal. It was something about "Safeguarding the Home against Fire." Writing essays was OK but it did not move me. Science moved me. What I really wanted was a microscope. After a while the seldom-used piano disappeared from our apartment, but I never did get that microscope. Over these many years, I
never lost my passion for science. But I did not become a scientist. The Great Depression made that almost impossible. Besides, my urgent commitment to the labor movement took precedence.
Mama, the Poet
My mother's influence left me with a deep respect for culture. She wrote poetry in Yiddish and encouraged me to write. Under her influence, I did write some Yiddish poems. As for music, the public schools convinced me that I could never sing and that everybody else would be better off if I did not try. Starting with third or fourth grade, the class was divided into "singers" and "listeners." There were about two rows of listeners, 30-40 percent of the class. We were instructed to move our lips in sync with the words of the songs but never, never, to let a sound escape from our throats. Years later, I picked up courage to sing our movement songs in large crowds. There, the roar of many voices could drown out my out-of-tune notes. It was a personal loss to me when mass public singing went out of style. I suspect it was also a great loss to the movement. Nothing else boosts morale like a militant song voiced by the multitude.
Yiddish was my parents' first language. They often spoke to us in Yiddish, but we replied in English. If they did not want us to understand, they spoke in Russian. I was the only one of the children in my family who was sent to an after-school Yiddish school to learn to read and write. But I was never really fluent. Still, two of my earliest poems were in Yiddish. I believe my mother inspired these poems, to say the least. The thoughts may have been a bit mature for a nine-year old. They went something like this, roughly translated:
Ring In the New Year
Cling Clang, Cling Clang,
Ring in the New Year
A year that is new, a year that is free
From war and slavery
Sacco and Vanzetti
Sacco and Vanzetti are dead,
We sing at their gravesides, They hear us! We promise them To take revenge for their deaths.
The tone was a bit different from the English language poem I wrote, at age nine, for a newspaper column called, "Cousin Eleanor's Corner." I suspect my mother did not help me with this one:
Once I saw a little house
And in it was a little mouse
Then I saw a butterfly's wing
And I heard a blue bird sing.
Independent Thinking
Mama taught me to think for myself and not to believe everything I heard or read. I grew up believing there were two sides to most issues. On one side there were working people like us. On the other side were rich people who lived off the workers' labor, just as kings of old lived off the serfs. My parents never became U.S. citizens and were not members of any political party. However, they supported all the progressive causes of their day. My mother was active in the Jewish section of the International Workers Order (IWO), a secular left-wing, fraternal organization that provided burial insurance. Sometimes she would go door to door and solicit more members for the IWO. I went along and got my first experience in doorbell ringing for a cause.
* 27 *
One Saturday, on the Jewish Sabbath, I was chalking a hopscotch game on the sidewalk. Some children from Orthodox Jewish families came over and began to taunt me. Orthodox Jews believe that work of any kind, even writing or lighting a fire, is forbidden on the Sabbath. "That's a sin," the children squealed, each time I drew a line on the sidewalk. But I had already started to draw the boxes so I continued. "It's a sin! It's a sin!" my little tormenters yelled with each of my strokes. After I accumulated about twenty such sins, I could take it no longer and ran inside to Mama. "When I grow up I'm going to be very religious!" I declared. "All right," Mama replied in a calm even tone. Her willingness to accept my decision took the wind out of my sails and I lost interest in the subject.
There were books in our apartment, even some in English. I often saw my parents read. I grew up thinking that reading was a normal way to spend time. If I was deep into a book, I did not want to quit at bedtime but did turn off my reading light. Then, when I thought everyone was asleep, I would pick up my book and creep out into the hallway. There, crouched under a dim night light, I would finish my book. One night my mother caught me in the act and told me that she did that, too, as a child. "That's what ruined my eyes," she said, pointing to her glasses. I did not want to ruin my eyes. But once in a while, when the book was too fascinating, I could not resist the temptation. "Just this once," I would say, and went back to my old ways of reading under the dim hall light.
Traditional Meals
After a hard day's work, my mother would return home to cook and clean. The only part of housework that she was spared was the laundry. Sunday was her only day off. I should say, "Off from the laundry." In fact, my mother spent half of Sunday cooking the dinner. The meal always included soup, even though we kids used to turn up our nose and pass on the soup. Today these soups are considered gourmet fare such as beet borscht with sour cream, stchav (sour spinach soup) with sour cream, mushroom barley soup, sweet and sour cabbage soup, chicken and matzo balls and more.
The traditional meat and side dishes came next. It may have been brisket of beef or roast chicken or lamb chops with kasha (buckwheat), potatoes, tsimmes (sweet sticky carrot hash) and salad. This was all topped off with homemade bread pudding or noodle pudding and of course, my mother's wonderful almond "bread" and sponge cakes.
Sometimes Mama asked me to mix the sponge cake batter. I usually had the job of mixing the egg yolks and sugar. This was in the days before electric mixers. It was beat, beat, beat, for many minutes until I thought it was ready. "No, beat it some more," was her usual answer. I thought I was beating forever until Mama gave me the OK. I thought of that the other day when my electric beaters burned out. Then I remembered that we used to mix by hand. Forget it! After a couple minutes I asked my grandson to take over. I will admit that was the last cake I baked until I got another electric mixer.
Memories of my mother are intertwined with all the little comforts of life. First of all was warmth. Besides the reassuring warmth of her plump embrace, the warmth she created helped me survive when the landlord turned off the heat at night. Mama put bricks to heat in the oven for us. When they were good and hot, she took them out, wrapped one in a blanket, and put it under the covers at the foot of my bed. That, and thick quilts kept us warm at night. In the morning, it was still cold in the apartment when it was time to get dressed for school. Mama let me get dressed under the covers. Somehow I managed to put on one piece after the other, while still under the blankets in the warmth of my bed.
I never succeeded in convincing my mother to skip cooking a big Sunday dinner. I wanted to go to the beach for the day, instead of just a few hours in the afternoon. I am sure that my dislike of housework goes back to those days. I probably was only of marginal help to my mother. Of course, the boys were not expected to do any housework.
*28 *
Sick and Poor
When I was 14, my life changed; the whole family was thrust into crisis. It was 1932, the bottom of the Great Depression. The Depression was pushing my parent's laundry store to extinction. Fewer and fewer people could afford to send their laundry out. Papa quarreled with Mama about the bills. Instead of paying the bills owed to the big commercial laundries, Mama used the small remaining income to buy food for the family. To my father, it was a matter of honor to pay his bills. For my mother, feeding her kids came first.
One day at the kitchen table my father had a stroke. We were all at the table when it happened. At first we thought he was joking as he often did. Then he quit acting funny and fell. Mama jumped up and ran to his side. I realized that something terrible had happened. The next things I remember are the visits to the hospital and Papa talking funny. One side of his face was twisted and he could not talk right. He had another stroke a few days later. Then he began the slow process of recovery. The strokes put the finishing touches to the laundry store. Or perhaps the store closed first and the strokes soon followed. Either way, I was sure that stress, brought on by the Great Depression, caused my father's illness. Nothing in the family was ever the same after my father's stroke.
My family went on "home relief." In the years that followed, deepening poverty, fencing with social workers and visits to hospital wards became my way of life. After his strokes, my father became hard to deal with, at least for my mother. I don't remember that it spilled over to his dealings with us kids. My mother was very patient but it did bother her. At that time I had been reading feminist literature and was very sensitive to the suffering of women. "Why don't you leave him?" I asked Mama. "He was never like this before he got sick," she replied. That made me back down a bit from my militant feminist stance. Many years later I learned that strokes often create personality changes, at least in the short term.
As time went by, Papa got better. By that time, Mama was very sick. After radical surgery for colorectal cancer, she had a period of recovery. Then the cancer spread to her lungs. With both parents sick, I had to fill in as household manager and a sometime cook and cleaning woman. My father's strokes were sudden and severe. But he did not spend many days in the hospital, at most two weeks. The slow-killing cancer that took my mother's life was different.
I made daily visits to her hospital ward over a period of months for each recurrence of the cancer. As far as I know, she got decent care. No doubt there was better treatment available to those who had money. Near the end, Mama told me that the bird of death sat in the tree, waiting for her. She was not afraid, she said. She added that she was not worried about me because I was so independent. But she was worried about my brother Lenny who was only 15 at the time.
I was 19 when my mother died. I took it very bravely, but I never got over it. In later years, as I earned more, I felt bad that I had not been able to "do anything" for my mother. But my father lived to be 92, and I did not do that much for him. Now that I am old, I realize that is the way of life. The greatest thing children can "do" for parents is to stand on their own feet and to live a good life.
Our Family Fell Apart
After Mama's death, our family fell apart. As soon as my younger brother became 16, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). They sent him out west to work in the woods. My father moved to a furnished room. My older brother, Max, had moved out of our apartment before Mama died. He moved out because our apartment door was never locked. I think the key had been lost, and my parents were not well enough to manage to get another key. Except for Max's clothing, we did not have anything anyone would want to steal. Max got tired of thieves stealing his clothes so he moved to our aunt's apartment. She kept her door locked. Max was the only member of the family with a wardrobe worth anything. Whatever he could earn from odd jobs went on his back. You could say it was an investment in his future. Max did become a respected salesman of men's clothes.
I found thefts were even worse when I went back to the old neighborhood in the 1960s. I was told that stoves, plumbing fixtures, even linoleum on the floors were stolen from apartments in the neighborhood. We thought during the 1930s Depression that things could not get worse. Evidently conditions in East Bronx became even more desperate for some of the new immigrants who replaced the Jewish immigrants.
When my father gave up our apartment, I moved to an apartment that I shared with my boyfriend, Butch. For forty years after my mother's death I continued to have "wish-fulfillment" dreams. In these dreams, my mother was still alive and I was so happy because I was able to help her. In real life, I could not "do anything for my mother" since she died before I made a living wage. Mama did a lot for me and set me on a path that brought me a lot of joy, struggle and fulfillment. But I could not be as unselfish as she had been in total dedication to her family, with no thought of her own welfare.
Somehow, I think that my mother wanted me to chart a different course. And I tried. I did not become a singer as she had hoped. As Paul Lawrence Dunbar's poem put it, and he could have been writing about me:
You ain't got de nat'ral o'gans Fu' to make de soun' come right.
Nor did I become a nurse, as Mama had wanted for herself. But I did have the chance to spend many joyful years in the workers' struggles for peace and justice.
Leaving the Ghetto
It was not easy to leave the old neighborhood. In many ways, it was a traumatic experience. I suppose the process started when I dated Butch (Kenneth), my first boyfriend. He came from a German-Irish Catholic family, or perhaps I should say, Irish-German. He and I were conscious of our cultural differences. Probably part of the difference was between immigrant and native-born backgrounds of our parents. These differences did not affect our relationship. We had too much in common as supporters of the labor and the Communist movements. But I felt that I did not know "how to act" in the "Christian" world. In that sense, I felt "inferior."
For example, Butch and I were seated with some of his fellow commercial artists. He introduced me and the men stood up. So I stood up, too. Later Butch informed me that men, but not women, needed to stand for an introduction. That sounds funny, even as I write it today. I also learned that men are supposed to walk on the street side of the sidewalk, women on the inner side. Nobody seemed to know the origin of that custom. Some suggested it was to shield the woman from garbage thrown out of the window, a practice of the "olden" days. Or was the man acting as a shield against mud splattered from the street? Of course we were used to different foods, but that was no problem. I had failed to appreciate my family's ethnic food and did not come to love it until later years. His family's leg of lamb and white potatoes were OK, but just OK. Food was not a big issue for me then.
Looking back, I think I understand now what I lost when I left the ghetto. Inside the ghetto, everybody had the same cultural and class background. There was protection in that sameness. It was not a matter of religion because many were non-believers. Still, leaving the ghetto meant going out into the "Christian-majority world." In my neighborhood in the 1920s and '30s, memories were still strong of the Russian Czar's pogroms against the Jews. Persecution of the Jews was associated with the Christians' religion and their symbol, the cross. Because of this history, it was years before I could feel comfortable in a Christian church.
Of course, I often left the confines of the ghetto when I took my long walks as a pre-teen and early teenager. But I could always return to the safety of the ghetto. Some of my walks took me to a Turkic neighborhood. I was pleased when a food vendor spoke to me in Turkish, or at least I thought it was Turkish. In other areas, more than one woman came up to me asking for directions in Italian. I wish I could have replied in their language. But when I walked south to an Irish neighborhood, I never thought I was taken to be local. I have one hurtful memory when I had to literally run back to my neighborhood to get away from my tormenters.
On that day, on what was probably my last solo walk to the South Bronx, a group of boys my age began to follow me. They yelled anti-Semitic slurs. I quickened my pace and they quickened theirs. I was afraid to break into a run for fear of showing my fear. Then one, or another, ran up to me, stuck their finger into my dress to my rectum. I was more humiliated than scared. Although I walked very, very fast, I could not shake my tormenters. This torture went on for several blocks, until I was close to my own neighborhood. I was so humiliated, that I never mentioned the assault, not for 80 years. Now that I have survived nine decades, I can express my anger on my own behalf. But I also feel anguished for that little girl of long ago who was harassed by my friends for wearing a cross as I stood by and said nothing.
In our community, there was some divisive thinking that I learned to reject. I had not been raised to think of Jews as "chosen people" in a religious sense. My parents were not believers or Zionists. But many of our neighbors swallowed the falsehood that Jewish students were "smarter." It was something like the current claim that East Asian students are more gifted in mathematics. Any claim for superiority went counter to my mother's teaching of equality. I am convinced that there is no difference in natural ability among communities. Rather, more opportunities, higher expectations and harder work produce higher student scores.
On the positive side, I remember that most in the East Bronx ghetto of the 1930s were progressive. A significant number were revolutionaries who supported the Communist Party or the Socialist Party. The big split over Zionism came later, when Jews in Palestine established the State of Israel in 1948.
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4. Papa in the Revolution of 1905
Where Mama was cautious, Papa was daring.
My Parents, Dora (Ruhdeh) and Morris (Avrom) Shapiro
There is a famous scene in the classic Eisenstein movie, Potemkin. It takes place in the Ukrainian city of Odessa during the 1905 Russian Revolution. Czarist soldiers fire into a peaceful crowd of protesters. As the workers flee with their wounded, a baby carriage starts rolling down a long series of steps to the sea. The carriage picks up speed, and the baby inside the carriage begins to scream. The scene tears your heart out
My father was there! At least he was in that struggle. Papa took part in the 1905 Revolution in Odessa and in his hometown of Bobruisk in Byelorussia. The 1905 Revolution was defeated. Papa ended up in a Czarist jail. Both he and my mother had been members of the Jewish Bund, a socialist organization. At that time, they were engaged. An older cousin told me the story after I was grown. My father confirmed the story but had never seen a reason to share it with his children.
It was rare for East European Jews to own firearms. My father, Avrom Hirschenhorn, owned two pistols. He was also ready to use them. To illustrate how daring a man my father was, my cousin said that Papa fired through the kitchen door for target practice. It was never clear to me whether the door was open or closed. I also learned that my father had taken an unthinkable step to avoid the Russian Army draft. He deliberately punctured his ear drum, or otherwise destroyed most of the hearing in one ear. That seemed like an extreme measure, to me. I assumed that the draft was for two or three years, perhaps not
worth a loss of hearing. I have since learned that a soldier drafted into the Czarist Army could be gone for as long as 25 years. That was like losing a lifetime of work. No wonder people rose up in revolution.
During the Russian Revolution of 1905, the Czar used mounted Cossacks to put down the workers. My father was among a group of Jewish revolutionaries who were meeting inside a synagogue. The Cossacks broke into the synagogue on horseback and began shooting. Avrom (my father) returned the fire. He was knocked down and a horse stepped on his mouth. My father was left with a mouthful of broken teeth. All the survivors of the raid, including my father, were thrown into jail.
Mama, front left, with servants 'strike committee, Byelorussia, 1905
Every week, the prisoners were hauled before the judge. Some were sentenced. Others, like my father, were sent back to the holding jail. This went on week after week. When Avrom Hirschenhorn came before the judge, the judge said, "Throw that one back." He was never charged or tried and it was clear that the judge intended to let him rot in jail. Meanwhile, the Bund had reorganized and worked underground. They decided to save Avrom by busting him out of jail. That's where my mother, then father's fiancee, played a big role. She baked a cake containing a note giving my father the details of the escape plan, which involved his regular trip to the dentist in town. During the night, the outhouse in the dentist's yard, was lifted up and moved against the fence of the neighbor's yard. Then the wood slats of the outhouse and the touching slats of the neighbor's fence were loosened. My father was to ask to use the outhouse, remove the loosened slats, and escape through the neighbor's yard.
The next day, my father was taken to the town dentist for treatment of his broken teeth. Many spectators came out to watch the "big" military operation. It took six soldiers to safeguard the "desperado." Two soldiers marched on either side of my father; another marched in front and one in back. When they reached the dentist's house, my father declared an urgent need to use the outhouse. Two soldiers escorted him to the outhouse but kept the door open. "I can't go with the door open," my father told them. "All right, close the door but be quick," the soldiers replied. The door closed, my father removed the loose slats, slipped out into the neighbor's yard and ran to the street. A droshky (horse-drawn cab) was waiting and whisked my father to a safe house. Some days later, my father started on his trip to
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the port city. He had a boat ticket to America and a passport in the name of Morris Shapiro. Avrom Hirschenhorn was going to the New World, to a new life with a new name!
The New Shapiro Family
Soon after his arrival in New York, the Socialist Labor Party contacted Avrom Hirschenhorn, known as Morris Shapiro in New York. They offered him a job as an organizer. My father declined. Now that he was in America, his plan was to start a business and make money. About a year later, my mother rejoined her sweetheart, and they married in New York City. At first, both he and my mother worked in needle trades factories. Then my father went into "business." Unfortunately for the family, the trade he chose was laundry. It was hard physical work for little money. Avrom, as he was still called by his friends, remained an intellectual force in the leftist Jewish community. It was my mother who was willing to do the "Jane Higgins" work for progressive organizations. (Jimmy Higgins was the typical rank and file worker who did the "grunt" work.) Mama worked with the Jewish section of the International Workers Order (IWO) and remained active in community work.
My father was always a very big influence in my life. But in some ways, he was unapproachable. In my early school days, I did a lot of erasing. That was partly due to the trouble I had trying to learn to write neatly. (I never did learn.) In arithmetic I just kept making errors and had to erase until I found the "correct" answer. As I remember it clearly, my father lived to a higher standard.
"See the eraser on my pencil?" he said, one day. The eraser looked new, unused, and perfectly clean. "That's because I don't make mistakes," he added. I don't remember that he laughed when he said that. If it was a joke, I missed it. The eraser on my pencil was worn down from frequent use and smudged. I tried to turn over a new leaf and follow my father's example. But I had to give that up. I kept making mistakes and had to use my eraser again. I had to accept that I just did not have the same intellectual gifts Papa took for granted. So I stayed away from the games in which he excelled: checkers and various card games. Plenty of other pursuits interested me, even some of my schoolwork. When I won various awards my father was very proud. He even kissed me when I received a medal for scholarship. I was moved because he was not given to shows of affection.
On another level, Papa was a lot of fun. He sent us into spasms of laughter by dressing up as a monster with face full of shaving cream and chasing us around the house. We knew the monster was really Papa. Still it was fun and a little scary too, like monsters are supposed to be. He and my little brother Lenny went up on a Ferris wheel while my mother and I waited below. The wheel stopped with them at the top. "Catch this," he yelled as he threw down a package of cigarettes. (I assume the package was empty.) I thought that was hilarious. If we wanted to swim, he would go with us. I remember that he stayed with me in the shallow water while I played and splashed around. Then he asked if I minded if he went out into the deep water to swim. I realized then that he had stayed in the shallow water, just for me. I appreciated his sacrifice.
Papa, the Risk Taker
Where Mama was cautious, Papa was daring. I always admired my father for his willingness to take risks, even if it put us in danger more than once. Thanks to Papa's daring spirit, I had my first vehicle crash at the age often. We lived in a hilly area of the Bronx. A series of hills, all nicely paved of course, provided extra thrills for us roller skaters and sled riders. One day I was standing at the top of one of these hills when my father came along with a loaded pushcart full of finished laundry. I was on my skates and begged to be allowed to push the cart. "I'll be careful," I promised, at the top of the hill. Well, gravity took over. With minimal rolling friction to slow us down, the cart and I were accelerating, picking up momentum. I was panicking but I did not let go of the cart as we neared the corner. At the corner, on the street side of the walk, mothers were sitting with their baby carriages. I had to stop somehow. There were store windows on the other side of the walk. I made a quick choice and headed for the glass. A huge plate
glass window (or two) shattered with a horrible noise. I felt shattered, too. Who was going to pay for the window(s)?
I was never scolded for the accident, maybe because it was so horrible. Hopefully there was insurance to cover the cost of replacing the glass. Much as I loved science, it was a hard lesson in the laws of mechanics.
Papa, the Brain
Papa had the reputation in the community, or at least in the extended family, of being a "brain." In the "old country," he had studied in rabbinical school. That was the only higher education open to a Jew in a small town in Czarist Russia. Papa quit before he graduated. I think he realized that he did not believe in the supernatural. Neither he nor my mother practiced the religion. But he was well versed in the Hebrew language of the Bible. I noticed the contradiction when he was called to read the Bible at family Seders on the Jewish Passover. He read the Hebrew text so well. It brought tears into the eyes of the older people. Yet he was at the table bareheaded and would not wear a yarmulke (skullcap), as required by religious custom.
My brothers and I also sat at the Passover table with our parents and relatives. What we children believed in terms of religion was left up to us. I remember some of us dropping off to sleep because on this special occasion we were allowed to sip the wine. As much as I tried, I could not keep my eyelids open after drinking half a cup of sweet wine.
I had some fear of the supernatural, even though I did not really believe in ghosts. A glass of wine was set on the Passover table for the prophet Elijah. Some swore they saw the wine level drop in Elijah's glass. Others felt the touch of the angel's wings as he passed. I certainly accepted the official story of the Exodus and rejoiced in the Jewish escape from slavery. I still rejoice in any story with an anti-slavery theme. In later years I learned a different view of the Jewish residence in Egypt. For this view, I must credit an Egyptologist friend, Frank Yurco. As he put it, the Jews came into Egypt as small bands of shepherds, poor, hungry and mostly illiterate. They left a few hundred years later numbering in the thousands, prosperous, well fed and educated.
Religion was not a big issue for us as I was growing up. Most in my neighborhood were Orthodox Jews. But my parents were not unique in not believing. Many others, especially among the Socialist or Communist sympathizers, had also left the Jewish religion. I believe that split took place in Europe, before they came to the U.S. When I was about nine, an older relative took me aside, to ask me if I prayed. Truthfully, I answered, "No." Then my cousin told me that my mother used to pray until she met my father. I was very uncomfortable with the whole conversation. I especially did not like her attempt to introduce a split between my parents. I always thought of my parents as a team, pulling in the same direction.
Some of my parents' friends were militant atheists. On some high holidays, such as Passover, they would hold an "anti-holiday," such as an "anti-Seder." One friend told me her father would send her out with a ham sandwich, to mock those who were strictly kosher. Also, some of my mother's friends talked about a woman who bencht licht, prayed over candles on a Menorah. They pitied her as lost to superstition. Happily for me, that was not my parents' attitude. They thought religion was a private matter. In later years, I rejected the idea of holding an "anti-Seder" as repulsively sectarian. But then, I never suffered in the "old country" at the hands of a Czar who murdered Jews in the name of religion. Besides, I never met a holiday that I did not like. I stayed out of school on Jewish holidays and every other possible holiday.
Back to the story of my father: one aspect of my father's "braininess" was his ability to solve mathematical puzzles. I regret that I never found out how he solved the puzzles. Papa never had a class in
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algebra. He solved puzzles without "algebra" and without using paper and pencil. Once or twice he explained his method but I did not get it. I could solve the puzzles only by writing and solving a lot of equations. Papa just "talked it through."
When he was 87 years old, I gave him a problem to solve. We were riding a noisy subway train so I had to almost shout in his ear (the good ear). It was a puzzle I had tried to solve when I worked at Knight Electronics. The puzzle drove me crazy for a couple of days and I gave up. I allowed friends to give me the solution. Of course, my father never gave up. The train had passed only a few stations when he gave me the solution. It was correct! Amazed, I told him how smart I thought he was. "Oh, that's nothing, he replied. "I could be much smarter," he continued, "but I don't want to bother."
The solution to that puzzle required "thinking outside of the box." It was similar to a game played by the Kpelle of Liberia. They were "thinking outside of the box" hundreds of years before the expression became fashionable. The puzzle started with twelve ping pong balls and a two-pan balance, the type the blindfolded Lady of Justice holds. The balls appear identical but one has a different weight. In three weighings, one must find the different ball and whether it's lighter or heavier than the others. The Kpelle had to rearrange their stones to win their game. That was also the key to solving my problem. The ping pong balls had to be rearranged on the second weighing.
Hand Laundry Store Owners
Before I entered high school and became "too busy," my father took me to a lot of places. He even let me go with him to his business meetings. The hand laundry storeowners had an association. Perhaps they negotiated prices with the big steam laundries. All I remember of the meetings is that the attendance was mostly, if not entirely, men. The sessions always lasted longer than I wanted to stay. The meetings were held at night, after store hours. I am sure I provided a ready-made excuse anytime Papa wanted to leave the meeting early. I used to get sleepy and ask to go home. Often he said he had to stay just a little longer. Looking back, it was probably an educational experience for me. If nothing else, it gave me the idea that people faced with similar problems could pool their strength and organize.
In reality, the store owners were little more than employees of the large steam laundries. The large laundry owners made all the money and the small store "owners" and laundry workers did all the work. After many years, I heard my parents calculate how much they would have earned if they had worked at a factory job for the same number of years. It was more money than they had made in their "business," doing hard, physical labor. That family experience instilled in me a lasting fear of starting a small business. Many workers still have the dream of starting their own business to escape from the exploitation and insecurity of working for a boss. Whenever that issue came up with Frank and me in later years, I did my best to kill it. It did not matter whether the proposal was for a gas station and car repair, or a tavern. However, my middle son did not "listen" and went ahead to build a small, environmental science company. On the books, he is a big success. Still, I wonder. If he made the calculation that my parents made, would the results be similar?
Since that time, I have changed my thinking to a more positive view of small business. For some time, I have looked to small business for allies on progressive issues. Now I believe that small businesses will play an important role in the building of future socialist societies.
May Day in New York
As a child, small enough to be hoisted up on my father's shoulders, Papa took me to the big May Day marches in New York. I grew up thinking that May First, International Workers Day, was the most important holiday of the year. It was fun to look at the thousands of happy marchers dressed in their best clothes. I remember a sea of signs, the hat-makers, the dressmakers, the pocketbook makers, the men's clothing workers, the printers, on and on. Everyone was a maker, a worker. Then it began to rain. "It's raining, Papa," I said, "Let's go home." "Wait just a while," he answered. The rain kept coming down and
the marchers continued to march. Their hair got wet and the paint on their signs began to run. I did not fully understand what was going on but I was impressed. "This must be very, very important." I thought. "Otherwise people would never march in the rain."
The influence of "the old country" loomed large in my life. I kept hearing all the Yiddish songs about suffering and struggle. Some were obviously translations of Russian songs. One, I translated from the Yiddish as, "Many songs have I heard in my homeland/ of love, suffering and victory/ but one song remains in my memory/ It is the song of the workers' struggle." The refrain, "O, dubinishke" was set to a work rhythm. I could picture the boatmen, wearing homespun Russian shirts, towing the boat up the Volga River. The lyrics were in Yiddish but the refrain was sung in the original Russian. Others were songs of the Russian revolution and the Red Army. Another, a Yiddish folk song, had the refrain "Poverty is not good, poverty is not good, but one must not be ashamed with one's own blood (relatives)." It was sung by an old woman, a poor relative. She had not been invited to the wedding. But she went anyway and proved to be the best dancer at the wedding.
The songs were not 100 percent progressive. There was a nationalist, reactionary ditty that rhymed in Yiddish: "He is drunk. He must drink. Because he is a Goy (Christian)." In all fairness, I do not remember that my parents ever sang it but I heard the song many times in the community. I know my parents disapproved of the "Green Cousin" song because it mocked the naivete and the bitter disillusionment of new immigrants.
I do remember my father singing on a few occasions. He did not really have the voice for it but it sounded like a merry tune to me. "What do the words mean?" I asked. His translation from the Russian went something like this: "I have just lost my job, I have no money, and I'm going to be put out of my house." I asked no more questions. Another sad song he sang was in Yiddish. I needed no translation. It was a father's lament that he left for work early, before his children were up. And he returned late at night, after his children went to bed. He never saw his children and did not really know them.
These songs reinforced the vague picture I had of the "old country." It was a place that was very cold, where most people were poor and fighting the Czar for their freedom. I also knew that my father and mother belonged to the Jewish Bund, the section that sympathized with the Bolsheviks. At that time, I had no idea that my father had been a dashing hero of the 1905 Revolution. He did tell me, not until later years, that he had hung a red flag out of our window in 1917 to celebrate the Russian Revolution. Everyone said, "Shapiro is a Socialist," he proudly added.
I grew up knowing that the use of tobacco was self-destructive. Perhaps the reason it never tempted me was the example of my father. He was a chain smoker, seldom without a cigarette between his lips. Two doors from his laundry was a candy store which sold individual cigarettes. My father made frequent trips to the candy store to buy another cigarette. He said he bought them one at a time to cut down on the amount he smoked. As a child, that was my only close experience with an addiction. The part that bothered me the most was that a demon, tobacco, was stronger than a person. My father wanted to quit but could not. The alcohol he drank, I think was for show. He demonstrated a he-man, macho breakfast one morning. He ate a crust of black bread, rubbed with raw garlic, and washed it down with a shot of strong schnapps. But we seldom had alcoholic drinks at home and my father never went to taverns. In fact, I don't remember any taverns in my neighborhood.
Recovering from Stroke
In 1932, the Depression was pushing Papa's laundry store to extinction. The combination of worry and chain smoking hit my father with a major stroke. I was 14 and my younger brother just 10. Up to that time, as I remember it, there had been no exchange of angry words between my parents. The only tensions I remember were the card games after family or neighborhood parties. At these parties, the men went into a separate room to play cards as soon as we finished eating. The women and children remained
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in the dining room as the women cleaned up. I do not remember if the women talked as they cleaned. What I remember clearly is that I became bored and begged my mother to take us home.
"Go in and tell Papa you want to go home," Mama told me. Clearly, she was not going to interrupt the men's game. I didn't want to either. But after asking my mother four or five times and getting the same reply, I often did enter the smoke-filled room to tell Papa that I wanted to go home. "Wait just a few more minutes," he always said. I resented the whole scene of men in one room and women and children in another. Most of all I disliked the fact that Mama did not feel free to tell Papa that it was time to go home. That experience did prejudice me against card games. Sometimes we kids played card games such as gin rummy. But, as a grownup, I stayed away from playing cards.
The year of my father's stroke, 1932, was the bottom of the long Depression. About twelve years later, when World War II created a real shortage of labor, my father went back to work. Among other duties, he pushed racks of clothing to different delivery points. He continued this heavy labor into his 70s. When I last visited him in 1967, he was then 92 years old. We decided to go downtown for a movie. On the way to the subway, I thought he had some difficulty walking. So I hailed a cab. That upset him greatly, "wasting money on a cab!" I rarely "wasted" money on cabs either, but that seemed the right time. Then Papa climbed the many steps up to the train platform. Thinking back, that was an impressive feat for a 92-year-old man. Perhaps he was not as arthritic as I have become in my old age.
Three months after my last visit and 35 years after his first stroke, Papa had another, final stroke. He died the next day. Some said that Papa was not harmed by smoking because he lived to 92. For those people I have a ready answer. Papa's father was said to have lived to 110. Smoking could have robbed my father of 18 years of life.
Papa always maintained his keen interest in politics and international affairs. In 1943, he read Teheran, a book by Earl Browder, then general secretary of the Communist Party USA. Teheran, capital of Iran, had been the site of a Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin meeting during World War II. Browder projected the alliance against fascism to mean the end of class war. He claimed that intelligent capitalists would understand that they should stop exploiting workers. Then workers and capitalists would cooperate for their mutual benefit. I was struggling to "understand" how that could be. It was contrary to everything I had learned and observed. When I discussed the issue with my father, he was not trying to "understand" it at all. Better stated, he understood it very well. He told me he was so upset when he read Teheran that he couldn't sleep all night. Papa never moved away from his basic belief in socialism.
In 1945, the French Communist, Jacques Duclos, wrote a letter that challenged the Browder thesis. Heated discussion followed among Communists in the U.S. Supporters of the class struggle approach were the big majority. They reconstituted the Communist Party that had dissolved itself under Browder's leadership. I think my father was right. Capitalism will never work for the benefit of workers.
In 1943,1 left New York City to venture into the big world outside the Big Apple. I never returned except to visit family or to attend national meetings. Papa visited me about once a year, whether in Buffalo, Chicago, Gary, or Broadview. More often, I visited him in New York City. My four children never had a chance to meet my mother, but they did get to know Grandpa Shapiro.
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5. Surviving the Great Depression
My family was on one side and the school was on the other side.
They call it the "Great Depression." It was long, deep, and worldwide. Only the young Soviet Union escaped the mass unemployment that devastated the rest of the world. The Depression was big, but there was nothing "great" about it. When the stock market crashed in 1929,1 was 11 years old. I did not understand why Wall Street investors were jumping out of skyscraper windows just because they lost their fortunes. It was even harder to understand those who threw themselves in front of approaching subway trains. The panic came a little closer to home when nervous depositors started runs on banks.
Actually, I did not know anyone who had money to lose in a bank. Nor did I know anyone who owned stock. I guess I did not know the whole story. On our block, a woman did jump off a fifth story roof. Then the mother of one of my friends threw herself in front of a subway train. Horrible! Everything was falling apart. Our Bronx neighborhood felt bombed out. Workers laid off or reduced to part time could not buy clothes. So the garment factories closed. Many of our neighbors lost their jobs; others went down to two days a week. With no income and no government program of welfare, hunger was widespread. President Herbert Hoover said each block should take care of its own. The later "1000 points of light" program of President Bush the First had a similar theme. But there was no way the hungry could feed each other.
There were some ups and downs in the economy after the 1929 stock market crash. For my family it was all down. The Depression never really ended for us until twelve years later when World War II orders kept the factories working overtime. Most of my school life and my early working experiences were in the shadow of the Depression. As mentioned above, it was impossible to keep our laundry store open. Few could afford to send their laundry out. There may have been no simple connection between my mother's cancer and the Depression. But we certainly blamed Depression stress for my father's stroke. Our parents' illnesses made the Depression harder to bear.
National Hunger Marches
The Communist Party and some left-led unions organized national hunger marches on March 6, 1930. Their slogan was, "Don't starve. Fight!" Another very important slogan was, "Black and White, Unite and Fight!" My parents were talking about marching. In my classroom I heard a different story. The teacher was urging us to stay off the streets on that day. "The Bolsheviks are going to throw bombs, and you may be hurt," she said. But I knew my parents would never hurt anybody. And they were thinking of joining the march. I realized, once again, that there were two different sides. My family was on one side and the school was on the other side.
In New York City 110,000 marched. Detroit had 100,000 hunger marchers and Chicago had 50,000. Many Communist leaders were arrested and some were brutally beaten. Later, I learned that my parents had been right to support the hunger marchers. After millions joined the protests, we won a relief program for poor families like ours. That experience made me very skeptical about the "official" propaganda I heard at school or read in the papers.
Soon after the hunger marches, on July 4, 1930, 1,320 delegates from unemployed groups around the country met in Chicago. Communists played a key role in organizing that conference. The conference decided to organize "national unemployed councils." These councils and the later "workers alliances" launched the struggles that won the New Deal "safety net." Included in the safety net were Social Security and Unemployment Compensation (Insurance). Many of the unemployed organizers went on to play a key role in organizing the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) in 1935, which in 1938 became the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
A good number of Communists were among these organizers. I can understand why friends asked me, years later, "Is it true that there were only 100,000 Communist Party members in the 1930s? They could
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not believe that so much was accomplished by just 100,000 members. I tried to explain that Communists were like the yeast used to make bread. A little goes a long way. A little yeast makes the whole batch of dough rise. However, if you want to make a lot of bread, you do need more than a little yeast.
In the spring of 1934, as I remember it, half the people on my block were still unemployed. The U.S. Census Bureau said the national figure showed 23 percent were jobless. Either that figure was too low or my Bronx neighborhood was worse off than "average." My family, like some others on the block, was on "relief." Relief allowed our family of five about $11 a week for food and all expenses other than rent. My school carfare had to come out of that and any clothes we bought. So we did not buy any clothes. After my mother had cancer surgery, I was in charge of buying groceries and cooking. First I took my school carfare and other necessities out of the $11. That left about $9 a week for my family's food budget.
We ate a lot of lentils, stuff like that. Occasionally, I indulged the family in concleten, Russian-style beef patties. My mother had never trusted the butcher and used to grind her own. That was more work than I was willing to do. I bought the already ground beef at the kosher butcher shop on the block. As time went on, the relief program began to hand out some free food. I remember canned beef from Argentina. The only meat I knew how to cook was ground kosher beef. I didn't know what to do with canned meat. So we ate it, straight out of the cans. I still remember the taste. I did not like it.
Nobody liked the "relief." I remember marching with the Hunter College YCL, a couple hundred of us. The slogan we shouted was, "Give the bankers home relief, we want jobs!" Still, relief, or welfare, was a big victory, won only after a hard struggle. Relief paid the rent and kept families from starving to death. Before we won government welfare, many people did starve and many died from the diseases of starvation. Before government welfare, there was no one to help the unemployed except family or church. But if those couldn't help, what was there to do but starve or steal? Stealing wasn't easy, either, because no one around you had anything.
A few blocks from our Hunts Point apartment, a "Hooverville" appeared. It seemed to spring up overnight, in the wasteland near the gas works. The Hoovervilles were named after Herbert Hoover, the Republican president, who was letting people starve. Hooverville residents were unemployed workers who had been evicted from their homes. They lived in little shacks they built from whatever scraps they could find. It was a sad sight. People in the Hoovervilles had lost everything. Much as my family suffered, we were well off compared to the Hooverville squatters. Hoover's policies inflicted pain on those already wounded. Little wonder that voters kicked him out. In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, FDR, was elected with a mandate to make big changes.
Unemployed Councils
An economist could draw a line graph that would show ups and downs of the 1930s: low in 1930, lower in 1932, up a bit in 1935 and down again in 1937. As a teenager, I did not notice these fluctuations. It was all Depression and my family never felt the slight upturns. Paying the rent was always a struggle for my parents. The relief allowance did not cover the full rent. I really don't know how my parents managed.
From the time I was 14,1 became very concerned about the lack of money. I demanded to be included in their financial discussions. I wanted to know what came in and what bills had to be paid. They refused to include me "in the loop." Fortunately, I won a New York state scholarship on graduation from high school in 1934. That money went for the rent. My mother apologized. "In the future," she promised me, "we will save your scholarship money for your Master's degree." I was just as happy to help with the rent. A Master's degree, whatever that was, was a low priority for me and easily put off to the dim future. As indeed it was, for 30 years.
Many families could not pay their rent and were evicted from their apartments. Furniture dumped on the street was a common sight. Local "unemployed councils" became very expert at putting furniture back, restoring the evicted family to their apartment. Usually something was worked out and the family
stayed. Others were not so lucky. What happened to them? Sometimes they moved in with relatives, two or three families in one apartment. Others moved to Hoovervilles and some took to the road, including 200,000 children.1
There was also a lot of hidden homelessness. When children married, they often remained in their parents' apartment. One spouse moved in with the other spouse's family. Families doubled up, even unrelated families, each paying half the rent. It is not surprising that the country's birth rate dropped.
Although conditions were desperate, we managed to keep our sense of humor. We laughed at the punch line of a story about an eviction scenario. This story may or may not be true. Unemployed council members saw a man standing with his furniture on the street. They knew what to do. They notified the unemployed council and they sent a team to the site. The council members restored the furniture to the man's apartment, over his objections. They overlooked his objections because evicted tenants were often grateful later, although fearful at first. The very next day, the same man was out on the street again with his furniture. A repeat eviction was not usual but it happened. Once again, the unemployed council members restored the furniture. The third day the council stalwarts went back to the street just to check. To their surprise, the man and his furniture were out on the street again. "That landlord is really persistent!" the council members exclaimed. "Well, we are going to make sure that this time is the last time this poor family is evicted." So with that "can-do" spirit, they began to pick up the furniture again. "Please don't put my furniture back," pleaded the tenant. "I'm trying to move!"
The unemployed councils were ready to take quick action when needed. Their demonstrations were always multiracial, a new experience for me. As a teenager, I took part in some of these actions. For example, a family that had not eaten for two days came to the council for help. The relief office was supposed to issue food vouchers for such emergencies. But before they granted the vouchers, the family had to schedule an interview and fill out many forms. Meanwhile family members could starve to death. So we set up a mass picket line in front of the relief office to demand food now for the hungry family. We marched round and round and refused to leave until the family got food. After a few hours of our protest, relief officials found emergency funds for the family. We went home, feeling justified. That was "joy in the struggle."
Other family emergencies resulted when companies turned off gas and electric service for non­payment of bills. In winter, more than one person was found frozen stiff in an unheated house. In response to the cutoffs, unemployed councils demonstrated in front of utility companies to demand that service be restored. Sometimes, neighbors did not wait for mass action. Unknown friends turned electric service back on by using a wire to bypass the meter.
Winter is the worst time for demonstrations and an even worse time to go hungry. I vividly remember a cold day seventy-five years ago. Like me, the other demonstrators were not warmly dressed. Still, we stayed until the hungry family got food. It was not hard to keep our bodies warm but our hands and feet really suffered. One of the women demonstrators was stout, perhaps a size 40. An unsympathetic passerby shouted at us, "Look at that fat woman. You're not hungry." Even as a kid I thought that was very unfair. The low-cost foods of that day were fattening: rice, pasta, potatoes, lard and bread. At 15,1 was the family cook and well aware that the small relief allowance did not buy non-fattening foods. On our food allowance of $11 a week, I could buy little besides bread, lentils and milk. Perhaps drinking milk made up for all the other foods I could not buy.
One good thing about winter was the window box we put outside the kitchen window. We could store food there; then we did not have to buy ice. Window boxes could have other uses. I learned that from friends in Chicago who were even poorer than we were during the Depression. There was so little food that they looked at the pigeons in longing. If they could only catch one, the kids could have a real meal. So they raised one side of their window box to make a pigeon trap. Then they baited the trap and waited
1 Highlights of a Fighting History-60 Years of the Communist Party USA, ed. Philip Bart (New York: International Publishers, 1979), 62.
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for hours. Hunger gave them patience. The children made many tries but were never quick enough to trap a pigeon.
The Depression in the South
In later years, I asked my husband Frank about his Depression experiences. I never got much information. Still, I knew that the Depression had an extra-harsh impact on the people in southern states. Frank lived out the Great Depression just outside of Orlando, Florida. One-fourth of the people in the state were on relief. To keep more poor people from coming into Florida, where at least they would not freeze to death, the state police were stationed at the state line. People without money or a job were not allowed to drive into Florida.
Frank's family of 12 lived in a three-room company house in the orange groves where they worked. Although their small pay was cut even lower, the family was not evicted because they were still needed to cultivate and pick the fruit. As Frank said, "The kids didn't know the difference between Depression and not-Depression. It was all the same. Friends my age who grew up in the rural or semi-rural South have similar memories. 'We didn't know there was a Depression,' they said. 'It was always Depression times.'"
"Resolved, Unemployment Insurance is Communistic"
By the spring of 1934, the movement for unemployment insurance was gaining strength. As a member of my high school debating team, I took part in a debate on unemployment insurance. The topic was: "Resolved, unemployment insurance is Communistic." If you proved that unemployment insurance was Communistic, that was supposed to be automatic proof that it was bad. It is true that Communists were pioneers in the fight for unemployment compensation and social security. But the majority, who were not Communists, also supported that fight. Some workers went further. Since everyone who fought for the workers was labeled "Communist," these workers decided that they were Communists, too.
The great, historic struggle for unemployment insurance was launched by the unemployed councils and won the support of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). According to the Daily Worker, the issue was placed before the AFL convention by Louis Weinstock, at the risk of his own life. Weinstock was a Communist painter unionist and the leader of the campaign for unemployment insurance. Since he could not get on the agenda, he found another way to get the delegates' attention.
Weinstock jumped from a high balcony onto a chandelier, swaying over the heads of the AFL delegates. From that high perch, he presented the case for unemployment insurance. By the time the firemen were able to get him down, he had completed his speech. I have relished that story ever since. Of course, Weinstock was young, still in his 20s. That's one reason I believe that winning movements must be led by young people. You never know when you may have to jump on a swinging chandelier.
Of course there were some who did not support the idea of unemployment compensation. "Pay people for not working?" they sneered. But there were not enough of them to stop our movement. In August 1935, the Social Security bill became law. The Social Security law included unemployment compensation. Payment levels were to be set by the states. Winning unemployment insurance was a great victory for which we Communists can modestly claim some credit.
City Hospital
The city hospital wards are part of my Depression memories. Some would call them the charity wards. Of necessity, I became well acquainted with the city hospitals. That's where my parents received medical care after both became seriously ill. Before the Depression, we had a family doctor. In the East 165th Street neighborhood, we even had a doctor with a home office on our street. Even some serious injuries, such as the tear wound in my throat, were treated in his office. He saved many of us a trip to the hospital emergency room. I hope he was not one of the family doctors who had to give up their practice
* 42 *
because patients could not pay. Some doctors in New York City even drove taxi cabs to survive the Depression.
I visited my dying mother in her hospital room every day. It was a very sad time for me. It was especially hard in the drab surroundings of the city hospital. The hospital looked just the way I felt: down at the mouth. I think everything was clean enough, as clean as plenty of bleach could make it. Mama's meals looked good enough, much better than the food we had at home. Mama had no appetite and urged me to eat the food she hadn't touched. Sometimes I did taste it, but I did not have much appetite either. Hospitals used to keep patients like my mother for months. Now they would be sent someplace else to die.
At least New York City did have city hospitals that maintained some minimum standard of care. In many parts of the country, families like mine had no access to health care. New York City also had free dental clinics. No doubt, my poor diet accelerated tooth decay. I went to the free clinic when I had a toothache. The free clinic pulled out teeth but did not fill cavities. So they pulled the offending tooth and also the one next to it that was not aching. I heard the dentist say, "Might as well pull the adjacent tooth because it has a big filling." For two teeth they used gas and you felt no pain. For one tooth, you got less pain relief. So I let them pull the two. That was the beginning of losing my teeth, one or two at a time.
The worst part of the Depression is that it lasted so long. Home relief did not replace household items as they wore out. When the sheets wore out, you slept on the pieces that were left. Sheets generally wear out in the middle. They can be repaired by cutting them down the center and sewing the sides together. When the mattress wore out, you slept on the bare springs with a little paper padding. When the bedstead wore out, you placed the spring on four piles of bricks. Broken dishes and burned pots were never replaced. We did not have, so perhaps did not miss, some items considered necessities today. In my neighborhood, few had radios or telephones.
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Conditions at the E3Y are far from satisfactory. Wages of from $5
to $11 a week. One has to work very fast in order to make anything. This has resulted in many accidents in the place. At the same time, prijres of food and clothing are rising daily- buc the wages remain as low as ever.
It is said that the owner of the EBY may operate soon on the basis of the National Recovery Act. One thing should he clear*- all that the owner is interested in is more profits for himself and not in the conditions of the workers. No doubt,the owner of the EBY will use the NRA as an excuse for speeding up all workers to turn out more,of firing those that can't koep up with the speed. This will al­so rosult in more accidents.
What should be done? Don't rely on the bosses' code. The workers of the EBY should set up their brs ovm workers' code of demands— for higher wa-jop; for a definite minimum wage based on straight time and rice ;jlcce ™.'crk; for sanitary conditions. Workers in other shops are organizing and winning improved conditions. The EBY work­ers can do likewise.
How? Speak to those of ' 'olio* \so:?i:fvs whom you feel you can trust. Arrange a meeting ■--. j..u of ti 3 ■■ ':. gome workers home, Ther take up the question of hi.j..j±' wages,V-iu>..::r Hbkss hours of work,and -ther kicks and complaints. Get in touch with the METAL WORKERS IN­DUSTRIAL UNION,located at 35 E.19 Street,NYC,the union that will help you to improve your conditions. Remember— If all stick togeth­er,better conditions can be won!
Unior Flyer to Workers at Eby Radio Parts, 1933
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My First Factory Job
I went to work in the summer of 1933, at the end of my junior year at Monroe High School. In August, I was going to be 15. My family desperately needed money because home relief did not cover the full rent payment. I heard they were hiring at Eby, a radio parts plant on the lower East Side. I did not have a work permit. Anyway, the minimum legal age for factory work was 18 in New York. So I dressed "old," put on a hat with a big brim to hide my face and decided to lie about my age. I had heard many stories about sweatshops. The factory I pictured was dimly lit and crowded with workers bent over their work. In poor light, I thought I could pass for 18.
To my shock, the Eby factory was well-lit with fluorescent light. My less-than-15-year-old face was in full view. Still, I had nothing to lose so I went ahead, applied and got the job. They did not seem to care about my age. My next big challenge was to get up at 5 a.m. so I could make it to work on time. The job was at the southern tip of Manhattan, far south of the downtown area. We did not own an alarm clock. I don't think we owned a clock. So I lay down to sleep on the floor, next to the apartment door. There I could hear the clomp, clomp, clomp of the milkman's horse, and hear the milkman's quick tread on the stairway. He made his deliveries before 5 a.m.
I showed up to work with little sleep, but that did not matter. I noticed that the plant was full of underage women workers. On the work tables were shimmering piles of small silvery metal parts. Those were the "contacts." It was a simple job. Pick up the contacts and push them through a pre-punched plastic socket, one at a time. Then the sockets were sent to another department, to be used in making radio tubes.
By the end of the 10-hour day, my thumb was sore. It ached all night, but there was another reason that I did not sleep well. All night, I relived the experience of my first day's work in a factory. All night, I heard the voices ringing out, calling "Contacts!" so our work table could be re-supplied; and all night I was surrounded by girls, all of us pushing metal contacts into radio sockets, fast as we could.
My biggest concern was getting up in time for work. So once again, I lay down in the hallway near the apartment door, to listen for the milkman. When I heard the horse and wagon, I knew it was time to get up. At the end of the week, I got a pay envelope with three dollars and some change. That was not a full week because I remember the pay as 15 cents an hour.
That same summer, the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) put in a minimum wage that doubled our pay. Eby complied, but they doubled our quota of sockets. The job became truly unbearable. I was inspired by my YCL comrades to try to organize the factory. The Steel and Metal Workers Industrial Union, affiliated with the Communist-led Trade Union Educational League, was organizing radio parts plants.
I stepped up my agitation for a union. In two days, I led 50 young workers, about half of the workers on my floor, to the nearby union hall. It was a medium-sized hall, with open space in the center. The walls were lined with seated women members. Perhaps they were waiting for a meeting. As we marched in they looked at us with great interest. I will admit to a moment of revolutionary pride. Then I heard the comments. "Child labor!" the women exclaimed. For some reason I felt deflated, as though calling us children took away from the importance of our action. We talked to the organizer who gave us union cards. A few of my co-workers joined me in signing. We had an organizing committee!
The New York City YCL leadership agreed that our organizing start was very important. But the fall semester was opening soon. I regretted leaving my co-workers, but I had to go back to finish high school. "Don't go back," a YCL leader urged me. "Look at me," he said. "I never finished high school." I did look at him and I admired him a lot. He knew so much and spoke so well. He certainly seemed none the worse for having dropped out of high school. But I did not see myself becoming a great leader like him. In my case, I thought it best to finish high school. From there, I planned to go to Hunter College, then tuition-free.
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Fighting Racism—the Scottsboro Nine
The need for unity may be the most valuable lesson the Communist Party taught me during the Depression. The biggest barrier to uniting workers was, and still is, racism. So it was natural that Communists made the fight against racism a part of every struggle. Fortunately, in the late 1920s, the CPUSAhad placed the fight against racism as central to all other struggles. Earlier socialists did not understand this centrality. They thought it was enough to fight for the liberation of all workers, without a special emphasis on fighting racism.
Around 1929, the CPUSA started an intense educational campaign to root out any racist remnants among its own members. It was just in time, just before the Great Depression. Faced with mass hunger and homelessness, Communists put out the slogan, "Black and White, Unite and Fight!" This slogan was adopted by the unemployed councils, the workers alliances and many unions. Multiracial unity was the heart of the coalition that won the New Deal and organized the CIO. That work in the 1930s laid the foundation for every civil rights movement that followed.
The Party sent some of its most talented organizers to help southern sharecroppers organize in the early 1930s. They organized African American and white sharecroppers together. A special part of CPUSA dues was set aside for organizing in the South. We called it, "Southern Solidarity." In 1934, the 8,000-strong Alabama Share Croppers Union won higher prices for cotton pickers. This amazing victory was won despite intense, violent repression by local authorities and business. That inspiring story is dramatized in a wonderful book by labor historian Robin Kelley, The Hammer and the Hoe.2
Black and White unity was also the basic guide for Communists who organized Southern miners and textile workers. I was inspired by Ann Burlak, a Communist organizer of the National Textile Workers Union. She became known as the "Red Flame of Patterson" (NT). In 1930, in Georgia, she had been charged with sedition against the state of Georgia. Her supposed crime was daring to speak to an inter­racial audience. That charge carried the death penalty. Years later, the Supreme Court threw the case out. I met Ann in 1934 in New York when she was sharing an apartment with Fanny Hartman. Both Ann and Fanny were very kind to an eager 16-year-old who was off the track. They gave me some very good advice that I discuss later. I had the good luck to meet Fanny Hartman again, in Gary, in the 1950s. She was married to my husband Frank's good friend, Joe Norrick. Fanny and I became close friends.
Racism was also challenged when Kentucky miners went on strike. The miners' union included African American and white. In 1931, some family friends went to help the strikers in "Bloody Harlan County, Kentucky." Some were beaten by company thugs in Harlan County. I was sorry that I was too young to go. Anyway, I could not have qualified for that particular trip. My friends were in a musical group that went to sing for the strikers. As I have lamented more than once in these notes, singing for an audience was not one of my skills.
More than any other national campaign, the defense of the Scottsboro "Boys," raised the level of the fight against racism. To give proper respect to the nine young defendants, I will modify the slogan of "Free the Scottsboro Boys," to "Free the Scottsboro Nine." This slogan was heard in every part of our country and around the world. The story behind the slogan was all too common in Alabama in the 1930s. Nine African American youths had been taken from different box cars of a freight train and arrested in Scottsboro, Alabama. Two were only 12 and 13 years old. They were part of the large army of unemployed who rode the rails, looking for work.
Two white women had been taken off the same train. The women were subject to arrest because they had a record of prostitution in Tennessee. Perhaps to save themselves, they falsely charged the nine youths with raping them. In that time, such a charge could give rise to a lynch mob. Lynch mobs
2 Robin D.G. Kelley, The Hammer and the Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Repression (University of North Carolina Press, 1990).
sometimes broke into jails and murdered the accused before any trial was held. What made this case different was the Communist Party.
Communist organizers in Chattanooga and Birmingham heard about the arrests and visited the defendants in jail. With the International Labor Defense (ILD), they initiated a legal and political campaign to win their freedom. Eventually, after an international campaign that lasted many years, they did win their freedom. Communist support for the Scottsboro Nine attracted many African Americans to the Communist Party in the 1930s.
In working on local issues, we always included "Free the Scottsboro Nine" in our demands. One example made us smile. A landlord had raised rents and failed to make repairs. The tenants' council decided to withhold rents until their demands were met. They picketed their building with signs demanding repairs, no rent hikes, and "Free the Scottsboro 'Boys!" The landlord gave in. He said, "OK, I'll make the repairs and cancel the rent increase. But how can I free the Scottsboro Boys?" Actually, if I remember correctly, the demands of the rent strike were even more extensive. It was not only freedom for the Scottsboro Nine but also freedom for Angelo Herndon. Who was Angelo Herndon?
Angelo Herndon
Angelo Herndon was a 19-year-old African American Communist organizer. Charged with "inciting insurrection" in Atlanta, Georgia, he was sentenced to 20 years on the chain gang. His crime? Herndon had led a racially integrated march of the unemployed council, demanding "jobs or relief." An interesting sideline of the Herndon trial was his defense by the Atlanta lawyer, Ben Davis. Davis was the son of a prominent African American Republican. Just to remind those younger than this writer, most African Americans voted Republican before the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt. (The Republican Party used to be the party of Abraham Lincoln.)
To prepare for his client's defense, Attorney Davis read the Communist literature found in Herndon's room. The literature convinced Davis that he was a Communist too. After serving some time in Georgia prisons, Herndon's conviction was thrown out by the Supreme Court. Ben Davis joined the Communist Party and became a prominent national leader of the Party. As the Harlem organizer of the Communist Party, Davis became a close associate of Councilman Adam Clayton Powell. When Powell was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1943, Davis was elected to Powell's seat on the New York City Council.
There he joined his Communist comrade, Peter V. Cacchione, who had been elected to a second term as a city councilman. I was in faraway Buffalo so I could not work on Ben Davis's election. I did work in a remarkable campaign to elect Cacchione. The Board of Election had removed him from the ballot. So he ran a write-in campaign. Thousands of voters, especially Italian immigrant workers, learned to draw a box, put in a cross, and then carefully spell, Peter V. C-a-c-c-h-i-o-n-e. I was impressed.
In 1945, Davis was re-elected with an even larger vote. He lost his council seat during the evil days of McCarthy repression. In 1951, Davis was convicted of violating the Smith Act and sentenced to five years in federal prison. In the same trial, ten other Communist leaders were sentenced to long prison terms. They were convicted of "conspiring to teach the overthrow of the U.S. government." A few years after they served their prison terms, that section of the Smith Act was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. It was too late to restore the eyesight of Henry Winston, a loss that resulted from the prison's refusal to allow medical care. Not a penny of compensation was ever paid to these wrongly imprisoned leaders.
The pioneering work of the Communist Party during the Depression years shaped history for years to come. But the story I sketched above has been kept out of most history books, including labor history. I know about this history because I lived through it. Much has been wiped out of the collective memory of people in the United States. Can this history remain hidden forever? I doubt it. I think it will be hard to chart a path to a better future until we learn the truth of our past.
Rich Cultural Life
All was not grim and joyless during the Depression. I had a very rich cultural life in the mid-1930s, although my family was poor, and my parents were sick. As part of the New Deal program to reduce unemployment, the federal government launched the Works Progress Administration (WPA). WPA jobs projects employed artists, writers and actors as well as construction workers. The WPA built many public buildings. WPA theater was affordable, enjoyable and high quality. The museums were free, and it was possible to enjoy good concerts while seated among great works of art.
The YCL and the Communist movement in general were another source of rich culture. In the summer, our group would often spend Saturday night on the roof of a tenement building. We called it "tar beach." We talked, laughed, and sang movement songs until the sun came up. No alcohol was involved; there was no money for that. The next morning, we made the rounds of our Daily Worker newspaper route. Our duty done, we were free to take the train to the beach, and we did. When I was young, going without sleep did not dim my enthusiasm for a good swim.
Perhaps the greatest personal benefit of my YCL membership was that it showed me an escape route from the misery of the Depression. First I learned that it was not the worker's fault. Too many still believed that it was the breadwinner's fault if he/she could not put food on the table. Blaming oneself for not having a job was self-destructive and paralyzing. Once the millions of unemployed organized, we won four million public works jobs. That taught us that it paid to fight. There was "joy in the struggle."
It was still deep Depression when I started college in 1934. Some kind teacher gave me a pink sweater blouse and brown wool skirt. They must have been made of good material because I wore that outfit every day for many months that year. I would wash the two pieces every night and dry them on a hot radiator. Sometimes they would not be completely dry because the material was thick and heat was turned off at night. But I would wear them anyway, and they would dry on my body. One day another sympathetic teacher stopped me in the hallway and asked if I would be offended if she gave me some clothes. I was glad to get her castoffs.
That winter I went without an overcoat. Anyway, I had the habit of running from place to place. So I ran a little faster that winter. I claimed that I was not cold. There was a way to get a coat from the relief, but I did not want to go through all that red tape. The application would have to go through the social service workers who worked for the relief agency. As I understood it, the main function of these social workers was to find an excuse to throw your family off relief. I formed a deep distaste for social work as a result of my family's experience with welfare. In later years, I met many Communists and others who were sincere social workers. That did not totally erase the memory of my earlier experience with social workers.
Eating out was never an option for my family. We did have family gatherings and movement events where we ate at someone's home or at a workers club. Even before the Depression hit in 1929, we never went to restaurants. That changed for me when I started college. Students often gathered in cafeterias. We students did not order meals because we could not afford it. Occasionally we could buy a bowl of soup or dish of rice pudding for a dime. We knew how to enrich the soup with the freebies from the relish table: ketchup, sliced onions, sauerkraut, grated cheese and other goodies. There were other freebies for the taking. Better-fed diners often left corn muffins untouched. Just as soon as they left their table, we quickly retrieved such edibles. Then we could stay for hours, reviewing and solving all the problems of the world. Late as we stayed, it was not too often that we had to leave because a restaurant was closing. They must have kept even later hours than we did.
People Are Good
In the Depression year of 1937,1 had an experience that I remembered with gratitude the rest of my life. Arches in my feet had broken down after a summer job working as a busgirl at Horn & Hardart Restaurant, the "automat." To get some arch supports made, I visited a free clinic attached to a school of
podiatry. I carried my total personal fortune with me, $20. At the time, I did not know where or when or how I would ever get more money.
On my way home, I realized that I had dropped the $20. The huge loss devastated me. I went home and went to sleep although it was broad daylight. What else could I do? The next day, after sleeping the clock around, I decided to go back to the clinic and look for my $20.1 knew it was stupid but did not know what else to do. So I returned to the clinic and asked if anyone found my $20. To my amazement, they said, "Yes." One of the podiatry students had picked it up! He did not know me, but he knew I needed that money badly. Only poor people came to that clinic. The student doctor's act of kindness lit a warm spot of hope in my heart. I never forgot it. Some 46 years later I had a similar, wonderful experience.
It was Election Day in Chicago, and I was working for Rudy Lozano, people's candidate for alderman. Votes were being stolen left and right and the cop on duty looked the other way. I had to go outside to call Rudy's office and complain. On my return, I missed my wallet. I began a frantic search to find the lost wallet. No, it was not in the phone booth. Just then, a driver honked his horn. He had seen me searching the streets for something. "Did you lose something?" he asked. "Yes, my wallet." "Is this it?" he asked. And I got my wallet back. There are so many good people!
Winning Social Security
In 1935, we won a lot of social programs people took for granted until Presidents Reagan and Bush attacked our safety net, and President Clinton ended "welfare as we know it." Passage of the Social Security Act (SSA) in 1935 was a major victory for working people. It set up a national pension fund for retired persons, the same fund that is now under attack by Republicans and right- wing Democrats. The SSA also included an unemployment insurance system and public assistance programs for dependent mothers, children, and the disabled.
Soon after SSA began to pay unemployment compensation, people who were laid off rushed to collect their checks. I was one of them. And who did I see standing up in front, ready to get their unemployment checks? Some of the very same people who had sneered, "What, pay people for not working?" They had swallowed the line that unemployment insurance was a Communist idea, therefore bad. I could not help but smile when I saw them on the line. Still, I was glad that they could collect checks when they were unemployed. "We fought for you, too," I told them. Some smiled. I hoped that they had learned that if you fight, you have a chance to win. And if you don't fight, you are sure to lose. I heard that put more dramatically in later years as "Fight or die!" That's what my husband, Frank Lumpkin, told fellow workers when Wisconsin Steel closed without warning.
The Roosevelt government did some great things in record speed. Where there was political will, there was a way. A good example was the speed with which the New Deal government put the unemployed to work in 1933-34. In just ten weeks, over four million unemployed workers were hired and put to work on thousands of projects. Many worked at rebuilding the country's infrastructure. I helped fight for unemployment compensation, but I did realize that we were changing our country forever. In the '70s, Frank and I had the good fortune to meet Ruth Norrick. In the 1930s she had been an assistant to Harry Hopkins, a chief architect of Roosevelt's New Deal. Norrick reported in Labor Today that, "16 days after November 9, 1933, when the money was made available for the Civilian Works Administration, 814,511 unemployed were put to work. Two weeks later, that number reached nearly 2,000.000 and by mid-January, 4,263,644.3
The CCC Camps
Thanks to public works job projects, economic conditions improved somewhat around 1935. Wages from WPA jobs pumped money back into the community. Workers spent that money for family needs,
3 Ruth Norrick, Labor Today, January, 1983.
* 49 *
creating a demand for more production. My parents were not physically able to take advantage of WPA. But as soon as my younger brother Lenny reached 16, he left for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a program for young people. The CCC helped build dams, fight forest fires and improve public lands in the West. In later years, Frank, I and the children often camped out West where we saw the work that CCC had done. We may have been looking at work that Lenny did.
For the first time in his adolescent life, Lenny had enough to eat. His outdoor experiences helped prepare him for his life's work as a maritime engineer. As he told the story, one night he got hungry and went to the camp kitchen. At the refrigerator, Lenny met a bear who had the same idea. "What did you do?" I asked my brother. "I turned my back and walked away," he answered.
"And what did the bear do?"
"The same thing!"
The fresh air and physical exercise were hugely beneficial. Lenny went to the CCC an underfed, skinny teenager and came back looking healthy and muscular. But the CCC was run by the army on racist and military lines. An officer told the young men, "Men, line up on the right! Jews on the left!" The anti-Semitism and military discipline angered my brother. Unlike the army, there was an honorable way to quit the CCC. Lenny wrote and asked us to send a letter with the magical three-letter word, "job." We wrote and said, "Come home. We have a job for you." That won him his release. Then he shipped out of the Port of New York and joined the National Maritime Union.
At least our family was never evicted. By whatever means, my parents managed to pay the rent. In general, there was a severe shortage of affordable housing. People marched and protested in such large numbers that the federal government agreed to build affordable, public housing. Winning public housing was a great victory for the unemployed movement. Public housing, when first constructed, was decent housing. It was only after years of federal underfunding and deliberate neglect that much of public housing became slums.
No matter how bad things were in the big city, they were even worse in some rural areas. We read about the "Okies," farmers forced off their land by a combination of drought in Oklahoma and banks calling in their mortgages. A few made their way to New York City. One couple touched my heart in a way I cannot forget. It was Easter Sunday. Crowds were walking on Fifth Avenue to see people wearing their Easter finery. Many, like me, had nothing new to wear. Then I saw this couple, dressed in faded blue denim, walking hand-in-hand. Faded blue denim was not an urban fashion then. More than their clothes, it was their faces that set them apart. Their skin was so weather-beaten, I could not guess their age. Their expression was one of total weariness. They looked as though they had walked all the way from Oklahoma. I wondered where their walk would end.
Frances Perkins and the American Labor Party
I had the pleasure of meeting Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor. She was the first woman appointed to a Cabinet position and an architect of the Social Security legislation. Perkins joined the American Labor Party (ALP) in 1936. That year she spoke at a small ALP meeting. I had the good luck of sitting in center front row of the school room where she talked from the teacher's desk. I thought she was wonderful, and I hung on her every word. Her next newsletter mentioned an eager young woman who had listened so intently. I felt sure she had noticed me.
More to the point, the ALP was the kind of party we need today. It was formed in 1936 by labor leaders, including Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. The ALP had two purposes. It rallied support for the New Deal, and the ALP continued to press the Roosevelt administration for more workers' benefits. Under New York State law, a candidate could run on more than one party ticket. Unfortunately most states do not allow candidates to form party coalitions and run on two or more party lines.
It is hard to find a time worse for working people than the "Great Depression" with its huge loss of jobs. But in one way, conditions are worse now. (And I recorded these lines before the financial meltdown of October 2008!) In the '30s, mills and machine shops and auto plants may have cut back or even closed. But they were not torn down. The idled plants of the 1930s returned to production some years later. In contrast, our plants in South Chicago, and thousands like them around the country, are gone forever. Where the big Chicago steel mills stood, there is now nothing but prairies. But I am not pessimistic about our future. As long as the people are here, we can find a way out.
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51 *
6. "Country" and Ocean
The sound of the foghorns made me want to travel.
My 165th Street Bronx neighborhood was in one of the most urban of urban settings. There were no trees or lawns on our streets, just old, brick tenement houses built in the nineteenth century. Some of the adults, including my mother, longed for the green spaces of the villages in the "old country." They put handfuls of earth into window boxes and grew everything from small roses to tomatoes.
Growing up in tenement buildings, I still wanted to put my hands into earth and see open spaces around me. Somehow, I grew up with a love for the country and watching things grow. I was eight years old when we took a memorable trip to the "country." Here's how I described this trip 55 years ago.
A New Spring Story
This spring day was to be different from any other day of my eight years. Mr. Goldberg was coming with his fancy car to take us out to the country. I knew Mr. Goldberg was rich because he had a car and a chauffeur. Nobody else I knew had a car and certainly none had a chauffeur.
You could feel spring in the gentle heat reflected from the pavements and the subtle intensification of all the ghetto smells—the tart pickle juice in the gutters, the ripe fruit on the peddlers' carts, the sweet milk ices at two cents a cup, the baked sweet potatoes in the portable charcoal ovens—all mingled with the smell of manure dropped by the milkman's horse. But on this day there was just a wisp of a scent of green from some faraway park or meadow. The sun seemed to paint away the dirt rather than point a finger at all the sore spots.
It was full morning. The tall Turk was already making his rounds, carrying a white-cloth-covered tray high above his head. The cloth fluttered to show glimpses of diamond-shaped sesame seed candy, one cent a slice, sticky with honey, chewy and sweet. I had been in a highly excited state since the night before, when Mama said we were going to ride in a car out to the "country." This was one morning when she did not have to coax me out of bed.
After what seemed hours of waiting, Mr. Goldberg's chariot threaded its way among the pushcarts and rattled up to the curb near our apartment building. In we piled, me first in the back seat, next to Mr. Goldberg, then my mother next to me. Up front with the "chauffeur," rode my father and kid brother, Lennie. Maxie, my older brother, was off on his mysterious doings. At 15 there are better things to do than follow your family.
The interior of Mr. Goldberg's car was not lined with gold. In fact the stuffing of the upholstery was coming through. Nor did Mr. Goldberg look any richer than his chauffeur. But the car ran nicely and my fairytale mood persisted.
The tenements rolled by until we were out in the "better" neighborhood. The streets, the air, even the people seemed cleaner, not crowded so closely together. All the foodstuffs in the stores were neatly tucked away behind plate glass windows; not a pushcart was to be seen. And it was quieter, too, but somehow not so lively, a watered-down strange type of life. The signs saying kosher-kosher were no longer on the butcher shops. Soon the signs said we were out of the city.
The open road turned out to be a canyon, walled in on either side by high cliffs of signboards. These were very interesting, with clever rhymes and brightly colored figures. In between the signs were brief glimpses of green. Somehow this was not what I expected the "country" to look like. It was not like the picture books.
Then we turned into a side road and a different world. "Cows, Mama, cows," I shrieked. "Can't you see them, Mr. Goldberg?" Mama's strong arm pulled me back in the seat. "Be quiet," she said, in a strangely strained voice. But I was like mercury, hard to grab and slipping about with a mind of my own. What was wrong with my mother? She wasn't usually like that.
The meadow fragrance went to my head—a million fruit blossoms, earth freshly washed by last night's rain. City stinks were far away. The marvelous birds we saw had splashes of red or yellow or blue or orange. They were so different from the drab English Sparrows on our home street, quarreling over the occasional manure piles left by the milk wagon horses.
"What do you see, my child?" Mr. Goldberg seemed as eager as I was. But my mother seemed most
uncomfortable as I shouted with delight, "Look, look at that tree. It's all pink with flowers!"
"Cherry tree," Mama said.
"And these pink and white trees. What are they, Mr. Goldberg?"
"Apple trees," Mama answered.
"And these plants with feathery white flowers like little umbrellas?"
"Just weeds."
"Just weeds? But they're so pretty! Don't you think so, Mr. Goldberg?"
"What else do you see?" was his only answer.
It was dark when we returned home and said good-by to Mr. Goldberg and his driver. Then Mama scolded me for talking so much. "But what did I do that was wrong?" I asked. And then Mama told me that Mr. Goldberg was blind. For years I thought I had made Mr. Goldberg feel sad by telling him to look when he could not see. Not until much later did I realize that he may have enjoyed my childish enthusiasm. Perhaps I had helped him see through my eyes.
Hunts Point
When I was about nine, the family moved a mile or so away from 165th Street to the Hunts Point neighborhood. This was 1927. My parents had relocated their store so we rented an apartment across the street. At night, as I fell asleep, I heard the ships' horns in the Sound. They sounded so far away, so filled with longing. The sound of the foghorns made me want to travel to faraway and unknown places.
On a hill over Hunts Point Boulevard, just east of our laundry store, were the remains of the "Dickey Estate." Or so we kids called it. Supposedly a wealthy family called "Dickey" had once owned that land. That may have been true because the remains of an ornate, horse-drawn carriage sat in the vacant lots. Often I climbed the steep hill with "kid" brother, Lenny, in tow. I loved to sit in the carriage and dream of long-gone days. Lenny found that boring. He was more into digging a hole in the ground and starting a fire to roast white potatoes.
To my delight, I found other joys of real "country," hidden away near our Hunts Point apartment. The rows of apartment buildings ended short of the Gas Works. Nothing was built for blocks around. In one vacant lot, there were blackberry bushes and delicious wild strawberries . Pretty butterflies flitted around. After my cousin, the biologist, gave me a butterfly net, I started an insect collection. Sixty years later, on a return visit, there was still no construction there. Maybe the ground was too horribly polluted or too swampy.
Colonial Cemetery
In another part of this rare undeveloped area of the Bronx, there was a cemetery dating to colonial times. The poet, Joseph Rodman Drake was buried there. Chills came to my heart as I read the tender ages on some gravestones. I did not want to "prepare for death" as some of the stones instructed.
Behold and see as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now you soon will be
Prepare for death and follow me.
53 *
Fifty years later when I revisited the cemetery, the poet was gone. The other burials remained in place, the grounds looking more neglected than ever. After I had written the above lines, I revisited the cemetery. Drake's body had been returned; and the cemetery was fenced in. It has become a city park, the Joseph Rodman Drake Park. A sign told me this was once the site of a Weckquaesgeek Indian village called Quinnahung. In the late seventeenth century, Thomas Hunt acquired the property and his mansion became a childhood haven for Joseph Rodman Drake. Born on August 7, 1795, Drake was a descendant of Sir Francis Drake, a British naval commander who helped defeat the Spanish Armada in 1533.
The sign did not explain what happened to the Weckquaesgeek Indians when Hunt took their village ground. But it did say there was no trace left of the Hunts Point African slave cemetery. That was the first time I read of slavery in the Bronx. The city should locate those remains and give them proper respect.
Camp Kinderland and Camp Unity
I had another chance to enjoy "country" when I spent two weeks in Camp Kinderland in 1927 and again in 1931. For a big city kid with a love of nature, Camp Kinderland was paradise. The camp was operated by the left-wing International Workers Order. Summer camps for children and adults were a great achievement of the workers' fraternal movement. So I jumped at the chance to work at the progressive adult camp, Camp Unity. I was 18, and my first boyfriend, Butch, was also hired as a waiter..
The richness of the cultural life at Camp Unity is hard to exaggerate. The composer, Earl Robinson, stayed in a cabin near us. Robinson is remembered for his songs, such as "Ballad for Americans," "The House I Live In" and "Joe Hill." A lot of good music was written in Camp Unity. Robinson visited our cabin often, and we had the chance to talk. Unfortunately, I was not the attraction that brought him to our cabin. I think he was more interested in my roommate, Aurora .
The camp featured political speakers, music, singing, dancing, and of course, sports. The lake was lovely, ringed with pine-clad mountains. It was just the right size to swim across. Butch, followed me with a rowboat to make sure I made it.
Our only mishap at the camp was a collision as Butch and I were serving breakfast. Either I walked into him or he walked into me. Were it not so tragic, wasting workers' money, it would have been very funny. We were each carrying big pots of coffee and bacon and egg plates for eight people. It all crashed when we collided. Sunnyside-up eggs were floating like yellow and white islands in a brown sea of coffee. We were not chastised, but our wait stations were changed to opposite sides of the room.
The next year I walked parts of the Appalachian Trail, especially Mount Tremper. In the Young Communist League, it was not hard to find people your own age who liked the same kind of activities you did. I was not romantically involved with any of my fellow hikers. But there were a couple of men I liked a lot. Romance just did not happen.
I laugh as I remember a challenging climb of Mount Tremper with my friend, Victor Teich. He set a good pace and of course I kept up. I was used to taking a break halfway up. But Victor said nothing when we got halfway up the mountain. So I said nothing. It began to get hotter and hotter as we continued the climb. My backpack got heavier, and my clothes were wet with sweat. I just grit my teeth and thought, "Well if he is used to making this climb without a stop, I can do it too. I'm as good a man as he is, any day!" Finally, we reached the summit. He put down his pack and said, "That's the first time I climbed this mountain without a stop!" I could have killed him. Still, I was kind of proud that I had made it.
Almost 70 years later, I met Victor Teich again. During all those years, he remained active with the people's movement. Well over 80 years old, he had become a playwright and producer. Vic wrote a powerful play against the death sentence that gained a national audience on public television.
Pelham Bay
Our YCL group rowed out on the ocean bays. Pelham Bay was just a few subway stops away. Five of us put in 25 cents each and we had a boat for the day. Best of all was Hunter's Island, a fairly short swim from City Beach. The rest of my life I kept looking for a nice island to swim to but never found the right beach again.
We teenagers never ran into trouble but I did as a child. Papa took my brother Lennie and me out on the Bay. A storm came up and Papa lost an oar! With just one oar, all he could do was turn the boat in circles. We were rescued but I never forgot it. That didn't stop me from taking chances. But as you see, I survived.
It is amazing to me that I ended up spending most of my life away from the ocean. We do live near the great land-locked seas of the Great Lakes. That is not the same thing. But others in my family remained deeply connected to the ocean. My brother Leon (Lennie) spent most of his life in the Merchant Marine. His ashes are scattered over the ocean that sustained him.
My husband Frank sailed the Liberty ships in World War II. My oldest son, Carl, worked on ore boats while a graduate student. He said the sunsets on our inland seas are spectacular. My brother-in-law Joe Slifkin also sailed the seas as a deck hand in World War II. Only one son, Paul, carries on the family's maritime tradition, as a hobby.
Still, if I live to be 100, and I'm working on it, I will never forget the haunting sounds of ships' foghorns at night, nor lose the strong urge to go to faraway places.
Frank Lumpkin in the Merchant Marine, 1944
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55 *
7. Organizing Laundry Workers
"Hey, CIO girl! We want a union, too. "
I was probably born into laundry work. My parents worked in the "hand laundry" they "owned." In fact they owned almost nothing: a table-size electric mangle, some heavy gas heated irons, curtain stretchers and clothes racks. Papa rented the store and he and Mama did all the work themselves. As I grew up, I learned to work the mangle and to mark and assort clothes. I even helped my father deliver bundles of clean clothes. So I quickly responded when, in 1933, the YCL asked us to help some laundry strikers.
On the picket line, the laundry workers were talking about sacrifices they had made to organize their industrial union. Two comrades had been killed in the struggle, they said. That made me sad but no less determined. I kept coming back to that picket line until the strike was won. The next call to help laundry workers came in 1937. The CIO's United Laundry Workers Union (ULWU) was in a big drive to organize the laundry workers of New York City. I was not quite 19, but they hired me as a full time organizer. Although I was a college student, I was familiar with commercial laundries. My age was not a problem. "Older" comrades showed me the way, especially Jessie Taft, now Jessie Smith. In 1937 she was all of 23 and had been an officer of a laundry union local. Some 68 years later, she and I were reunited when she read my story in the Peoples Weekly World\
Let's go back to the summer of 1937. The labor movement was exploding with the energy of hope. Conditions were ripe for a huge increase in union membership. Communist-led hunger marches to state capitals had aroused the fighting spirit of working families. The veterans' Bonus March to Washington, DC radicalized thousands more. In 1935, the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) formed and opened union doors to all workers in an industry. (In 1938, the CIO became the Congress of Industrial Organizations.) In contrast, the old American Federation of Labor (AFL) focus on craft workers had left out the millions who worked in mass production industries. These struggles, and passage of fair labor laws, created a pro-union climate. Meanwhile, the fight to save the Scottsboro Nine strengthened Black-White unity.
Just write me out my union card.
Working for the CIO was a very different kind of summer job. In little over two months, our staff of 30 organized 20,000 laundry workers in New York City. CIO's newly chartered United Laundry Workers Union (ULWU) had to reach hundreds of plants scattered all around the city. The largest plants had 600 workers; most employed less than 100. According to the Daily Worker, predecessor of the Peoples World, the laundry union quadrupled its membership in two weeks. In June, 1937, they grew from 2,750 to 11,000 members.4 Other unions grew just as fast or faster. For example, the United Auto Workers grew from 35,000 to 350,000 in one year.5
How did we organize so many in such a short time? The hardest part was running from plant to plant. None of us had cars. Once we reached the laundries, workers were very receptive. They wanted a union, and the law of the land protected their right to join unions. We organizers answered a few basic questions, then wrote out the union cards as fast as our pens could move. Miserable wages, long hours, hot heavy work, sexism and racism had ground the laundry workers down. But now they had hope because the CIO was organizing.
The basic organizing steps were simple. Hand out union flyers at the plant door as workers come in. Try to get names, addresses and phone numbers of workers who talk to you. Then make home visits. Or take a group to a nearby tavern after work for beer and talk. For me, that was a new experience. I don't
4  The Daily Worker, My 2, 1937.
5   The Daily Worker, My 19, 1937.
think I had ever been inside taverns before. Talk to workers sitting outside the plant during the 60-minute lunch hour. Hand out union cards and sign up as many union members as possible. From those who sign up, form a union organizing committee. Try to have someone from every department. Today, these steps can take years. In the summer of 1937, it was done in days.
Of the 30 organizers on staff for the ULWU, half belonged to the Young Communist League or the Communist Party. The Communists were totally committed to the union cause and willing to work unlimited hours, 16 or more a day. The organizer's pay was small, just $10 a week. As a child of the Depression, I could live on that. I lived with my parents and paid no rent. For a 40-hour week, ten dollars was less than the minimum wage of 35 cents an hour. It was a lot less than the minimum wage when you consider the hours. We organizers worked 60-70 hours a week. But we loved what we were doing.
Union organizing and civil rights
Overcoming divisions is the key to organizing. As an industrial union, the ULWU organized all laundry workers, whether they worked inside or outside the plant. Inside workers included maintenance and production workers. The outside workers were the drivers, white men with few exceptions. Inside workers were mostly women of color. My job was to organize the inside workers. The key workers, without whom the laundry could not run, were the kitchen workers. They ran the large commercial washing machines. Most were African American men. Kitchen workers proved to be very militant and among the first to sign union cards. That was true of African American laundry workers in general.
By 1937, African Americans had a lot of experience in fighting for their rights. The civil rights movement of that time fought to free the Scottsboro Nine and to stop lynching. African American workers had joined with white workers to fight hunger and evictions. They had answered the unemployed council's call, "Black and White, unite and fight." The unifying role of the Communists in these campaigns helped lay the groundwork for organizing the CIO. As a union organizer, I made house calls to laundry workers in Harlem. Suspicion changed to a friendly welcome when I said I was from the union. I thanked the unknown Harlem Communists whose work had opened doors for the union.
As I remember it, fear of joining a union was not a big factor then. Workers were not afraid because the U.S. government backed their legal right to join a union. But some were concerned about the sincerity of the union leadership. "How do we know they won't sell us out?" they asked. "That depends on you," I replied. "Workers can keep control of the union by being active. Go to the meetings and be sure that your leaders do what you want." I left it at that and got some good vibes in return.
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Union-Friendly Climate, the Right to Organize
The Wagner Act (National Labor Relations Act) was passed and signed by FDR in 1935. It guaranteed the right to join a union.6 In the six months after the CIO was launched on November 10, 1935, one million workers joined unions. Mass meetings in organizing drives often opened with a reading of labor laws that secured workers' right to join unions. That's how we did it in the CIO's laundry workers' campaign.
There was a union-friendly climate in working class neighborhoods. Joining a union to get better conditions was the talk of the day. The CIO and the civil rights movement united to fight for the New Deal laws that make up our "safety net." In addition to Social Security and unemployment compensation, it included the Fair Labor Standards Act that brought us the 40-hour week and a ban on child labor. Also, the Wagner Act for labor rights was key to union organizing. It is true that blood was shed in bitter battles such as the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre at Republic Steel in Chicago and the "little steel" mills in Ohio. Still, most strikes ended in victory, encouraging more workers to join unions.
The new CIO needed thousands of organizers. Fortunately, there were a large number of seasoned organizers, ready to help. They had been trained in the struggles of the unemployed. Many were Communists and Socialists who had organized the unemployed councils and the workers alliance. These organizers became foot soldiers for the CIO and helped sign up millions of new union members.
On my way to the laundry I was organizing, I used to pass small manufacturing plants. In those days, workers had an hour for lunch. To escape the hot, steamy air inside the factories, workers often ate their lunch outside, in hopes of catching a cooling breeze. Word spread that the laundry was being organized.
6 Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais, Labor's Untold Story (Pittsburgh: United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, 1965), 291-295.
More than once, as I passed, workers would run out of a plant and shout at me, "Hey, CIO girl! We want a union, too." I was touched by their support but I missed the full significance. Joining a union had become the popular thing to do. These workers believed they had the right to a union, and to the better life that a union could bring.
Community support was very helpful to me the one time I went back on the decision I made at age six, not to fight with my fists. I had a fat armful of union leaflets as I walked through a residential street close to a laundry. The boss was ready for me. One of his women stooges grabbed the leaflets out of my arms, taking me by surprise. I must have stood there for a moment with my jaw dropping. But only a moment. "I'm going to get those leaflets back," I decided. So I chased after her, grabbed my leaflets back. The next thing I knew, we were both on the ground. That hurt my dignity a little. But I had saved the leaflets. People looking out of the tenement windows applauded. That helped my dignity a lot.
I did not go back to college when the summer ended. The union work was too important and too exciting. Tens of thousands of laundry workers had joined, and now they wanted their first contract. But the Bronx Laundry Owners Association did not want to negotiate with the militant United Laundry Workers Union (ULWU). The owners association claimed that they would negotiate only with a "responsible" union. Evidently they thought a "responsible" union would give the owners a better contract deal than they could get from the ULWU-CIO.
Meanwhile, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) had been eyeing the tens of thousands of laundry workers we had organized. So a deal was struck between the owners and the
JOIN THE CIO! Cartoon by Peggy Lipschutz
ACWA. ACWA took over the ULWU in an unfriendly merger that the laundry organizers were powerless to stop. The ACWU had played a key role in organizing the CIO and often took progressive positions on national issues. However, they were run from the top down, sometimes with an iron fist. We were soon to feel that fist.
At first, the change seemed to better my condition as an organizer. ACWA raised my pay from $10 to $19 a week. I bought my first suit! Soon after, however, all of us organizers were laid off. ACWA said they were laying us off until after the coming union elections so that we would not "influence" the results. Cut off from the workers during the crucial weeks before the union elections, many of the organizers never worked in the laundry industry again.
For the elections, there were two opposing slates. The ACWA slate included popular inside workers recently put on full salary by ACWA. Not only were they taken out of their hard, hot jobs, but their pay went from the $15 per week laundry pay to $50 per week regular staff pay. Their staff jobs included the use of a union car. In those days, car ownership among inside laundry workers was rare. With their pay tripled and the use of a car, the new staffers' loyalty to the ACWA machine was assured. Our independent slate featured rank-and-file workers with a record of union activism. However, the independent slate did not fully reflect the diversity of the inside workers, mostly African American and Latino. The independents were not really organized as a caucus. I am not sure they even had a complete slate. Of course, the ACWA slate swept the elections. A more experienced unionist would not have been surprised at the results. But I was devastated.
Commercial Laundry Work
Shortly after the elections, ACWA told us organizers that the layoff was permanent. But that was not the end of my commitment to laundry workers. Out of a job, I went out to find work in a laundry. Jessie Taft told me to stand outside her plant on Monday morning. Some bosses hired from workers who "shaped up at the beginning of the week." I got the job, my first in a commercial laundry.
Laundry plants, whether large or small, were organized on similar lines. First there were the "drivers" who picked up bundles of dirty laundry from individual customers and brought their loads into the plant. Inside work started with the markers who wrote the customer's name or number on hidden areas, such as inside shirt collars. In later years, pre-printed labels were clipped into place. Markers also assorted the linens and clothing and stuffed them into nets of "whites," "colored" and "delicate." Marking was relatively light work but dirty. You can imagine how dirty. Or perhaps you can't.
The nets of assorted clothes were sent to the "kitchen" for washing. This was the heaviest end of the work. Only big, strong men worked in the kitchen. They shoved the filled nets into large, industrial type washers. The washed, wet bags of linens and clothing were very heavy. They were hard to pull out of the large washers, and the pace was fast. On traditional wash days of Monday and Tuesday, 16 hours of work a day was expected. Often, the men would stay overnight in the plant Monday and Tuesday nights. They tried to catch whatever sleep they could, stretched out on bags of wash.
From the kitchen, the wet clothes were dumped into hollow "shaking" tables. The shakers, mostly women, would pick up each wet piece and shake it hard to smooth out the wrinkles. After a pile was accumulated, it was placed over a horizontal bar in front of a very large mangle. Shaking was muscularly hard, but clean and relatively unskilled. I kind of enjoyed the exercise when I was on that job. Two women manglers fed the shaken clothes onto the hot rolling web of the mangle. Each grabbed opposite ends of sheets and tablecloths. Smaller pieces were a challenge because mangle feeders had to quickly cover the mangle web with the small pieces. On the other side of the mangle were the receivers who had to be very fast. They grabbed the sheets and folded them in time to receive the next output. Smaller pieces were even harder. On the folding tables, orders were kept separate, to be wrapped and labeled.
Of the specialized services, business shirts were the most important. The bulk of the ironing was done on special presses for collar and cuffs, back, bosom and sleeve forms. The shirt folders did the final touch
up ironing, folding and packing into a shirt envelope. Today there is the option of leaving the shirt on a hanger. Shirt folders were considered the most skilled workers inside the laundry and potentially the highest paid. Many of the shirt folders were men. They were pieceworkers with a minimum of 300 shirts a day expected. I was fascinated by the way they worked. Their hands and arms moved so fast as their irons flew over the parts that the pressers had not reached. For some reason I did not understand, they danced as they worked. The pace was so fast that their feet were never still.
Finally, the packers put everything together. The drivers, who started the process, finished it by delivering the clean and ironed laundry to the customer. They were paid commissions and made more than the inside workers. Some thought of themselves as small businessmen, soliciting new customers and collecting for the laundry service. A few were accused of having sticky fingers and not turning in their full receipts. Most were honest and hard-working and became good union members. They were members of the same United Laundry Workers Union as the more numerous inside workers. Among the union officers, drivers were represented beyond their numbers. The drivers, almost all white, did not socialize with the inside workers who were mostly African American and Puertoriqueno. Union events, however, were well integrated.
Of Toilet Paper and Tea
On one of these jobs, I noticed that there was no toilet paper in the rest room. I remembered the story about Lenin, the Russian Communist leader, and the right to drink tea. Russian workers in grim, nineteenth century factories used to drink hot tea at work. It was their only relief during the 12-hour day of hard labor. At one plant, the boss ordered an end to drinking tea at work. Outraged, the workers pulled a wildcat strike and won back their right to drink tea. At the time, some organizers thought that tea was not an important issue. Lenin replied, "If the workers want to fight for tea, then you fight for tea!" That story inspired me to fight for toilet paper. I came storming out to the work floor shouting, "There's no toilet paper. We want toilet paper." The manager came running with some waxed wrapping paper. Dead serious as I was, I still had to laugh. Wax paper was so inappropriate. But there were times when poor toilet facilities were not a joke.
At another Bronx laundry where I worked one summer, there were two women's rest rooms. I was told they used to be segregated, one room for white (European), the other for Black (African American.) The company cleaned neither room. The "white" rest room became filthy. African American women workers cleaned the other room themselves. So the white women began to use the clean "Black" rest room. That ended segregation. On my part, I cultivated a strong bladder and tried to minimize my use of the rest rooms at work. Still, the rest room offered a few minutes rest, a rare chance to sit down. That was before unions won rest periods.
Looking for a more permanent job, I went to the ACWA hiring hall. New workers then had a two-week trial period during which the boss could fire you without cause. In three weeks, I worked on five different jobs. For no reason at all, I was "let go" at each of these jobs. On some, I lasted only half a day. I thought I had it made on the last job because I lasted until Friday afternoon of the second week. But a few minutes before 5 p.m. the familiar call came, "Beatrice, you are wanted in the front office." I knew what was coming: "You're fired!"
I did not know why I was fired. The company did not have to give a reason. Perhaps I had been recognized as a former union organizer. Even worse, it was possible that ACWU had notified the company, "We sent you a troublemaker named Beatrice Shapiro. Fire her!" In either case, I was out of a job. So I decided to go back to school. Tuition was free at Hunter College. The free tuition at city colleges was a victory won by New York labor years ago. At the time, we took it for granted. The free tuition is now long gone and these colleges have become expensive. Even with free tuition, I needed money to live. Sadly, my mother had died that year, and my father could not keep the family's apartment. Butch, my
61 *
boyfriend, helped me survive. He was an employed commercial artist, a good person and loyal to the movement. We drifted apart later and I don't remember why—probably just not enough mutual attraction. In February, 1939,1 graduated from Hunter College. The Depression was still on and did not end for many workers until World War II. For most Hunter College graduates, who were then all women, the only jobs were sales clerk positions at Macy's. But I did not have the clothing for that kind of job. My family was on welfare and could not help me. Laundry jobs were still available but I was on the "Don't Hire" list in the Bronx. Some comrades in Brooklyn invited me to come there for a job. Progressives had won the elections in Local 328, and the Left had maintained its leadership. Just to make sure that the "Don't Hire" list would not catch up with me, I used my mother's maiden name, Chernin.
Big Move to Brooklyn
As Beatrice Chernin, I returned to my life as a laundry worker at 35 cents an hour. It paid the rent for my furnished room, bought food if I did not eat too much, and rare, essential purchases of clothing. Moving from the Bronx to Brooklyn was very traumatic. I joked that I needed a passport to move to Brooklyn. There were some big differences. I moved from a congested tenement house neighborhood to a neighborhood with some single homes with backyard gardens. I rented a furnished room from some comrades who shared the rent for a single-family house. I loved the backyard and still remember it fondly. However, looking back, I wonder why I thought living in Brooklyn would be such a big change. The laundry work was certainly the same.
My first Brooklyn job was at Spartan Laundry. I was immediately active in the union and soon elected to the shop committee. In a few months I was able to move on to the big time, the Brighton Laundry. That was the local's largest plant with 500 workers. Women did most of the work in the laundries. We worked ten-hour days at the beginning of the week and eight or nine hours the rest of the week. Most were women of color, African American and Puerto Rican. I had a turn at almost every job inside the laundry. I did marking and sorting of the dirty clothes, light work but disgusting. I had my turn at shaking out the wet clothing and stacking it for the "mangle girls."
Everything past the shaking table was hot, hotter and hottest. Some laundries had almost no ventilation. It was not rare for workers to faint. I tried working on the mangle where the feeder must keep the mangle covered with clothes at all times. To feed through without wrinkles, clothes and linens had to be properly stretched out. The mangle had two speeds, slow and fast. I tried to keep up, but a coworker said, "Beatrice has two speeds: slow and stop." So I became a "sleeve girl" in the shirt press department. I could do that quite well as I roasted between the hot sleeve forms and the steaming presses.
Sleeve Girl—A Hot Job
I especially remember one hot summer when I was working as a sleeve girl. I probably worked on that job in the fall and winter too. But it was the summer I remember because it was so hot. The laundry was housed in an old, commercial garage and employed about one hundred workers, mostly women. There was little natural ventilation and I don't remember any fans. When the outside temperature rose above a humid 100° F, it was probably a steamy 20 degrees higher inside.
The wet shirt went to the collar-and-cuff presser first, then the back presser, and the bosom presser. The presses were all close together, putting out steam each time they came down on a wet shirt. My operation was last before the shirt folders. I used two hands to grab the shirt from the bosom-presser's stand. Quickly, I positioned the shirt on top of the two sleeve-forms. My job was to force the sleeves over the hot forms. There was no way to do that but lean between the hot forms as I pushed the shirt down. The sleeves were already steaming and drying as I raised my head. Then I pulled the shirt off the hot sleeve-forms, put it on a hanger, and hung it on a rack. Last I used the hook tool that hung around my neck to button the front. By that time another shirt would be waiting for me. I had to keep up.
The hottest and steamiest job was operating the presses. My job was a close second. But at least it was clean, unlike my earlier job of assorting the dirty clothes. Normally, I sweat less than most people. On the sleeve job the choice was sweat or die. Of course there were those who sweated and died or at least passed out. I learned a lot about cooling down. Wet cloths around the forehead cooled the head and kept the sweat from running into your eyes. Wet cloths around the neck felt really good. And it was amazing how wet cloths tied around each wrist helped.
Yet and still, the sweat rolled down my body, down my legs and into my shoes. Puddles of sweat in the shoes were a weird sensation. "You have to drink water," the other workers reminded me. But there was little time. Then the boss got magnanimous. He began to pass out free salt tablets. It was amazing how those tablets kept down the aches and cramps that had annoyed me on the job. Probably someone told the boss he would get more work out of us to more than make up for the free salt tablets.
That laundry was a new union shop in a newly-organized industry. The CIO Laundry Workers Industrial Union had been organized just one year earlier. The union won us a small raise and a big change in working conditions. With the union contract, you had dignity on the job. You could not be fired for refusing to go out with the foreman. But life-preserving needs such as good ventilation and rest periods were not yet part of our demands. All the workers on that job were young. It was not a job you could get old on.
Finally, I reached the top of my trade and became a shirt folder. The shirt folder ironed the yoke and sleeve areas that the presses did not reach. Then he/she folded the shirt around a cardboard and slipped it into a large envelope. Before I became a shirt folder, I used to marvel how shirt folders' feet moved in an unconscious dance although the shirt-folding was done with the hands and arms. Strange thing! When I became a shirt folder, my feet began to dance on their own. Somehow, moving the feet fast helped me move my hands fast. If the iron lingered too long on the touch up, the shirt would be scorched. I am afraid I scorched my share until I learned.
The piecework quota for the day was 300 shirts, and I made my quota. But some did 500! Much smaller women than I were producing more than I could, no matter how hard I tried. I was never sure why but suspected that I was less desperate. Perhaps it was because I was not supporting a family at that time and had only myself to worry about. The wolf did not howl quite so loudly outside my door.
Kicking Out the Gangsters
I was glad to see that the leftist leaders of my Brooklyn local encouraged rank and file leadership. Among the rank and file leaders were women who had stood up to the "mob" and had run them out of the old AFL union. I marveled at their courage. Rose Polio was an outstanding leader among these women, just 20 years old. When she asked me to run for educational director of the local, I agreed. Our slate was elected, but not without a vote-counting struggle. Counting of the paper ballots was disputed late into the night. Hundreds of ballots remained to be counted. The counters locked up the ballot box in a warehouse and we went home to sleep. That proved to be a big mistake.
The next morning, counting resumed. Hundreds of the remaining ballots were disqualified. These ballots had been spoiled by marking an "X" for six instead of just five delegates to the executive board. The sixth "X" on each spoiled ballot was obviously marked with the same pencil, different from pencils used on the rest of the ballot. The conservative opposition claimed victory in the election of the executive board. We appealed and the election was set aside. Months later, the ballot tamperers freely admitted the fraud. In the pre-morning hours they had opened the wood ballot box, changed hundreds of ballots and resealed the box.
In July 1939, new Local 328 elections were held to replace the stolen election of February 1939.1 was among those elected to the new local executive board where I functioned as the local's educational director. As officers of an ACWA local, we received invitations to some ACWA lavish functions.
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I remember a big dinner given by the ACWA. It was a sumptuous banquet, the likes of which I had never seen before. On the table, among other goodies, were trays of nuts. I could not help but think, "So this is what they mean when they speak of a big meal as everything from soup to nuts." It was our dues that were paying for the luxurious spread. "Couldn't they give us a nice meal without going to so much expense?" I wondered. Of course the event was in a fancy hotel. Whatever I thought it cost at the time, I realize now that it must have cost more than I could have imagined. I am sure that each meal cost more than my week's salary.
Jim Crow in Washington, DC
One of the great benefits of working with the laundry union was the comradeship I shared with coworkers, especially my union sisters. At the Brighton Laundry, we had a good group of union-conscious women, including a number of young Communists. I was one of six who got the chance to go to Washington, DC. We were a Brighton Laundry delegation to the American Youth Congress (AYC) meeting with Eleanor Roosevelt. The YCL was an active part of AYC and helped us voice our concerns to Mrs. Roosevelt. I don't remember how we got there, probably on an AYC bus. Nor do I remember Mrs. Roosevelt's speech although I have read about it in history books. What I remember, as though it happened yesterday, were the hideous Jim Crow practices we experienced in the nation's capital.
We six young laundry workers came to Washington expecting an exciting time. We left after work and arrived in D. C. after dark. Of course we were tired but in high spirits. We were three African Americans and three of European descent. The Washington cab drivers were segregated so we hailed an African American cab driver. The six of us squeezed into his cab. Naturally, we did not have any hotel reservations. I had never stayed in a hotel. Probably my comrades were just as inexperienced. We asked the driver to take us to a reasonable hotel. It was in the white section of town. The hotel clerks looked at our mixed group and said, "No room." So we tried another hotel. And another. It was getting late. We were tired and frustrated. The driver said, "I can take three of you to one hotel and three to another." We did not agree. We refused to split up.
Finally the driver said, "Look, I can take you to a settlement house where you can all get rooms. The settlement house was in an African American neighborhood, and they took us in without question. We were very grateful; we had succeeded in staying together. The next morning we were invited to breakfast. What a glorious breakfast! It included delicious macaroni and cheese and fried apples, a new breakfast experience for me. All the standard items were also included: orange juice, bacon, scrambled eggs and home-made biscuits. We left fortified to listen to Mrs. Roosevelt on the White House lawn. On our return to Brooklyn, we felt even closer to each other and more united.
tnntss agent and shop committee of the Brighton Laundry. They von % praise of officers for their good work for the union
H Author, far left, with Brighton Laundry union committee
I had one other brush with the brutal reality of Jim Crow in our nation's capital. It was harder to take because I was alone and on a difficult mission. In the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, I met William, a comrade from British Guyana. He was sweet, poetic, romantic and perhaps a bit too good looking. We were sincerely in love for almost two years. There was just one problem. From time to time, he would come late to our dates, very late, hours late. The story would always be the same. He had been deep in a vital, political discussion with a friend and lost track of the time. The discussion had always been aided by a bottle of something alcoholic. Sadly and reluctantly I realized that we could not go through life together with alcohol in the way. And so I told him, with affection but finality. We had to split up. Unfortunately, he had just been drafted.
William was sent to, or near, Washington, DC. He wrote a letter to me as though nothing had happened. Before he went overseas, I had to make clear that we had split. But I did not want to send a "Dear John" letter. Hard as it was, I thought I should go to Washington and do it in person. In Washington, I tried to get a taxi to take me to the address William had given me. First off, the taxis were still segregated. You either had to get a taxi for "whites" or a taxi for "colored." I was already upset by my delicate mission. There was a war on. African Americans and whites were giving their lives for democracy. And the capital city of our country was still segregated! That made me really upset. When I met William, he did not want to hear what I had to say. Perhaps it would have been kinder to lie but I could not do that. I saw William again, years later, at some national meeting of the CPUS A. By that time we were both married to somebody else. To my surprise, William asked, "Why did you break up with me?" He never got it.
Fighting for Union Democracy
The Daily Worker had extensive labor news coverage. That gave us some idea of what was going on outside our local union. But most of the time, we were entirely wrapped up in the fight around our local issues. However, what we could do locally was severely limited by national developments. In June 1940, the Smith Act passed, providing long jail terms for those allegedly "teaching and advocating the overthrow of the United States government by force and violence." The Act was part of a witch hunt against the Left but had bigger game in its sights. The main target of the red baiters was the Roosevelt administration and its labor-friendly legislation.
In later years, the Act was declared unconstitutional, but not before Communist leaders had spent years in federal prisons for "conspiring to teach ...." In 1940, the witch-hunters were stoking the fires. Those flames spread to our local and changed everything. Although Pearl Harbor put out the red baiters' fires, on December 7, 1941, they would be lit again after the war.
Since Local 328 was under attack by the ACWA machine as well as by the bosses, we had to fight for union democracy. When the "International" appointed our delegates to the New York State CIO convention, we were indignant. The union constitution called for election of delegates. We called an emergency Local 328 membership meeting. It was the evening before the convention. That night we elected our own convention delegates. I was one of those elected. We were not daunted by the fact that the convention was being held in Rochester, over 300 miles away. We had to get to the hall in Rochester before 10 a.m. so we could challenge the seating of the appointed delegates. Four laundry drivers and I left right from the Brooklyn meeting.
The highway to Rochester went through the Adirondack Mountains. It was very foggy in the mountains, but we could not afford to slow down or wait for the fog to lift. In those days, cars had running boards. With a man on each running board to watch the road, and the driver peering through the windshield to see through the fog, we pushed on. They took turns driving. I was no help because I did not know how to drive. In fact, I remember only one inside laundry worker who owned a car. By morning, we came out of the mountains and the sun came out.
*65 *
We reached Rochester just as the convention opened. The only open seats were in the back of the hall. We were barely seated when the motion was made to accept the credentials report, I had to act fast. "I object," I screamed. The convention was stunned. Screaming at the top of my then-strong voice, I strode down the aisle, shouting, "We were elected by a local membership meeting last night, according to our constitution. We demand to be seated! The delegates sent by ACWA were appointed, not elected by us."
I must have been a sight. No sleep all night, long hair streaming, shabbily dressed and couldn't care less and all of 21 years old. Bet my eyes were blazing. There was some kind of discussion on the floor. Before we knew what was happening, Mike Quill of the transport union was leading a huge crowd of delegates out of the hall to an already prepared meeting place. Evidently, a similar issue of union democracy was playing out on a state scale. But I will admit that I did not really know what was going on at the state level. Our focus was on Local 328 and our fight for union democracy. Still, our Local 328 felt quite heroic.
Shortly after the convention, the ACWA leadership decided to rid themselves of the "troublemakers" of Local 328. In March 1941, charges were placed against our business agents Michael Coleman and George McGriff who were suspended, pending "trial." I worked closely with Michael Coleman but regret that I had little chance to interact with George McGriff, an African American business agent. McGriff was supportive of our rank and file leadership, but his shops were in an area of Brooklyn that I did not know.
The ACWA sent in enough staff with enough money to take the local over. They called a membership meeting after work that was not like any I had ever attended. Earlier membership meetings were attended by members who came on their own. They came because they had something to say or just wanted to know what was going on.
This meeting was different. Hundreds of workers had been bussed in to the meeting by ACWA staff. The tactic was to shout down any supporters of the suspended business agents. I looked at these sister and fellow workers, low paid and overworked like the rest of us. What could I say that would reach them? This was worse than the Third Avenue El screeching overhead when the YCL held outdoor meetings. My first words had to win their interest. I shouted something like, "We're all here because our wages are too low and we can't pay our bills." The room quieted and for a couple of minutes people listened. "And it's too damned hot at work. Why can't they put some fans in?" Then the signal was given and the shouts and jeers started up again. Probably these workers were hungry and wanted to go to the free dinner they were promised after the meeting. That was another lesson for me in union politics.
The next step against Local 328 leaders was to put us on trial as "Communists." The "red scare" was an old weapon used against unions. The union organizing drives of 1919 had been followed by the Palmer raids of January 2, 1920. In the dead of night, the FBI arrested 10,000 in 70 cities. They were largely members of unions, many of them union officers. They, too, were charged with being Communists. Many were beaten, even tortured. Although over 80 percent were later released without charge, the repression set unions back 15 years. Unfortunately, some national union leaders gave in to the pressure of an early type of "McCarthyism."
Trial Lawyer—A New Experience
In April of 1941 the trial of our local officers was held before a committee representing the General Executive Board of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. The committee of three included Jacob Potofsky and Frank Rosenblum, the top ACWA leadership, excluding only Sidney Hillman, We knew that the trial was a formality. The verdict was already written. Still, we wanted to make the most of any democratic opening available to us. We decided to be represented by one person to make a unified defense. Our "lawyer" had to be a member of the union. To my surprise, I was chosen. I would have chosen Julius Halpern, a more experienced leader. Perhaps our group thought a young shop worker would best represent our cause. While I felt honored to be chosen, I was worried. My only model of a lawyer was Perry Mason
of the movies. He always won his cases by pulling a big surprise during the trial. What big surprise could I spring when the only "charge" against us was membership in the Communist Party?
Indeed, we did not go down without a fight. In a chilling preview of the McCarthy period, ACWA had bought some "witnesses." One was a driver who had been a personal friend as well as a comrade. For the sake of his descendants who may be honorable people, I will not mention his name. Some drivers used to get into trouble by spending their receipts on gambling, alcohol, or girlfriends. Then they would come up short when they had to settle their accounts with the owner of the laundry. We did not know that our friend was in trouble until ACWA put him on the stand. Later we learned that he had a gambling problem. He faced criminal prosecution, or at the very least firing, for not turning over money collected for laundry he delivered.
I did not do a "Perry Mason" type "turning of the screw" and expose his motive for testifying. I did not ask him what he had been promised in exchange for his "testimony," perhaps because that would not have been "nice." More likely, I didn't think of it. Instead, I made him talk about all the good things we had done in the Communist Party. When he testified that he attended a Communist Party school and fingered other attendees, I asked him, "What did they teach you?" That seemed to make him squirm the most. He had to talk about our work to strengthen the union and our fight for peace and against fascism.
The long and short of it was that they upheld the suspension of the officers and executive board of Local 328. As described in ACWAs Advance, they found that the "local was under the complete domination of a small group of officers who respected only the policy and discipline of the Communist Party." We were expelled and the driver kept his job. If he lost his boss's money again by betting on the horses, we were not around for him to sell us out to save his skin.
What should we do? We held a very tense meeting of the deposed officers and our close supporters. The members still supported us. Should we split off, form an independent union and continue to fight for the membership? Older leaders argued against this course. In principle, we oppose dual unionism, they argued. From the practical viewpoint, the laundry contracts were with the ACWA. If we split off, the employers would declare the contracts null and void. We had carried the fight as far as we could, veteran Communists among us argued. Then Rose, one of the Italian women who had founded Local 328, asked, "We stood up to the gangsters and drove them out. What was the use of all of our fighting if it ends like this? Was it all a waste of time?"
That question made us go back to basics. No, we agreed, it was not a waste of time. We had won better conditions. Workers had learned a lot about organizing. Some had learned to look beyond their particular boss to see that exploitation was rooted in the capitalist system. They could change bosses, but exploitation would continue. The whole system had to be changed. That's why we wanted socialism, a system where key industries would be owned by the people and run by the workers.
Pearl Harbor Bombed
On December 7, 1941, everything changed. The Japanese bombed the American Fleet at Pearl Harbor and the United States was in the war. To defeat the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo axis, the U.S. became an ally of Great Britain and the USSR. Red-baiting witch hunts were halted; the government concentrated on stopping fascism and winning World War II. Despite undemocratic actions such as our expulsion, ACWA leadership took progressive positions on many issues. Frank Rosenblum and Jacob Potofsky were staunch supporters of the war against fascism. Over the years, I have had to work with more than one of their type.
Personally, I got over the expulsion of the democratically elected leaders of our union local. But one remark I neither forgot nor forgave. As the trial ended, Rosenblum took me aside and said, "Why are you so involved with politics? At your age, you should be thinking of getting married!"
Go Back to Top
8. Working in a Machine Shop
What counts is winning the fight against racism.
Expulsion from the laundry workers' union meant expulsion from the industry, since we had won a union shop. Jessie Taft, my mentor in the laundry union, found a way to stay in the industry by working in non-union shops. Then she organized those plants. But most of the Communist laundry workers moved out to different industries. Perhaps many of us would have left the laundries anyway, as more jobs opened up during World War II. I lost track of Jessie but asked about her a couple years later. "Oh, she married one of our best railroad comrades," a friend told me. Jessie Taft had become Jessie Smith. For many decades, Jessie Smith led the fight for tenants' rights in New York City. I saw Rose Polio some years later at the 12th Street offices of the Communist Party. She had married Michael Coleman but that marriage did not last. Then I lost track of the laundry workers until many years later.
In September 1939, World War II officially began with the Nazi invasion of Poland. The war in Europe increased the demand for American products but jobs were still hard to get. I got one little job after another. I worked one week in a hat factory, another week in a pocketbook factory. It was amazing to me how much glue was used for those products. For a couple of weeks, I operated a stitching machine sewing wrappers for permanent wave curlers. Although the sewing machine was motorized, it was very low tech. I pulled the tape forward about five feet, as it was stitched, cut it, and then ran back fast to catch the next length. The job was very athletic. I didn't mind; I just did not like the low pay.
One little job I had was at the Eagle Pencil factory in Brooklyn. In one way it was easy. You sat on the job. Never before did I have the luxury of sitting at work. I had not even realized that you could sit down and be paid. But it was hard enough in other ways. Our workday was nine hours. Of course, there were no coffee breaks. Coffee breaks as well as weekends off were victories won later by the unions. We just worked straight through until it was time for lunch. What if you had to go to the bathroom before lunch? You had to first check the lights. Above the bathroom door were three lights, one for each toilet stall. If the lights were all on, you were not supposed to go in. Each time a woman went into the ladies room, she was supposed to turn a light on and turn it off as she left.
The first time I used the factory bathroom, all three lights were out. I turned on one light and entered. To my surprise, I found the bathroom full of women and the air was full of cigarette smoke. Women had slipped in without turning on a light. They were taking a badly needed break. "Did you turn on a light?" the women demanded, as I walked in. "I'll never do that again," I promised.
Machine Operator
Finally, I landed a job in a machine shop. More jobs were opening up because of military orders although the U.S. was not yet in the war. The job was in Queens at the Dictograph Company. Dictograph made Dictaphones, an early type of recorder. The skills needed to do the work were learned on the job. My first job was to hammer in small nails on terminal boards. After a full day's work, often more than eight hours, a person learns to hit the nail instead of the thumb. But at first the thumb took a lot of hits.
From hammering terminal boards, I moved on to the drill press department. For months on end, I drilled a hole through the head of steel bolts, all of the same type. The bolts were labeled "secret," but that was a joke. What could be secret about a bolt? By coincidence, I came across those bolts again on a later job. The bolt attached a label to radar training equipment. At that time, radar was "secret." But the bolts?
Eventually, the bolt order was filled at the machine shop. Then I was given telephone handsets to drill. They were molded of some plastic material. The technique was different from drilling steel. The molded material was delicate, easily fractured. I had to feel my way with the drill to avoid hairline cracks that would spread later. So I was careful. Working all day with no breaks except for lunch, I produced about 2,000 handsets.
We had a big, mean, male foreman who did not know how to speak respectfully to the young women he supervised. If he had something to say to me, he would read out the number on my badge. "Number one thousand two hundred five, come here!" That got on my nerves. The work itself was monotonous. A robot could do it and today robots do such jobs. Calling me by my number just emphasized that for him, I was just a tool, not a person. One day I blew my top and told him as I jabbed at my name on the badge, "I have a name. Call me by my name, not my number!" So you could say the foreman and I did not get along.
The foreman decided that 2,000 headsets were not enough. He told me that I would have to produce more, or else. Dictograph was a union shop, so he did not spell out the "or else." But I was doing a good job, my very best. Didn't that foreman know that this was delicate work that could not be rushed?
I was angry. The juices began to flow in my body and I threw all caution to the winds. Grab the handset, bring the drill down, bear down on the drill, and put the handset in the box. Get a new handset, bring the drill down and repeat. The angrier I got the faster I worked. By the end of the day I had drilled 5,000!
The next day word reached me that the handsets had cracked. They never told me how many so I assumed it was all 5,000.1 felt vindicated, although I hated the idea of so much waste. The foreman never said another word to me on the subject. He moved me to another department and I was out of his control. But I bet he never rushed another drill press operator doing a delicate job.
Punch Press Department
At the other end of the plant was the punch press department. Only men worked there. There was a war against fascism to win and I wanted to do more on the job. Even for 1941, those were ancient machines. To bring the press down to cut metal, the operator had to stand in front of the press and then grab both levers, one in each hand, and press down with his full weight. In a way, it was a macho job because it took strength. Needing both hands was a safety thing, I guess. It kept your hands out of the way when the cutting tools came down. But why was the press so hard to bring down?
I truly enjoyed that job, even ten hours of it. It gave my muscles a good workout, and I was keeping up with the men. The men considered the machines dangerous. Sometimes they repeated and came down on their own. The press was intended to cut metal but it could also chop off fingers or perhaps a whole hand. After two weeks, the men decided they did not want me there. They called my attention to a man who walked outside the plant almost every day at lunch time. "He used to work here," my co-workers told me. "One day the press came down on his hand and he lost four fingers." As I watched the injured worker, he seemed to lean to one side as he walked. "That's probably the side where he lost all those fingers," I thought.
The men in the punch press department could not stand the thought that I might lose my fingers. They asked the company to transfer me to another department. I did not fight the decision. To tell the truth, I, too, could not stand the thought that I might lose my fingers. The guys had been good union buddies. Otherwise, I might have fought their decision on principle. And perhaps I no longer enjoyed leaving work with all my muscles sore.
That's when I got my desire, a job in the lathe department. True, it was only on a milling machine, but the lathes were nearby. Perhaps, if I were lucky, they would let me learn. My buddy, Lois, had been hired after me. But she was ahead of me on the milling machines and "broke me in." My friendship with Lois helped me enjoy my all-too-short stay in the lathe department.
Hiring Lois signaled a victory for our union, known as UE, then short for United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America-CIO. The company had been under pressure from the union to integrate their all-white work force. When FDR created the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) by executive order on June 25, 1941, it was a response to this type of community and labor pressure. It was also a practical measure because the large army draft had created a shortage of labor.
At an earlier union meeting, a motion had been made to demand that the company hire African Americans. To my horror, there was a lot of opposition. It was a very tense scene. I was astounded when the maker of the motion, a union officer and comrade, withdrew the motion. "Why did you withdraw the motion?" I hotly demanded, after the meeting. "Well we wanted to prevent a negative vote. We could not afford to have the local go on record against integration. Next month, we will make sure that our supporters come to the meeting. Then we will make the motion again, when we will be sure of winning."
I learned a lesson that day that was never covered in a book on parliamentary procedure. I learned that what counts is not a "heroic" minority going on record for a principle, even if it leads to a defeat. What counts is winning the fight, in this case, the fight against racism. For the next meeting, the union leaders made a big effort to get the membership out. They had also done more to educate members on the need for unity. The motion to demand the hiring of African Americans won big.
When I left that machine shop, I took with me a lot that I had learned. Besides the many lessons in organizing, I developed some technical skills that were useful on future jobs. With World War II raging in Europe, the demand for labor had increased. Finally, my college degree meant something. I found a job as a junior electronics engineer. Technical work kept me employed for the next 20 years. In later years I would urge students not to give up their studies just because the job scene was discouraging. Learn! It may be useful later.
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9. Defense Worker in World War II
World War II could have been prevented.
Producing to Win the War
My next job was titled "Junior Radio Engineer" at Emerson Radio. It was a defense job; the U.S. was at war. The U.S. and USSR had become allies. That was after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union six months earlier. While the war was on, the U.S. government stopped its repression of the Communist Party. We laughed at the experience of one of my friends. The FBI did one of its "investigations" on her. They asked her neighbor if they had seen anything suspicious going on in her apartment. "Oh no," the neighbor replied. "She is a good woman. She is a member of the Communist Party!"
American Communists were passionate about winning the war against fascism. As many as 10,000 volunteered for military service. More than a few died in battle. I could add to the list of comrades killed in World War II, those who died in Spain. In many ways, the Spanish Civil War was the opening battle of World War II. The Western Allies had cut off trade with the elected government of Spain. Supplied by Hitler's Germany and fascist Italy, the fascists won the Civil War in Spain. The fascist alliance became strong enough to start World War II.
In the U.S., there were also Americans who thought we were on the wrong side in World War II. To them, nothing was more important than destroying Communism and defeating the Soviet Union. The fact is that during World War II, for years, the Soviets were left to fight the Nazis alone on the ground in Europe. Not until June 6, 1944, with the Normandy Beach invasion, did the U.S. and England open a Second Front in Europe. Every day that the Second Front was delayed increased the death toll.
I felt that I was helping to win the war by working in the defense industry. Could I say I was qualified to work in an electronics lab? Well, I had two hands, two eyes and I knew what a resistor was. The test they gave me was minimal. At the time I was hired, I knew almost nothing about electronics. Probably my machine shop experience was more important than my college degree in preparing me to be a model maker. But I had a willing heart and I learned quickly.
I moved to an apartment which I shared with some comrades. The apartment was a short walk to Emerson Radio. Believe it or not, I woke up at 7:30 a.m., took a shower, dressed, ran a few blocks and punched in by 8 a.m. Then I spent a couple of minutes in the washroom to really comb my hair. Next, I ran down to the first floor coffee shop for a donut and milk. After that I was ready for a long day's work. We put in a lot of overtime, helping to win the war.
Working from a circuit diagram, the model maker built "bread-board" models for new electronic instruments. It was up to us to build a working model, starting with sheet metal and the parts. We had the run of the machine shop to bend the sheet metal to form a chassis, punch out holes for tube sockets and drill holes for screws and terminal strips. Then we mounted the tube sockets and terminal strips and wired and soldered the resistors, coils and condensers. This was before the days of printed circuits and transistors.
Organizing with UE
UE was organizing the Emerson Radio factory and had signed up most of the workers. The need for a union was easy to see. The company was making lots of profit guaranteed by the federal government. Still, they did not want to pay the workers a living wage. UE had not tried to organize the engineers, but they were willing to let us join. I had already negotiated a raise for myself. I hated having to do it on my own, but the war gave me some leverage. Emerson Radio hired me at 50 cents an hour. In two weeks I proved that I could do the job. So I went in to ask for a raise. "How much do you want," management asked. "One dollar an hour," I answered. The manager exclaimed, "That's double your pay!" But I would not budge and he gave in.
All the other lab workers were underpaid, too. Henry, the engineer who was my project manager, liked the idea of being in a union. I believe he was making a big $50 a week as a graduate engineer. Together, we organized the department. The big day came when our negotiating committee went in to bargain for our first union contract. Henry and I represented engineering. To our surprise and disappointment, management refused to include the engineers in the contract. I can still see the big boss (I guess nowadays we would say CEO) giving his cynical excuse. "How can you include the engineers?" he said so smugly. "Engineers deal with intangibles!" For whatever reason, UE did not press the issue and we were left out. If we in engineering wanted a union, we would have to organize our own. That was our plan.
I hope the Emerson engineers did win union recognition. About that time, I gave in to my wanderlust and left the city. I had seldom wandered further from the Bronx than Brooklyn, except for a summer job at Camp Unity. But I had always wanted to travel. Growing up in the Bronx neighborhood of Hunts Point, I often heard the foghorns of ships in the harbor at night. It was a wonderful, mournful sound and filled me with longing to visit far-off places. As teenagers, we did walk across George Washington Bridge and relished being in New Jersey, the "country."
As a college student, I did my share of hitch-hiking. I got out of the city to places as far away as the Appalachian Trail crossing of the Connecticut-New York state line. That was not very far. With my Pioneer group, we took the train to Trenton, New Jersey, in 1927, to support striking textile workers. That was an unforgettable experience. As a teenager, I had even hitch-hiked to Washington, DC for a youth rally one winter. I remember freezing in the rumble seat of a car for the three-hour drive. But basically, I seldom got out of the city.
Moving to Buffalo
It seemed the only way I could get to see more of the country was to move out of New York City. During World War II, when jobs were easy to get, I had the chance to relocate. "Go to Rochester, New York," some friends advised. Moving was easy. I packed my one suitcase, tied together my stack of books, and got on the train. I left behind my father, my brother Max and many friends. My brother Leon was already in the Merchant Marine, ducking the torpedoes.
It was my brother Leon who persuaded me to stay out of the armed forces. I told him I was considering enlisting. He told me, from what he had seen in Europe, women enlistees were just "officer fodder." During World War II, women were not used in combat. I did not mind being in a supporting service, but not that kind of service. Later I learned that Leon did not tell me the full story. Servicewomen in World War II made an important contribution to the Allied victory. My brother was just trying to keep me safe.
In Rochester, the Communist Party network found me a place to stay. I applied for work at Eastman Kodak, the main employer in town. At that time Kodak was non-union although unions had wide support in Rochester. They offered me a job as an apprentice lens grinder at 50 cents an hour. I was excited about learning how to grind lenses. Rochester also seemed to be a pleasant city to live in. But I had left a job in New York City paying $1 per hour. So I decided to take the bus to Buffalo to see if I could do better there.
Buffalo, New York, was a hard-working industrial city with a lot to offer during World War II. The city described itself in business magazine ads as enjoying four seasons. Buffalonians put it another way: "Buffalo has two seasons, fourth of July and winter." In terms of weather, there was little to choose between Buffalo and Rochester. Both had harsh winters. Once in Buffalo, I applied at Colonial Radio, later part of Sylvania. They were making transmitters for the military. I was hired at once as a "junior engineer" at $1 an hour. That left me with little choice. I hopped back on a bus to Rochester. All my personal belongings went back into my medium-sized suitcase. Once again, I tied a rope around my books and grabbed it with my left hand. My right hand grabbed the suitcase. I was ready to relocate again.
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I had wisely relocated to Buffalo in the summer time, when "the living was easy." But even in the summer, I had trouble understanding Buffalo weather. It took me many months, perhaps years, to remember that the temperature might be 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the daytime but could drop to 40 at night. I was often the only one on Main Street shivering in a sleeveless cotton dress at night. Everyone else, with any brains, was comfortably covered in a warm jacket. I had also heard about Buffalo winters, when cars and buses got stuck in the snow, and everyone had to walk the miles to home. That did not happen in my first year in town. Luckily, my first Buffalo winter was unusually mild. The next few winters gave me a good taste of the snow and ice that marked Buffalo's main season
The Communist Party had an office in downtown Buffalo. That was my first stop. I could leave my suitcase there, look in the paper for "Rooms to Rent," and go out to get a room. I found a room on Porter Avenue near the Rainbow Bridge to Canada. Back at the Party office, I met a lot of interesting people. Although I had to report early the next morning for the new job, I stayed out late that night. Meeting people seemed more important to me than sleep. Tired and excited, I went to my new room, snuggled beneath the clean linens to get a few hours sleep. But that was not to be. I felt one sharp stab and then another and said to myself, "Stop imagining things. Go to sleep." But then there was another and still another. I jumped up, quickly turned on the light and my worst fears materialized. The bed was full of bed bugs. Here and there were the telltale streaks of blood, my blood from the fresh bites.
Now there are some people who can sleep through bed bug bites. Bed bugs were then very common in New York City apartments, even in some high-rent areas. I know from experience. Unfortunately, they raise big welts on my body and I cannot ignore them. In my parents' apartment, we used to take the old coil spring off the bed and doused it in turpentine. We even burned each coil with a match. But the bugs came back. In despair, I dragged two hard kitchen chairs into the living room. It was a hard bed, but the bugs didn't care for it either. Without the bugs I could get some sleep. But I had not expected biting bugs on Porter Avenue, then a rather nice street. What to do? I did need a couple of hours sleep and I could not get it there. So I packed my suitcase, shaking each piece of clothing to dislodge any traveling bugs. Then I headed downtown on the bus to the Ford Hotel and rented a room for about $2.50.
Junior Radio Engineer
The next morning, I hopped a bus north to Colonial Radio and went right to work. I was given a standard transmitter to take from test booth to test booth. The booths were operated by civilian inspectors employed by the army. My job was called "correlations," to make sure all the meters read the same, booth to booth. The army didn't seem to care if they had the correct readings, just that they all read the same. The transmitter weighed about 50 pounds. This was before miniaturization. As a woman, I felt I had to prove my strength. I declined the use of a dolly to wheel the transmitter around. Instead, I carried the heavy instrument chest-high to all the test booths. Maybe that's why I have a bad back now.
I tried but never succeeded in becoming active in the UE local at the plant. Most of my work then as a Communist was in the community. Hattie Lumpkin was my mentor for community work. We used to go door to door canvassing together. She was just so warm and so smart and so rooted in the community. After working with Hattie for a few months, I felt I had been in Buffalo for years. She had an open door policy in her house. Her house at 263 Watson Street was the center for community activists and Communists. Only two of her ten children had moved out and they lived just one or two blocks away. Cousins who had moved to Buffalo lived with her, too. Her daughter, Jonnie, became my best friend.
"Win the War!"—Our Priority
The first goal of the Communists in Buffalo, as elsewhere in the U.S., was winning the war against fascism. That was also the goal of the U.S. government. Winning the war was an all-class issue. There
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was supposed to be equality of sacrifice. What did the bosses sacrifice? Nothing! War contracts for companies were on a cost plus basis. The more the companies charged the military for their products, the greater the profit. The workers were making all the sacrifices. It was our men and women who were being killed in Europe and the Pacific. On the home front, we workers were patriotic, working as hard as we could while the companies made the profits. Meat, butter and sugar were rationed; wages and prices were frozen. Prices of necessities kept edging upward but wages stayed frozen. The class struggle never stopped but the union's hands were tied. Most unions honored the no-strike pledge for the duration of the war.
During World War II, the tax burden was largely shifted from the wealthy to the workers. Before World War II, very few workers paid federal income tax. The amount of income exempt from tax was relatively higher than it is now. Only one of my friends, an engineer, ever paid income tax. Now, even minimum wage workers have to pay income tax. On the positive side, labor made important gains during the war. Membership increased, and huge inroads were made against racism and sexism. There was practically no unemployment.
The fight against racism in the U.S. was one of the greatest contributions by the Communists towards winning the war. The Communist Party had pioneered in the fight against racism in the '20s and '30s. They fought racism because it is wrong and it is used to divide and weaken the working class. In World War II, racism stood in the way of winning the war against fascism. To begin with, racism weakened the U.S. armed forces, still segregated in World War II. A segregated military, by definition, prevented millions of people of color from making their full contribution to winning the war.
I learned about the racism rampant in the U.S. Army from my friends, the Lumpkins. Racism endangered the life of Ozzie Lumpkin, one of Hattie's sons. When Ozzie was fighting in Europe, a German woman pointed Ozzie out and claimed that he had raped her. African American soldiers were being hanged every day on that kind of charge, according to Jonnie. Ozzie was saved only because his company commander came forward and said that Ozzie had not left the company at any time.
Jonnie Lumpkin at Bell Aircraft
On the production front at home, African Americans and other people of color had been kept out of many industries, especially those that paid a living wage. Those racist barriers had to be torn down. A serious shortage of labor had resulted from the drafting of millions of workers. The only way to relieve that shortage was to open industrial jobs to people of color and to women. In response to the emergency, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC). Fair employment became a requirement for federal contracts. Enforcement was often lax. It was there that the Communists played a key role. My sister-in-law-to-be, Jonnie Lumpkin, led the fight at Bell Aircraft.
Bell Aircraft had assigned Jonnie to sweeping. The white women hired at the same time were given assembly jobs in production. Jonnie noticed that all of the African Americans at the plant were doing janitorial work. So she went to the United Auto Workers officers and told them, "Put me on production!" The chief steward told her, "Well, put on this steward's button, sign up members in the union, and give me their $1 initiation fee. Here's a contract. If a member has a complaint, write up the grievance, and we'll fight it."
As Jonnie tells it, "Black folks were eating outside at the railroad tracks. White folks ate inside at the lunchroom. One day the national anthem was played in the lunchroom and all the whites stood up. The Blacks outside did not stand. So they called me in to ask why we didn't stand. I told them, 'That's not my flag. The government's never done anything for Black people.' " Jonnie was also protesting discrimination in hiring. She was demanding the right of African American workers to do jobs other than janitorial work.
By this time, Jonnie had joined the Young Communist League. She turned to them for advice on how to fight racial discrimination at Bell Aircraft. Claudia Jones of the YCL agreed that it was a good issue for
which to fight. Jonnie also talked to the Buffalo Urban League and the NAACP. They thought that was a good issue, too. So Jonnie organized a meeting at the Urban League headquarters on Walnut Street. Letha Cloare, a director of FEPC, came. Jonnie didn't know that she was Black. (Cloare had a light complexion.) The company had to give in. The workers won a victory, as Jonnie described it:
So we set up a conference with the company about the segregated dining room and the failure to put Blacks on production jobs. The company denied everything, but Letha Cloare stopped them. She knocked them dead, saying, "I'm as Black as Jonnie. I've seen what's going on." The next day 140 Black workers were upgraded to production jobs. They put me in the gun room, me and seven southern whites.7
The fight that Jonnie led against discrimination was part of the fight for the "Double V." The slogan was, "Victory against Fascism Abroad and Victory against Racism at Home." The entry of African Americans and Latinos into many industries was a gain that lasted years. From what I can see today (2008), it is an endangered victory. Capitalist globalization has let loose a plant closing plague. Plant closings have hurt all workers but especially African Americans and Latinos. From what I see in Illinois and Indiana, African Americans are a much smaller percentage of the steel work force than in 1942 to 1980.
Full Employment
With full employment during the war, a previously unknown period of job and income security was sustaining working class Buffalo. Once racist barriers were lowered, job seekers, including the disabled, could find work. At Colonial Radio, in the women's washroom, a worker said the unthinkable: "I hope the war lasts long enough so I can pay off my home." The other women moved away from her in horror and disgust. Most had friends and relatives risking their lives in combat. That incident made me feel very sad. Capitalism was a rotten system; it took a world war to provide jobs.
Full employment in World War II also knocked to bits some of the mistaken ideas about "work ethic." Unemployed workers had been criticized as lacking a good work ethic. During World War II, people who had been unemployed most of their lives made a complete change when they got a job at union wages. Consider my own experience. When I worked in laundries, I often took a day off to rest. I made so little money that it did not make that big a difference. But as soon as I started to make a living wage, I never took a day off from work. It would mean losing too much from my pay check.
On September 2, 1945, the war officially ended, leaving 100 million dead and vast lands devastated. On V-J Day, we danced in the streets for joy that the killing had ended. We felt hopeful that a new era of peace had begun. But news reached us of a new weapon that the U.S. had dropped on Japan just before the war ended. We did not realize that our government had committed a horrible crime. I am ashamed to say that I believed Truman when he said the bombs were needed to end the war. It was years before we learned that Japan had already sent out peace feelers before the atom bombs were dropped. In fact, many say that the Cold War began with the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As Curtis MacDougall explained in 1965:
Few Americans ever learned that the Japanese government had sent peace feelers to the United States eight months before the bomb was dropped. Little by little, some Americans began to question the motives for dropping the atomic bombs. Robert R. Young claimed that the motive for the bombing was to put pressure on the Soviet Union. He was Chairperson of the Board of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad when he wrote this
7 Beatrice Lumpkin, Always Bring a Crowd (New York: International Publishers Co., 1999), 49.
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analysis: "We are kidding ourselves if we believe the atomic bomb was dropped [only] on Japan. There is evidence that fully eight months earlier, Japan was ready to capitulate. If the purpose of the bomb was to save American lives, then a fair warning before Okinawa would have saved more. . . . No, the atomic bomb was dropped not militarily but diplomatically upon Russia."8
The political geography changed after World War II. In many countries, the people wanted socialism. Eastern Europe and China were able to move out of the capitalist orbit. Most African nations had won their independence by 1960. But Western and Southern Europe seemed stuck with capitalism. That was true even though Communists had been the heroes of French and Italian resistance against the Nazi occupation. I wondered why French and Italian workers had not moved toward changing the capitalist system. Some friends from Italy explained it to me: no change of system was possible with the U.S. Army stationed in Western Europe.
Israel Established as a Jewish State
My parents had rejected Zionism when they were still teenagers. In 1905, the Zionist solution to oppression of the Jews was to leave Europe and the U.S. and go to Palestine. In contrast, my parents believed in fighting for democracy in Byelorussia, right where they were. They worked to bring about a revolution to get rid of the Czar. Their inspiration was the American Revolution that freed the American colonies from British rule. Unfortunately, the 1905 Revolution against the Czar went down to bloody defeat. My father, the revolutionary, was thrown into jail as I described earlier. After the revolution was lost, the Czar's government repressed civil liberties. My parents were forced to flee.
As Bolshevik sympathizers, my parents supported self-determination for all countries, including Palestine. Before World War II, a democratic vote in Palestine would have resulted in a secular majority-Arab state. Religion would have been a private matter. In contrast, the Zionists wanted a clerical majority-Jewish state. Most survivors of the Nazi concentration camps wanted to leave Europe and come to the United States. I remember three boatloads of European Jewish refugees that tried to come to the U.S. when Truman was president. They were refused and turned around toward Israel. One boatload sank. That additional loss of life helped convince Jewish refugees to go to Palestine and give up on the U.S. as a destination.
Massive immigration had increased the Jewish population of Palestine to half the size of the Arab population by 1946. At that time, only seven percent of the land was owned by Jews. Most Palestinians were farmers on their own land. The partition of Palestine in 1947, followed by driving Palestinians out of their ancestral homes, gave the Zionists what they wanted. By 1948, the majority living in Israel were Jews. In part, the Zionists won out because of worldwide sympathy with the Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust. The Holocaust led most Jews in the United States to passionately support Israel. Still, most American Jews continued to support progressive causes at home. But support for the Israeli government, right or wrong, led some American Jews into the reactionary camp on domestic issues too. That split continues to this day. My parents did not go along with the Zionists in their time, nor do I today.
The Cold War
As the war ended, the class struggle in the United States again broke out into the open. Wages had lagged behind the price increases. Nor did wages reflect the increased productivity of American workers. A wave of "catch-up" strikes broke out in 1946 and 1947. In response, an unfriendly Republican Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. This Act gutted the 1935 Wagner Act which had outlawed unfair labor practices. Taft-Hartley authorized presidential injunctions against strikes and banned the closed shop and "secondary boycotts." It also allowed the states to pass right to work-for-less laws.
8 Curtis D. McDougall, Gideon 'sArmy (New York: Marzani & Munsell, 1965), 25. McDougall quotes from article by Robert R. Young in the Saturday Review of Literature, March 4, 1947.
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This was the domestic side of the "Cold War." Lasting damage from this period included the split in the CIO, likened to labor "shooting itself in the foot." Eleven of the most militant unions, with a membership of about one million, were expelled in an anti-Communist purge. The witch hunt against Communists started anew. In the '50s, the witch hunt took the noxious form of McCarthyism, a now discredited policy. But that hateful period did not end before thousands lost their jobs and innocent people went to jail. Thousands of good people were persecuted. A few, like the great actor John Garfield, committed suicide.
With World War II over, millions of active duty soldiers and sailors were returning home. War plants were shutting down. But rebuilding Europe (of course on U.S. terms) kept other American factories open. Unemployment had been brought from 14.6 percent in 1940 down to an all-time low of 1.2 percent in 1944^15. But it went up to 3.9 percent in 1946 and 5.9 percent in 1949. These figures do not count the millions of women forced out of the labor force when their war-time jobs ended.
"Rosie the Riveter" after the War
Whatever happened to "Rosie the Riveter"? Rosie was the symbol for the women who helped win World War II by taking factory jobs formerly done only by men. After the war, most Rosie the Riveters lost their jobs. They suffered a double blow. First there was less riveting done, and so there were fewer riveters of any gender. Second, there was blatant discrimination. Rosie was told she had to go back to the kitchen to open up jobs for the returning soldiers.
Rosie the Riveter
I know only a few hardy women who were able to keep their jobs in the steel mills. In the Buffalo auto plants, as I remember it, the UAW had two seniority lists. The first seniority list was for men. The
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second seniority list, for women, was placed at the bottom of the men's list. No woman, no matter how many years she had in the plant, could keep her job unless every man, no matter how new in the plant, was employed.
Not all gains made by women during World War II were wiped out. Consider the matter of clothing. Women had to wear pants on many factory jobs. After many women were forced out of their war jobs, the fashion bosses tried to get us back to dresses, long dresses at that. But many women, myself included, kept on wearing pants. Women who wear slacks today have Rosie the Riveter to thank.
During the war, dresses were made short and cut slim to save material. After the war, clothing manufacturers tried to get women back into an entirely new wardrobe. They came out with "The New Look" dresses with skirts billowing down to the ankles. It was a way to force you to buy a lot of clothes. I felt that they were trying to push me into restrictive clothing that our mothers had fought to liberate us from. But there were no other styles sold in the stores. "The New Look" made your old dresses and skirts obsolete.
Finally, so many women complained that it was "The New Look" that became obsolete. Personally, I have tried to have the best of both worlds. In general, pants are warmer in the winter and dresses are cooler for the summer. Whatever the season, I resent the habit of making women's clothes without pockets to force you to carry a purse.
After the war, too many accepted the idea that women should leave their jobs to make room for returning soldiers. That sexist argument did not explain why many African American men were being pushed out of their jobs. Racism was another side of the Cold War. After Roosevelt died in 1945, Truman allowed the FEPC to expire in 1946. But the "Double V" had not been won. Victory against fascism was completed, but victory against racism was facing setbacks. My friend and comrade, Jonnie Lumpkin, asked me to help her test racist hiring practices at the Fedders Air Conditioner plant. I did not really want the job because my daughter was just a couple months old. Jonnie did want the job. We both applied. They offered me the job. They told Jonnie, "Don't call us. We'll call you." Jonnie filed a complaint, but FEPC was on the way out and never took action on her case.
Class Struggle Continues
While many Communists were fighting and dying in World War II, Earl Browder, Party Chairman, decided that the Communist Party should be dissolved. As I wrote earlier, in his book, Teheran, Browder claimed that capitalists had become "intelligent" during World War II. Therefore, workers should cooperate with the intelligent capitalists. Following Browder's lead, the Communist Party dissolved in 1944 and became the Communist Political Association. Half of the membership left in disgust.
Browder's move was undone within a year. A letter sent by French Communist leader, Jacques Duclos, arrived in the U.S. in April 1945 like a bombshell. In simple language, it pointed the Communist Party back to its fundamentals, defending the workers in the class struggle. The capitalist profit system exploits workers and leads to class struggle. It has nothing to do with the intelligence (or stupidity) of the capitalists.
I cannot remember now how I swallowed the Browder line. But I did. Fortunately, a strong sector of the Communist leadership never swallowed the "intelligent capitalist" illusion. Led by William Z. Foster, leader of the 1919 national steel strike, they reorganized the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). I learned a lesson, too, from that experience. It was something like, "Don't believe in the tooth fairy." It will take more than a wave of a fairy's wand to eliminate the class struggle. First we'll have to eliminate exploitation.
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Part 2
(1943-1965) — My Love is a Steel Worker
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10. My Buffalo Family
I was attracted by the warmth and the wisdom of the Lumpkin family.
Hattie and Elmo Lumpkin with their ten children
I came to Buffalo five years after my mother died. Her memory was still fresh in my heart. Still, I did not think about her during waking hours. But I often dreamed about my mother. They were "wish-fulfillment" dreams in which the "mistake about her death" was corrected. She was alive and I did so many nice things for her, in my dreams. That dream persisted for many, many years.
Although no one could replace my mother, my friend Hattie Lumpkin had a heart big enough to mother us all. Hattie sort of adopted me as she did so many other comrades who came to Buffalo alone. I was attracted by the warmth and the wisdom of the Lumpkin family as a whole. I did not know then that I would someday marry into the family. All the Lumpkin women have been a powerful force in my life. However, it took some years for me to earn my place in the family. After many, many years, they called me "sister." It was one of the greatest honors of my life.
When I first met Hattie, in 1943, she was already an eloquent experienced leader. With Hattie, I learned how to knock on doors to bring our message of two related struggles. We were fighting for justice at home, against racism. We were fighting abroad to win the war against fascism. More often than not, the door opened and they invited us to come in. We had many good discussions around kitchen tables. Sometimes, our new friends bought a copy of the Daily Worker, the Communist Party newspaper.
I worked with Hattie in the campaign to save the life of Willie McGee, sentenced to death in Mississippi. In 1945, McGee was framed on a charge of raping a white woman. Hattie told me about a similar case in Florida. A mother traveled throughout the state in a mule-drawn wagon, trying to raise money to save her son from the electric chair. She did not succeed in saving her son. And progressives did not stop the execution of Willie McGee, although large demonstrations took place in many cities. Still,
our fight was not in vain. The lynchers were exposed, and the U.S. House of Representatives passed anti-lynching legislation. However, not until 2005 did the U.S. Senate apologize for failing to adopt an anti-lynching law for so many years.
Ma and Pa Lumpkin
To their ten children, Hattie and Elmo were known simply as "Ma" and "Pa." It is a great tribute to Hattie and Elmo that their ten children all survived to become strong, intelligent, caring adults. As parents, "Ma" and "Pa" provided more than just food, shelter and clothing. They instilled self-confidence in all of their children. It was a trait that could be traced back to Hattie's mother, "Ma Bess" Martin. The self-confidence was not based on pride or conceit. It was more a determination that they could do what needed to be done. I never heard them say, "I can't." That spirit inspired their son Frank when he was organizing workers. He worked to instill self-confidence and the feeling of power in the workers he led. After the war he became my husband. But I barely knew him back then. He was away in the Merchant Marine from 1943-1948. Besides, he was married to someone else at the time.
All of the Lumpkin women were strong, progressive and beautiful. Frank's sister Jonnie was my source for much of the family history that appears in this book. For many years, she was my best friend. I also have a special relationship with Bay, the oldest Lumpkin daughter. In recent years, I have become close to Bess, a younger daughter. There is a ten-year difference in our ages. But what's ten years, now that I am over 90? And we remember young, glamorous Gladys, who died too early. She dropped everything and came to Chicago to rescue my family when I was down with hepatitis in 1953. Who could have asked for better sisters-in-law?
The Lumpkin History
The Lumpkins trace their family back to 1861, to Sophie Lumpkin. She was a beautiful African woman, enslaved on a cotton plantation in Washington-Wilkes County, Georgia. Mr. Callaway, the plantation owner, had raped Sophie when she was only 16 years old. When Callaway learned that Sophie was pregnant, he made her "jump the broom" with (marry) Si, another enslaved African. In 1862, Sophie gave birth to Callaway's son and named him Frank. Callaway never acknowledged Frank as his son. But he did some big favors for him in later years.
After Emancipation, Si had to choose a last name. He chose Lumpkin, not the hated Callaway name. Si's stepson became the first Frank Lumpkin. Slavery had been abolished but it was replaced by sharecropping, near-serfdom. Sharecroppers were always in debt to plantation owners and not free to leave the plantation.
When the first Frank Lumpkin became 21, he told Callaway that he was ready to marry. An attractive Cherokee woman named Betty had caught his eye. Betty was already married and had four children. But that proved to be no obstacle. Betty's husband died in an unexplained plantation accident. Frank #1 was given Betty as his bride and 400 acres of farm land. Suspicions of foul play lingered for many years. Frank and Betty had four children. Elmo, their last child, became the father of the modern Lumpkin family. Elmo Lumpkin married Hattie Martin in 1911. He was 21 and she was 16.
Sharecropping and Lynchings in Georgia
Young Elmo and Hattie sharecropped on his father Frank's farm. They had six children, Wade, Bay, Frank, Ozzie, Jonnie and Elmo Jr. Frank would become my husband, 27 years later. Times were hard but there was something to eat. Cotton was the main crop but peanuts, corn and vegetables were also raised. Warren Lumpkin told me Elmo's "joke" about sharecropping:
When the crop was in, a sharecropper brought his cotton, peanuts and corn to be weighed and credited. The plantation boss entered the amounts. Then he figured out how much was to be deducted for food, seed and fertilizer advanced to the sharecropper. He figured and figured. Finally he told the
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sharecropper, "OK. That leaves us even. What you brought in just pays for the supplies you borrowed since the last crop."
As the boss began to put his account book away, the sharecropper had just one question. "What shall I do with the rest of the cotton I have in the barn?"
"Damn," said the boss. "Now I have to figure everything all over!'"
A white landlord's thieving ways took a tragic turn for Elmo's half-brother, Will Lumpkin. Will asked for his correct share of the crop. During the argument, Will called the landlord a liar. Elmo tried to get Will to leave town at once, but Will would not go. The next day, Elmo heard a gunshot. By the time he got there, Will was hanging dead from a tree. Eight little children were left without a father. Will's daughter, Lulamat, says they survived "in those hard, hard times" thanks only to help from Grandpa Frank and Uncle Elmo.
Leaving Georgia for Florida
About 1922, the boll weevil hit the Lumpkin's cotton crop. That same year, their pig and cow were bit by a rabid dog and had to be shot. That was a sad time for son Frank because he loved that dog. Elmo and Hattie lost everything they had. As Frank explained it to me, "We had two crops, a money crop—cotton, and an eating crop—potatoes and corn. The sharecropper got a share of the money crop. When the crop failed, the sharecropper family got half of nothing— nothing! The landlord risked nothing."
Cousins in Orlando told the Lumpkins that there was work in the orange groves. Elmo, Hattie and their six children moved to Florida. Six-year old Frank took some of Georgia's peanut culture with him. He still loved peanuts and entertained our family with this rhyme:
Little boy sat on the burning deck
Eating peanuts by the peck
His mother called him
But he wouldn't go
Because he loved his peanuts so.
Growing up in the Orange Groves
Four more Lumpkin children were born in Conway, site of the orange groves outside of Orlando but now part of the city. They were Warren, Bessie Mae, Gladys and Roy. That brought the number of Lumpkin children to the nice round figure of ten. The family had moved from sharecropping to working for wages. They were not any freer of racist violence, but as wage workers they had more rights. For example, Frank told me about working with a crew of orange pickers. The pickers followed the lead of a man they called "Live Wire." At one grove, Live Wire could not get the price the pickers needed for each box of oranges picked. At his signal, the whole crew walked off and started back to town on foot. Their protest paid off. The grower sent trucks to bring the pickers back and agreed to pay the price they had demanded.
The orange pickers fought for their rights despite the terror of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan often marched through the African American community in Orlando. African American towns such as Rosewood, Florida, and Ocoee, Florida, were destroyed by white racists in riots shown in the Hollywood movie, Rosewood.
Frank loved to climb trees. The power company did not trim the trees that grew under the bare electric wires. Frank was 13 years old when he took a dare and touched a bare, high-voltage line. He had seen birds sit on the bare wires without injury. Of course, the birds were not grounded like Frank was in the tree. The powerful surge of electric current knocked Frank out of the tree. His friends' cries brought the local scoutmaster running.
The scoutmaster knew first aid and got Frank breathing again. But the surge of current had burned off joints of three fingers, including the right index (trigger) finger. There was no compensation from the
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electric utility in those days. Frank adapted his middle finger to take over the function of the index finger. After a while, he was a champion marble shooter again. But lack of his index finger disqualified him from many jobs and army service.
Bay Lumpkin—Where There's Life, There's Hope
As the oldest daughter, Bay had to quit school early. She explained, "When I was in sixth grade, Hattie said to me, 'Bay, I have a good job coming. I would like to work for the Stone family. If you would take care of the children, I could work and be able to send the other children to school.' So I left school and I was glad of it. There were no buses and no convenient way to get to school. We lived in Conway and I had to pass two white schools to get to the colored school. My shoes were so worn that they would be turned so that I walked on the sides of them, and it hurt my feet."
In 1933, Bay married Taft Earl Rollins from Tallahassee. Taft joined the army in 1939 and was sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Taft was returning from leave and did not know that a racist riot was raging at the bus stop for Fort Bragg. He stepped out of the bus and was bludgeoned to death by the race rioters. The Army sent Taft back to Bay in a box. The top of his head had been knocked off. Jonnie, Bay's younger sister, decided to leave the coffin open for the funeral so everyone could see what had happened. The army never investigated the murder of Private Taft Rollins. But the family and the community never forgot him. Bay went on with her life and lived with the pain.
Bay was and is my special friend. She continued her self-sacrificing family role for most of her life. She raised seven grandchildren and several of her great-grandchildren. At this point, I will get ahead of my story to write about a huge change that Bay made late in life. At 89, she put the remaining great grandchildren (all grown) out of her house. "Stand on your own feet," she told them. Then she had cataract surgery and called me in great excitement. "I can see, I can see!" she rejoiced. Soon she was driving again, lost weight, bought good clothes and decided to enjoy life. As she told me, she decided that she was a pretty good person. At 94, she joked that she was going to sue the hospital. "Why?" I asked. "Because I'm 94, and they can't find anything wrong with me!" So Bay is my proof that where there's life, there's hope. It is never too late to change.
Child Labor
Frank Lumpkin also quit school early, but he did make it into ninth grade, three years more than Bay. Much as he liked school, at fifteen he felt ashamed to be barefoot and shirtless. So at 15, Frank went to work full time. Even when school was in session, he and his brothers worked in the groves. The school day ended early during growing season to leave more daylight hours for work.
The grove owners used their political power to stop passage of laws to end child labor. Finally, Congress passed a Child Labor Act in 1918, only to have the Supreme Court declare it unconstitutional. The same thing happened under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Not until 1938, after FDR threatened to appoint six additional judges, did the Supreme Court allow a ban on child labor (under 16) to stand.9
Racism Is Unnatural
Down the road from the Lumpkin house, the Harveys had two boys about Frank's age, Roy and Frank. They became good friends. The family had a well-stocked tool shed. The boys and their friend Frank were allowed to use the tools. That began Frank's lifetime love of tools and machinery. But when it came time to go to school, the boys went different ways. Roy and Frank Harvey went to the white school, not that far away. Frank Lumpkin and his brothers and sisters had to walk past the white school and hike four more miles to the "colored" school. This experience convinced Frank that "Racism is unnatural."
9 FDR's Fireside Chats, Russell D. Buhite and David W. Levey, eds. (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), 120.
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Seventy years later he was interviewed by Studs Terkel and told him the story. Frank was so eloquent that the Nation quoted most of the interview in their review of Terkel's book, Race.10
Frank was always optimistic that racism could be overcome. He had a ready answer to those who claimed it would take generations of education to overcome racism. His answer was based on his own experience in the "Great Migration" north. "Education can be overnight," he said. "That backward Southern white worker who gets on the train in the South has been using the 'n' word all his life. In 24 hours he's in Chicago and instantly learns not to walk around saying that word."
Migration to the North
War production created a demand for factory labor, even before Pearl Harbor. Wade Lumpkin, Hattie's oldest child, was the first to leave Orlando. He went to Buffalo, New York, where he was earning "big" money. Within a year, Hattie, Elmo, their ten children and their spouses, and widowed Ma Bess were gathered together in Buffalo. In time, the men all found jobs. Some of the women did, too. Wade, Frank and Warren became steel workers, Oz and his father Elmo became auto workers, Kiyer a packinghouse worker and Jonnie, an aircraft worker. Bay worked in the canning industry and Hattie worked summers as a housekeeper for rich families in Cape Cod. The three youngest Lumpkins were too young to work.
With the first few paychecks, Hattie put a down payment on an 11-room house at 263 Watson Street. Soon it was full. When cousins came and had nowhere to stay, Hattie made room for them. She told me that people criticized her for overcrowding her house. Her answer was, "No kin of mine will have to sleep in the street." After Hattie joined the Communist Party, her home was also the center for many activists, me included. We were new in town but with Hattie's help, we soon felt that we belonged.
Jonnie Becomes a Communist
It was Jonnie who brought about a radical change in the thinking of the Lumpkin family. Her first job in Buffalo was child care and housekeeping. As luck would have it, she worked for a couple of militant union members. They recommended her to her next job, caring for Frances and Michael's baby. Frances and Michael were transit-worker unionists and members of the Communist Party. Jonnie's mind was wide open for revolutionary ideas. The lynching of her brother-in-law while in army uniform still burned in her heart.
Jonnie found the Communist program of socialism very attractive. Yes, produce for people's needs, instead of for profits. Jonnie joined the Young Communist League and rose to leadership positions. When asked how she became a leader so quickly, she had an easy answer. "Just give a hungry man a steak. Even if he's never seen one before, you don't have to explain much to him."
Through Jonnie, the whole family was introduced to the ideas of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Hattie, Frank and Warren, as well as Jonnie, became Communist leaders. The Lumpkins always had confidence in their "own people." They broadened their idea of their "own people" to include all working people. Earlier generations had overthrown slavery. The generations of today and tomorrow had to fight capitalism. But first they had to defeat Hitler and the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo axis.
As a Communist, Hattie became an outstanding community organizer. She was also well connected to her church. Whenever Hattie saw an eviction in her neighborhood, she went into action immediately. She sent her children around to call out the neighbors. The neighbors joined in to put the furniture back. Together, they returned the evicted tenants to their apartment. Usually, something would be worked out with the landlord so the evicted family could stay. Sometimes they would have to march down to the relief office to get help with paying the rent. The New York State Communist Party recognized Hattie's leadership and elected her to their state committee.
10 Studs Terkel, Race (New York: New Press, 1992), 88-92. Interview with Frank Lumpkin. Reprinted in The Nation, April 6, 1992.
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Bessie Mae—she has since citified her name to "Bess"—was different from her sisters and brothers. Severe asthma made her the only one of the Lumpkin children who was sickly and skinny. That won her special treatment from Hattie and Elmo. As a child, Bess adopted very high standards for order and cleanliness. Somehow, she had the energy and will to force those standards on the rest of the family. By the time she was eight she was helping with her younger siblings, Gladys and Roy.
Bess was the first in the family to voluntarily move away from 263 Watson Street. That took a mountain of courage. She was also the first in the Lumpkin family to become a white collar worker. Still, in high school, she moved to New York City to attend a business school and become a secretary. She was more than ready for the big city. After high school, Bess worked for the progressive movement. As a skilled secretary, she staffed the office of the Committee to Protect the Foreign Born. She moved from there to become the secretary for the national office of the Communist Party.
When Jonnie joined the Young Communist League in 1942, she was asked to recruit other members of her family. "There's one person you have to get," she told her fellow Communists, "my brother Frank." She said that Frank was always "teaching." When people said they would not work at such low-paid jobs, Frank told them, "Take the job. Then fight for more." Frank was not easy to convince. But once convinced of the justice of a struggle, he would stay with it to the end.
In 1943,1 met Frank in Hattie's house. I knew him as one of Hattie's ten children but we had little occasion to talk. Six years later, that would change.
Go Back to Top
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11. Single Parent
"Love! What's that got to do with it? "
Marriage, Motherhood and Divorce
Marriage, motherhood and divorce—I experienced all of that in Buffalo and in that order. Let's look at marriage and motherhood, since that came first. At Colonial Radio in Buffalo, I worked with civilian technicians who were testing radio transmitters for the Army. I especially enjoyed talking with an ex-farmer from Montana, Rod Mohrherr. Rod was exempted from the draft because of his poor eyesight. He had a degree from the University of Montana and was a self-educated electronics engineer. Rod was interesting and a very decent person. We were both alone in Buffalo, without family. We began to date, and a few months later we decided to marry. I was already 25 years old, and that was considered kind of old to still be single.
There was no time or money for more than a trip to City Hall for the license. None of our relatives were in Buffalo, and there was a war on. Hattie Lumpkin and her daughter, Bay, accompanied us to city hall. They tried to fill in for my own family. And over the years, they became my family. This is how Bay remembered the wedding:
"I remember a cute little girl who came from New York City. She would go out with Hattie to visit the neighbors. When they saw anyone put out of their house, they struggled to put them back. She spent a lot of time with Hattie. One day this little girl came to Hattie and me to say she was getting married. She said she didn't have any people in Buffalo. We went with her to city hall and she put a white gardenia on Hattie and me."
Those white gardenias were about as much ceremony as there was to the occasion. Had it not been for Hattie and Bay, I would have felt quite alone.
After a few months of marriage I became pregnant. Colonial Radio did not allow pregnant women to work past four months of pregnancy. So I did not report my pregnancy for a few months. That allowed me to work into my seventh month. By the time I had to leave for maternity, I had worked for Colonial Radio for over one year. The union contract provided a week of vacation pay. But the company never paid me. In my ignorance, I thought I had forfeited vacation pay because I was not planning to return to Colonial Radio. When I learned better, it was too late to file a grievance. Workers get cheated so much. Although the contract was with the UE, a good union, the local leadership was weak. Colonial Radio, later bought by Sylvania, owes me one week's pay. With interest since 1944, that would be a tidy sum.
I don't know why I wanted to have children just as fast as I could, once I was married. But that's exactly what happened. However, I made very few preparations for the arrival of my first child. If anything went wrong, I felt I could not stand having a lot of baby stuff around and no baby. Maybe I was thinking of my mother's sadness on losing my brother soon after I was born. I don't think I read any books about babies or spent time choosing possible names. One thing was certain whether I thought about it or not. The baby would come when he/she was ready. Then I would do what needed to be done. And in due time, the baby did come. We named him Carl Joseph. I liked the name Joseph but I wanted him to have a one-syllable name like Carl.
I believe that the ease of birth is affected by the mother's cultural background. When I lived among Nisei women in Chicago, I was surprised to learn that some never experienced pain in childbirth. (The Nisei are the first U.S.-born generation among Japanese immigrants). "Well, how did you know it was time to go to the hospital?" I asked in amazement. "You get a feeling, like you are going to menstruate," one tiny woman explained to me.
That approach to child birth was very different from what I heard as a child. My mother's friends enjoyed describing the details of their difficult deliveries. They seemed to try to outdo each other, talking about how much pain they had experienced. I was left with the thought that I owed a debt to my mother because she had suffered so much to birth me. It was a debt that I could never repay. In contrast, my
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contemporaries and I talked little about our childbirth experiences. The subject never came up. Still, the old wives' tales I heard as a child may have affected me. I certainly had a lengthy first delivery.
A Perfect Human Being
I remember very little of the prolonged delivery of my first child. No doubt, that was thanks to the painkillers. What I remember most was my amazement when the nurse showed me my newborn in the delivery room. I was surprised that my husband and I, ordinary mortals, could have produced such a beautiful, perfect human being. We took baby Carl home after the 10-day hospital stay that was standard then. I got up every couple hours to make sure he was still breathing. Before motherhood, I had always been a very sound sleeper. That changed after Carl was born. No matter how soundly I slept, one part of my brain remained alert for sounds from my children.
Fortunately, Carl turned out not to be as fragile as I had feared. I did not know about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), so my children all slept on their stomachs. I slept on my stomach, too; it seemed the most natural and comfortable position. In recent years, I had to change my sleeping position because arthritis got the best of me. And the child care books now warn against putting babies to sleep on their stomachs.
Dr. Spock issued his famous book in 1946. It became my guide for child care. But that was too late for my first, born in 1944.1 followed the rules of an earlier generation. Put the baby on a regular feeding schedule and stick to it no matter what. Every four hours and that was it. Fortunately, Carl was a good feeder and it worked out. But I had so much to learn. I learned that you don't open all the drawers of a dresser and place an undiapered baby within firing range. That I learned the hard way. I learned that if the doctor says a child with a cold needs more humidity, it does not mean that you should turn your apartment into a rain forest. When the doctor had suggested more humidity, I boiled so much water that the ceiling began to rain. They must have used good plaster in those days because the ceiling survived.
A late winter storm struck Buffalo when Carl was about seven months old. I had just weaned him onto a "formula" based on cow's milk. The snow was so deep that milk delivery trucks could not get through. But I had to have that milk. A mile away was the A&P, a large store with a supply of milk. So I strapped on my boots and asked a neighbor to watch Carl. The snow was waist-high, but I was young enough to enjoy the challenge. It would be days before the snow plows opened our streets.
As long as snow did not block the walks, I took my baby for walks. Baby carriages then often held groceries as well as the child. As the baby grew larger, we mothers would just shove the groceries over to make room for the child. But I did not realize that Carl was showing early signs of becoming a scientist. One day I left him in the buggy where I could see him and went into the bakery store. I made the mistake of having his back turned to me. Soon a small crowd gathered around him. That did not surprise me. After all, he was beautiful. Then they began to laugh. Now that puzzled me. When I got outside, I discovered that Carl was doing one of his first experiments. I should have known then that he would become a biologist. He had opened a carton of eggs, took an egg out, dropped it over the side, and studied it for a while. Then he returned to the package of eggs, took another one out, dropped it, and continued his study. The crowd was so entertained that nobody had thought to save the eggs.
Carl got to see much of Buffalo. We spent most of the day outside the apartment, as I pushed the baby buggy around town. It was good exercise, and he got the fresh air. In fact, a book on jogging suggested running with the baby carriage. That could burn enough calories to equal one piece of pie. So when I got bored with walking, I tried running. The upside of spending all that time outside was that my apartment stayed clean.
It was also a social experience. My good friend, Edna, had a baby boy about the same age. Edna and I would walk to our special ice cream shop, buy ourselves ice cream cones and double our pleasure. Over the months, our babies grew bigger. Then they began to look with great interest at the ice cream cones we
were licking. Did I ever give Carl a taste of the ice cream? Not on your life! It wasn't good for him and I stuck to a very strict nutritional guide (for him).
Jeanleah, My Second Child
On May 8, 1945, we celebrated V-E (Victory in Europe) Day. Germany had surrendered, Hitler had committed suicide, and Mussolini had been strung up by his heels. Fascism had been defeated in Europe. Imperial Japan still occupied much of Asia but we were optimistic that the war would soon be won. That was a good time for Rod and me to complete our family. And as soon as I could, I had another child. As luck would have it, the second was a girl. That gave me one of each. How nice!
Jeanleah benefited from my experience with Carl. And I had an easier time of it in every way. I got over thinking Carl was the most beautiful creature on earth because Jeanleah was just as beautiful. And I had to admit that my friends' children were lovely, too, even as lovely as mine. To me, nothing is more beautiful than a healthy baby.
Jeanleah was a very cooperative baby. Of course I gave her the credit, but it was really Carl who had educated me. He gave me the chance to do everything wrong, and I did. So with Jeanleah I knew better. Based on my experience, I recommend that everyone should have their second child first. In many ways Jeanleah was ahead of her age. I am sure it helped that she had an older brother as a model. Later, when she was in preschool, the teachers told me that Jeanleah was "functioning at the highest level of intelligence." But I already knew that.
Father working, mother raising two fine children, one boy and one girl—what more could one ask for? Unfortunately that wasn't enough for me. I am sure I had loved Rod when we married but I had fallen out of love. I saw other marriages that were more the life style I had hoped for but could never achieve with Rod. Not that he had changed. And I had not changed. That was the problem; we were mismatched. We had a friendly divorce, and I had two little children to feed and no job. The war was over, and jobs were not that easy to get. Rod gave what child support he could afford but it was not much. There was no other man in the picture although there was one I had been eyeing (out of one eye). Any chance that he might become the one was literally drowned out. I had invited him to visit and accidentally poured two quarts of hot, boiling coffee in his lap. He took care to avoid my apartment after that and any further exposure to my defective coffee maker with the swiveling handle.
Joining the Waiters Union
First I thought I could get by as a part-time waitress, as we called it then. After all, I did have experience working at Camp Unity. And I had learned not to stick my fingers in glasses of water that I was carrying to a table. But I was a long way from being a professional waiter, to use the modern, non-sexist term. I joined the union and was sent out on my first job the same day. It happened to be New Year's Eve. I was sent to a large Buffalo night club, mostly drinks and sandwiches. I could move fast enough, but I had to collect for each service. That was a hassle. A fellow-waiter called me over for a friendly reprimand. "That was the wrong party you did that to," he told me. Evidently I was waiting on important people. "What did I do?" I wondered. "You didn't use underliners," he informed me. So I learned some of the finer points. In Camp Unity we had never used underliners, plates under the plates. And we never used them at home. Why do all of that extra wash?
My next job was in a downtown cafe outside the court house. I could have survived on the lunch tips I collected. They were pretty good but I was only filling in for another worker. Next I got a weekend job in a Chinese restaurant on Main Street. The kitchen was one flight of stairs below the restaurant. Every item, tea refill or whatever, meant down the steps and up the steps. At the bottom of the stairs was a table where the kitchen staff ate. I was told the tradition was that kitchen workers could have anything they
wanted to eat. The staff often ate wonderful food that was not on the menu. Too often, as I came bounding down the stairs with tray in hand, a cook would stuff a delicious morsel in my mouth. Did not know what I was eating, but it was exquisite food. It was hard not to gain weight on that job.
Naturally, as a union activist I thought I should attend the waiters' union meeting. The meeting was posted in a paper mailed to my apartment. When I arrived at the union headquarters, I thought I was in the wrong place. The large hall was almost empty. Four or five workers were seated together in the hall. They looked at me and I looked at them. "Is this where the waiters' union is meeting?" I asked. "Yes," they replied. I waited and they waited. Since I did not leave, they got up, went into the small, glassed-in office and had their meeting. They certainly did not invite me. That was the end of my waiters' union activism.
Anyway, I had to admit that the Chinese restaurant was too hard on my legs. Waiting tables on one floor is challenging enough. But adding a flight of stairs to every trip to the kitchen was hard on my varicose veins. And the tips were only fair. So I decided to look for a full-time factory job again. The UE had organized the big Westinghouse plant, and there was a big struggle going on there. Naturally, I wanted to get in on the action. So I applied. With Emerson Radio and Colonial Radio experience, I had a good background.
"No thank you," Westinghouse told me. Something gave me the feeling I was being listed on the "Don't Hire" list, but I didn't give up. I went to the state employment office. Yes, Westinghouse was hiring, and the state office could give me a referral. So I showed up again, this time with a referral to a specific job opening. "You are the most persistent girl I have ever seen," the employment clerk said. But there was still no job for me. Then I heard about one of our comrades who actually got hired. The "Don't Hire" list caught up with him just as he was putting on his safety shoes to work his first shift. The call came from the front office, and he was fired before he ever got out to the work floor.
Western Electric
I finally got a job as a machine operator in the Western Electric wire plant in North Tonawanda, just north of Buffalo. The company hired African Americans, but the town was infamous for its "all white" restrictions. It was said that no African Americans could stay in that town overnight. Western Electric had just defeated UE in a National Labor Relations Board election. Then they brought in CWA, the Communications Workers of America, as the plant union. The plant produced wire for the telephone company. I met some wonderful people on that job and would probably never have quit if I had married Frank earlier. Frank did not believe in ever quitting a job.
I was 29 when I got that job and I was already a little old for the work. Most of the women were younger, more like 19. The job required both speed and stamina. It was almost impossible to keep up with the number of machines they gave us. Every finished spool of wire had to be labeled. Many of the younger women took blank labels home to fill them out so they could save time on the job. I refused to do that. It was absolutely against union principles!
My first job at Western Electric was to run a bank of insulating machines that spun cotton thread around bare copper wire. The machines were supposed to be automatic. "All" the operator had to do was to stop the machine when the feed spool of bare wire ran out. The operator pulled out the empty reel and put a new one in and threaded it through, Next, she braised together the bare ends from the new reel and the old reel. After checking to be sure the wire was threaded through, she turned the machine back on and made sure it ran smoothly.
Meanwhile, two other heads may have stopped. If the spool of insulated wire was full, it had to be removed and labeled. For those few, like me, who did not write the labels at home, it took another minute. We had 32 heads to run. To keep up, we had to move fast. We were not allowed to let the heads sit idle too long.
Even if we had any free time, it would have been very hard to talk to other operators on the job. The machines were very noisy. To talk to an operator and be heard, you had to put your mouth close to her ear.
I did learn two valuable lessons in that department. The first was safety. I had the deplorable habit of lifting my right pinkie to balance my hand when I changed the spool of thread. One day the fast-whirling cup that held the cotton thread sliced some flesh off of my right pinkie. We joked that I had been imitating the gesture of fancy folks, pinkie up in the air to balance the teacup. That job was anything but fancy. We wore safety glasses and ugly safety caps with elastic to keep our hair out of the machines. For those who set their hair, it was a perfect time to leave the curlers in, out of sight under the safety caps. Nothing like letting your hair set on the bosses' time. Most of us (not including me) left work with smartly styled coiffures.
For the number of women and men slaving away at the wire machines, there were a lot of men in suits walking around with pens and pads of paper—or just walking around. I am sure I was not the only machine operator who resented that. Just think of how productive we operators were to support all of those foremen, supervisors, efficiency experts, etc. (all white male). It was the time-study men I disliked the most. They hung around and were all over you with their stop watches and clip boards. That made me nervous and I began to work faster. But no worker in her right mind wants to use a faster-than-normal pace for time study. So I slowed down. Maybe I overdid it because the time-study men decided to leave. "We'll come back the next day," they warned.
Model Worker
I did learn that there are always better ways to do any job. Some workers are models of efficiency. These exceptional workers earned my highest respect. I observed and learned from my dear comrade, Florence Wachowski. Most of the operators, like me, were in constant, frantic motion, trying to keep up with the machines. But when you passed Florence's station, she would be sitting, perhaps reading a magazine. All of the machine heads would be running and all of the wire spools were full. How did she do it? Florence had mastered that job and had not allowed the job to master her. I knew it was all in the timing. But I never learned her secret. I also remember Florence for the wise gift she sent us three years later, on the birth of my third child. We were broke, broke, broke. Florence sent her present in the form of cash. She had an idea that we needed money.
After some months in the insulating department, I was transferred to the enameling department. To get there from the insulating machines, you had to walk through the braiding department. The braiding machines twisted several conductors to make up cables. It was the most disturbing industrial noise I have ever heard. I hated walking through the department and could not understand how people could work there all day. Compared with braiding and insulating, the enameling department was much quieter. It was also much hotter.
The enameling was done in ovens where the temperature was kept at 800 degrees Fahrenheit. Each operator had two low but huge ovens in front of her and two behind her. The ovens were about six feet wide and ten feet long. The feed/uptake end of each oven had 12 heads, for a total of 48 heads. Instead of cotton insulation, the wire was covered with enamel. The bare wire from a supply spool was fed through a groove with liquid enamel, then into the oven. It made several passes until the finished wire had enough coats of baked-on enamel. There was one big difference between my old job in cotton insulation and the enameling room. That difference could cost you your job.
For cotton insulation, the old wire was braised to the new wire and run until the spool was full. But in enameling, the old and new wires were never fused together. Instead, old and new wires were temporarily twisted (spliced) together. The old wire threaded the new wire through the oven's many passes. You were supposed to watch until the splice came out. Then the splice was cut and discarded. The old take-up reel was removed, full or not, and replaced with an empty spool. In the rush of keeping 48 heads going, the operator might turn her head and miss or forget the splice. That was cause to be fired.
For political reasons described below, the company decided to get rid of me. They secretly cut open every spool of wire that I had enameled in two days. All my work and the value of those spools of wire
were scrapped! I assume they found no splices since I was not fired. Bernard, who carried out the company order to cut my reels (and told me about it), was my friend. He was an American Labor Party (ALP) activist. Thanks to Bernard, the company did not frame me with a bogus spliced reel. His solidarity meant a lot to me.
Child Care in 1947
Unfortunately, I had no relatives in Buffalo; I was on my own. I had nothing except two plump, lively toddlers. Whether they survived or not was strictly my business. The government could care less. Since I had to work, I needed child care help. When I started at Western Electric, my daughter was about 18 months old. She was a very bright and inquisitive child, probably as ready as many two-year olds. At that early age, she was already climbing out of her crib at night so she could take herself to the bathroom. But the minimum age for child care centers was two.
I hired a babysitter to come to my apartment while I worked. I earned about $20 a week and I paid the babysitter $10. On the face of it, it did not pay to work, but I thought the job promised more of a future than if I stayed home. From a newspaper ad, I found a young woman willing to cover for me while I worked 3:30 p.m. to midnight. Neighbors told me that she put my two toddlers to bed by 6 p.m. Needless to say, it was very hard for me to get up when the children woke up at 6 a.m. It did give me a lot of time with the children, so I felt less guilty about working. We spent our mornings on trips around town, especially to the zoo. We made friends with the zookeepers who gave us updates on the big animals.
Finally, Jeanleah had her second birthday. There was no child care center near me but there was one on the way to the wire plant. That center was federally funded and affordable. It was set up during World War II by the federal government so women could fill the factory jobs left by men who were drafted. Luckily for me, the center was still operating in 1948. So Carl and Jeanleah started their formal education at a very young age. I changed my shift to the 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. shift. There was just one problem. The day care center did not open until 7 a.m., and I had to punch in before 7. Fortunately, some teachers came to work a half hour early and accepted my children. I was too desperate to worry that I was forcing teachers to work before their work day began.
Whatever the weather, I set off each morning with two precious bundles in my arms, each weighing over 30 pounds. I did not make them stand up and walk to the bus stop. That's because I felt guilty about waking them up so early. In 1948, they did not have two-seater strollers that let you wheel two toddlers around. Today, many strollers even fold and are allowed on buses and trains, in stores and museums. That's so much easier than carrying 60 to 70 pounds of little ones. I like to think that this victory is due, at least in part, to our fight in the 1930s and 1940s for women's rights.
Of course, my kids woke up once we were on the bus. When we got off the bus, we still had to walk across the prairie to the child care center. It did not snow every day in Buffalo, but it is the snowy days that I remember. Then, a fierce wind blew the snow in my face as I carried Jeanleah on one arm and pulled Carl along with the other. Bless those teachers! They opened the door, scooped up my kids, and let me run back to the bus stop. At least the bus ran often. Miraculously, I punched in on time, most days. I did have to miss a couple of days from work. Even healthy children will get sick. My foreman told me one day that if I was late or missed another day that I would be fired. I don't know how I managed, but I never came late again or missed another day.
Unless you have gone through it, you don't know how hard it is to be a single mother. It is especially hard if your family cannot help you. I lived through the Great Depression. That wasn't as hard on me because I did not have children to worry about. My diet was so poor after my mother died that I developed scurvy. That did not bother me. My doctor just gave me all the food samples he had and the scurvy went away. But not being able to give your kids basic necessities like a good diet—that really hurt. I did get a sewing machine but sewing was an area in which I had no natural talent. I learned to use the machine to take in Carl's clothing for Jeanleah. I was glad that Jeanleah was too young to care or to
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object. The sewing machine also allowed me to do big sewing jobs quickly, such as repairing worn out sheets. Just cut the sheet lengthwise down the worn-out center. Then sew the sides together to make a new, strong center.
The fight for good and affordable child care will always be close to my heart. I have never forgotten the walk across the snow-covered field with two plump toddlers in my arms. Good quality, affordable child care should be available for all children. It helped that my sister Western Electric workers were very supportive. They knew I was having a hard time managing all by myself with two toddlers. They asked me why I got a divorce.
"Did he beat you?" "No."
"Did he bring his money home?" "Yes. But I didn't love him."
"Love! What's that got to do with it?"
Most of my sister workers were Polish and spoke English with a Polish accent. That puzzled me at first. There was a very large Polish population in Buffalo. But there had not been a recent influx of immigrants. As I later learned, my coworkers had all been born in Buffalo. They lived in a Polish-speaking neighborhood and attended parochial schools that were taught in Polish. So the Polish accent in their English was entirely a made-in-Buffalo product. None of my friends had seen the "old country." It was said that many in the Polish community had not even seen city hall, by far the most prominent building in Buffalo's downtown. That is how closed-in their home community was. I felt privileged to work with these loyal and honest women. My life was richer for knowing them.
Hattie, far right, with Henry Wallace, 1948
Henry Wallace for President
I had worked at Western Electric only two weeks when the Buffalo Evening News put my name on the front page. I was listed as a circulator of petitions to put the Communist Party on the ballot for the New York state elections. Various male management and security types came buzzing around my machines but
they said nothing to me, or I to them. Then they went away. I was not intimidated but I did not like it. A few weeks later, progressive workers at Western Electric, including several Communists, began to organize for the American Labor Party (ALP). In 1948, we organized a Committee to Elect Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party candidate for President. Our organizing was done on the shop floor, strictly rank and file efforts.
Henry Wallace had been U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1933 to 1940. He was Roosevelt's choice as vice president and was elected in 1940. Wallace supported FDR's policy of peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union and other New Deal policies that benefited working families. But in 1944, Wallace was dumped in favor of Harry Truman as Democratic Party nominee for vice president. It was a step that led to the Cold War that broke out after World War II.
When FDR died in 1945, Vice President Truman became President. The "Truman Doctrine" launched the "Cold War" that soon erupted into a hot war in Greece (1947). Millions of people died in other hot "Cold Wars" since then, notably the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Undeclared, still deadly wars took many lives in Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador, all a consequence of Cold War policies. It could even be argued that the Cold War led to the invasions of Iraq and to the great loss of life that followed.
In 1948, Henry Wallace agreed to run for president as a third party candidate. Progressives supported his campaign. As Curtis D. MacDougall summed it up, Wallace wanted to stop "a trend toward American imperialism in foreign affairs and destruction of the social gains of the New Deal at home."11 The Wallace campaign on the Progressive Party ticket was the most important third-party campaign of my lifetime (to date).
A strong cultural movement was a prominent part of the Progressive Party campaign. Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson both made history when they performed at the Wallace rallies in Buffalo. Early in the campaign, Seeger sang at a rally held at Kleinhans Music Hall, near my apartment in Buffalo. It was standing room only, and we had to turn people away. Just a few months later, a second rally was held in the same location. This time, the huge auditorium was filling more slowly. Some of the earlier support had melted away because many feared the election of the Republican, Thomas Dewey. Also, Truman had changed his campaign rhetoric to give "lip service" to Progressive Party program planks.
We activists were worried sick. We did not want Wallace to come to a half empty hall. Pete Seeger was supposed to sing a song or two before Wallace spoke. But we needed to stall until the hall filled. Seeger came forward and I thought he was very brave and upbeat. He sang and he sang and he sang, until the hall was as full as it was going to get. Everyone's morale picked up as Pete belted out one after another of the people's songs. I have loved him deeply, ever since.
We worked hard to bring in the Progressive Party vote. But when the count was in, we had only 1,150,000 votes for Wallace. Still, the campaign had achieved some very important goals. Before the Progressive Party entered the race, both Democratic and Republican Parties had planned to keep foreign policy issues out of the campaign. They did not succeed. Instead, Wallace made peace the central issue.
A very false picture of Truman as a friend still lingers in much of the labor movement. From what I remember, the opposite was true. Truman broke the post-war railroad strike of 1946 by threatening to draft strikers into the army. He tried to break the National Maritime strike by threatening to use the U.S. Navy as strikebreakers. Also, I believe that his hands were not clean on passage of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley law. It is true that he vetoed the law. Congress overrode the veto with the votes of most Democratic congressmen. As I saw it, Truman failed to use his influence and allowed the union-crippling Taft-Hartley Act to become law.
11 McDougall, op. cit., 290.
Western Electric Workers for Wallace with Paul Robeson. Author is second from right
Paul Robeson
For me in Buffalo, the highlight of the Wallace campaign was Paul Robeson's visit. I had heard him many times in New York City in Madison Square Garden. I can still feel the chills run up and down my spine as he sang. Paul's voice, full of love and struggle, of hope and righteous anger, moved my soul. But Robeson's huge presence loomed even larger in the Ellicott District of Buffalo. Early in the campaign, Robeson had pressed Wallace to make African American equality a major plank in his program. At Western Electric, we had organized a Wallace for President Committee. We were thrilled to have our picture taken with the great Robeson, as shown on this page. Robeson's security team for the rally included all five of the grown Lumpkin brothers. As former boxers, Wade and Frank were especially valued for the security detail.
When Robeson arrived at the hall, it seemed the entire Buffalo police force had been mobilized to intimidate us. After Robeson had to run a gauntlet of Buffalo police, he said, "You should have let me know, and I would have come prepared." He told us he had just come from the mine strikers' picket line at the Mesabi iron range. There he rode in a truck with the striking iron miners. Lining the road, on both sides were the mine company's police, their guns drawn. It was not a surprise to hear that. Cold War policies abroad were being reflected in the greater use of violence against workers at home.
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12. The Love of My Life
"There are so many beautiful faces. "
Comrades and Sweethearts, Frank and Bea, 1950
At a Buffalo fundraiser for the 1948 Wallace campaign, I became interested in Frank Lumpkin. At the time, I had no idea that he would become the love of my life. I had just quit my job at Western Electric because I had lost my child care. Our child care center was forced to close when federal funding was withdrawn. Fortunately, I had worked long enough to collect unemployment compensation. That could keep me and my kids going for a while. (Yes, the rules were more humane then.)
I vaguely remembered Frank from earlier visits to the Lumpkin family's home. But the year I came to Buffalo (1943) was the same year that Frank left for the Merchant Marine. Sixty years later, he told us about the discrimination he faced the minute he boarded his first ship. "It did not matter what I knew. I was Black, so they put a shovel in my hands to feed the coal-fired boilers. They gave the white guy who signed on at the same time that I did, a notebook and pencil."
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The next ship Frank sailed was oil-fired. His love of machinery made him a quick learner. In a couple of years, he moved up from fireman, oiler, to junior engineer. He liked the job and became what seamen called a "homesteader." He stuck with the same ship for many trips. But in 1948, when his ship was in Piraeus, Greece, the company sold the ship. Then the company offered to fly the seamen home, but they refused. These seasoned seamen, who survived years of sailing past bombs and torpedoes, claimed they were afraid to fly. Maybe they were afraid, but I doubt it. Their refusal to fly forced the company to send them back by ship. That way, the seamen continued to collect wages until they reached the U.S. Once off the company payroll, the seamen did not know where their next paycheck would come from.
Merchant seamen who served during World War II, like Frank and my brother Leon, did not receive veterans' status until 43 years after the war. One in twenty-six merchant seamen died in line of duty during World War II. That was a greater percentage of war-related deaths than any other U.S. service. Still, the Veterans Administration told me that merchant seamen are not eligible for any veterans' benefits. I hope they were wrong and that WWII Merchant Marine veterans can collect benefits, even if too late for Frank.
Frank and I "Engage"
The year 1948 was an opportune time for me to become interested in Frank. He did not have a ship to go back to. The very important presidential campaign of Henry Wallace needed his help. That kept Frank in Buffalo where I could get to know him better. And he was divorced and available. Our first chance to really talk was largely accidental, at a fund raising party. Unknown to me, Frank had gone to the party with a date. The host of the party was an amateur wine maker, and Frank was sampling the wines enthusiastically. That was the reason Frank gave me later for his date's leaving the party early, alone. As a Lumpkin, Frank was an automatic friend and we began to talk. I found him interesting but that was all. If he had had too much wine, I did not notice. I had come by bus and was glad to accept a ride to my apartment. We talked all the time, just friends.
Later that week Frank called to invite me to a movie. There was a French film in town that I wanted to see. Frank acted as though that was his choice, too. Little did I know that his taste went to westerns. The next week there was a party in Schenectady that I wanted to attend. He had a car and did not seem to mind the two hour drive (one way). I don't know what Frank saw in me. But slowly, I fell in love. He had an unexpected strain of poetry that drew me to his side. When he first stroked my face, he said, "There are so many beautiful faces." Had he told me that I was beautiful, I would have paid little attention. That's what all the men say at a moment like that. I was moved by the way he put it; we were part of a world of beautiful faces.
I was glad that Frank was interested in me and that he loved my children. After some months of dating, we decided to get married. I think it was his honesty and sincerity that first attracted me. And then he was so much fun to be with. He liked everything I liked, or at least put on a good show. I found out later that he really did not like the foreign films I liked. At least, he did not like them as much as I did. But he was very open-minded and ready to try new things.
After we were married, I saw more of Frank's most appealing trait: his love of his fellow workers. He really loved them, and he believed in them. He believed that workers had the power to change the world once they unite and learn to use their power. His mission in life, as he saw it, was to show workers they had that potential. Even before we were married, Frank ended up at the center of a big struggle that erupted in Buffalo.
Racism at the Buffalo Dock
In the summer of 1949, the Buffalo Communist Party initiated a protest against racism on a Lake Erie dance cruise ship. The Party had learned that single African American men had been refused admission. As demonstrators assembled, three African American men, members of Local 2603, United Steelworkers
of America (USWA), bought tickets for the cruise. But they were barred from boarding. We demonstrators began to shout and boo. The police were called. One policeman began to drag a student demonstrator across the dock. Frank protested the rough handling of the student. The cop turned, let the student go, and brought his club down on Frank's head. As the blood spurted from Frank's forehead, his chief concern was that the blood was staining his only suit. As ill luck would have it, the suit was a light gray.
Frank's sister Jonnie spotted another cop aiming his pistol at Frank. Although eight months pregnant, she threw her arms around her brother's neck and began to scream, "Don't hurt him. That's my brother!" Her seemingly hysterical conduct may have saved Frank's life. Then the police arrested Frank, probably to cover up their crime of brutality. The student who was manhandled by the cop had disappeared in the confusion.
Frank was locked up after an emergency room doctor sewed up his forehead with five stitches. The charge was "interfering with a police officer making an arrest." Of course, Frank's brother Warren was documenting the scene with his camera. A few minutes later, Frank's father, Elmo, marched into the police station with the deed to their house. I was grateful and much moved. The Lumpkin house was home to at least 15 people. And Elmo was putting it on the line to gain Frank's freedom. That was Pa's function in the Lumpkin family—to work, bring home his pay, and come through for them in emergencies.
I was worried about Frank's head injury. On doctor's orders, I woke Frank up every hour, just to make sure he was not unconscious. I wasn't too sure what I was supposed to do if I could not wake him up. Scream I suppose. Luckily, Frank slept through the night quite well, even though I woke him up every hour. Although I did not get much sleep I was happy. Frank showed no symptoms of brain injury.
Ma Lumpkin Leads the Fight
The charge against Frank was only a misdemeanor. But a conviction could put him in jail for up to six months. We had to fight the charge while fighting to end discrimination aboard the cruise ship. Frank's mother, Hattie, swung into action. She was the Ellicott district chairperson of the Buffalo Communist Party. Hattie organized a labor/community coalition to end discrimination at the cruise ships. Fifty clergymen signed the coalition's petition to the state's attorney, asking him to drop charges against Frank.
Victory at the cruise ship came just before the trial opened. The boat company agreed to end racial discrimination on their cruises. USWA Local 2603 welcomed the agreement but warned that they would continue to monitor the boat company. They were still angry that three of their members had been denied entry to the cruise ship. James Annacone, union leader and American Labor Party candidate for mayor, told the Worker, "Frank Lumpkin's blood-stained shirt is a warning that Jim Crow must always be upheld by the nightstick and the lynch rope. This unprovoked attack on a Negro worker is pure fascism."12
Jury Trial
A respected civil rights lawyer, Thomas L. Newton, came out of retirement to take Frank's case. It would be pro bono (no fee). Newton asked for a jury trial. The student who had been manhandled by the police appeared as a defense witness. Community pressure was in Frank's favor. The police officer who had clubbed Lumpkin was already being sued for beating two African American women. Still, the State of New York pushed for a conviction. They brought in an African American prosecutor, a first for Buffalo.
The jury was all white. It was not a jury of Frank's peers, mostly business people and professionals. Many of us assumed that the jurors were prejudiced. Frank also feared that they would ask him about his professional boxing status. In New York, a boxer's fists had been ruled "lethal weapons." The prosecutor did question him about his fighting career. It looked bad for Frank. Joe North, the renowned reporter for the Worker, had already written his story. North's headline read, "All-White Jury Convicts Black Worker." But he had to tear up that story and write another one. The jury reached a verdict in just 15 minutes, a
12 The Worker, August 7, 1949. Upstate [New York] edition, 2.
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unanimous "Not guilty!" The audience broke into cheers. Strangers hugged Frank, and hugged each other, including some jurors. Our belief in Black-White unity was reinforced.
Chicago, Next Stop
Once the trial was over, Frank and I were free to leave Buffalo. He needed a job, and there were none in Buffalo in 1949. The economy was in recession. We decided to move to Chicago. The saying used to be, "If you can't get a job in Chicago, you can't get a job anywhere." But in Chicago, apartments were almost harder to find than jobs. Some Buffalo comrades, originally from Pittsburgh, came to the rescue. They had friends in Chicago who were moving back to Pittsburgh. If we moved into the apartment before our friends left, the apartment would be ours. That meant we had to move fast.
All my previous moves had been simple, one stack of books tied with a rope, and one suitcase of clothes. My clothes would still fit in one suitcase. But this time I had two little children. The Chicago apartment was not big enough for all four of us to move in while our friends still lived there. It seemed a good time for the children to spend the summer on Aunt Lillian's farm in Montana.
With a preschooler in each hand, I boarded the train. In Chicago we changed to the famed Empire Builder that went through Montana. It was a long train ride, not exactly a vacation. Still, Carl, Jeanleah and I enjoyed the changing scenery from our coach seats. It was all new to us, a thrilling look at the mountains and plains of our huge country. There was even a glass dome-topped observation car where we could see the amazing star-studded night sky. In the day time, I got my first look at the western jack rabbits. By the eastern white cotton-tail standard, those jack rabbits were huge.
I lingered a day or so in Fairview, Montana, to make sure the kids were settled in. Lillian, Rod's sister, was a wonderfully efficient farm wife. I marveled at the way she casually made two pies for a church cake sale before she made breakfast and helped with the chores. She told me she used to work much harder when she worked in the fields, as well as doing the cooking for a bunch of hired "hands." The farm was near the North Dakota border in semi-arid land. Their irrigation system was well developed and allowed intensive farming. It seemed like a pretty good life to me. That is, if you didn't mind hard work and if the crops brought in enough to cover expenses. Rod once told me that he would have loved farming except for one thing. It was not an eight-hours-a-day job.
It was a long, lonely train ride back to Buffalo. Probably I should have been more worried about the impact of the separation on my children. But I had complete trust in Aunt Lillian. Back in Buffalo, Frank and I packed our few things and were soon in Chicago. We made a short trip to city hall, paid three dollars for a license, and listened to a few words mumbled by the clerk. We were legally married. Our Chicago friends graciously allowed us to sleep on their living room couch until they were ready to move. After six weeks or so they moved out and the apartment was ours.
It was time to bring my children home from their stay in Montana. Everything was going to be new to them, a new apartment and a new family forming. They were used to playing with Frank but now he was their stepfather. All would go well, I thought and hoped. All that was missing was money. Neither one of us had a job.
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13. In Chicago, Fighting Racism
Chicago's segregated real estate policy is all about money.
Married, Pregnant and Broke
With the Chicago apartment safely in our name, I went back to Montana to bring my children home. That took a big weight off my shoulders. It did not matter that we had no furniture and four quite large rooms to fill. All we had was the washing machine that Frank had shipped from my Buffalo apartment. A new friend in Chicago loaned us a sleeper couch for Carl and Jean. I bought a cheap mattress that we put on the floor for Frank and me. That was the last time that I used my bargaining skills honed in the East Bronx when nothing had a "fixed" price. They wanted $20 for the mattress, and I got it for $10.1 still had a few unemployment compensation checks coming. We would make it.
Frank's daily job search came up empty. It must have been very hard for him. He had never had such a long stretch of unemployment. In hard times, it was often easier for women to find work. It did not take me long to find work as a wirer and solderer at the Motorola television plant on the North Side. At Motorola, I worked on an assembly line where I had plenty of company. You had to move fast, but that did not stop us from talking. After you memorized your 40 connections, you could work and talk. As long as you had someone to talk to, the day went quickly.
I wore a smock at work to hide my expanding waist line. Yes, I was pregnant. After a couple of months, the personnel department called me in. Somebody had noticed. They fired me for being pregnant. So I looked for another job and found one right away as a typist at Spiegel. This time I wore a larger smock. I passed the typing test, just barely. I had never worked as a typist before. The job could hardly be called office work, more a production job. We typed only names and addresses, probably for shipping labels.
Even with a looser smock, I was getting noticeably bigger in the middle. So Spiegel fired me. Fired again for pregnancy! There were no laws then to protect pregnant women from discrimination. When pregnant workers finally won rights on the job in the 1970s, I had special reason to rejoice. I lasted just two weeks at Spiegel but I did become a faster typist. That proved to be a useful skill in the years ahead.
Frank and I were down but not out. I had a couple of unemployment checks left in my purse. That was the rent money. As I walked home after dark one evening, a figure emerged out of nowhere. He grabbed my purse and ran away, down the alley. Although eight months pregnant, I could not let my last two unemployment checks disappear. So I ran down the alley after him, screaming, "Give that back." Fortunately, I could not catch him. That was one of the stupidest things I ever did.
To tide us over, I did something I had never done before. I borrowed money from my family. My older brother, Max, helped out. In time, the feds replaced the stolen checks. That was just another disaster that we survived. Paying for prenatal care was not a problem. I could not pay and I did not pay. I enrolled as a charity patient at the prenatal clinic at what was then a pretty good hospital, Michael Reese. From my Depression years, I had a lot of experience with charity medical care. The clinic was crowded and some of the staff were inconsiderate. I knew I had to put up with it but I did lose my cool once. We had waited for hours and got only curt answers when we asked for information. My patience gave out and I stormed out of the clinic shouting, "What do you think we are, cattle?" I know I shook them up, but that was little comfort because I was shaken, too.
Bundle of Charms
Paul Lumpkin was born in March 1950.1 liked the name David but we wanted to name him after Paul Robeson. So he became Paul David Lumpkin. Neither Frank nor I had middle names. Perhaps my children would find it easier to put in a middle initial than write "none" on job applications.
Paul was born into a family that gave him lots of love. Even though Frank cannot carry a tune, he sang to his baby. Paul was Frank's little "bundle of charms." But we had little food in the house. Frank had returned empty-handed each day from his daily job search. One day he was so depressed that he spent his carfare on a movie and walked the five miles to our apartment. There were no jobs out there. The economy was still in the post-World War II recession. I was wondering how fast I could recover from childbirth and go out to find a job.
We did not starve because some of our friends helped us, even though we had not asked for help. Naturally, it was the poorest of our friends who saw the need. As they say, it takes one to know one. Eunice Torrienti, a friend on welfare, brought us two bags of groceries. She lived in the nearby Ida B. Wells housing project. She earned the money to pay for our groceries by selling her breast milk. Florence Wachowski sent us ten dollars. She was the model worker I had admired at Western Electric. The ten dollars kept us eating for another week. The Salvation Army had sent us a housekeeper for a few days after Paul was born. But we were so poor that she brought her own brown-bag lunch. We could not get on welfare because we did not meet the residence requirement then in effect. But at least we had a place to live.
In some ways our apartment was better than any place I had lived in before. The rooms were much larger and there was a back door that opened into a paved yard. On good days I could put a playpen in the yard so Paul could be outdoors. There were some drawbacks. If the wind blew from the lake, all was well. If the wind came from the West, you would have to run inside and close the windows. A couple miles west of us were the stockyards. Back then, Chicago was the "hog butcher of the world." The smell wasn't pretty. Still, we began to love Chicago. As Carl Sandburg wrote of Chicago:
Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders.
Unfortunately, our kitchen was right above the coal furnace. I was not aware of the danger to our health from the coal dust we inhaled. It was the dirt that I could not stand. Every three weeks, I had to wash our white polyester curtains or live with the dirty look. The white kitchen walls turned gray and had to be washed often. I got tired of all the washing, so I painted the kitchen walls and ceiling a dark green. Ugh! But at least I could not see the coal dust and just let the green get darker and darker. I did not let all that get to me. The only thing our family really wanted was a job for Frank.
Wisconsin Steel Chippers Wanted.
At last Frank had a job! He came home with the good news when Paul was just nine days old. Frank had seen an ad in the newspaper for Wisconsin Steel, "Chippers Wanted." He had chipped at Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna and knew he could pass the chipping test. Frank chipped so well that the foreman tapped him on the back and said, "You have a job." But still he was worried that they would see his missing finger joints and fail him on the physical. Fortunately, the exam was so fast that they never noticed the missing finger joints. The company was hiring chippers but did not plan to keep them. When Frank asked for a locker, he was told he didn't need one. They said he would be there only one month. He worked there 30 years and one week.
The job changed everything. We could pay our bills. That allowed us to think of other things and enjoy the new baby. Our apartment had an open door, and friends dropped in anytime. My specialty was creamed tuna with peas and rice (with onions of course). It was good, cheap and could easily stretch to feed ten or twelve. We had a large living room and gave parties to raise money for our newspaper, the
Worker. Frank was happy, working again. He loved to work and he loved his fellow workers. He expressed his joy with this little "back home" ditty:
All I want in this creation
Is a pretty little wife and a big plantation.
All I need to make me happy
Is four little kids to call me pappy.
Four Little Kids
In midsummer of 1951, the fourth kid was born. We named him John Robert. John was named after Jonnie, Frank's sister and my best friend. She and her husband, Henry Ellis, had made the big sacrifice of giving up their jobs and leaving Buffalo to work for the Communist Party. The Party feared that the United States was going into full-blown fascism. They had asked Jonnie and Henry and many others to go "underground," as Communists had to do in Nazi Germany. Jonnie became "Pat" and Henry became "Al" and they moved to Harlem. The names stuck. In later years, our son John could not understand how he could have been named after his aunt, since her name was Pat.
Lake Park Avenue—A Changing Neighborhood
Our apartment was located at 37th Street and Lake Park Avenue, a "changing" neighborhood. It was a great location. Venerable, still substantial apartment buildings lined our block. In the next block, there were historic Victorian mansions. Some apartments even had a view of Lake Michigan. The commute to the Loop, downtown Chicago, was only 15 minutes. When I rented our apartment, Farr and Associates Real Estate, seemed happy to rent to me. They were not aware that they were renting to a mixed couple.
Chicago has long had the shameful reputation of one of the most segregated Northern cities. "Changing" neighborhood is a nice-sounding term used to disguise "white flight" and expanding ghetto. Even so, for a few years until white flight becomes complete, the streets of a "changing" neighborhood show a mix of people, "the way it ought to be." However, in my sixty years in the Chicago area, I have never seen a truly integrated neighborhood. A few higher-income areas around major universities may give the appearance of integration but it is more appearance than reality.
Chicago's segregated real estate policy is all about money. On Lake Park Avenue, I saw how the realtors used scare tactics to induce white flight. After the white families left, the landlords rented the same apartments to African Americans at much higher rentals. Realtors got away with raising the rents because there was a big shortage of housing.
The housing shortage was compounded by racism. In much of the city, African Americans were denied the right to rent. Japanese Americans also faced discrimination in housing. When World War II ended, thousands of Nisei had come to Chicago. They did not want to return to California where they had been removed during the war and forced into concentration camps. In Chicago, some Nisei families had rented apartments on Lake Park Avenue.
The housing situation got worse when the big landlords saw a chance to make a quicker killing. Their frenzy for quick profits took a vicious form. Larger apartments were subdivided to make three or four one-room "kitchenettes." Nisei families and the remaining white families were forced out. The kitchenettes were then rented to African American families at a much higher total rent. Landlords collected the rents but made no repairs. In five years, the landlord got back his investment plus a huge profit. By that time, lack of maintenance and overcrowding had turned the building into a slum. The racists claimed "those people" ruined the neighborhood. The "city" found nothing illegal in this destruction of communities. Anyhow, it was widely believed that Chicago city housing inspectors were corrupt. The common belief was that the inspectors took payoffs. In return for payoffs, they let landlords violate the housing code in their rush for quick profits.
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The apartments in our building were not large and had escaped conversion to kitchenettes. Of the twelve apartments, four were rented to fellow Communists, all Caucasian except for Frank. The other eight tenants were Nisei. Our landlord still did not knowingly rent to African Americans. Other landlords on the block did not want to rent to African Americans until the apartments were subdivided and they could increase their total rent.
Friends and Neighbors
I have many good memories from our four years on Lake Park Avenue. Our 12-apartment complex was a community of friends and comrades. I even kept my apartment door open, to make it easier to communicate. One day an FBI agent walked in to ask me questions about the Alexanders, who lived near the other entrance. I kept the apartment door locked after that.
The Tomsons on the third floor were also good friends. Goff, an engineer, helped Frank rebuild his car engine. Joan gave Jeanleah her first piano lessons. When Conrad and Naomi Komorowski moved out, they offered their apartment to Arlene and Lonnie Brigham, African American comrades. That gave us an in-house baby sitter, Arlene's son Donald. The Brigham family became our friends for life. Arlene and I did a lot of things together.
Above the Lumpkin apartment lived Toshiko, a Japanese war bride and a fascinating person. We called her Toshko. In Japan, she had married a Nisei soldier during the U.S. occupation. As a young lawyer, she was tapped by the Americans for the defense in the trial of Emperor Hirohito. In the Japanese press, Toshko took a lot of flak about the appointment that put her in the public eye. Only 25 years old, she faced prejudice as a woman and prejudice against her youth. In Japan, Toshko had heard that women were free in the U.S. The hope of equality made her look forward to coming to the U.S. with her husband. She told me how disappointed she was that American women were still so unequal. Toshko decided to become a journalist, got an MA in journalism at the Medill School at Northwestern University, raised her two daughters, and wrote for a newspaper.
I have great admiration for people like Toshko, who master a second language as an adult and write well in the new language. Joseph Conrad did it. My friend Toshiko Misaki did it, too.
Multiracial (as it should be) Birthday Party for Carl, 6.
Living among Nisei families was a rare opportunity for our family to learn about another culture. We formed close friendships with the Nisei families across the hall and above us. My friend, Caroline Shibata, showed me how to prepare a simple tasty Japanese dish. She knew I was not into elaborate cooking, so she showed me something easy. Just toast a sheet of sea weed over the gas burner and crumble the toasted sea weed over cooked rice. Her daughter, Josie, was the same age as Jeanleah and the two spent a lot of time together. I was pleased when Jeanleah asked for the benjo, the Japanese word for bathroom. She may not have retained any of the Japanese words she picked up. Still, I am sure that hearing another language helped her become a good language student.
I was impressed by how fast the petite Nisei women moved. When you rang the bell, if the woman answered she came to the door quickly. You could hear her running. Even though there was no urgency, women still ran. Needless to say, not one was overweight.
Fight for Tenants' Rights
Our Communist Party club was a community resource. We got a call that tenants near the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) were refusing to move from their apartments. Their building was slated for demolition as part of a land grab by IIT under the excuse of "slum clearance." The landlord had turned off the heat although Chicago was suffering a deep winter freeze. We went over to the building to support the tenants' protest. In time, lack of water and heat forced the tenants out. Some moved into the lobby at city hall and camped there for days until the city found them housing. "Shorty" (Cliff) Howard and a couple of other friends slept in at city hall with the evictees. The rest of us camped there during the day.
Housing remained an urgent issue. When landlords supplied no heat, people tried to keep warm with dangerous space heaters. It was common to hear fire engines clanging through our neighborhood. A terrible tragedy highlighted the issue for the whole city. In the alley behind us, two single mothers with five children between them lived in a remodeled garage. The mother in charge left the house for a minute to buy some milk at the store around the corner. A flash fire broke out and five children burned to death. A hue and cry was raised against the mother. Nothing was said about the landlord collecting rent on an illegal structure, or the city inspectors who never condemned it.
The community was saddened and angry. The CPUSA club took the initiative to bring together a broad coalition. The coalition took the name, "Committee to Safeguard the Home against Fire." The committee's purpose was to prevent future fire tragedies and end the racist rental policies. Our goal was better enforcement of safety codes. This was my first of many experiences with coalitions in Chicago. It was a simple and powerful strategy. Bring together everybody who agrees on an issue, even if they disagree on other subjects. The pooled strength of the different groups can win on the issue that all the groups support. If we waited until everybody agreed on everything, we could never move forward. There were selfish groups who wanted to "gain control" of a coalition even if that meant destroying it. Fortunately, we did not have that problem in the Committee to Safeguard the Home against Fire. We united Democrats, Communists, Republicans and non-political people. We included people of different religions and no religion. We were people of African American, Japanese and European descent.
Rent Strike!
Our landlord was as stingy as the rest of his kind. Our apartment was often too cold for a newborn baby. Frank was not going to let his baby freeze, so he did what came naturally. After all, he had worked in the engine room in the Merchant Marine. Frank loaded the coal feeder and got the furnace going again. All the apartments began to bask in the heat. That worked fine until the landlord padlocked the coal room. Our protests did not budge the landlord so there was only one thing left to do. Rent Strike! We learned from a long tradition of tenant strikes in Chicago. We notified the landlord that we were placing our rent money in escrow and would not pay him until he gave us some heat. I had never heard of escrow before,
but it was a way of making sure the rent money would be ready when the landlord agreed to turn the heat back on.
In less than a week, Farr and Associates called our committee in to settle. I had never seen anyone like white-haired Mr. Farr. He looked as though he had been pressed between the pages of a book. All the juices were gone, and only the dry stuff was left. His voice came as though from miles away as he asked, "Are you impoverished?" We made it clear that we were not asking for charity. We just wanted the heat we had paid for. We got the heat. Winter was easier to take with a warm apartment to come back to after being out in the severe cold.
Willie McGee and the Martinsville Seven
Our Southside Party club made a big effort to save the life of Willie McGee. It was the same case that Hattie and I had worked on in Buffalo. McGee was an African American accused by his female employer of rape. If anything, it was the other way around. Frank told me of a similar situation when he was a butler-chauffeur in Florida. A white woman, related to his employer, tried to entrap him. Fortunately, Frank recognized the danger and escaped the trap.
Our club members lived in Congressman Dawson's district. Together with some friends, we went to the congressman to ask for his support in the Willie McGee case. Dawson was only the third African American congressman elected in the U.S. since Reconstruction. The first two, Oscar de Priest and William Mitchell, were also from Chicago. Chicago has long been a leader in the fight for African American representation at all levels.
Dawson knew the facts of the case. I believe he knew that McGee was innocent. But he was part of the Chicago political machine and he was not going to rock the boat. Our comrade and neighbor, Arlene Brigham, made an emotional appeal. Still, Dawson would not budge. And he was very arrogant about it. "If you don't like it," he put it bluntly, "run against me." Dawson had just defeated Sam Parks, the Progressive Party candidate for Congress in 1950.
Willie McGee was executed in May, 1951. That was at the height of the McCarthy anti-Communist hysteria. After the execution, some "opinion-makers" said that McGee did not have a chance because Communists led the campaign to save him. But Communists also led the campaign to save the Scottsboro Nine in the 1930s. The Scottsboro Nine were saved, and other struggles that Communist helped to lead were also victorious. The difference was that people were more united in the 1930s than the 1950s. With the power of unity, the labor-civil rights coalition won so much in the 30s— all the benefits we lump under the New Deal. These include Social Security, unemployment compensation, the 40-hour week, a ban of child labor, and a minimum wage. When Black students rose up in the 1960s, and sat-in at the "white" lunch counter, they were following a path that Communists had helped to open.
Sam Parks was a leader of the Packinghouse Worker's Union and a community activist. I remember the campaign rallies on 47th Street that we ran for Parks. Dawson beat Parks in the election, but Parks did not give up. During the bottom of the McCarthy period, Sam Parks organized an outdoor concert for Paul Robeson, right on 47th Street. The regular concert halls had refused to rent to the great singer. It was my second chance to be close to this great people's hero. He was an "All American" in many ways besides football (1918 and 1919). I am the proud owner of a photograph that Paul Robeson autographed. It shows a wonderfully mixed group of children, Japanese, African American and white, singing "Happy Birthday" to my son, Carl. Our Little Paul, whom we had named after Robeson, was sound asleep and missing from the photo. But it was in his honor that big Paul autographed the picture.
Congressman Dawson continued to rule until his death in 1970. In 1971, Ralph Metcalfe, Olympic track star and anti-Hitler hero, was elected congressman. Frank and I supported Metcalfe's progressive moves. However, we did not know him personally. At that time, we were living in Broadview. After Metcalfe died, Harold Washington ran for Congress. We came in to Chicago to help elect him. We did know Washington personally. Harold knew everybody personally. That was his style.
Our Lake Park Communist club also worked to save the Martinsville Seven. The seven African American men, some of them teenagers, had been falsely accused of raping a white woman. They were convicted and sentenced to death. Protests erupted across the country and around the world. Arlene Brigham joined a Civil Rights Congress delegation that met with the governor of Virginia. Arlene was from Mississippi, and she knew the risk that she was taking by going to Virginia. Many others tried to talk to the governor. Still, he refused to grant clemency. The seven men were executed in February 1951. We called it a legal lynching.
Racist Riot on Peoria Street
In November 1949,1 got an emergency phone call from my Party club. Aaron Bindman, an organizer for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, was holed up in his house and needed help. Outside his house a racist mob was gathering, threatening him and his family with bodily harm. The night before, he had held a mixed (Black-White) meeting in his house. The rumor went out that he was selling the house to a Black family. But the mob had not yet jelled, and our caller thought they could be persuaded to go home peacefully. With a few friends, I rushed out to mingle with the crowd and spread the word of peace. We did not know that the police commissioner and the mayor had already been called but were "unavailable" to help.
By the time we got there, fires had been lit in the street and stones were being thrown at the windows. I did talk to some women on the street, saying "Let's go home. We don't want any trouble." They seemed to agree. Suddenly a new element entered the crowd. The racist sentiment hardened. The crowd became a mob. The mob turned on the peace advocates and I became a target. Hate-filled faces jeered, "Rosie, why don't you go back to the University of Chicago!" The anti-Black racism became mixed with anti-Semitism. Some shouted, "Hitler didn't kill enough of them!" Friends grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the crowd because I was prominently pregnant.
Probably I was lucky to get out unharmed. One of our friends was not that lucky. Dr. Sidney Bild, then a last year medical student, had also responded to an emergency phone call. He, too, was talking to people about going home, saying we don't want trouble. When asked, "What parish do you belong to?" Dr. Bild said, "None." That identified him as a non-mobster. A couple of mobsters attacked him and he defended himself. The police, who were idly standing by, arrested Bild. Then they took over the job of beating him. They threw him in the police wagon and beat him some more. At the police station they locked him up with three of his friends and four of the mobsters, all in the same cell. Meanwhile, the union organizer sat in his home with a loaded pistol in case the mob broke in. Fortunately, the mob did not try to enter. But every window was broken and the house was badly damaged. Soon after the riot, the Bindmans moved out. This excerpt from the Internet is quite accurate:
The house on Peoria Street was one block south of the Visitation Catholic Church, one of the largest and most successful parishes in Chicago. In 1925, 1,575 children were enrolled in Visitation grammar school. It was the third-largest parochial school in Chicago. To the pastor, Rev. Msgr. Daniel F. Byrnes, the idea of Visitation as the center of the neighborhood was one which he was prepared to fight to save. The Catholic Interracial Council noted the large amount of Catholics participating in riots in Chicago and implored parish priests to preserve order. But immediately after the Peoria Street riots, Visitation's parishioners organized the "Garfield Boulevard Improvement Association," with the intent of keeping the Blacks out, and occasionally held their meetings in the parish hall. Monsignor Byrne, his parishioners would say later, routinely read the church boundaries at Sunday's Mass and promised to "buy up property before permitting Negroes to move in."13
"The Peoria Street riot in Englewood set precedence in racial conflicts to come because of its violence," according to A Short History of Englewood. They write that, "Police came under criticism for not breaking up the crowd earlier. When a member of the mayor's Commission on Human Relations
contacted the Englewood Police during the riot, he was told that it was difficult for the police to disperse the crowds because they were neighbors."14
Metropole Theater Riot
Another complaint of discrimination plunged Frank and me into a huge anti-Black riot around 1951— 52. An African American couple reported that the Metropole Theater, on 31st Street near Wentworth, had refused to sell them tickets. The militant Civil Rights Congress decided to try to challenge the discrimination. They organized a mixed group to go to the theater together. About seven couples participated. We were admitted to the theater, one couple at a time. The film was a "western," Frank's favorite.
After some tension-filled minutes, we saw people running up and down the aisles, giving people messages. Then those people got up, in twos and threes, to leave the theater. Soon they began to leave in tens and twenties. We seven couples were the only ones left inside. I decided to go out to the lobby to see what was happening. The street was packed with the same hate-filled faces we had seen on Peoria Street. The crowd was dense, maybe 500. There was no way we could leave with the mob blocking the entrance.
I returned to my seat with the news. The only calm face in our group was Frank's. He was enjoying his western movie and refused to be frightened. Frankly, the rest of our group, including me, was scared. We were worried about how to get out without being beaten by the mob. Just then, we were surprised to see Arlene and Lonnie Brigham come into the theater. Unknown to us, a more tense drama had played outside the theater. The Brighams had come late but had not turned away when they saw the mob. A small number of police had also arrived. But they did nothing to break up the mob. Arlene saw an African American plainclothesman forced to draw his gun to protect himself from the mob. With incredible bravery, Lonnie and Arlene made their way through the white mob to join us. Arlene confided to me later that she had a bottle/can opener in her pocket. She did not hesitate to use it to make her way in.
When the large mob gathered so quickly, we assumed that it was organized by the local Catholic church. Given the statements by Rev. Msgr. Daniel F. Byrnes of Englewood, that assumption was reasonable. Also, one of our own Lake Park friends may have inadvertently alerted the mob. Charles (Chuck) Freeman, an African American neighbor, was a true believer in Black-White unity. He was also incredibly brave. With loudspeakers on top of his shiny new, green Kaiser car, Chuck drove up and down the streets surrounding the theater, booming out his message of unity. "White workers," he shouted, "come out and defend your Black brothers. Black and White, unite and fight!" The white residents came out all right but it was not to unite with us. Every window in Chuck's car was broken. Bricks dented the sides. And Chuck had been so proud of his car! Miraculously, he was not hurt. Fortunately, none of us knew any of these details while we were inside the theater.
After what seemed like a very long time, two police wagons drew up to the back doors. I was disgusted that the police did not try to break up the mob. Instead, they took us out like convicts and stuffed us in two wagons. Later, historians would record the outcome. The Metropole Theater "incident" resulted in African Americans being driven back across Wentworth Avenue.15
Even with these personal experiences, we did not know the full extent of racist violence in Chicago. Arnold Hirsch wrote that "one racially motivated bombing or arson occurred every twenty days" in Chicago at that time. The army had asked for 12,000 tear gas and smoke grenades and 10,000 12-gauge shotgun shells "in the event of disorders in Chicago."16 The Chicago city government followed a conscious policy of suppressing reports of racist violence. The newspaper owners fully supported the
14  Ibid.
15  Arnold Richard Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race andHousing in Chicago, 1940-1960 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), note 88.
16  Ibid, 43.
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mayor in this policy. For example, the Chicago papers did not cover the infamous Cicero riot of July 10-12, 1951, until the third day, and only after images of the riot had already appeared on national TV.
With the anti-African American riots in Chicago, the McCarthy witch hunts, and the Korean War, I felt that the country was going to hell. But when the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s blossomed, our spirits picked up. Our struggles had helped lay the foundation for that great movement.
?, N
K E E T 6:00 P.
Last Saturday night, when en interracial putty led by the Civil Rights Congress, entered the Mefcropole Theatre, mob violence- shattered the peace and quiet of Chicago's South Side as a bind of hate-crazed white hoodlums a futilo to stop them.
Threats of physical violence, vile names, and assorted missels v.'ere hurl­ed at the theatre which, the Civil Rights Congress contor_ds, haa long diaoour-aged tfesro patronage. Polico guards and several riot squad3 were required to esoort the group to safety when they attempted to leave the theatre. The mob had grown to several hundred raving maniacs during the time the group was in­side the theatre.
The End and 20th ward chapters of the Civil Rights Congress, under the leadership of Mrs. Arlene Ward and I'ra Emily Freeman had been conducting a campaign around the Metropole theatre for over a year, in an effort to guar­antee thi right of Kegro people to enter tho theatre. The violence flared as a result of their efforts to onlist the aid of Negro and white people in the noj-flionity in breaking down the discriminatory barriers at the Metropole. Sev­eral Negro and white members of the 2nd and 20th ward chapters held an open-air ir-eeting^at 31st and '.Tentworth on Saturday afternoon. They announced at that time that they would be back that evening to attend the :novie. IThen they arrived, they were met by the mob.
ed by. South Side Chapter, Civil Rights Congress and Supporting Organizations, 3356 So". Parkway, Room 12 - KEnwood 6-9336, Chicago 15, Illinois.
Summer Job on the Assembly Line
Our first summer in Chicago, 1950, was another chance for my two older children to visit Aunt Lillian on her farm. Our neighbor, Arlene Brigham, was ready to baby-sit for Paul who still fit in a basket. It was a good time for me to work for a couple of months and bring in some money. Frank and I were having so much fun raising baby Paul that we had decided to have one more baby. The cash I could earn would help handle the expenses for my fourth and last child. So I got another job on an assembly line, wiring and soldering tape recorders. On the line, I sat next to Maria, a Mexican American woman. Our conversation turned to food and budgets. Her food budget for the week was only $10! How did she do it?
For the next two months I heard her recipes. It all sounded very delicious and I took her word that it could be done for $10 a week. I am ashamed to say that I never tried to make her refried beans. There were two reasons for that. First, all of the recipes sounded like a lot of work. I was full of the spirit of women's liberation (and still am). Beans are good just stewed. Why go to the trouble of frying them, let alone re-frying them? The other drawback was Maria's frequent trips to the doctor. What was her trouble? Stomach problems!
In later years I had the luck to partake of my friend Juanita Andrade's Mexican cooking. I found out what I had been missing all of those years. And my stomach was just fine. In later years, Juanita reassured me when we needed to raise money for the Wisconsin Steel workers' Save Our Jobs Committee. I was agonizing about cooking hundreds of dinners. "Don't worry," she told me. "Everybody has talent. Mine is cooking. It will be all right." And the dinners always were a huge success. Unfortunately, her talent never rubbed off on me. I can do basic cooking, and that's where it ends. As a friend put it, I want no more than four ingredients in any recipe that I try. And two of them have to be salt and pepper!
Hospital Racism Kills
Soon after Arlene Brigham moved into our apartment building, she visited relatives in Mississippi. Arlene returned with her 13-year- old nephew, Sonny. Mozella, Sonny's mother, soon followed. Sonny started school in Chicago, and his future looked bright. An attack of appendicitis was promptly treated and the appendix removed. We thought that coming to Chicago had saved his life.
About one year later, Sonny experienced abdominal pain one morning. The pain became severe that night. Mozella and the Brighams rushed him to nearby Michael Reese Hospital, then one of the best in the city. At 4 a.m. they returned. Mozella's screams woke me up, and I rushed out into the hallway. "Sonny is dead," Arlene told me, quietly. I wanted to scream, too. Nearby Michael Reese Hospital had turned Sonny away. They seemed more interested in his insurance (or lack of it) than in the sick child. "Take him to Cook County Hospital," they said. What they did not tell Arlene or Mozella was that Sonny had an intestinal adhesion, a dangerous post-surgery condition. At Cook County, Sonny waited four hours and died without being seen. Surgery could have saved his life. The emergency room doctors were working on a patient with extensive burns. No other physicians were available.
Sonny was not the first, and unfortunately, not the last child who died after being turned away by a private hospital. For our community of friends and comrades, the needless loss of our young friend left a wound that will never heal. Unfortunately, there was a sequel to this tragic story. An African American baby was taken to the emergency room of Woodlawn Hospital. The baby was very sick, but the hospital sent her away. The child died enroute to Cook County Hospital. The protest movement that followed did not go away. It continued under the leadership of Dr. Quentin Young and led to the founding of the Medical Committee for Human Rights. Legislation was won that makes it illegal for a hospital to turn away a patient in critical condition.
I met Dr. Young, hero of the "health care for all" movement, when I needed emergency care. But that story comes later.
Stockholm Peace Pledge
By 1949, the horrors of nuclear war had touched the conscience of people around the world. The Cold War was taking the form of economic blockades and preparations for war. In response, the World Peace Council was organized in Paris, in April 1949. Their committee met in Stockholm in March 1950, and launched the Stockholm Appeal:
We demand the absolute banning of the atomic bomb, weapon of terror and mass extermination of populations.
We demand the establishment of strict international control to ensure the implementation of this ban.
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We consider that the first government to use the atomic weapon against any country whatsoever would be committing a crime against humanity and should be dealt with as a war criminal. We call on all men of goodwill throughout the world to sign this Appeal. Frank and I were among thousands of petition circulators who brought in 1,350,000 signatures in the United States. Over 500 million people signed throughout the world. Support for banning nuclear weapons was so strong on Chicago's South Side that long lines of people formed, waiting to sign our petitions. In Buffalo, Frank's whole family circulated the Stockholm Peace Pledge. Every comrade I knew and their friends were working day and night to eliminate all nuclear weapons.
McCarthy Repression
The domestic atmosphere was also poisoned by McCarthy ism. The "red scare" was directed against liberals and progressives in government, film industry and the labor unions as well as the Communist Party. Good, decent people were hounded out of their jobs. Some even committed suicide, for example, the talented actor John Garfield. FBI agents were literally jumping out behind every bush, as happened to me later, in Gary, Indiana. In Michigan, the six-year old daughter of the Communist leader, Gil Green, was rejected by a progressive summer camp for fear of reprisal from the FBI. When she was finally accepted by a church-run camp, the FBI followed her to watch her comings and goings from the camp baseball field to the lake. Despite the repression, we found a way to do political work in the Lake Park Avenue neighborhood. Bernice Bild and I would stash our leaflets inside the baby carriages when we took our infants out for some air. Then we could pass out the fliers, one at a time, without being noticed.
Recently I was asked, "What was it like to live under the McCarthy witch hunts?" It was a period that made brave people braver. At the same time, the repression made weak people weaker. We defied the red scare to continue to work for peace, jobs, democracy and socialism. But we paid a price. Even people like Frank and me, who did not lose our jobs, felt the intimidation. We held our heads up high and attended a peace meeting. As you reached for the knob to open the door, a camera's flash went off in your face. We were advised to park a block or two from the meeting because the police were writing down the license numbers of all cars parked on the block. All your phone calls, whether to the doctor or your kids' teachers, were interrupted by obvious clicks. Even then, the FBI (or was it the CIA?) had technology to tap phones without making it so obvious. I suspected that they sent clicking noises to intimidate us and nobody was really listening.
Sometimes we may be thrust into situations where we have to take individual action. That happened to me at the corner of Cottage Grove and Pershing Boulevard, 3900 south. In the early 1950s, there was a lot of pedestrian traffic there. One afternoon, I saw two big cops manhandling a boy of about 13. As a mother, I had to do something. I'll admit that I got hysterical and began to scream, "What are you doing to that child!" A crowd gathered around us. The cops were white, and the child, as well as the gathering crowd, was African American. An angry mood was developing. The cops looked around at the crowd and at me. Hatred and fear showed in the policemen's faces. Then they let the child go. I felt the strength of the people. At a time of repression, our only protection is the support of people.
Smith Act Convictions
Hundreds of Communist Party members were indicted under the Smith Act between 1949 and 1957. Although the Supreme Court reversed some Smith Act convictions in 1957, it was too late for the top eleven national leaders of the Communist Party. They had already served five years in the federal penitentiary and paid heavy fines. They were convicted not of any actions but "conspiracy to teach" the overthrow of the government. In The American Inquisition, Cedric Belfrage explained why the conspiracy charge was used. This "ancient British device was useful in cases where it had been decided to jail someone for his politics, but proof that he actually did anything might appear weak. He was then accused
of talking about doing something, which the law rated as a more serious offense, and innocence of which was beyond proof"17
In this atmosphere of severe repression, the Communist Party made an understandable, but damaging mistake. They feared that a fascist dictatorship would soon come to power in the U.S. To prepare for this likelihood, the Party decided to build an underground structure that could continue to fight for people's rights even if the Party became illegal. The mistake proved damaging because good, active people were placed "underground," effectively out of action. For the Lumpkin family, it was a blow to their togetherness. Both Jonnie and Warren had gone "underground." Frank heard that his brother was somewhere in Chicago. Day after day, Frank cruised the streets hoping for a sighting of his much-loved brother. Warren did see his nephew's baby photo in the window of Joe Banks' photography shop. So he knew we were in town. But the two brothers did not find each other until some years later.
What was going on in the country that made Communists fear that the U.S. was going fascist? On the domestic scene, McCarthyite repression was raging. On an international level, the Truman doctrine led to the Cold War. In contrast to FDR's policy of peaceful coexistence with the socialist countries, the Cold War was dedicated to the overthrow of the socialist governments. The Cold War became hot during the Korean War, launched under cover of fighting communism. It lasted from June 25, 1950, to July 27, 1953. The invasion of Korea was just as unjustified and deadly as the later Vietnam and Iraq Wars.
My good friend and neighbor was one of thousands of Americans who suffered during the Korean War. Her husband had been sent to fight in Korea, leaving her and their little daughter without their breadwinner. Her husband had joined the National Guard to make a little extra money, never dreaming that he would be sent to fight in Korea. Fortunately he survived, but the war caused two to four million casualties. U.S. forces alone suffered 103,000 wounded, 36,516 deaths and 8,142 missing in action. In recent times, National Guard units are being sent to fight foreign wars again. As I write, Lumpkin family members have been sent to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Opposition to the Korean War was equated with being a Communist. In our Lake Park neighborhood, most sympathized with our call for peace. But fear silenced many who opposed the war. The McCarthy repression made people afraid that they would lose their job or even go to jail if they spoke for peace. In my opinion, the Communists who fought for peace, equality and workers' rights during the McCarthy repression were heroes. But there were a few who became paranoid and made bad mistakes. How can you correct paranoia if you think you must function secretly? Living through that time taught me the importance of democracy. We never should voluntarily give up our democratic rights, especially freedom of speech and assembly. (That's why the Employee Free Choice Act is so important in 2008. It restores the right of workers to organize.)
Back to Work in Electronics
John, my youngest, was all of 11 months old when I decided to work for a couple of months. I wanted to make some money for a family vacation. I used my electronics experience to get a job as a technical correspondent for Allied Radio. Paul was in a church- sponsored preschool, and Carl and Jeanleah were in public school. We found a loving home to provide day care for John. The Ketchum's home turned out to be too loving. When Frank picked up our son one afternoon, John told Mr. Ketchum, "Goodbye daddy." Frank's reaction was immediate. "Don't you know you just lost your job?" he said to Mr. Ketchum. By that time, John had reached two years of age, old enough to join Paul at the preschool. Frank lost no time in making the switch.
Had it not been for the sexism that challenged me on the job, I would have quit Allied Radio in two months, as planned. Instead, I worked for them for 11 years. The department I had been hired into had been all male. The men had decided to freeze me out by not talking to me, except yes, no, or even briefer responses like a nod of the head. Otherwise, they seemed decent enough. It was obvious to me that they
17 Cedric Belfrage, The American Inquisition, 1945-1960 (Indianapolis, Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973).
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thought my hiring was a move to bring their wages down. Some weeks later, I got my chance to break through. I was alone with one of the men for a few hours, doing an inventory. "Look, Bob," I said, "you guys don't have to be afraid that I will bring your pay down. Tell me what you are making. If the company is paying me less, I will go in and demand a raise. And if I don't get it, I will quit!"
Bob did not tell me how much the men got. So I said, "OK, I'll tell you what I make." And I did. Bob still would not tell me how much the men were paid. A couple of weeks later, the supervisor told me that I should not have told anyone how much I was paid. Evidently, I was not bringing the wage scale down. I never did find out how much the others were paid. But after that day, the men began to talk to me. I considered that a victory for women's rights. It was not the right time to quit. Then I became interested in the electronics theory I was learning on the job. As long as I was learning, and received an average wage, it was a good job. So I did not quit after our family vacation. In fact, I worked four years for Allied Radio, quit to work in Gary for U.S. Steel for two years and then returned to Allied Radio/Knight Kit for another seven years.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
On June 19, 1953,1 got a phone call to rush down to the federal court building in downtown Chicago. We were part of a worldwide movement to save Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. A prejudiced judge had sentenced them to die in the electric chair after they were found "guilty" in a rigged trial. The charge was conspiracy to spy during World War II for the Soviet Union, a major ally of the United States during that war. Their real crime, in the eyes of the Cold Warriors, was their insistence that the trial was a political frame-up. The Rosenbergs refused to "confess," which meant giving more names for people to be prosecuted.
The execution was scheduled for the next day, the Jewish Sabbath. Religious people were objecting to an execution on the Sabbath. We had to hurry because the word was the execution might be done earlier. Arlene Brigham, her sister Mozella and three other women agreed to go. My daughter, Jeanleah, was only seven years old, but she wanted to go, too.
All seven of us squeezed into my little old car that got halfway there and died. So we jumped out and hailed two cabs; one cab would not hold us all. We got there in time to join the protest, one of thousands throughout the world. As we marched with heavy hearts, the chilling news reached us. Instead of postponing the electrocution until after the Sabbath, it had been moved up. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were dead.
My daughter was very upset. She pointed to a policeman on guard, "Mommy, the policeman is laughing." At the time, we did not know the full horror of this legal murder. The first jolt of electricity lasted fifty-seven seconds and failed to kill Ethel. She was re-strapped to the chair and given two more jolts before being pronounced dead. Ethel Rosenberg was the first woman executed by the United States government since the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
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14. Evicted!
Landlords gave the Lumpkins a hard time.
Evicted! With four kids.
In 1953, we left Lake Park Avenue and moved to Woodlawn. The move was entirely involuntary. We were evicted! Rent control ended in Chicago on June 30, 1953. That very same day, the Lumpkins and the Brighams were served with eviction notices. With the end of rent control, tenants lost their protection from eviction. Farr and Associates said nothing about the rent strike, their real reason for evicting us. All they had to say in court was, "They are Communists," and the judge granted the eviction order.
Oh yes, we did more or less have an attorney. Irving Steinberg, that stalwart fighter for civil liberties, was not available. He found us a young, would-be civil liberties champion who was kind enough to take our case pro bono. This was during the worst of the McCarthy period of repression. It was just two weeks after the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. When the judge said, "Communists?! Eviction granted!" our attorney flinched. He murmured something but I did not hear it. Even if he had thundered in defense of our constitutional rights, it would not have stopped that judge. But I would have felt better about it. As it is, we lost in court without a real fight.
The next day, I was standing on the lunch line at Allied Radio. Workers were reading the Chicago Tribune and looking at me with that funny look. "Do you live at 3650 South Lake Park Avenue?" they asked. Our eviction case had made first page! The reaction of my co-workers to the eviction story was sympathetic. They knew that apartments were in short supply. The shortage of housing during World War II had continued after the war. And my job was safe. Fortunately for me, Allied Radio was then owned by a Jewish family that respected their employees' First Amendment rights. The rumor was that these owners had actively opposed the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.
Where was I going to find another rental that would take a family with four children? As luck would have it, I found an apartment in Woodlawn, another "changing" neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. The neighborhood was dominated by the nearby University of Chicago. It was "changing" to a poor African American community. The apartment was in a two-flat building. Two elderly white women, co-owners, lived downstairs. I told them that I had two children; that was only a little lie. I had only two children at home because Carl and Jeanleah were away at camp. It was seeing Frank that put the owners in shock. They would never have rented to an African American.
Our first few weeks in the new apartment were tense. The owners charged that we let the kids roller skate in the apartment. Frank went down to the owners to show them the little pull toys that the boys had played with. "We would never let our children roller skate inside the house," he explained. Whatever Frank told them, they ended up as friends. I was OK with them, but it was Frank they really liked. They relied on his help, and he was always glad to give it. Guess those elderly women had never really met an African American before. After we moved, they rented to another African American family.
We had an ongoing interaction with university faculty types during the year we lived in Woodlawn. Around the corner, the university had loaned a piece of land for use as a "tot lot" or play area for small children. We had two tots, so Frank decided to give the volunteers a hand. The volunteers were putting a fence across the front of the lot before they opened the area to children. Half a dozen university folk were digging holes for the posts. Frank moved forward to help. In a few minutes, Frank was doing the job himself, and the other six were standing around, watching in admiration. Frank and I got a big laugh out of that. Anyway, it was good to have a tot lot nearby.
Second Story Job and Other Risks
Actually, in my 60 years of living with Frank, Woodlawn was the only place where we lived on the second floor. Coming from the East Bronx in New York, many-storied tenement buildings were the norm for me. But Frank's family had always lived in a house, even if only a farm worker's house that belonged to the plantation owner. "I don't like to live above other people," he told me. Still, he was not afraid of heights. Frank decided to put up a TV antenna on the slanted roof, two stories high. Since I was the one who knew how to wire the antenna, I needed to climb up there with him.
Frank extended the ladder to its full height, ending just under the edge of the roof. From the ladder, he grabbed the slanted roof and hoisted himself up. I merrily climbed up after him, but did not want to try hoisting myself over the edge of the roof. Still, I did not want to admit defeat. Just then, his big arm reached down. I grabbed it and he pulled me up. The rest was easy. Looking back, we both took an insane risk. Only years later did I hear Frank's story about his slide down a couple of floors after he lost his grip inside a brewery vat. Had I heard that story earlier, I never would have climbed to the roof on a ladder that did not quite reach the edge.
I could never have cared for four children and held a job without the help of my oldest child. When Frank worked days, Carl was in charge after I left for work. Jeanleah was not quite eight, and Carl was nine when we lived in Woodlawn. I did not think it a big thing to leave for work and count on them to get themselves to school. I would hesitate to do that now, but that is the way it was when I grew up. Paul and John were just four and two and a half years old. The preschool van arrived 15 minutes after I had to leave for work. I had them all dressed and fed before I left. I trusted Carl to take Paul and John down the
stairs and into the preschool van before he left for school. Perhaps climbing up on the roof was not the biggest risk I took those days. Fortunately, we all survived.
Piano Lessons
Jeanleah began piano lessons while we lived on Lake Park Avenue. She studied piano at the nearby Abraham Lincoln Center, within walking distance. Since my mother had such dismal luck with my piano lessons, I don't remember why I bought a piano. Probably it was a huge bargain.
Fortunately, Jeanleah liked to play and did quite well. So we moved the piano to the Woodlawn apartment. That apartment was on the second floor, up a narrow staircase with a sharp bend. Frank and two other strong steel workers did our moving, including the piano. I still remember the horror of the critical moment when they had to turn the piano on the landing. For a moment, the piano tilted the wrong way, about to crash down the stairs. It teetered and then Frank got it to tilt the right way, up instead of down. We all survived. But when we moved again, I made sure to hire professional piano movers.
The Woodlawn and Lake Park areas have been gentrified since our time there, 1949-1954. Our family could never afford to rent there now. Back in 1949, many Chicagoans still followed the country custom of shooting off guns to celebrate New Year's Eve. But Woodlawn was the only place we lived where we often heard shots when it was not New Year's Eve. After I heard the gunfire, I listened for police or ambulance sirens. Sometimes I heard the sirens after what seemed like half an hour. Sometimes I heard nothing more. At least on New Year's Eve we knew that the guns had not been fired in anger.
I thought of a friend on Lake Park Avenue who slept with a loaded gun under his pillow. One night he looked out of his second floor window and saw someone on a ladder, lifting the window. He pulled the gun out and shot through the window. Then he went back to sleep. His story worried me. I would not want to kill or wound anybody, even a burglar. I preferred to rely on a lock bolt that let the window open a few inches for air. It worked for me in the Lake Park apartment. As I was in bed one night and Frank was in the mill, I heard the window slide up and stop at the lock bolt. My heart began to pound. In a deep voice that I did not recognize I shouted, "Get the hell out of here or I'll call the police!" I heard nothing more and eventually went back to sleep. The lock bolt had done its job.
There were some good features to our Woodlawn location. We lived within walking distance of Lake Michigan beaches and the Museum of Science and Industry. Visiting the museum was a favorite treat for all the family, and absolutely free. Families like mine are now cut off from such wonderful opportunities. High admission fees have put the museums and zoos out of reach of many working class families.
In Woodlawn, we missed the community struggles that kept us busy for the four years we lived on Lake Park Avenue. The McCarthy repression of progressives in general, and against the Communist Party in particular, had taken its toll. The movement did not begin to rebound until the '60s when freedom riders went into the Deep South to fight for "One person, one vote." One of Frank's brothers was "someplace" in Chicago. He had gone underground at the request of the Communist Party. After the Supreme Court threw out Smith Act convictions, some degree of freedom returned. One of the first things Frank did was to get together with his brother and his sister, Jonnie, who also had gone underground. They were very happy to live normal lives again. Neither one ever returned to live in Buffalo. Neither did we.
Trumbull Park
The year we moved to Woodlawn was the year of one of the worst and longest-lasting racist riots in Chicago. It was unleashed in Trumbull Park, in the South Deering neighborhood of Wisconsin Steel. African Americans on the South Side wanted to rush to the defense of the families under attack. But the families who had moved to Trumbull Park were too far away from the Black community. The McCarthy
repression had weakened the movement. We were not strong enough to organize so long a march. And in 1951, the Chicago suburb of Cicero allowed racist riots to rage. The whole country watched the riot fires on national TV.
In a similar vein, Gerald Home blames McCarthyism in his Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the He connects the lack of organization of the Watts uprising to the weakening of the Los Angeles Communist Party during the McCarthy repression. Not until 1966, thirteen years later, did the civil rights movement regain the strength to march to Cicero. That year, Frank and I marched with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Marquette Park in Chicago, another riot scene.
The Trumbull Park riot started when a racist mob tried to drive out an African American family from their apartment in the then new and desirable public housing near Wisconsin Steel. The riot began August 5, 1953, and continued for weeks. Four more African American families moved in and were met by a new round of violence. Frank London Brown was one of the new tenants. His novel, Trumbull Park, captured the heroism of the African American tenants.19 They withstood bombs going off outside their windows every night, rocks thrown at their windows, and a barrage of insults. Again, the police made no attempt to disperse the mobs.
The racist violence at Trumbull Park spilled out into the streets around Wisconsin Steel. During these riots, African American steel workers had to drive through a barrage of stones to get to work. Some who were not lucky enough to have a car were beaten as they waited at bus transfer points near the plant. Two nearby taverns that served African American as well as white and Mexican steel workers were bombed.20 The violence was kept going with money sent in by right-wing groups based outside of Chicago.
The mill itself was a safe haven. Many Mexican and white steel workers apologized to the African American workers for the violence they faced coming to work in the mill. They recognized that all steel workers had common interests and should support each other. But those who profited from racial division kept the violence going. Racism held back workers' solidarity for many years.
Dr. Quentin Young
In Woodlawn, I met Dr. Young as thousands had, as a patient. Now he is a famous leader in the fight for 'health care for all." I had a bad "cold," but it was not like anything I ever had before. When the fever first hit, it felt like I was a mouse and some huge cat was shaking the life out of me. I went to a doctor on the North Side who said I had "what was going around." After ten days I was so sick that I went to the nearest doctor I knew. He was out. Yes, I agreed to see his assistant.
The young doctor who rolled my eyelid down, and knew instantly what disease I had, said his name was Quentin Young. He did a urine test, shook the jar, saw the yellow foam and said, "You have hepatitis and must go to the hospital." "But doctor," I replied. "I have four small children. Couldn't I just take treatment after work?" Although Dr. Young was not tall, he drew himself up to his full height and solemnly told me, "Not under my care."
Then this doctor, who had never seen me before, offered to go to my home to explain to my husband why I had to be hospitalized. Having done that, he admitted me to Woodlawn Hospital. The next day he told me, "You are the last patient I was able to admit." He had spearheaded the protest when an African American baby died after Woodlawn Hospital refused to admit her. Because of his stand against racism, the hospital had removed Dr. Young from their staff!
Somehow, Frank and the children survived my three weeks in the hospital. Frank's youngest sister, Gladys, came from Buffalo to help. Gladys, in my mind, was the most beautiful of the Lumpkin sisters.
18  Gerald Home, The Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s (Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1995).
19  Frank London Brown, Trumbull Park (Chicago: Regnery, 1959).
20  William Kornblum, Blue Collar Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 82.
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She was almost as tall as Frank, gracefully slim as a reed, and with the largest eyes I have ever seen. The photo for this page shows her collecting signatures for the Stockholm Peace Pledge.
Old Age—How It Ought to Be
There was no medication for hepatitis in 1953, just bed rest, three weeks of it! Other patients came and went in my room, all elderly women. Since I felt OK once I was put to bed, I had plenty of time to think. For the first time in my life I thought about old age and how it ought to be. What I was observing was how it should not be. What bothered me was not just the pain these old women suffered from their various diseases. It was the emptiness of their lives. They seemed to have nothing to live for.
Fortunately, there were some hospital workers who liked to stop and talk. There may be no cure for old age, we agreed. Still, there could be a cure for the emptiness so many old people felt. I had noticed on trips to the Soviet Union that many old people were working. They worked as many hours as they liked and their pay was in addition to their pensions. Of course we would need enough jobs to do that here. We had a solution to that, too. Shorten the work day to six or even four hours, whatever it takes to have work for all. These discussions helped the time pass, and I learned a lot from the hospital workers. Also, I read to the point of eyestrain. A fellow-worker from Allied Radio had brought me a copy of Tolstoy's War and Peace. I read it all, page by page. When else could I have read over 1,000 pages of a novel?
Wisconsin Steel, the Social Side
The move to Woodlawn brought Frank closer to his job at Wisconsin Steel. That made it easier for Frank to bring fellow workers home with him. While I was at work, he and a buddy decided to try their hand at baking. The results were interesting. For one creation, they used a half cup of salt and one teaspoon of sugar. Just one taste and they knew they had made a bad mistake. Another time, they left out the baking powder. I didn't mind their messing around in my kitchen. But my hope that they would
become accomplished bakers was not fulfilled. Their culinary skills remained at the level of warming up food on the salamander heaters in the mill.
Jose Andrade, Frank's partner and compadre, brought an ample supply of tacos, enchiladas, tamales and gorditas for his lunch in the mill. One morning, Frank brought home a bagful left over from the night shift. "What did you bring these for?" I asked sourly. But since they were there I heated some in the oven and tried one. "These are good!" I exclaimed. They were the work of Juanita Andrade, Jose's wife. After that, I looked forward to the leftovers from the mill. But I did not meet Juanita until the mill closed in 1980, many years later.
Emmett Paul was another good buddy from Wisconsin Steel and a good comrade. He had left Chicago and moved to nearby Gary. We visited his home and enjoyed the semi-rural location. There was room for children to run and play and some nearby woods to explore. I restored the Pauls' television viewing, just some minor tuner adjustment. In gratitude, he took one of the fat chickens he was raising and gave it to us, alive. There was a lot of excitement in the car on the return trip with four children and a live chicken. When we got back to Woodlawn, I wondered what Frank planned to do with that chicken. And when would he do it? The apartment had a long hallway running though it with bedroom doors opening on either side.
My daughter was especially tender-hearted about animals. "You're not going to kill it," she pleaded. Frank took the chicken to the kitchen, and the rest of us retreated to our rooms. But we opened our doors and there were four or five heads sticking out in the long hallway, hoping against hope. The dread deed was done and Frank cleaned and cooked that chicken. Nobody refused to eat it, but I would not want to repeat that experience. Frank was the only "country" person among us.
We kept up with the Emmett Paul family for many years. He and his wife retired to Guadalajara, Mexico, and we visited them there. On a later trip to Merida, Mexico, I was walking down a narrow street in the market. There I came face to face with Catherine Paul, Emmett's wife. And we didn't even know they had moved to Merida! The Pauls made our trip to Merida very special. This African American steel worker family found the culture of Mexico warm and inviting. They helped Frank and me feel that workers around the world are all connected.
Our 1953 visit to Emmett's house in Gary had planted a seed. In general, landlords had given the Lumpkins a hard time. Why not get our own house and move out of the city to Gary? The children would be free to play outside and I could have a garden, The train could take me to Chicago and I could still keep my job. On Frank's part, he did not mind the 14-mile drive from Gary to South Chicago.
We found a new, cheap housing development in the Wooded Highlands-Tolleston area on Gary's West Side. The prefab homes with composition-board sides were set on concrete slabs placed on the sand. The small homes sold for $7,500, with a down payment of $500. My hand shook when I wrote the check. It was by far the largest check I had ever written.
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15. Gary, City of Steel
Our seven and one-half years in Gary, Indiana, 1954-1962, were formative years for the whole family. For the children, there was plenty of open space. No tall buildings blocked the view. Somehow it made me feel more alive to see the whole sky, not just a little patch between buildings. A strip of oak woods was just across the street. The woods ran along a ridge marking a prehistoric level of Lake Michigan. It was great for sledding. The kids gave the hills picturesque names like "Suicide Slope" and "Dead Man's Hill." Prickly pears grew in the sand. Wild asparagus for the asking sprouted all over in the spring. On the other side of the woods was Tolleston High School and Ernie Pyle Elementary, schools that seemed better than those we left in Chicago.
Tolleston was yet another "changing neighborhood." Almost all of the white families lived in homes of standard quality north of the woods. On the south side of the woods, our side, most of the homes were newly constructed "prefab" buildings. In twenty years they became slums. Most of the African American families lived on our side of the woods. There had been problems with racism at the school a few years earlier. Frank Sinatra, they said, came to Tolleston High School during World War II to help stop a racist riot. The school seemed quiet when we moved there in the'50s. But the tensions of a "changing neighborhood" were just beneath the surface. When my oldest son, Carl, went to class, other white children asked him, "When are you moving?" "We just got here," Carl replied.
Almost all the men in our Gary neighborhood were steel workers. Almost all of the women stayed home, caring for the family and the house. I was one of the very few exceptions. For one thing, it was very difficult for the wife of a shift worker to work outside the home. More to the point, there were few jobs for women in Gary. There was one window-wiper factory in Gary that hired women. The wages they paid were too low to allow a woman to pay for child care. Besides, I never heard of any child care facility in our neighborhood. Next door to us, Mrs. Brooks took care of her grandchild while her daughter worked. Mrs. Brooks told me that she, too, had been raised by her grandmother. That was common in the South, she added. It was easier for younger women to find work.
The Sky's On Fire!
I kept my Allied Radio job in Chicago and rode in on the Pennsylvania Railroad Valparaiso Local. It did not take me long to learn how to sleep on the train. As soon as my head hit the back of the seat, I would snooze. In the winter, it was dark by the time I got home. One night I looked to the east and it was all afire. The night sky had turned pink. "Frank," I called, "there's a big fire out there." He laughed. "They're just pouring a heat of steel," he told me. Gary was truly a steel town. Another night, though, the sky was ablaze in every direction. We stood and watched in wonder as bright yellow and green streamers shot down to the horizon. It had nothing to do with steel. My guess was that we were enjoying a rare visit of the Northern Lights to our latitude.
Our area was semi-rural. Early one Saturday morning, Mr. Fisher, who lived four blocks away, came a-knocking on our door. He wanted Frank to help him butcher a hog. Frank went with Fisher in a minute, like butchering a hog was the most natural thing to do. He did come back with some tasty pork chops. Another time he was called to use his country skills, the outcome was less to my taste. The kids had killed a squirrel with their BB gun. They had the nerve to bring it home, and Frank had the nerve to dress and cook the varmint. I guess it made a tasty stew but I would have no part of it.
Art Adams, another family friend and Frank's Party comrade, had some experience with Gary's wild life. In his case it was rabbits. He tried to grow vegetables, but the rabbits ate them. "What did you do about that?" I asked, hoping to hear some useful tips. "I switched to a meat diet," Art said. Adams was a steel worker who helped make labor history. I did not know then that our friend had mentored people like the steel worker leader, Curtis Strong. Sometimes Art talked about the Memorial Day Massacre at
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Republic Steel. The Massacre occurred in 1937 when Chicago police shot into a peaceful crowd of strike sympathizers. Art told us about a famous reporter who was shot in the leg. She raised her dress high, and Art could see the blood spurting out of her thigh. That picture would not leave his mind and now it is fixed in mine.
The most countrified feature of our new neighborhood was the people. Almost all were African Americans originally from the rural South. People greeted each other on the street, and everybody knew everybody for blocks around. Frank leaned out of the window as he drove home so he could better greet passers-by. I will admit that I did not do the same. Some days, driving or walking home from the train station after a very long day, my thoughts were all on, "What am I going to feed my four kids?" Frank heard complaints about that. "Your wife didn't speak!"
Soon people found out how helpful a neighbor they had in Frank. If a neighbor needed a ride, Frank would jump out of bed, when he worked nights, and say, "Sure, Mrs. Taylor, I'll pick you up at the grocery." We had no public transportation, and the nearest grocery store was a mile away. But I was too tender-hearted to interrupt Frank's sleep. So I walked the two miles from the train if I did not have the car. I did not mind the exercise. But on two occasions that I describe later, the walk did not go well.
We Need Sewers and Water
The city sewer system had not been extended to our area. We made do with septic tanks. Gary sits on the shore of Lake Michigan, one of the world's largest reservoirs of fresh water. But we could not get any of it. The water supply was privately owned. The for-profit water company had no interest in bringing water pipes out to our thinly populated area. So we got our drinking water from wells. Our well water tasted fine. I thought if the city of Gary allowed septic tanks, it must be all right. I was a city girl and did not know any better. I had a lot to learn about the city of Gary as well as about septic tanks.
Unknown to us, the wells were too close to the septic tanks. By the time we found that out it was too late. We had already moved in and signed our life away for a mortgage. No doubt, Frank and I would have eventually taken action on the issue of unsafe drinking water. But we ended up acting sooner, rather than later. It was the FBI that forced our hand. That was one time when FBI harassment had an effect opposite to what they intended.
We were in Gary only one month when Mrs. Bims called us about the FBI. She took care of Paul and John when Frank worked days. "Do you know any reason why the FBI is interested in you?" she asked. The call took me by surprise. My mind began to race a mile a minute. I quickly began to tell Mrs. Bims about our community activism. The FBI is trying to divide people and stop our community organizing, I added.
Frank and I realized that we had no time to lose. The FBI was trying to isolate us before we really got to know our neighbors. We had a pressing issue, the need for safe drinking water. There had been a case of typhoid in the area just before we moved in. So we invited the neighbors to a community meeting at our house. The meeting was well-attended, and we agreed to organize for our basic needs: safe drinking water and sanitary sewers.
Our first step was to take samples of the well water. We got sampling kits from the Gary Health Department. Then we canvassed the neighborhood and collected water samples. Only a couple of homes refused to give us samples. They feared that if their water tested as bad, their homes would be condemned. The health department tested the water and gave us the results. At least 30 percent of the wells were contaminated by the septic tanks. My family was lucky—our water tested OK. Our next neighborhood meeting decided to hold a rally where everyone could see us—outside city hall.
Fortunately, the Lumpkins were not the only experienced organizers on that committee. There was a pleasant surprise waiting for us on the day of the demonstration. We had prepared some hand-lettered signs to hold up with our slogans. But Katie Dowd had a better idea. She brought signs that literally spelled out our demands. Dowd's signs were large single letters. Put together, they said, "WE WANT
WATER! WE WANT SEWERS!" And Katie came with two cars packed with 18 of her relatives. That was almost enough to hold up the letters. The Gary Post-Tribune took notice. Our picture made first page.
After our rally in 1954, we continued to attend city council meetings to keep up our pressure on city hall. The city of Gary said their hands were tied because the water plant was privately owned. The water company rates were very high. Still, we would have paid the monthly water bill. But we could not pay the thousands of dollars that the company wanted to bring water to our area. That left us with no choice but to drink well water, in many cases from polluted wells.
In 1958, George Chacharis became mayor. He was a former steel worker and sympathetic to our cause. Chacharis put an initiative on the ballot to allow the city to buy the water company. But the water company spent millions for deceptive advertising. Their slogan was, "Keep the politicians' hands out of our clean water!" I could not believe that we lost that vote. When Chacharis was sent to a federal jail on corruption charges in 1962,1 was very suspicious. I still believe that his move for city ownership of the water company sealed his doom.
Yes, there was plenty of corruption in Gary, from the precinct level on up. I thought Khrushchev was talking about Gary when he pounded his sandal at the UN and said the U.S. government was based on gangsters. The whole political party rested on the base of precincts. And everyone in Gary knew that precinct organizations were funded by payoffs from the rackets. Police and precinct captains were paid to look the other way when illegal drugs and prostitution came into the precincts.
We were still drinking the water from our well in 1962, when we left Gary. It took years to win our two demands: city water and sewers. About six years after our demonstration, the city brought sewers to Wooded Highlands. That made an immediate improvement in sanitation. Of course, the residents paid for it. Much later, water service was also extended. The main benefit of our fight may have been the lessons in organization that we learned. The way Frank put it was, "If you don't fight you know you will lose. If you fight there's a chance to win." For me, one of the best experiences of the water and sewers fight was meeting people like Katie Dowd, Mary Fisher and Joe and Fannie Norrick.
Katie Dowd
Katie Dowd lived in the Small Farms area, just south of us. Small Farms was even more underdeveloped than our neighborhood. Many of the homes had dirt floors. "This is worse than Mississippi," neighbors who came from that state told me.
Dowd was from Arkansas. While still a teenager, she took part in a historic uprising of cotton sharecroppers. It was a struggle that brought her to the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, Dowd told me. She added, "Don't believe them when they say colored people can't stick together." Then she told me this inspiring story. In the 1930s, thousands of sharecroppers were displaced by mechanical cotton pickers. They were given orders to move, but they had no place to go. Rather than waiting to be evicted one-by-one, they planned a bold, dramatic move. They hoped to focus attention on their demands and embarrass the government into finding them new homes. Their success depended on complete secrecy.
On their chosen night, 5,000 sharecropper families moved all of their possessions—big cooking stoves, animals, and all. They camped where the whole world could see them, along Route 66. Route 66 was then the main East-West highway from Chicago to California. The mass move took the authorities completely by surprise. Not one person of the more than 5,000 protesters had leaked the plan.
Mary Fisher
Mary Fisher also lived in Small Farms. She was one of the few people we knew when we first moved to Gary. In Chicago, Mary had worked with Frank in the Steel workers club of the Communist Party. Fisher was among the many women who answered their country's call to work in the steel mills during World War II. She was one of the few women who held on to her job after the war. By definition, that meant she was tough. Frank held her in the highest regard. That's special praise by itself. In Chicago, she
lived in Altgeld Housing of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA). Frank used to say that she was the best community organizer. As he put it, "If someone burned a pot of beans in the project, Mary Fisher knew about it." That's the kind of organizing Frank taught me to love, personal and up close.
We did give the Fishers one present, our dog Duke. Duke, the boxer, was a gifted watch dog. Although we had no fence, Duke knew exactly where our lot lines were. He never strayed beyond those lines. Nor did he allow any unknown person to step over the lines. But we had to give him up after Duke scratched little Paul over his eye. Paul carries the scar to this day. It was a hard way to learn that Duke allowed no one to play with his food. So we gave Duke to the Fishers who had even less to guard than we did. As Frank said, "The poorest people have the best watch dogs." An exception was the dog that Frank's brother Ozzie bought. Someone stole Ozzie's watch dog.
Joe and Fannie Norrick
Joe Norrick was among the many coal miners from southern Indiana who moved to the northern part of the state to work in the steel mills. Along the way, Joe joined the Communist Party and met his second wife, Fanny Hartman. An electrician by trade, his real love was organizing and fighting for workers. Joe had a clear vision: the root of all evil was capitalism. Joe and Frank were friends and comrades on a gut level. Joe in the coal mines and Frank in the citrus plantations had come to the same conclusion. We have to change the system. To end exploitation, workers must run the country for the benefit of the people.
When we first met Joe, he and Fannie were living in East Chicago, near Youngstown Sheet and Tube where Joe worked. Then Joe bought some land in Gary. It was cheap because it was subject to flooding. The floods brought fertile soil, making good farm land. I learned that the old saying was true: you can take the boy out of the farm, but you can never take the farm out of the boy. Joe bought a tractor and planted everything good to eat. That was another level on which Joe and Frank had common roots.
Joe's speech was peppered with good, old-fashioned expressions from his southern Indiana farm background. A favorite was, "What's the hurry? You got ice in the wagon?" He also set a high standard for Frank to follow by building a three-bedroom home with his own hands. Without Joe's example, I doubt that Frank would have built our block garage, making it bigger than our house. For years the Norrick house was a center for rank and file steel workers. People enjoyed visiting the Norricks for good conversation and to admire the house that Joe built. We spent so much time visiting the Norricks that our children thought we were all one family. And we were.
I had met Fannie Norrick twenty years earlier in New York City. She was then Fannie Hartman, sharing an apartment with a famed organizer, Anne Burlak. I had heard of Burlak as "The Red Flame of Patterson" (NJ) for her passionate leadership of the textile workers' strike. The two seasoned organizers taught me some lessons I needed to learn. I was only sixteen, and they seemed to think I was too serious. I was chomping my way through the Marxist classics and had picked up much of the old-fashioned book language. Fannie was blunt. She said I sounded like a "Comintern resolution." I did not remind her of it when we met years later, in Gary. But I never forgot it either. Hopefully her colorful criticism helped me clean up my language and talk regular talk. When I tried to become a writer, her advice helped me a lot.
The Communist Party club of Gary met regularly in the mid- 1950s, often at our home. My youngest child enjoyed passing around the cake that I had baked for the meeting. It was applesauce cake, I think. Of course I had another cake for my kids. Everyone at the meeting took a slice, and the plate became lighter and lighter. Finally, my child let out an anguished cry. "They're taking it all," he cried. I should have just laughed and left it at that. Instead, I brought out the other cake. All in all, it was a very good meeting.
After a couple of years, the Communist club of Gary began to skip meetings. Some people had left the city and few new members joined during the McCarthy repression. Joe Norrick was one of the people who kept us steady in rough waters. He helped us reorganize the Communist Party in Gary as we began to beat back the red baiters and the racists. In 1957, the Supreme Court threw out the second tier of Smith
Act convictions. Rising mass protests, including the growing civil rights movement, helped write end to the McCarthy period repression, but not before the McCarthyites severely damaged democracy. Our country has still not fully recovered.
Heart Attack!
Everybody thought of Frank as indestructible. Some even thought of him in terms of the John Henry legend. But as we know from the song, in the end the steam hammer did in John Henry. One of the legends about Frank, a legend he cultivated, was that he did not need any sleep. He worked hard and he played hard. That did not leave much time for sleep. Card players, and he was one, are noted for losing track of the time. I think mostly he won. Frank told me once that he won a ring from Arlene Brigham's brother, a good friend. I made Frank give the ring back. Looking back, I realize that was dumb. Arlene's brother probably lost the ring to someone else. But I don't regret it. The ring was a present from his wife. I did not want something like that on our conscience.
Well one night Frank came home late, after we had all gone to bed, He was hungry and ate some lamb stew that I left out for him. It was winter time but the lamb stew was waiting in the warm kitchen for some hours. About 3 a.m. he woke up with a stomach ache and began to vomit. He lay down again but soon jumped up and began to jab shadow punches with his left arm. I guess he was trying to relieve the pain in his arm. I was alarmed and thought he had food poisoning. I called Gary Methodist Hospital but no, there was no doctor on duty. Don't bring him in! I called a couple of other hospitals in neighboring towns. They also claimed they had no emergency service.
Reluctantly, I called our own doctor, at 3:30 a.m. He said we could try ginger ale or similar drink to subdue the nausea. So at 4 a.m., I drove around Gary to find the ginger ale. At 7 a.m. Frank seemed better. So I did what we always did unless we were dead. And that is, go to work. As soon as I got to Allied Radio, in Chicago, I called home. It seemed the doctor had been worried, too, and had made a house call to check Frank. "He said it was not so much my stomach as my heart," Frank told me. "He told me to go to the hospital."
I had just left our only car at the train station. Frank was off work, that day. "Take a cab to the station," I urged him. I left my job to start making my way by train and bus to the hospital in Hammond, where our doctor was on staff. Of course, Frank walked the two miles to the train station to pick up our car. Then he drove himself to St. Elizabeth Hospital. By the time I got there, he looked much better, but the diagnosis was confirmed. He was hospitalized with a heart attack, cardiac infarct. I picked up our car and drove home, to Gary.
The next morning there was a snowstorm blowing, and the road was icy. I decided to drive so I could see Frank at the hospital on my way to my Chicago job. I drove with great care until I needed to make a left turn. I turned the wheel slightly too fast and skidded across the road at a railroad crossing. I was bouncing across the bare rails, side-swiped a steel post and ricocheted back on the highway. Miraculously, I did not collide with another car. The only damage was a flat tire that I rode into the hospital lot. The little dent on the side of the car was hardly noticeable among all the other dents.
In four days, Frank was back at home, under doctor's orders to rest for four weeks. We had ordered privet hedges to make a green fence around our lot. "Shall I cancel the order?" I asked. "Of course not," Frank said. We put boards across the sand so I could roll a wheelbarrow across. A neighbor helped, but Frank could not sit idly by. He came out and paced us, setting the hedges out as I dug the holes. Then he put a hedge in and I packed the hole with earth. We repeated that until all hedges were planted. Before Frank went back to work at light duty, we got a second opinion from Dr. Quentin Young. He confirmed the heart attack and said that light duty would be OK. Forty years later, cardiologists could find no trace of the heart attack. One even made the snide remark, "What did they know in those days?"
However, the heart attack was a turning point in our lives. Frank quit spending as much time going to meetings in Chicago. He became more and more immersed in Gary politics. Local politics really appealed
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to him, so he became busier than ever. As for me, I quit my job at Allied Radio. I could not bear being so far from home in case of emergency. For six weeks I wrote ad copy for the Gary Post Tribune. It was fun, especially when a Goldblatts ad for shirts was printed without the "r." When that job ended, I decided to do what everybody else in Gary did who wanted a job. I applied at the steel mill. U.S. Steel "big mill" and the tin mill did not hire married women. (Imagine!) But the U.S. Steel subsidiary, National Tube, did. With my technical background and basic typing skills, I got a job as a "metallurgical lab test report clerk."
Working in the Steel Mill
The first things I noticed when I reported to work at National Tube were the huge work areas and the relatively few workers per acre. I had been in a steel mill before when wives and families were given a tour of Wisconsin Steel. It was probably for the mill's 50th anniversary. But that was almost a joke. A green path had been painted on the concrete floor that touring relatives had to follow. Everything close to the path had also been painted green. Everything beyond the green paint was black with dirt and grease. Workers were laughing to the point of leering as each tried to spot his wife in the crowd. We visitors did not see much.
My kids had toured the U.S. Steel's "big mill" in Gary on their 50th anniversary. That was an outright disaster. I heard that Paul had five or six of the free hotdogs and even more cokes with predictable consequences. He was one sick boy until he threw up. That made him feel better, if not the people around him.
But now it was me and the mill. So much space and so few workers per square block. What a difference that was from the crowded office at Allied Radio or the assembly line at Motorola! It made me think of my Marxist economics. All the profit of these big steel companies was being made off relatively few workers. How productive these steel workers were!
End of shift was the only time I got a sense of how many workers there were in the mill. They used to line up a couple minutes before punch-out time. We still used time cards that we had to punch and put into our slot on the punched-out side. Usually the test clerks were at the front of the line since we did not have to wash up. That was the fastest moving line of people any place outside of a professional track team. I had a recurring nightmare about that line. My fear was that I would drop my card at the clock and have to bend down to retrieve it. The momentum behind me would be so great that I feared I would be mowed down before the line could stop.
The office I worked in was right on the mill floor and it was old and out of date. But the job was very interesting. I learned a lot about metallurgy, working at National Tube. I was one of four women working for an engineer in charge of the metallurgical test reports. We answered phone calls asking if it was all right to use a certain lot of steel for a specific order. To answer correctly, we needed to know the chemical content and the physical conditioning of the steel. There was almost no job training, but a mistake could cost thousands of dollars. I am sure that such inquiries are now computerized.
I had always been interested in finding out what "stuff is made from. With the job as an excuse, I enrolled in a physical metallurgy course at Purdue University Extension in Hammond. Metal alloys in general, and steel in particular, are fascinating, almost alive. It used to be said that metallurgists were half artists and half engineers. In those days it was true.
Alas, that department was quite isolated from other workers in the plant. I never found a way to break through as a union activist. I tried to interest my sister report clerks in attending a union meeting with me. They would not go, and I did not think I could do any good, alone. Looking back, I think I should have gone anyway. We were never encouraged to attend. An African American neighbor was a union steward at National Tube. Sometimes our paths would cross when I delivered the test reports. If he was alone, he would greet me cordially and ask about Frank. But if he was with other people, he would pass me as though he did not know me. I felt the avoidance was not due to my radical politics. It was the prejudice against my interracial marriage that scared him.
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After a couple of years, the mill entered a slow period. We went down to four days a week. Although the contract did not allow shorter than four-day weeks, we "voluntarily" went down to three days to keep all four women working. Layoff time is a terrible time in the mill (or anyplace else, for that matter). Workers are roaming all over the plant looking for someone they can "bump," someone with less seniority whose job they can take. Can you imagine how terrible it would be if there were no union? If foremen and managers could play favorites?
If I knew then what I now know about the steel workers union, I would have stuck with the job. But I felt my family needed more than three days' pay. So I used my days off to look for another job. Computer programmers were then few in number and were trained on the job. I applied for a programmer's position at Inland Steel. Personnel kept me there all day and gave me a battery of tests. I felt I did well, and I could see that the hirers were interested in me. They knew I was already working at National Tube and that was in my favor. On the shelves of the personnel man who interviewed me was a book titled something like, "Reds in Steel." That did not bode well. Finally, he told me that I had done better on the tests than some they had already hired for the job. "But," he said with an air of finality, "you know you're a woman." Then, referring to my job at National Tube he added, "Count your blessings." Thus ended my chance of becoming a great information technology person.
Back In Electronics
A few months later, I returned to work for Allied Radio in Chicago. Frank's health seemed solid enough although he was back to sleeping just a few hours a day. He continued to smoke untold numbers of packs of cigarettes a day. It was as though the heart attack had never happened. The new job at Allied Radio was for a subdivision that made the Knight Kits. Like my job at Emerson Radio, I built and wired electronic equipment starting with a chassis and parts. But Knight Kits were designed for mass production. The chassis was already formed and punched. My job was to break down the construction into easy steps. I wrote a construction manual that showed how to assemble and test the kit. Along the way, I wrote a simple explanation of how the equipment worked. The company boasted that even a child could build the kits. I tried it on my children and made sure that was true. I really liked the job because I liked to build things and I liked to explain how they worked. First, I had to find out for myself how the circuits worked. That meant more studying and I enjoyed that too.
FBI and a Knifer, Lurking in the Bushes
One warm evening, before sunset, I was enjoying the long walk home from the train station. The sidewalks were deserted and peaceful. As I passed a weed-filled empty lot, a man startled me, jumping out from behind the bushes. "FBI," he said, "and flashed his badge." "Do you want to talk to me?" "No!" I shouted and kept on my way. Those were the bad McCarthy days. Another encounter had more dire consequences. But at least it was not government-sponsored. Still, I hold the government (and the system) responsible, at least indirectly.
I had left my car downtown for a minor repair. The shop was closed when I came from work in Chicago. It was a dark winter evening but not too cold. Instead of calling Frank, as the neighbors did, I decided to walk. I thought Frank was sleeping because he was on the night shift. Soon, I felt that I was being followed. Up ahead, there was a stretch of woods on either side of the road. I was not going into that more deserted area if someone was following me. So I turned to check who was behind me.
As I turned a man ran towards me, then lunged with a knife. It was so fast that I did not get a good image of his face. First he grabbed my purse. I did not let go, so he knifed me. In seconds he was slashing away with the knife, through my leather coat, about thirteen times. I fell to the sidewalk and thought I was dying. People a block away saw the attack and called the police. After an hour, or so it seemed, an ambulance came. The cuts were not serious. My leather coat had saved me. The knife, which was left behind, was a fishing knife, fortunately not very sharp.
"Be careful when you call my husband," I told the hospital staff. "He's already had one heart attack." When Frank took me home, the kids were already in bed. The next morning, at 4:30 a.m., Frank went to work. But first he loaded a pistol and put it under my pillow—just in case. I think I was more afraid of the loaded pistol than a return of the knifer. For years, I looked back over my shoulder if I heard footsteps behind me. It took some time, but I got over it.
Gary Schools
On the other side of the woods, next to Tolleston High School, was Ernie Pyle School for grades kindergarten through sixth. My daughter Jeanleah and oldest son Carl made a good adjustment to the Gary school. They liked it better than their old school in Chicago. Paul and John were still too young for school. But Paul had learned to print his name in the preschool in Chicago. Somehow, Paul got access to crayons while he was in Mrs. Bims' house for day care. Paul showed the whole world that he knew how to write by crayoning his name in large letters on the white siding all around the Bims' house. When I came home from work, the two boys were still scrubbing Bims' walls with scouring powder and wet rags. Paul had tried to blame it on John, but John did not know how to write. I guess the next time Paul tried an escapade, he did not sign his name to it.
Just about that time I made a trip to New York City. I wanted to visit my father, and I may have also had a meeting to attend. Frank agreed to care for the children, making it possible for me to leave. But there was a price I had to pay. When I returned, there was a trail of papers and junk that started one hundred feet away and went right up to the door. I opened the front door, and there was jelly on the door handle. Sand gritted the tile floor; each step went crunch, crunch. And from there it went downhill. Dishes piled the sink, and beds were unmade. Toys were all over. I tried to complain and was told, "What do you expect when you go to New York and leave me with four kids?" But the kids were fine. I guess, in the long run, that's what counts. But you couldn't tell me that at the time.
Soon enough, all the children were in school. That was convenient, just two blocks away "as the crow flies." It was not a level two blocks. There were the hills to climb. I am sure that made the trip to school more fun. To relieve the overcrowding, a new K-3 school was built about a mile away. Whose kids were going to have to walk that mile? You guessed it. It was our kids, in the Wooded Highlands section of low-priced homes.
The children from the other side of the woods, in the higher priced homes, could stay. This included some better-off African American families who lived in large, new, brick homes. One man even used a rider-mower to cut his not-that-large lawn. Some better-off, and to us, rich families, were headed by doctors. The rest of the people with "money" were gamblers. I am not sure what lesson our children learned from the only career choices that they saw.
We did try to fight the transfer of our kids, or at least to get school bus service for them. But the community was divided, and we did not win. The nearby Tolleston and Ernie Pyle schools had a mix of white and African American children. The new Banneker School was 100 percent African American, both students and staff. Paul and John were transferred to the new school.
Paul was watching some of the first televised protests of African American students barred from white schools in the South. "My school doesn't have enough white people in it," Paul wisely said. "Oh," I asked, "are there any white people in your school?" "Yes," he said. I had visited his class. So I decided to narrow down my next question. "Are there any in your class?" "Yes," he replied, "my teacher and me." I repeated the conversation to Frank. His take was that Paul's teacher would be "insulted."
The impact on our children of the racism in the media was deep and complex. One of our boys was snuggled in his daddy's lap watching a family situation comedy. Suddenly he exclaimed, "I want a white daddy!" My blood froze. Frank looked as though he had not heard it. I decided to rely on the deep love the son had for his father. "Do you want a different daddy?" I asked. "No!" was the quick reply. "I just want my daddy to be white."
This memory brings up the question people often ask me, and I shrug it off. They say, "Wasn't it hard for you?" They add tat in 1949, the year of our marriage, there was much more prejudice than sixty years later. I can truthfully say that I never felt that I suffered as a result of marrying an African American. Yes, there were hard stares. I brushed those off like water off a duck's back. I knew, deep down, that racism was so wrong and hateful. Those stares could not hurt me. Of course I was angry about any form of racism, including not being able to rent in some neighborhoods. That anger helped strengthen my determination to fight racism.
Frank's marriage to a white woman did create problems for his campaign when he ran for political office in Gary. But he never gave any ground to racist prejudice, because he knew it was wrong. But it was hard to deal with the white principal of Ernie Pyle School. She sent word that she wanted to see me and came right to the point. "You have two white children," she scolded me. "You had no right to marry a Black man!"
Her blatant racism outraged me. It still outrages me. But I controlled myself. She was holding my children hostage, and I did not want them mistreated. Neither the principal nor I gave any ground, and we parted as enemies. Fortunately, my kids' teachers were all very decent people. The prejudice did not carry over into their classrooms, as far as I knew.
Parent Teacher Organization
At Banneker School, we formed an unaffiliated Parent Teacher Organization (PTO). It really was strictly a parents' organization. The school did not provide us with any resources or leadership. Our PTO wanted to do something constructive for Halloween. We planned a Halloween fun fair with an entrance fee of a penny for each inch of waistline. We thought that would be fun and it was. For some unfounded reason, we expected the teachers to come and help. Of course none came; it was on a Saturday, their day off.
We had some games and refreshments ready and opened the door. We had expected 100 or 150 families. Instead one thousand children came. Their parents stayed home. Our committee had not realized that every child wanted to come because nothing else was going on. Since refreshments went fast and lines for the games were too long, the children began to run through the halls. It was a nightmare. Finally the principal came and closed the school. We learned more than one lesson that day on how schools run and how not to organize. Fortunately, there were no injuries and no destruction of school property. It was, without doubt, the biggest organizing fiasco of my lifetime.
Other projects of our PTO were more successful. We held Easter egg hunts for a number of years. After the children complained, I learned to make sure that my Easter eggs were truly hard. Our biggest success was our play for "Black History Week," the week of President Lincoln's birthday. By that time, I had been educated about Black history by the African American Heritage Association, organized by Ishmael Flory. I don't remember the details, but I do know there were no kings and queens in the play. Yes, it is true that many African states were kingdoms before the European invasions, and that is important. It is important because it proves that most Africans lived in highly developed states. But for each king and queen there were thousands of serfs and peasants to support the monarchs.
In contrast, the play I wrote featured a cooperative African society where people planted their crops together and shared meat from the hunt. The play was the start of my serious interest in African history. Ten years later, when I became a teacher, African history helped me teach mathematics.
Wooded Highlands Democratic Club
Clifford Mays, a friendly neighbor, had been the precinct committeeman forever. He raised dogs and gave our family our first dog, a beagle named Chi Chi. I did not realize what a good dog Chi Chi was, until we had other dogs. Although Mays was a good neighbor, as a committeeman he was just another cog
in the machine. It was an unpaid position, but machine committeemen had other ways to line their pockets.
Frank decided to run for the job. For Frank, the cash flow was in the opposite direction; the money came out of his pocket to help people in need. The precinct committeeman was a very important position in the Gary communities. In hard economic times, for example during the 116-day national steel strike in 1959, the committeeman's recommendation got welfare checks for families to tide them over. When Frank was elected it was different. He recommended everyone who was in need and expected nothing in return. Many a time he took money out of his own pocket to feed children until their first welfare check came.
I don't remember that he spent money on his campaigns although each election was strongly contested. Campaigning was strictly door-to-door, talking to the voters. That was just the kind of work Frank loved. He personally spoke to every one of the 1,200 voters who lived in a big area with a lot of vacant land between houses. Out of this work he built a new community organization. For reasons that I don't remember, they adopted the name, "Wooded Highlands Democratic Club" (WHDC). Despite the name, they were strictly independent of the Democratic machine and city hall.
WHDC made a deal with a homeowner who had an unfinished second floor with its own outside entrance. In return for putting in a floor, walls, ceiling and washroom, the club got the use of the space for its center. Most of the members were steel workers, with a couple of autoworkers and teamsters. Among them they had every construction trade that was needed. People put their full efforts into building their community center, even if it meant neglecting their own homes. Some of the best times of my life were spent at the WHDC, dancing to the jukebox. Ray Charles's "I have 50 cents more than I'm going to keep... let the good times roll," was a favorite. Food and drink were sold at very reasonable prices, and every cent was accounted for. Women were glad to go with their husbands to parties at the center. They said it was a place where men could go, have a drink and "not get into any trouble."
WHDC meetings were often educational, like all other projects that Frank organized. Frank invited a brilliant Nigerian friend, Chimere Ikoku, to speak at one of our meetings. Ikoku was completing his PhD in chemistry at the University of Chicago. His wife was also a student. They explained to us that theirs was a "mixed" marriage in that he was Yoruba and she was Ibo. We realized what that meant later, when the oil companies incited a war between the two Nigerian peoples. The Ikokus spoke about the warm feelings Nigerians had for African Americans who visited as friends. One of our members asked a far-out question that astounded me. "What are you studying?" he asked Chimere. "Chemistry," Chimere replied. "Then how can you be talking about politics, when it is chemistry that you are studying?"
Mrs. Ikoku rose to reply. She was magnificent. She began with "Aristotle said," and continued, "If you want to know about medicine, ask a doctor. If you want advice for the market, ask a merchant. But if you want to know about politics, let any person speak because politics is everyone's business." I was impressed because nobody I knew quoted Aristotle. But I was more impressed by the power of her logic.
I have since heard that Chimere Ikoku moved up to a high position in education after his return to Nigeria. That was no thanks to the FBI that harassed him in Chicago. To his colleagues, our friend was known as a skilled diplomat who brought people together and smoothed out differences. Was he an anti-imperialist? Yes. Did that call for FBI surveillance? No!
Mrs. Ikoku's words about people's politics made a big impression on Frank and me. Politics, in the sense of public life, was Frank's "business." That was true for me, too. Before I was old enough to vote, I worked at the polls. That was the election for a second term for Franklin D. Roosevelt. The minimum age for voting was then 21, and I was only 18. As far as I can remember, I have worked on every election since 1936. Sometimes, there seemed no candidate worth working for, but there were always important issues to promote. David Orr, Chicago's progressive county clerk, did not hear Mrs. Ikoku. Still, he carried out her teachings. Orr brought high school seniors in to work as election judges, paid, of course.
That reminded me of the Cuban practice. In many towns, the ballots are counted by students, guaranteeing the honesty of the count.
The WHDC taught us many lessons in community organizing. It was a center where people gathered and provided a ready-made mass lobby for good causes. We became a frequent presence at city council meetings, fighting for the sewers and water we lacked and for clean air. The city hall and the court house across the street were built in imitation Greek classic style. The large windows of the city council chamber gave a clear view of the evening sky, a sick yellow color. Just a few blocks away the mills were belching unfiltered smoke full of smelly gases. The mills were real, but the city council meeting seemed unreal.
I will never forget the arrogance of the U.S. Steel representative at one council meeting. We asked him, "Is there technology for the chimneys that could remove pollution from the smoke? "Yes," he replied, "but it is expensive." Then he added, "We are not going to do it unless you make us." He was so sure that the city council would not go against the company's wishes. Everyone knew that U.S. Steel controlled Gary's city council and more.
Soon after WHDC was organized, Frank asked me to put out a community newsletter. He always believed in the power of the press. Now I can add "editor" to my resume. Of course I was also the typist and operated the mimeograph machine. For those too young to have seen a mimeograph machine, it was a primitive printer with a roller that pushed messy ink through a typed stencil. However, I did have a staff of reporters and distributors. We named it the Comet, and it flew high for a few years. Of course, the mainstay of the newsletter was social news and reports of sickness, births, weddings and deaths. The Comet also educated the community on political issues, local, national and even international.
Integrating Gary's Beaches
In 1961, a long-simmering fight came to a boil. The issue was the right of African Americans to use Gary's Marquette Park Beach. An African American man was severely beaten at the beach as the police looked on. Frank read about it in the Gary Post Tribune and decided to check out the beach that same Sunday. Paul, John and I put our swim suits on, but Frank was fully dressed. Before I could get out of the car, Frank and the two boys rushed to the water. I had to run to catch up. The boys and I had a short swim in Lake Michigan's sparkling water. Frank stood guard. At the beach, the tension was thick enough to cut with a knife. On the way back to the car, we saw one other Black family on the beach. They were peacefully eating a picnic lunch. "They are some brave people," Frank said in admiration.
Racist pressures have not let up in the many years since we left Gary. Gary has become a city in crisis since the loss of over 30,000 steel mill jobs. Unlike the Chicago mills that were leveled to the ground, most Gary mills are still producing lots of steel. They are doing it with just one fourth the number of workers, thanks to technological improvements. The huge loss of jobs and the exodus of most white families have turned Gary into the most segregated major city in the country and one of the most depressed. It hurts my heart to see empty lots turn to prairie on Broadway, Gary's "main drag." Big department stores, crowded with customers, stood on those empty lots in the 1960s. Gary is located on beautiful Lake Michigan, near the transportation center of the nation. To me, the city's depressed state is a damning indictment of capitalist greed.
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16. The New Cuba is Born
"Before the revolution, we lived like dogs!"
By 1960, the long winter of the McCarthy repression was ending. Civil rights sit-ins were spreading all over the South and the border states. The steel workers' union had survived a 116-day national strike and had saved the integrity of their contract. Although the CIA overthrew President Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, the Latin American revolutionary spirit was very much alive. I was excited by the 1959 revolution in Cuba. It was sounding more and more like the real thing. I wanted to go to Cuba and see for myself, before the United States cut off all travel. President Eisenhower had already put a partial embargo against trade with Cuba. If I was going to go, I had to hurry.
In June 1960,1 got on a slow propeller-driven plane to Miami. The trip from Chicago took eight hours. For some reason, I always felt that I should not take money out of the family budget for myself. So I paid for the trip by working one week of my two-week vacation. The economy fare to Miami was $80 round trip. Another slow plane from Miami to Havana cost $40. In my pocket I had $40.1 could have made it on that for a week in the U.S. We always traveled cheap by camping and cooking our own meals. Besides, people had told me that $40 would buy me a lot of Cuban pesos.
I had never been out of the country before, except to cross the border into Canada. Nor did I speak a word of Spanish. I took along a picture dictionary to start learning Spanish on the plane. I did remember a lot of the French and Italian I had studied in school. I thought that would help and it did, a little.
The plane from Miami to Havana flew low enough to give a wonderful view of the Caribbean, turned gold by the setting sun. I have never seen a more beautiful sight. As it turned dark, lights sparkled like jewels on the little islands below us. It was quite dark when we landed in Havana's little airport.
My first stop was to change my dollars into pesos at the government bank. To my surprise, the official exchange was only one peso for one dollar. Well, I was not about to look for an illegal exchange, so I turned in my $40 for 40 pesos and hoped that was not as little money as it seemed. There were plenty of taxis outside the airport. But they wanted four pesos for the trip to downtown Havana. I noticed some Cuban workers waiting at the corner. I figured that they could not pay the four pesos either. Yes, it was a bus stop and only five centavos (five cents). It was the best bus ride I ever had and started my education about revolutionary Cuba. A friendly guitarist-passenger provided the musical background.
The bus passengers were curious about me. I managed to say, "I am the wife of a steel worker from Gary, and I came to see the Cuban revolution." "Good," they said. "Where are you staying?"
"I have to get a hotel room, not too expensive."
A couple of bus passengers offered to help me find a hotel. I followed them across the plaza. It was the first time in my life that I saw a different culture. Still, there was something familiar. It reminded me of the Spanish-speaking south end of Harlem, but more so. In the plaza, a squad of men in ordinary clothing were marching and drilling. "Who are they?" I asked.
"Oh, they are milicianos" voluntary militia. Soon we passed women, drilling and marching. "They are milicianas." I was thrilled to see these liberated women. The people were in charge!
I noticed that all the stores were advertising familiar brands such as Singer sewing machines and General Electric refrigerators. I was in a different country but it seemed that the same U.S. companies owned everything. "So that's what they mean by economic domination," I thought. It was even worse than I realized. Later I learned that 90 percent of Cuba's foreign trade before the revolution was with the U.S.
Soon we reached the Hotel Sevilla. It had a blue-tiled inner courtyard and looked comfortable enough. My guides assured me it was not expensive and they left. I should admit, right here, that I was not exactly talking Spanish. It would take more than eight hours of study of a picture dictionary to be able to speak another language. I had learned a few words from my quick study. So I talked a mix of French and Italian, with a few words of Spanish. People asked me, "Are you Italian?" "Are you French?" But
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most knew exactly what I was, a U.S. tourist who was almost broke. I was wearing a cotton dress, not too different from the Cuban dress. When I asked people how they knew that I was from the U.S., I got a surprising answer. "It's your shoes," a taxi driver told me. "They're a dead giveaway."
Hotel Sevilla was $7 a night. It was near midnight, so I booked the room anyway. In the daytime I would have to find a cheaper place. Of course I could have wired home for more money but I would rather not. My first thought in the morning was not, "Where am I going to stay tonight?" I had confidence that problem could be solved later. Instead I wanted to find one of the famous Cuban beaches and test the waters. Remembering my lack of concern, now I can only say, "How wonderful it was to be younger and confident!" I put my swim suit in a paper bag and set out to look for the beach.
Beaches for the People of Cuba
Many buses had "Play a" Spanish for beach, in the route name. I found out they were no more going to a beach than Chicago's Cottage Grove bus went to an orchard. Finally, I saw two young women carrying beach bags. They were going to a real beach, so I followed them. At first they were concerned because I had only a paper bag with me in which my swim suit was packed. Maybe they thought I was one of those strange Europeans who swam nude. When I finally understood, I pulled out my swim suit to show them there was no need to worry. It was a miracle that we understood each other. Just showed what people can do when the will is there.
The clean, deliciously salty water made for a lovely swim. Watching the people was the biggest treat. People, especially the teenagers, seemed so happy and quick to laugh. They joined hands in the water and laughed and sang. Later I learned that young people had just come out of a period of intense repression. Tens of thousands of teenagers had been killed by the Batista government before the revolution. Now they felt liberated.
After the swim and lunch (about a dollar for the best fried chicken) my new friends directed me to a more affordable hotel. It was family style and only $2 a night. I paid for the week, so at least I had a place to stay. That left me with about $13 and eight more days. Well I had not come to Cuba to eat, so that was no problem. Fruit stands everywhere sold bananas cheap, and I would not starve.
At the beach I learned a lot. Before the revolution, the beaches had been reserved for tourists and rich Cubans, at least the white rich. Cubans had been barred from their own beaches. People's resentment was so high that the new government made beach access a priority issue. In the ten months since the revolution, they had developed a whole chain of beaches around the island, open to all at no charge.
The question of racism kept coming up. In Havana, I saw the racist housing pattern that the new government had inherited. My beach guides, who were blonde and of light complexion, assured me that the new Cuba opposed racism. "Fidel explained to us," they said, "All Cubans have African heritage, either directly from Africa or from Spain and the Moors." The most enjoyable part of the discussion was that everyone within earshot joined in. Many repeated the ideas they had heard in Fidel's latest speech. Everyone spoke freely. When I questioned people on the street, not everyone supported the revolution. Tourism had dried up; those who depended on tourists were hurting. A man who owned a tobacco shop and a woman who had been a prostitute longed for the "good old days." Also, racism still lingered. The tobacco store owner was truly repulsive. He opened his shirt to show me that his skin was white although his face was tanned.
Taxi Ride by Bus
At five cents a trip, I could afford to ride the bus, even though I was broke. But I preferred to walk and really see Havana. I met a family of European Jewish refugees in the park. I heard them speaking Yiddish, so I hurried to catch up with them. They did not know English, so we tried to communicate in Yiddish. They had found a new home in Havana after they escaped from Nazi-occupied Poland. They told
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