By Craig Simpson
Marie L. Richardson (Harris) was a leading organizer for civil rights and labor unions in the District of Columbia from the late 1930s until 1950.
Her pioneering work helped to organize the predominately African American Washington red caps union and their women’s auxiliary while still a teenager. She was a leader of the early fight to integrate Capital Transit operator jobs. She was an active member of the National Negro Congress and served as the executive secretary of the local branch.
According to the Afro American newspaper, she was the first African American woman to hold national office in a major labor union. In her role as national representative of the United Federal Workers, CIO she helped lead the union’s organizing drives and battles against discrimination inside the federal government in the District.
The price she paid for her leadership was four and a half years in a federal penitentiary, a victim of McCarthy-era persecution.
Fighter In Her Youth
Marie Lucinda Richardson was born September 4, 1920 to Mattie and Griffin Richardson in Washington, DC and grew up in a row house at 1638 Florida Ave. NW along with her brother Thomas “Tommy” Richardson. She attended the segregated District of Columbia schools, graduating from Morgan School in 1932, Garnet-Patterson Junior High School in January 1935 and Cardozo High School in January 1938.
Her father had been a baggage handler at Union Station since it opened in 1907 and was an officer in an early association of red caps. On July 5, 1933, he was a founder of the Washington Terminal Station Porters, a red caps unit fighting for better working conditions.
While still in high school, Marie Richardson helped her father organize the group into a union. The effort inspired red caps in other cities and in January 1938, they banded together to form the International Brotherhood of Red Caps later renamed the United Transport Service Employees.
In 1939, Richardson helped organize the women’s auxiliary of the union and was chosen as a national officer of the auxiliary in January 1940. She was re-elected in 1942.
Youth Organizer and Early Work
After graduating from high school, Richardson attended Howard University and Terrell Law School and during that time worked at the dean’s office at Howard for two years. From 1940-42, she worked at the Office of War Information as a messenger and the Naval Gun Factory at the Washington Navy Yard as a machinist, where she was also active in the United Federal Workers (UFW), CIO.
In 1941, Richardson was an organizer for the National Conference of Negro Youth and served as acting secretary of the “Washington Initiating Committee” of the conference.
She led the organizing of the three-day November conference of the organization enlisting the support of prominent civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune, popular entertainer Fats Waller and arranging for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to speak at the conference.
In her role as youth organizer, she began fighting to desegregate government and industry in the District. “Our purpose is to give special attention to Negro young people who have been discriminated against in Washington or who have been working at jobs not commensurate with their qualifications,” she said in a statement.
Richardson’s committee began the early work on ending Jim Crow hiring at Capital Transit by soliciting letters and petitions from groups and individuals in support of hiring African American streetcar and bus operators. This work laid the groundwork for the eventual integration of operator ranks at the company in 1955.
First Black Woman National Representative at Major Union
She was selected national representative of the United Federal Workers (UFW), CIO in the Spring of 1943, becoming one of the first (perhaps the first) African American women to serve at that level in a major labor union.
Richardson worked to organize federal workers and the cafeteria workers employed by quasi-private contractors in federal and defense department cafeterias. She helped lead the UFW organizing efforts and fights against discrimination at Freedmen’s Hospital, teachers at Howard University, the Bureau of Engraving, Federal Security Agency and US Treasury Department.
During the World War II years she also volunteered for the Office of Civilian Defense where she received two commendations for her work as a sector air raid warden.
Executive Secretary of DC National Negro Congress
Richardson had been active in the local chapter of the National Negro Congress (NNC) since the late 1930s. The NNC was a broad civil rights organization based in the black working class that emphasized direct action in contrast to the legal strategy of the NAACP.
She was selected as executive secretary of the District of Columbia unit of the NNC in 1945 where she continued work on police brutality, voting rights for District of Columbia residents and desegregating the operator jobs at the Capital Transit Company.
When Charles Hamilton Houston resigned from the federal Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) in protest of President Harry Truman’s thwarting an order forcing the transit company to hire African American operators, Richardson drafted a letter from the local NNC blasting Truman.
The letter charged that Truman’s actions were “in substance, a declaration of support of the Jim Crow laws in operation” in the District. “Your letter [Truman’s] is a cynical welcome for colored veterans returning to their homes in Washington looking for fair employment without discrimination,” the letter continued.
While at the NNC, Richardson led the local campaign to pass a bill for a permanent federal FEPC. Despite the Capital Transit debacle, the FEPC had helped to desegregate some of the defense related industry during World War II. When a filibuster was conducted in the U.S. Senate to stop the bill, Richardson led picketing at the home of each Senator blocking the bill (see photo of Richardson picketing here, click “browse this newspaper” & navigate to Feb 2, 1946 edition, page 24).
The bill ultimately died in the Senate. However, President Truman issued an executive order in 1948 prohibiting employment discrimination in the federal government.
She organized an outdoor anti-lynching rally in July 1947 that drew 500 people where Savannah Churchill, a popular singer, declared that “people must unit themselves to stop the terrible crimes” of lynching. As organizer of the event, Richardson offered resolutions adopted by the group in support of federal anti-lynching legislation and condemning discrimination in the District of Columbia.
In late 1947, the NNC merged into the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), a group that had originally been created to pursue legal and legislative strategies.
Richardson’s work with the NNC spilled over to the CRC and she helped build support for the strike over wages and benefits by Local 471 of the United Cafeteria Workers (UPW, CIO) union in 1947 and again in 1948 when the union waged an 11 week strike after a government-sponsored corporation refused to bargain with a “red union.”
In 1948, she took a job as campaign manager for Joseph Rainey, Progressive Party candidate for Congress in Philadelphia. Rainey’s grandfather was the first black congressman during Reconstruction and Rainey had been elected magistrate in Philadelphia and had served as president of the Local NAACP chapter. Rainey lost, but out-polled Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace in the district.
After returning to Washington, Richardson assisted Henry Thomas’s Building Laborer’s Local 74 in their one-day strike in June 1949. In the post WWII years, Richardson was also active with the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Council of Women and the Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax.
In 1950, Richardson moved to New York City with her husband, Rev. Benjamin Harris who became the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia in Long Island. The two operated a dry cleaning establishment to make ends meet.
Federal Loyalty Oath
In March 1947, President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order requiring loyalty oaths of all government employees. Current and prospective employees were required to pledge they were not members of the Communist Party and to disclose, in writing, current and past membership in organizations deemed “subversive” by the Attorney General. It was the opening salvo in a series of actions that drove most communists and other left-wing activists out of jobs in government and private industry and out of the labor and civil rights movements.
The initial “subversive list” was published in the federal register March 20, 1948 and included the National Negro Congress, the Civil Rights Congress and the Communist Party.
The order did not provide criminal penalties, but set up “loyalty boards” to fire employees it deemed guilty of disloyalty.
Shortly after the order went into effect in 1948, Richardson applied for and was hired for a temporary clerical job at the Library of Congress where she worked for three months. In May 1949, she re-applied and was hired again for a clerical job at the Library where she worked for several months before her move to New York.
Markward Infiltrates Communist Party
Long before the loyalty oath, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was spying on left-wing organizations, including the Communist Party.
The FBI approached Mary Stalcup Markward in March 1943 to infiltrate the District of Columbia Communist Party after the FBI determined that several of her beauty shop customers were associated with the group.
Markward worked diligently at routine Communist Party tasks and was elevated to local treasurer and a member of the governing board of the Maryland-DC state party. Markward was in charge of membership, including the collection of dues from District of Columbia party members. During this time Markward made regular reports to the FBI.
In June 1951, Markward began testifying in secret before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) about communist activities in the Washington area, ultimately naming over 200 people as members of the Communist Party. In July, Marie Richardson and her father Griffin were named in newspapers as members of the Communist Party identified by Markward.
Richardson Indicted, Faces 40 Years
By November 1951, it was the height of the Korean War where the US sent troops against communist-led forces. Eleven national unions had been expelled from the CIO labor federation for alleged communist ties, along with numerous members of individual AFL and CIO unions. Julius & Ethel Rosenberg had been sentenced to death for allegedly passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.
Leaders of the US Communist Party were jailed under the Smith Act and many more members and left-leaning activists were under investigation or facing trial. None were convicted for any specific alleged acts to overthrow the government, but were instead jailed for alleged communist beliefs or membership in the Communist Party.
Some were jailed for contempt when they refused to answer questions in Congressional hearings about their beliefs, organizations they belonged to or people that they knew or may have known. Others had their names and addresses published in newspapers, were fired from their jobs and blacklisted.
Richardson was indicted November 30 for “false and fraudulent statements” stemming from her signed loyalty oaths and her job applications for the library clerical jobs in 1948 and 1949. She faced a $10,000 fine and five years in prison for each of eight counts that charged she had not revealed past membership in “subversive organizations.”
Critics of loyalty oaths contended that they accomplished little and the government was determined to prove them wrong. Richardson’s imprisonment would show that the loyalty oath program worked. Further, jailing Richardson who no longer lived in the area or worked for the federal government would bolster the message that anyone who was affiliated with left-leaning unions and civil rights organizations were not safe unless they renounced other members and the organizations.
William Hitz, Assistant United States Attorney sent out a chilling message that, “he expected there would be many more [indictments] here and elsewhere.” He made a point to say that Richardson was “uncovered” during a “routine” FBI loyalty check, although authorities were well aware of Richardson for years.
Among the organizations Hitz cited in support of the indictment were Richardson activities with the National Negro Congress, American Youth Congress, Americans for Peace Mobilization and the Americans for Democratic Action along with the Communist Party.
Arraignment & Suppression of Defense Committee
At Richardson’s December 14 arraignment, she was released on $1,000 bond pending trial set for January 17, 1952. Before she could leave the courthouse, Richardson was detained by US Marshals who demanded the names of those who had helped her with bail money. Richardson refused to answer their questions.
Ralph Powe, a prominent CRC attorney from New York, represented her at the arraignment and charged that it was “…another attempt on the part of the government to silence outspoken colored leaders.”
If anyone doubted the government’s desire to make an example of Richardson, that notion was quickly dispelled.
January 13, 1952, police raided a party to raise money for Richardson. Twelve police officers broke up the party attended by about 60 persons and arrested one for selling whiskey without a license. According to the Afro-American, police seized an envelope marked “Marie Richardson Defense Committee” containing $980 as evidence.
Richardson was detained, but not arrested by police. However, police took the names and addresses of all persons at the party “in case witnesses were needed,” and confiscated the list of contributors.
The drive to sandbag defense efforts later resulted in the 1953 attorney general listing of the Committee to Defend Marie Richardson as a subversive organization.
Trial and Conviction
Powe put together a strong legal defense team for Richardson. James A. Cobb was a former municipal court judge and a vice-dean of the Howard University law school. George A. Parker founded the Robert H. Terrell School of Law in 1931
and later was appointed as a federal judge. Barrington Parker was law partner with his father, defended Paul Robeson and W. E. B DuBois and was later appointed by President Nixon as a federal judge. George E. C. Hayes was the lead attorney on the Supreme Court case that desegregated Washington, DC public schools in 1954. Powe was a veteran civil rights attorney.
However, the team was only able to obtain a brief postponement to prepare and the trial began February 18 before Judge James R. Kirkland and a jury of eight whites and four blacks
The short time between arraignment and trial resulted in long hours for the defense team. Barrington Parker told the Afro-American newspaper that most of each night was spent in research, resulting in little sleep for any of them.
The government’s called only three witnesses. The first, Leon W. Seidner, chief of operations at the Library of Congress, testified Richardson denied communist affiliations in applying for clerical jobs in 1948 and 1949.
The legal case against Richardson hinged on the testimony of Markward and that of Henry Thomas, the laborer’s union president who quit the Communist Party in 1949 and denounced those he alleged to be members to HUAC in 1950.
Thomas testified that he had known Richardson since 1939 and had been at meetings of the Young Communist League with her. Thomas further testified that he and Richardson had been at a number of different meetings with high profile Communist Party leaders over the years.
Under cross-examination defense attorneys quickly had Thomas back peddling on a number of assertions. He recanted numerous dates and places of meetings when challenged and admitted that he or his wife had invited many of the communist leaders to the meetings, some of which had been meetings of the NAACP. At times Thomas was uncertain whether Richardson had even been present.
Markward’s testimony was more crucial, given her job as keeper of the Communist Party membership records. Markward testified she [Markward] filled out Richardson’s membership card in her own handwriting in 1946. However, Markward said that Richardson never picked up the card. Markward further testified that she kept the card in her own possession. The card was entered into evidence by the prosecution.
Under cross-examination Markward admitted that she saw no documents signed by Richardson indicating that she was a party member, “I have never seen Mrs. Richardson fill out a party card,” Markward acknowledged.
In other evidence, Markward testified that Richardson once gave a report on the local National Negro Congress of which Richardson was then executive secretary. Under cross-examination, Markward admitted the aim of the Congress was to “better the status of negroes,” but also testified that the organization received support from the Communist Party.
Defense attorneys challenged her motivation and branded her as a paid informant, but Markward said her work was “without compensation” and denied receiving any funds from the FBI, other than incidental expenses, and said her motives were patriotic.
When the trial ended after more than a week, no Communist Party membership card in Richardson’s writing or dues payment records with Richardson’s name were produced and defense attorney Hayes told the jury there was “no evidence anywhere that Mrs. Richardson ever joined the Communist Party.”
Hayes went on to say that Richardson’s long association with the National Negro Congress only showed that she “dedicated herself to do something for a race of people with which she was identified.”
The jury began deliberations late February 28 and the elder Parker expressed the belief that a hung jury would result.
However, after six hours of deliberations the jury returned to the courtroom. Each juror stood and read his or her verdict on each count. Two of the African American jurors hesitated for a long moment before softly saying guilty, but Richardson was convicted on all counts. The anti-communist hysteria of the day was ultimately too much to overcome. Kirkland refused bond and remanded Richardson to jail pending sentencing.
Sentence & Further Degradation
On March 7, Kirkland sentenced Richardson to a prison term of 28 months to 7 years and fined her $2000. Kirkland gave gushing praise to Markward saying, “she gave valiantly of her services. She deserves to take her place alongside of Molly Pitcher, Barbara Fritchie and Clara Barton.”
He blasted Richardson and admitted he was sentencing her for her beliefs, “Your teachings at your mother’s knee and your American father should not have permitted you to embrace such false doctrines. You, a highly educated woman, have brought this upon yourself.” Kirkland again refused to set bond during appeal and remanded her to jail.
In another apparent attempt to degrade her and send a message to others, she was hauled before a grand jury investigating drug trafficking almost immediately after sentencing. When Richardson said she wanted to consult a lawyer, she was not questioned, but the incident was publicized by the local newspapers. Assistant United State Attorney Thomas Wadden, Jr. declined to state to the Washington Post why he was calling Richardson. Richardson was never recalled to testify.
Appeals and Prison
Richardson’s defense team eventually secured her release on $5,000 bail. David Rein and Joseph Forer, attorneys with extensive experience defending accused communists, assisted with the appeal. A number of grounds for overturning the verdict were raised, but most significantly that Markward had misled the jury on a key point.
After the trial, documents were discovered that showed Markward had been paid a little over $24,000 by the FBI–which equates to about $207,000 in 2012 dollars or about $30,000 per year—at odds with the small-reimbursed expenses Markward claimed during trial.
Nevertheless, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that “the contentions made by [the] appellants are insubstantial. There is no reversible error and the judgment of conviction and the order denying the motion for a new trial must and hereby are affirmed.”
Richardson’s attorneys appealed back to Judge Kirkland for a reduction of sentence and sought a US Supreme Court review. They were turned down on both counts. In July 1954, Richardson was ordered to jail and sent to Alderson Federal Penitentiary in West Virginia.
Richardson was denied parole several times and served four years before a group of African American ministers persuaded the parole board to reconsider their decision.
Appearing before the parole board on Richardson’s behalf were Rev. Ct. T. Murray, pastor of the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, The Rev. N. H. Travis, Salem Baptist Church; the Rev. Andrew Fowler, president of the Baptist District Convention, the Rev. J. H. Randolph, chairman of the Fraternal Council of Churches and the Rev. Wendell C. Somerville, representing the Baptist Ministers Conference.
Richardson was finally released from prison in October 1958.
Richardson died without fanfare March 6, 1987. Richardson’s final viewing was held March 12, 1987 at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, DC and her final resting place is in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, MD.
Author’s notes: Richardson’s contributions to the District of Columbia labor and civil rights movements were lost in the anti-communist frenzy of the 1950s. Her pioneering stint as perhaps the first African American woman to hold a major national trade union office receives scant attention in labor, civil rights and women’s histories. The injustice of four and a half years in prison related to a loyalty oath that was overturned by the Supreme Court years later has also been forgotten.
Most information for this article came from the Washington Afro American, Chicago Defender, Atlanta Daily World, Washington Post, Washington Star, Ginger & Christiano’s “The Cold War Against Labor,” court documents and HUAC transcripts.
Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.