Archive | 1930-1939 RSS feed for this section

A Million & Counting…

15 Feb

One million photo views and counting on our Flickr site. We’re frankly surprised at the interest in the history of the struggle for social and economic justice in the greater Washington, D.C. area.

Each photo has a short description. Groups of related photos are organized into albums. Each album–sometimes a specific event and sometimes a group of related images–have a longer description that puts the images in context. We also publish this blog for a deep dive look behind selected images.

You can see our photo stream organized by date the image was uploaded or check out individual albums. Check out our in-depth blog posts that are organized by the decade (on right of this page or simply scroll down).

Some of our most popular photo albums are:

Blacks, Whites Protest Job Losses: 1930 No. 2D.C. Protests Against Unemployment:

The first nationwide response to the Great Depression occurred March 6, 1930, including a picket line at the White House in Washington, D.C. Looking for more unemployment protests? 1935, 1937, 1940, 1973, 1977.

 

Harassment at Arlington, Virginia Sit-In: 1960

1960s Civil Rights Protests in the D.C. Area:

District of Columbia public accommodations were largely integrated in the mid 1950s but the surrounding suburbs remained bastions of segregation. Arlington, Rockville, Bowie, Glen Echo, Bethesda, College Park, Silver Spring were but a few of the towns that saw sit-ins, pickets and arrests demanding equality. Read a brief biography of one of these pioneers, Dion Diamond.

Klan Protests Black Minister In Camp Springs MD: 1966The Fight Against the Klan and Nazis in the D.C. area:

The Ku Klux Klan was active throughout the 1960s opposing civil rights and antiwar efforts (one person’s experience). So too was the American Nazi Party. See photos of confrontation in Arlington, Glen Echo, Mt. Ranier, Camp Springs, Frederick and Rising Sun.

 

 

March for Capital Transit Jobs: 1943 (Photo 16)The Washington, D.C. Area Transit Union:

Interest has been high in the struggle to desegregate Washington’s transit system (background story), women streetcar and bus operators during World War II (background story), and in strikes conducted by member of the Amalgamated Transit Union in 1974 and 1978. As the 100th anniversary of ATU Local 689 approaches, check back in the coming year as we post images from early efforts in 19th century to form a union and strikes in 1916, 1917, 1945, 1951 and 1955.

Increasingly Viewed

Negro Congress Pickets Bilbo: 1946

Civil Rights Struggles before 1960: 

Little known today, they helped lay the groundwork for the mass demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, pickets and other forms of protest that broke down the worst aspects of segregation in our area: 1922 Anti-Lynching Protest (background story), 1933 March for Scottsboro (background story), 1936 Police Brutality Protests (background story), 1940 Gone with the Wind pickets, 1941 Police Brutality Protest (background story), Integration of D.C. Theaters (background story), The Fight for Fair Employment, The Fight Against the Poll Tax, 1946 Protests Against Sen.Bilbo, 1946 Anti-Lynching Protests, the effort to Free Willie McGee and the Martinsville 7, Mary Church Terrell, the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, among others.

U of MD Ignites: 1970 # 1

Anti-Vietnam War Demonstrations:

The movement against the Vietnam War involved hundreds of thousands of people across the country. Check out the first mass marches on D.C in 1965, The march on the Pentagon in 1967, The Counter-Inaugural in 1969 (background story), University of Md protests in 1970 (background story), 1971, 1972, Mayday protests to shut down the government in 1971 – May 1, May 2, May 3, May 4, May 5, a 1972 march on the Pentagon and 1972 rally downtown, the 1973 Counter-Inaugural and the last demonstration against the Vietnam War in D.C. in 1975. See earlier 1941 and 1958 antiwar protests.

Background

We felt there was historical gap between the internet era and the print era in the struggles for social justice.

We started by publishing photos and negatives that had been improperly stored from the 1972-1975 Montgomery Spark, Washington Area Spark and On The Move tabloid newspapers.  We followed up by researching images available from various sources including the Library of Congress, the D.C. Public Library, the National Archives and auctioned photographs. And occasionally we publish longer blog posts that give a more detailed look.

See all the images in albums or in the order they were posted.

Paddy Whalen & the Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade

4 Feb
Baltimore Union Leader Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen: 1938 ca.

Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen

By Daniel Hardin

On January 17, 1937, hundreds of striking seamen hiked down U.S. Route 1 from Baltimore, Maryland to Washington, D.C. on what became known as the Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade.

The insurgents within the International Seamen’s Union (ISU) were on the ropes and desperate action was needed to save their rank-and-file caucus.

The strike began in early November in sympathy with West Coast waterfront workers. It was led by a rank-and-file committee within the ISU that challenged the legitimacy of the ISU itself.

However, by Christmas 1936 ships were leaving Baltimore harbor with full crews, and on January 14 other waterfront unions called off their strikes and ordered their members to return to work.

Only one person could have rallied the Baltimore strikers after two months of privation and the desertion of other waterfront unions. That was Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen.

Paddy Whalen

Whalen was born in 1884 and followed his father into the locomotive engineers’ union. Whalen apparently had conflicts with the railroad companies and began a wandering period that ended with him finding work in the engine rooms of merchant ships.

Patrick B. Whalen Mug Shot: 1937 ca.

Undated mug shot of Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen.

Whalen sailed out of New York on one of the merchant ships in the early 1930s, and Charles Rubin, a communist seaman, shipped out with him. According to The Log of Rubin the Sailor, Rubin was fascinated by Whalen’s knowledge of radical labor groups like the Knights of Labor, the Molly McGuires and the Wobblies.

Rubin recruited Whalen into the militant, communist-aligned Marine Workers Industrial Union (MWIU) and later into the Communist Party (CP) itself. Whalen rose quickly as a leader among the seafarers. When the CP broke up the MWIU and sent its activists to work within the International Seamen’s Union, Whalen became a leader in the rank-and-file caucus.

The anti-communist Bella Dodd described Whalen in her book School of Darkness:

Paddy Whalen best represented the picturesque elements among the Communists of that era. He was a little Irishman, the mayor of Hooversville as they named this town of shanties over on the Jersey flats. He had piercing black eyes. He drank too much and ate too little. In his way, he was dedicated to the labor movement, having once been an IWW…

Paddy Whalen came from the Middle West. Once a Catholic, he argued doctrine with priests yet begged help for strikers from men of all faiths. As mayor of a pathetic heap of boxes and tins, he wore with great dignity a hand-me-down black derby and an overcoat which reached his heels.

In late 1934 or early 1935 he moved to Baltimore and quickly became the head of the rank and file caucus within the ISU. Duke Avnet, a left-wing Baltimore labor lawyer, remembered Whalen:

He ran sentences together. He mispronounced words; he committed malapropism. He cussed profusely. His grammar was a classic of mistakes. But his thinking was clear; and he knew the seamen and their problems.

The Strike

The strike on the East Coast began in early November and was briefly supported by nearly the entire waterfront.

Striking Seamen Register for March on DC: 1937

Baltimore ISU headquarters during 1936-7 strike.

When the impeccably dressed Joseph McCurdy, president of the Baltimore Federation of Labor, sided with the ship owners in seeking an injunction, Whalen spoke to a rally and “denounced labor leaders who had ‘ritzy’ lifestyles and insisted on wearing ‘clean shirts,’” according to Vernon Pederson’s The Communist Party in Maryland 1919-57,

Whalen told the crowd, “I have been involved in strikes for years and I have slept in flophouses, under viaducts and in jails—with my comrades. We have no money, and to win this strike every man must expect to suffer the hardships of his fellows.”

At a crucial point in the strike, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) local unions briefly joined in. Thousands of striking workers chased ILA President Joe Ryan back to his car when he tried to speak against the strike.

But, in the days that followed, ILA locals met separately and Ryan’s supporters were able to sway the workers to vote against officially joining the strike.

As the strike crumbled in early 1937, Whalen sought to save the insurgency from an outright defeat and preserve the Baltimore section of the organization that he led.

 Fink Books

The opportunity came as Congress was considering ship owners’ legislation that would establish a single discharge book to be filled out by each ship captain after each voyage.

Baltimore Soviet Marches on Washington: 1934

“Baltimore Soviet” marches on D.C. in 1934

Up to this point, individual discharge papers from each tour had been issued by the ship captains. Union seamen viewed the proposed single discharge book as an attempt by ship owners to blacklist them since one captain who didn’t like a maritime worker could smear them on a single discharge book. The legislation was called the Copeland Safety at Sea Act.

Also pending was a National Labor Relations Board decision on whether the rank and file caucus could challenge the ISU during federally supervised elections to represent the seamen.

It’s not clear who came up with the idea for a march on Washington but it may have been Al Lannon, a national leader of the rank-and-file committee. Lannon had previously led the Baltimore MWIU in the early 1930s and had organized a small march on Washington in 1934 demanding continued disbursement of federal relief funds through the union instead of outside organizations that were feathering their own nests.

As a result of agitation by the MWIU the disbursement of funds through the so-called “Baltimore Soviet,” continued for another year. The “Soviet” provided beds, food, barbers and other services for waterfront workers during the toughest early years of the Great Depression.

 The Midnight March

Whether it was Whalen’s or Lannon’s thoughts that led to the march, Whalen took it up with enthusiasm and the idea captured the imagination of seamen up and down the ports on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Seamen March in Rain in D.C. Protest #2: 1937

The “Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade.”

Elizabeth Fee wrote in The Baltimore Book:

Calling it the Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade, Whalen led hundreds of seamen and supporters from other unions along U.S. Route 1 through a day and night of rain and slush to the nation’s capital.

There they were joined by several thousand more demonstrators, and pickets were thrown around the Department of Commerce as well as the Capitol. The seamen visited all the principal department heads in government. One delegation even went to President Franklin Roosevelt in the White House.

With the momentum of the march, Baltimore’s striking seamen voted to end the 87-day strike, obtaining wage increases for the sailors, according to Jo Ann Argersinger in the Maryland Historical Magazine.

Shortly afterward the NLRB ruled in favor of the caucus meeting the definition of a union under federal law. The rank-and-file committee in turn established itself as the National Maritime Union (NMU) and quickly challenged the ISU, winning representation in 56 of 67 companies where elections were held.

As a result of the new power on the waterfront, the Copeland Safety at Sea Act was amended to permit either single discharge papers or new books to be utilized—effectively preventing ship owners from blacklisting union supporters.

A sweeping victory had been snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Seamen’s Solidarity

Seamen Arrested in DC Protesting Nazi Regime: 1936

Striking seamen protesting the Nazi regime are arrested outside German embassy in 1936.

The camaraderie of the sailors at sea proved a great recipe for union members in port.

During the strike, the rank-and-file committee adopted a resolution to “treat all seamen as brothers and on an equality” basis regardless of race or color according to Argersinger. A cook of Chinese descent, who was barred by West Coast waterfront unions from membership, was taken in by Whalen and his union.

Argersinger wrote that Whalen set up a “court of justice” with fines and punishments for crimes ranging from drunkenness to scabbing—the most serious offense. The “Baltimore Soviet” services were replicated with rooms, food service and organized exercise. Differing ethnic groups were encouraged to play instruments and sing their songs for all.

Elisabeth Gilman, a social democrat from Baltimore, said the strike was “the most orderly and best conducted I have ever seen.”

 Fight for Integrated Crews

Striking Seamen Stage Guerilla Theater: 1937 (2)

The Baltimore NMU fought for integration.

When the NMU was officially formed in 1938, its constitution prohibited discrimination. Andor Skotnes in New Deal for All? quotes the lawyer Avnet relating an incident where Whalen put teeth into this provision:

The Captain of the vessel phoned and complained that some of the crew members were not satisfactory. There were three Negro members who had been assigned to the deck and engine departments. Previously Negroes had been segregated on the ships to the steward’s department only.

Pat [Whalen] held his ground and refused to withdraw these three crew members. Shortly afterward, the crew itself arrived at the union hall and [the white crew members] announced that they would not sail with Negroes.

Whalen called a general membership meeting for that night to try the white crewmembers for undemocratic conduct. During this meeting several seamen of color spoke against the white crew’s actions, and a number of whites spoke in favor of it. Whalen took the floor and harangued the membership on how racism created a reservoir of strikebreakers and how the enemy ISU had always stood for Jim Crow.

He spoke of trade union democracy where all were equal regardless of race, color or creed, and shook his head and vowed sadly that the new union would be better dead aborning than to follow in the old ways…The men understood him and the membership voted the crew either sail with Negro members or that they should turn in their union books.

Some books were thrown on the table. But the ship sailed with a mixed crew and this policy has since largely prevailed in the port of Baltimore.

 The Broader Fight

Striking Maritime Workers Protest Discharge Papers: 1937

Women were also members of the NMU: Elsa Landstrom, a striker at the Midnight March.

Elizabeth Fee cited a George Meyers account of how Whalen also fought for integration on the Baltimore waterfront:

The National Maritime Union always worked integrated crews, and we’d go into a waterfront bar and order up a bottle. The bartenders would serve the white seamen and refuse to serve the others because, they said, it was against the law.

So Paddy’s guys would pick the bottle up and throw it into the mirror…and that was the way the waterfront was integrated. After that, anyone could be served with no problem.

Whalen didn’t confine the fight against segregation to the waterfront. In one of the largest community based campaigns in the pre-World-War-II period, the CIO sent representatives into community meetings to raise its own demands such as housing for black workers at Bethlehem Steel and other mills, factories and shipyards.

Andor Skotnes in New Deal for All? writes:

On one occasion in 1939, Patrick Whalen, head of the Baltimore Industrial Union Council, silenced a hostile white crowd at a public meeting with a passionate defense of public housing for all. The nature of the coalition emerging in the new housing movement is evident in the committee formed in northwestern Baltimore, which included representatives from the NAACP, the NNC, BUL, the CIO and social liberal groupings. Both Lillie Jackson of the NAACP and Albert Blumberg of the Communist Party were among its leaders.

 Whalen as Port Agent

Whalen was the port agent (principal union representative) for NMU in Baltimore from 1937-42 and was known for his brash and confrontational style.

Seamen Return to DC Protesting Scab Certificates: 1939

Baltimore NMU banner at 1939 march on D.C.

In a 1987 interview for the Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project, African American seaman Neville Sutherland recalled Whalen having a telephone conversation with Governor Harry Nice:

He wanted the governor to give something, and the governor said it can’t be done…You get him on the goddamn phone, this is Patrick Beeway Dubiss [Whalen]. So, when he got out,he told him what he wanted, and the governor said to the guy it can’t be done. He [Whalen] says, Oh, it’s gonna be done, don’t tell me what can’t be done. He [Whalen] said you full of shit, he says…that’s the way he talked [and] he [Whalen] got it.

Whalen would lead his seamen to return to Washington, D.C. at least two more times in 1938 and 1939 to demand strict procedures for issuing sailors’ certificates. As the NMU conducted strikes against particular shipping lines, the ISU or ship owners would try to bring strikebreakers aboard. The protests at the Commerce Department demanded the department halt what the NMU said was a practice of issuing certificates to unqualified scabs while denying qualified union supporters the certificates.

Maritime Union Leader Held on Gun Charges: 1938

Whalen arrested in New Jersey on weapons charges.

During this period, Whalen had his share of enemies. While en route to a meeting of the national union in New York City, Hudson County police stopped the vehicle he was riding in and arrested him and four others for carrying “concealed and dangerous weapons.”

Questions immediately arose about how the police came to know that Whalen was riding in this particular vehicle that held weapons. Speculation turned to Joseph Curran, the NMU president, who was allegedly jealous of other leaders in the union. Neville Sutherland ventured:

Actually, Colonel [Curran] was afraid of Patrick Whalen, see. And Colonel [Curran] was a big rat too, [Inaudible word(s)] Patrick leave here. Patrick Whalen was a very small man, a very, very, very, small man, see; must’ve weighed about 105 pounds, 110 pounds.

And he’d leave from here, and he knew that Patrick Whalen had a gun in the car, see. That Patrick Whalen didn’t take shit from nobody and he called the Jersey police up, and notified them that he was coming and he had it and when he hit the Jersey line, they pulled him up and they got him in the car there.

Charges were later dropped and the incident, if anything, boosted Whalen’s standing among the workers.

Whalen as a Communist

Whalen made no secret of his communist beliefs. The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin wrote in What is to be Done? that the communist’s “…ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears…”

Alice Neel Portrait of Paddy Whalen: 1935

Alice Neel portrait of Paddy Whalen holding a copy of the Daily Worker.

Paddy Whalen seemed to somehow embody both. The artist Alice Neel, who painted Whalen in 1935 with a copy of the Communist Party’s Daily Worker and two clenched fists, said of Whalen, “Patty Whalen was the organizer on the waterfront…He was just an ordinary Irishman except for one thing: He was absolutely convinced of communism, and he could convince other longshoremen…”

Whalen hated fascism and during the 1936-7 strike, Whalen organized 50 seamen to travel to Washington, D.C. to picket the German embassy in support of seaman Lawrence Simpson who was charged by the Nazis with subversion.

While drumming up support for the 1936-37 strike, Whalen also went on a recruiting sortie for the Maryland Communist Party to Cumberland, Md. where he met and recruited labor leader George Meyers. Meyers led the unionization of the Celanese Mills, where 10,000 workers were employed. Meyers later became head of the Maryland Industrial Union Council, the state arm of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Meyers also went on to head the Md.-D.C. Communist Party, was jailed for three years during the McCarthy era, and later headed the CP’s National Labor Commission, demonstrating Whalen’s effectiveness in winning others to his ideas.

 Killed by Nazi Submarine

SS Illinois  - Ship Where Whalen was Killed: 1942

S.S. Illinois

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the Nazi regime in Germany declared war on the U.S. a few days later, the Communist Party asked its members to enlist in the war effort. Despite his exemption from the draft as union port agent, Whalen went back to sea in the merchant marine, working in the engine room of the S.S. Illinois.

On June 2, 1942, as the Illinois sailed on a return voyage along the Southern Atlantic route and was about 450 miles southeast of Bermuda, Nazi submarine U-159 sent two torpedoes into its engine room. Whalen died instantly and 31 others also perished. The ship went down with 8,000 tons of manganese ore aboard. Whalen’s body, like those of most seamen on sunken ships, was never recovered. Six survivors were picked up out of the water six days later.

U-159 Shortly Before Sinking: 1943

U-159 shortly before sinking by a VP 32 Mariner.

The workers of Baltimore saw their revenge. On July 28, 1943 a PBM Mariner dropped bombs onto U-159 and sent the Nazi submarine to the bottom of the sea.

A liberty ship was launched from Brunswick, Ga. bearing the name Patrick B. Whalen in March 1945 in his memory and a small service held in Baltimore the same day. However during the Cold War the name of the S.S. Patrick B. Whalen was changed and it was eventually scrapped in Taiwan in 1967.


Writer’s Notes:

Joseph Curran took complete control of the union at a 1947 convention where the left wing of the union lost by a single vote—a casualty of the anti-communist fever orchestrated by Democratic President Harry S. Truman and a Republican Congress. Soon after, 10 years of union democracy was gone and Curran came to symbolize the worst aspects of trade unionism, building a palatial union headquarters in New York. The NMU merged with the rival ISU in 1988.

Striking Seamen Leaders to Meet Commerce Secretary: 1937

Paddy Whalen (1st row, left) and Joseph Curran (1st row holding paper) during 1936-37 strike.

The cities of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. are only 30 miles apart, but they might as well be 3,000. Only rarely is there cultural spillover between the two. However Whalen’s position in the Maryland Industrial Council of the CIO and his unflinching fight against discrimination inspired the same fight in Washington, D.C. as activists sought to integrate defense industries and the Capital Transit Company.

Whalen is long forgotten, except among a few scholars. Perhaps when someone views the bar scenes in Season 2 of The Wire, they’ll think of Paddy Whalen and the method he used to integrate the waterfront bars of Baltimore.

Sources for this post include the Washington Star, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Afro-American, The Baltimore Sun, The Communist Party in Maryland 1919-57, The Baltimore Book, The Maryland Historical Magazine, Pictures of People: Alice Neel’s Portrait Gallery, School of Darkness, A New Deal for All?, The Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project, among others.

Want to see more images?

1937 Phillips Packinghouse Strike – Promise & Defeat

18 Sep

By Daniel Hardin

Union Business Cambridge Strike 1937 – Hi-Res

Strikers in front of Phillips Packing Co. Factory F, June 1937

“Down here on the Shore, where in the past the only time whites ever visited a jail in connection with a colored prisoner was to lynch him, a group of white strikers went to a jail and made police turn a colored striker loose.”—William N. Jones, 1937, Baltimore Afro-American newspaper.

A strike by hundreds of workers at the Phillips Packing Company in Cambridge, Maryland in June 1937 brought hope to the struggle for racial and economic justice in an area where African Americans were subjected to worst aspects of Jim Crow and unions were to be crushed mercilessly.

Climate of Racial Intolerance

Jones wasn’t exaggerating. Maryland’s Eastern Shore had been a slave labor, plantation-based economy before the Civil War and Jim Crow afterwards.

At the time of the strike, the brutal lynching of Matthew Williams in Salisbury in 1931 and George Armwood in Princess Anne in 1933 had just occurred a few years earlier.

The two-year legal battle of Euel Lee, also known as “Orphan Jones,” involved an attempting lynching at Snow Hill and ended with the legal lynching (no African Americans served on his jury) of Lee in 1933.

Matt Williams Barbarically Lynched in Salisbury Md: 1931

Matt Williams Brutal Lynching on Md Eastern Shore in 1931

Lynchings Enforced Economic Oppression

Jim Crow kept workers divided and helped keep wages on the Shore low. When challenged, racist leaders used terror to keep workers divided.

In 1931, a September strike by 800 predominantly African American crab pickets in Crisfield was supported by predominantly white oyster shuckers–showing the potential for unity.

The racist leaders on the Shore got their opportunity to send a message about standing up for higher wages in December. In the official version of the story, Matthew Williams allegedly shot his white employer in Salisbury in a dispute over wages, wounding himself during the altercation. While there was a more plausible explanation that involved the employer’s son doing the shooting, this mattered little.

Williams was dragged from dragged from his hospital bed and brutally lynched in front of the courthouse in front of a crowd of 2,000. Body parts were cut from him as souvenirs. His dead body was later dragged through the street by a rope and his body set afire. What remained of his charred corpse was hung from a lamp pole in an African American section of town as a warning.

Once again, in the official story, Green Davis and his family were slain in Taylorville in 1931 in an alleged dispute over wages. Euel Lee, an African American who worked for Davis was arrested. White International Labor Defense attorney Bernard Ades and companions were beaten outside the courthouse in Snow Hill when a white mob couldn’t get their hands on Lee.

Despite Ades’ efforts in winning a precedent-setting Maryland retrial based on exclusion of African Americans from juries, Lee was hanged in Baltimore October 28, 1933.

CIO Organizer Leif Dahl 1936

Leif Dahl of the CIO Cannery Workers Union

New Unions of CIO United Workers

However, barbaric, racially motivated violence wasn’t the only force in play in the middle of the Great Depression.

New unions that ultimately became the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) were organizing workers into single industrial unions of all races and sexes–not along the craft lines of most unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), where African Americans and women were often excluded. The new unions were also winning wage gains from employers.

In 1937, a single employer, the Phillips Packing Company that employed over 2,000 workers canning vegetables grown on local farms, dominated Cambridge. The CIO, through the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing & Allied Workers, headed locally by Leif Dahl, had begun to organize the plant covertly and at least one organizer had obtained work at the plant.

The Cannery union was a recent arrival on the shore, but was already well known to workers for its attempts to organize migratory field workers and seafood workers.

Wildcat Strike Begins

On the evening of June 23, 1937, a relatively small number of workers at the can-making factory within the massive Phillips plant struck after the company announced plans to reduce the workforce. The strike quickly spread to the rest of the workforce that was engaged in packing.

Loading Stringbeans for Packinghouse Near Cambridge: 1937

Migratory field workers initially joined the strike

That night, a crowd of 1,000 marched through the streets rallying support and overturning trucks carrying vegetables. The workers were majority African American with a substantial minority of whites. For the first few days of the strike they convinced migratory bean pickers who were destitute and lived in farmer provided shanties to join the strike.

AFL Unions Try Quick Deal

Strikers Rally Cambridge Md: 1937 – Hi-Res

A woman, possibly Anna Neary, speaks to a crowd of strikers.

The next day on June 24, Anna Neary (the only high-ranking female AFL organizer) appeared and the company president Albanus Phillips opened negotiations with her and concluded a quick agreement that included a relatively small 10% wage increase and the recognition of the AFL union.

Many CIO supporters believed that the company had invited the AFL to undercut them and that the wage increase was too small. At a mass meeting, the proposal was voted down.

March on Jail Frees Black Striker

That night, 1,000 predominantly white strikers and their supporters gathered at the jail to demand the release of James “Midnight” McKnight who had been arrested earlier in the day during a confrontation with truck drivers. McKnight was charged with disorderly conduct after a trucker was hit with a rock.

Overturned Truck During 1937 Cambridge Strike – Hi-Res

Overturned vegetable truck at Phillips Plant B

The sheriff, confronted with the likelihood of more violence, released McKnight on the promise of the strikers to refrain from more violence that night. It was probably the only instance of a predominantly white crowd marching on a jail to free (and not lynch) an African American south of the Mason Dixon line since Reconstruction.

The victory, however, was short-lived. On the following day of June 25, John Cephas, an African-American, was killed by a truck loaded with vegetables that swerved and struck him beside a road near the plant. Cephas was an occasional worker at the plant who had come out to support the strikers.

Over the next few days, the strikers tried to rally support, enlisting favorable merchants and closing the stores of those opposed the strike.

Union Business Cambridge Strike 1937 – Hi-Res

Phillips workers apparently signing union cards

Strike Falters

By June 30, the strike was beginning to falter. When police arrested one of the strikers, a crowd of only 200 was mustered at the local police station and held back by a dozen local policemen. The strikers eventually raised enough bail money to get him out. Meetings were attended by less than 300.

The AFL tried to set up a number of different unions—for cannery workers, truck drivers and packing workers—further dividing workers. Neary claimed to the company that she could settle the strike without a vote by workers and would accept the previous offer of a 10% increase.

Phillips rejected Neary’s offer and violence increased. Strikers stoned trucks and guards fired on the strikers, wounding James Powell. Police then arrested Powell.

Strikers also clashed with police who broke up their picket line. One striker, James Roberts, suffered a three-inch gash from a police club. Several more strikers were arrested.

Truck Overturned During Cambridge Strike 1937 – Hi-Res

Strike sign on the pole reads, “We can’t live on $9.80 a week, 40¢ no less.”

Company Union Created

Phillips, through a Merchants Association, set up a company union called the Cambridge Workers Association. He quickly recognized the bogus union and “settled” the strike for the original offer of 10%. A quick trial of Powell, the striker who was shot, resulted in a 12-month jail sentence for Powell.

The strike began to crumble and Phillips re-opened some of the plant. Phillips filed suit against the town for damages as a result of the strike. By July 9, the strike was over. A number of strikers were sentenced to jail by the local courts.

The AFL and CIO settled their differences over the Phillips plant in the aftermath of the strike with the CIO taking jurisdiction over the packing house workers while the AFL accepted truck drivers.

The National Labor Relations Board twice ruled against Phillips’ company union and ordered several strikers reinstated, but the cause was lost. The CIO Cannery union lost a final close vote in 1947 to the company union at a time when the Cannery union was accused of communist leadership.

Gloria Richardson brushes off National Guard: 1963

Gloria Richardson brushes off the National Guard: Cambridge, Md., 1963

Victory in the 1960s

The company-inspired union continued to “represent” the workers and acted as a hiring hall and helped to screen out workers who may try to organize a union that would act more forcefully.

The Phillips Company continued to dominate Cambridge until the mid 1950s when the company began to layoff workers. The company was sold to Consolidate Foods in 1957. The United Packinghouse Workers finally broke into non-union Cambridge when it organized the Coastal Food Plant in the 1960s when local civil rights activists led by Gloria Richardson joined their efforts.

A Third View of Factory F: 2014

Phillips Packing Company Factory F in 2014

Editors Notes:

Looking back at this strike and its ultimate failure is an agonizing exercise in “what ifs?”

The CIO organizing drives of the 1930s provided hope to thousands of workers on the Shore, both black and white. The defeat at the Phillips Packing Co., however, insured that any organizing would not fundamentally challenge Jim Crow.

Today little remains of the packing industry in Cambridge, Maryland. Visiting the site of this great failed strike requires a bit of imagination.

Location of Phillips Packing Factory B: 2014

Phillips Packing Co. Factory B occupied the upper left corner of the intersection of Washington St & these tracks in Cambridge, Md.

In 1965, Factory B and a number of other buildings burned, leaving only a small administrative office that still stands today and is occupied by the Coastal Gunite Construction Company at 16 Washington Street (across the street from a Wawa).

The massive Phillips complex that was composed of several dozen buildings is now reduced to the administrative office and Building F on Dorchester Street (the building next to Packing House Antique Mall and a small vacant building where two smokestacks still stand. Also standing is some of the boiler building and a smokestack across the railroad tracks behind Building F.

________________________________________________

For additional images related to the strike, see https://www.flickr.com/photos/washington_area_spark/sets/72157631308678086/

For a related article, see “600 Black Women Stand Strong, the 1938 Crab Pickers Strike,” https://washingtonspark.wordpress.com/2012/12/05/600-black-women-stand-strong-the-1938-crab-pickers-strike/

 

Shootings by DC Police Spark Fight Against Brutality 1936-41

20 Apr

A campaign from 1936-41 against police brutality in Washington, D.C. was led by the local National Negro Congress, which built a broad-based coalition. They won a sharp decline in the number of police shootings, a police review board, and new political power in an early civil rights struggle in the city.


Marchers Gather to Protest Police Brutality in DC: 1941

DC rally against police brutality Sept. 14, 1941. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Historical Image Collection. All rights reserved.

By Craig Simpson

Leonard Basey was out with co-workers on the evening of August 30, 1936 enjoying a respite from the work and barracks life in the Civilian Conservation Corps camp located at 26th and M Streets NE in Washington, D.C. The unit was doing the physical labor to build the infrastructure for the National Arboretum.

Basey was part of a group of young enlistees in Company 1360 in camp NA-1-DC, an African American post with white officers.

That night, Basey was walking with five other men from the camp, who were laughing and joking loudly as they walked along M Street toward Bladensburg Road through a predominantly white neighborhood.

Later testifying that he received a phone call from someone disturbed by the noise, police officer Vivian H. Landrum left his home in the neighborhood and approached the youths near 17th and M Streets NE. Landry placed the group under arrest and walked them to a police call box near Bladensburg Road and M Street NE.

When Basey questioned the arrest Landry reportedly responded, “Shut up, and don’t give me too much lip, or I’ll fill you full of lead,” according to a companion’s later testimony reported in the Afro American.

It was then that he “grabbed Basey, who was standing sideways toward him, spun him around and shot him in the abdomen,” said Basey’s companion, according to the same article.

He was just another black man who was the victim of a police murder in Washington, D.C…. or was he?

National Negro Congress

The first national convention of the National Negro Congress (NNC) took place in February of 1936 in Chicago. The NNC was formed to fill the void left by the NAACP’s reliance on a legal and lobbying strategy and would be more of an activist organization, engaging in pickets, protests and direct action to advance the cause of African American rights.

National Negro Congress Leaders at Banquet: 1940

NNC leaders John P. Davis (left) and A. Phillip Randolph (right) in March, 1940.

The NAACP had often placed a greater emphasis on issues of concern to the black elite, while the NNC was based in the black working class and was composed of many local African American union leaders along with a significant section of the black intelligentsia.

The founding Congress contained a relatively small group of activist ministers. Two national board members of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins and Charles Hamilton Houston, also attended. The NAACP as an organization, however, boycotted the group’s formation, although a number of leaders of local chapters attended.

The NNC attracted members with political views across the spectrum, including Democrats, Republicans, socialists and communists. The NNC selected A. Phillip Randolph, the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, as its president and John P. Davis as executive secretary. Its headquarters was established in Washington, D.C.

Local Washington NNC

In contrast to the national convention, the Washington, D.C. chapter almost immediately gained wide representation among the black clergy.  Rev. William H. Jernagin, the former president of the National Race Congress, a previous broad-based African American organization, lived in the city and attended the first NNC convention.

Longtime Rights Leader Rev. William H. Jernagin: 1940 ca

Rev. William H. Jernagin circa 1940.

Jernagin was also a local rights activist and after the convention he persuaded the influential Interdenominational Ministers Alliance to affiliate with the local NNC.

These ministers were quickly able to prevail upon the local Elks, NAACP, the New Negro Alliance and other District of Columbia groups to join with the local NNC either directly or in coalition. A minister, Rev. Arthur D. Gray, was elected president of the local NNC.

The D. C. NNC began taking up issues of race discrimination in employment and the issue of police brutality.

In the Spring of 1936, during a meeting held at the Metropolitan Baptist Church to call for freedom for the “Scottsboro Boys,” Davis called for expanding the cause to fight police brutality in the city.

According to Erik Gellman in Death Blow to Jim Crow, William Hastie, a Howard University professor, told the crowd,

It doesn’t matter whether a person is hanged by an unauthorized mob or by an organized mob known as the law.

The city commissioners and the police department didn’t know it yet, but a new force had risen to challenge police violence.

Newspapers Report Self-Defense

The day after Basey was shot, the Washington Post reported

…Landrum fired at the man when Basey and several others rushed the policeman to prevent his arrest of another man who was with them.

DC National Negro Congress President Rev. Arthur D. Gray: 1940 ca

Washington branch NNC president Rev. Arthur D. Gray.

Basey died September 1 at the Casualty Hospital at 3rd and B Streets SE. The Afro American initially reported as part of a headline, “Policeman Fires as Gang Demands his Prisoner.”

But the official story began to unravel as witnesses came forward.

In testimony before a coroner’s jury inquest on September 3, white witnesses testified that Landrum was surrounded and did not draw his gun until after the group reached the call box.

One 11-year-old white youth said “Basey had his arm drawn back as if to strike Landrum when he was shot,” according to the Afro American. But the youth admitted that Landrum and another white man had talked to him the following day about being a witness for the defense.

When Landrum himself testified, he contradicted the white witnesses and admitted that the group did not surround him and he drew his service weapon as soon as the group was arrested.

‘Vision’ Flashed Through Policeman’s Mind

He also testified that the reason none of the youths struck him was because he fired his weapon when “a vision of officer Kennedy at Truxton Circle flashed through my mind.” He was referring to a police slaying by three youths at Logan Circle in 1932.

A later letter to the Washington Post characterized Landrum’s testimony thusly,

The officers’ tale resembled that of the sportsman who arrested for catching black bass out of season, maintained that he had taken the fish in self-defense, since they had jumped out of the water and bitten him.

African American CCC Camp Under Construction: 1934

CCC Camp NA-1-DC under construction in 1934.

Landrum’s testimony and that of other defense witnesses was disputed by the other CCC youths, but also by white CCC camp commander Richmond Bowen, who came on the scene shortly before the shooting. A white gas station attendant also testified he was about 40 feet from the group and heard Landrum tell them, “Shut up unless you want some of it too.”

The first inquest jury, composed of four whites and one black person, deadlocked 4-1 in Landrum’s favor and a mistrial was declared.

A second inquest held September 6 heard 29 witnesses give essentially the same testimony, but at 10 pm returned with an inexplicable verdict exonerating Landrum.

We believe the said V. Harry Landrum discharged his gun when he believed his life was in jeopardy, such a belief being initiated by a mental process and not by any overt act or acts on the part of those under arrest.

Press Ramps Up Outrage

NNC executive secretary John P. Davis and A. S. Pinkett, head of the local NAACP, immediately called for the district attorney to ask a grand jury to indict Landrum for the killing and for a police trial board to be convened to dismiss Landrum from the force.

DC Killer Cop is Free: 1936

‘Killer Cop Free.’ Afro American, Sept. 12, 1936.

But the case really began to take on a life of its own when the Afro American published its story September 12 under the headline “KILLER-COP FREE.”

The Afro printed a dramatic report that,

Lawrence Basey was the fortieth colored person shot to death by Metropolitan police since 1925. Every officer involved has been exonerated. Most of the victims were under 21 years of age.

Adam Lapin of the Washington bureau of the Daily Worker jumped on the story.  The Afro shared their research with Lapin so he could detail the victims’ names, dates of death, ages, and officers involved.

Afro Lists Victims of DC Police Killings: 1936

List of the slain. Afro, Oct. 17, 1936.

The national Communist Party paper published the statistics and an accompanying story where Lapin gave additional details on some of the deaths, writing that all forty cases “are similar, indeed, all the police murders of Negroes in Washington follow the same pattern.”

For one example, Lapin wrote,

On December 9, 1933, Policeman Wallace M. Suthard shot in the abdomen and killed Robert Lewis, a Negro worker who had been placed under arrest suspected of breaking into a home. Suthard claimed that he shot in self-defense because Lewis reached for a gun. No gun was found on the dead man.

A furor directed at Washington’s police erupted. Other newspapers around the country, particularly the African American press, began to run stories about the police shootings.

Officials Refuse to Act

Evidence came out during the inquest that Landrum had a past record of shooting at CCC workers and had beaten another African American some years before without justification.

The NNC held a protest meeting at the YMCA at 1816 12th Street NW attended by several hundred people. The NNC called for Landrum’s immediate suspension and for his indictment on murder charges. The group said that Landrum “requires the attention of a psychiatrist” because the officer believed that black people were inherently violent.

Despite the outcry, District Attorney Leslie C. Garnett refused to bring charges against Landrum before a grand jury, telling Lapin he was “not interested in the case,” according to the Chicago Defender.

A. S. Pinkett, the local NAACP secretary, said in a statement,

Thus we have the picture of a policeman arresting men for being disorderly, when there was no disorder; the shooting to death of one of them by the arresting officer; a meaningless verdict by a coroner’s jury and lastly the refusal by the District Attorney to lay the facts before a grand jury.

YE GODS! And colored persons are expected to have faith in their governmental machinery.

The Chicago Defender reported that a few minutes after interviewing Superintendent of Police Major Ernest W. Brown, Lapin announced that,

Major Brown made it perfectly clear despite his professions of sympathy for the colored people that he is opposed to a Congressional investigation or any kind of investigation of police brutality. He won’t even undertake one himself.

The Afro American published an editorial on October 31 saying,

Citizens ought to keep pounding away at Major Brown’s door in an effort to find out whether the police chief sees any connection between the Afro American’s list of fifty deaths, forty of them colored youths, at the hands of quick-trigger white policemen here in the past ten years, and the fact that nearly half of these killings have occurred during his term of office.

We believe they could make him understand that four years is long enough to ‘get away with murder.’

With the issue still boiling in November, the District of Columbia commissioners refused to release data on police killings to the American Civil Liberties Union, according to Gardner Jackson, a representative of the group.

Unable to contain the broadening protests, authorities finally responded by retiring Landrum on a pension. On November 14, 1936, the police department announced during a conference with brutality opponents that Landrum is “mentally and physically unfit for further duty as an officer,” according to the Afro.

Rev. Ernest. C. Smith: 1940 ca

Rev. E. C. Smith (shown circa 1940) lobbied for a Congressional investigation.

Fight Against Brutality Broadens

The city commissioners and the police superintendent may have thought the issue would go away with Landrum’s retirement, but the local Negro Congress continued to pound away.

The city of Washington, D.C.’s affairs were overseen directly by the U.S. Congress, to an even greater extent than today, and in 1937 the NNC began lobbying for a House subcommittee investigation…

…to determine whether and to what extent the use of unnecessary and unlawful use of force by police officers…have become a menace to life, liberty and the general security within the District of Columbia.

The group also organized an effort to lobby for an African American magistrate in the District. The NNC, NAACP, Elks, Afro American, YMCA, Interdenominational Ministers Alliance, Howard University and the Washington Bar Association, along with other groups, lobbied local D.C. officials and President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.

To ramp up the pressure for a congressional investigation, the alliance named itself the Joint Committee for Civil Rights in the District of Columbia and sponsored a series of weekly radio broadcasts on local station WOL. It was another new tactic in the fight for civil rights in the city.

In an account by the Afro of the second broadcast on March 23, 1937, John P. Davis reminded the listeners of the exoneration of police officer Landrum in Lawrence Basey’s death:

I want you to realize the meaning of such a verdict. A coroner’s jury has held that an officer who has a mental fear for his life has a right to kill another person who has done nothing to cause that fear, who is not armed, and who has submitted peacefully to arrest.

Sociologist E. Franklin Frazier: 1947

E. Franklin Frazier (shown in 1947) was among the leaders of the anti-brutality fight in 1937.

In April 1937, a meeting was held under the banner of the Joint Committee at the Metropolitan Baptist Church protesting three more police killings in recent months. At the meeting William C. Hueston, education director for the Elks, called for organized action to “stop this ruthless brutality on the part of the police,” reported the Atlanta Daily World.

Other prominent leaders included John P. Davis, Judge William Hastie, Rev. William Jernigan, Julia West Hamilton, Rev. E. C. Smith, Dr. E. Franklin Frazier and John C. Bruce. Similar meetings were soon organized around the city while radio broadcasts on the issue continued.

Howard U Dean of Women Lucy Slowe

Lucy Slowe was among those acting as a judge at the mock police brutality trial.

Put Police on Trial

In May the protest effort culminated with a “public trial” of Washington’s “killer cops” at the John Wesley A. M. E. Zion Church. The trial “provided a complete picture of the lawless police terror which has reigned in Washington for the past ten years,” according to the Chicago Defender.

John P. Davis of the National Negro Congress presided. Judges included Major Campbell Johnson, secretary of the YMCA; Lucy Slowe, dean of women at Howard University; Rev. Robert W. Brooks, pastor of the Lincoln Congregational Temple; the Rev. Stephen Gill Spottswood; William C. Hueston, commissioner of education of the Elks; and Dr. Victor Tulane, chemistry professor at Howard University.

Those prosecuting the case included George E. C. Hayes, of Cobb, Howard and Hayes; George A. Parker, dean of the Terrell Law School; and Edward P. Lovett, of Houston and Houston.

Major Campbell Johnson in His Office: 1942

Major Campbell Johnson was another judge in the mock police brutality trial.

“Eyewitnesses to numerous unpunished police murders, citizens who have been beaten by the police and leaders of civic associations and newspaper men who have investigated police brutality gave evidence,” according to the Chicago Defender.

Hundreds had attended each of the previous meetings and even more turned out for the trial, which included a number of whites in attendance and testifying as witnesses.

“This event demonstrated the new-style tactics of the NNC: with the theatrics in front of a large public audience, the mock trial showed how the District ought to protect citizenship rights through democratic governance,” Gellman wrote in “Death Blow to Jim Crow.”

No Victory Yet

But since many in Congress overseeing District affairs had few African American constituents, there was little interest on Capitol Hill in investigating police brutality in the city.

The White House put out trial balloons for the vacant judge position for two men: Hobart Newman, a young white attorney, and William L. Houston, founder of the firm Houston & Houston, whose son Charles was leading the NAACP legal defense effort.

However, local white officials nixed Houston’s nomination and the Roosevelt administration put forward Newman’s name for the position.

The brutality continued through the winter of 1937-38.  Incidents included the beating of a Howard University student by police and the assault by police on a black man and his wife when the man did not move his parked car fast enough. Police shot a twenty-year old African American man to death when he fled a traffic accident.

Police Shoot WWI Vet in Home: 1938

Afro American March 19, 1938 photo of Leroy Keys and the house where he was slain.

New Killing Sparks New Protests

On March 8, 1938 a distraught and delusional African American World War I veteran was making noise at his sister’s house at 2470 Ontario Road NW. When police arrived Leroy Keys began shouting at them, apparently believing they were German troops.

Keys threw small household objects through the window towards the police. Two police officers opened fire and shot him dead, despite the pleas of his sister that he needed help.

Rights groups demanded charges against the two police officers, calling the shootings “wanton and unwarranted,” and said police should have used tear gas or water to subdue the clearly disturbed man, according to the Afro American.

Two coroner’s juries deadlocked and a grand jury refused to indict.

The Afro wrote, “We think Hitler is a tyrant and a brute, a ruffian and a cur. We detest him for the way he is crushing the Jew [but] don’t forget that there is a man right here at home who has his heel on our neck.”

Thirty-six organizations joined the Keys campaign, including the United Federal Workers, which called it an “urbanized form of lynching.” Invited in to the coalition, the local Communist Party (CP) began holding open-air meetings around the city.

Martin Chancey, local CP secretary, told a gathering at 10th & U Streets NW that

We don’t hear of lynchings in Washington in the same manner as in Georgia or Alabama, but lynchings are perpetrated by those who are supposed to protect human life and property–the members of the District police force.

Chancey went on to demand suspension of the two officers involved in Keys’ death according to the Afro.

As the campaign picked up steam, another African American was shot by a police officer, this time over a bag of food.

Shot in the Back

In the early morning hours of Sunday, June 26, officer John Sobolewski saw Wallace McKnight walking north on 15th Street near Massachusetts Avenue NW carrying a package under his arm.

According to Sobolewski’s testimony, he stopped McKnight and questioned him. During the interrogation, McKnight ran away, according to Sobolewski, and he [Sobolewski] opened fire.

McKnight was shot in the back, the bullet passing through his liver, and he died the next day. The package contained a chicken, a pound of butter, a dozen oranges, two pounds of bacon, a dozen bananas, several dozens eggs and some other fruit.  McKnight worked at a restaurant on the 1700 block of K Street NW not far from where he was shot.

The Rev. Robert W. Brooks observed, “Because of the record of the police department for the last eleven years, McKnight not knowing what officer John Sobolewski might do, took [his] chances on running away,” according to the Afro.

Coroner’s Jury Orders Cop Held

Police Commissioner Melvin C. Hazen tried to head off the gathering storm on June 27 by suspending Sobolewski and ordering an investigation of the McKnight shooting and a re-opening of the Keys death matter.

He also ordered a daily roll call reading of police rules on the use of revolvers. It stated: “Members of the force shall not use their revolvers except in the most urgent cases and then only in such a manner as will not jeopardize the lives of innocent people.”

The shifting public opinion also had an effect this time at the coroner’s jury. Police Lieutenant Arthur C. Belt, commanding officer of the Third Precinct on the night of the shooting, tried to save Sobolewski by telling the jury, “I would have done the same thing under the circumstances.” But his statement only added fuel to the fire.

A packed hearing room erupted in outrage at Belt’s statement and the coroner’s jury deliberated only 10 minutes before ordering Sobolewski held for grand jury action.

Edward Felder Urges Police Chief’s Firing During Brutality Protests: 1938

Edward Felder speaking to crowd of 2,000 at 9th & Rhode Island Ave. NW on July 8, 1938. Courtesy of the Afro American, all rights reserved.

Communists Organize March

With only a little over a week’s planning, the local Communist Party organized a march on July 8th beginning at 10th & U Streets NW, led by a car carrying Mollie McKnight, the widow of the slain Wallace McKnight. The local NNC, the New Negro Alliance and other coalition partners endorsed the march, but it was the communists who led the event.

The crowd heard Communist Party speakers including Martin Chancey, Tansell Butler and Calvin Cousins. Police were present and seized signs calling for chief Brown’s ouster, but the crowd made up for this strong arm tactic with their later chants.

Kids Swarm Widow’s Car During Police Brutality Protest: 1938

Children gather on the auto that carried the widow Mollie McKnight during the police brutality demonstration July 8, 1938. Courtesy of the Afro American, all rights reserved.

Over 2,000 people, of whom about 20% were white, marched and chanted “Major Brown Must Go,” “Police Brutality Must Stop,” “Everybody Join the Parade,” and “Stop Legal Lynching.”

Estimates of those who lined the streets ranged from 10,000 to 15,000. They watched marchers carrying signs like, “You May Be Next,” “Stop Police Murders,” “Compensation for Police Victims” and “Washington is not Scottsboro.”

The march ended at Rhode Island Avenue and 9th Street NW. A second rally was held there and speakers including Edward Felder of the Young Communist League urged the firing of Major Brown.

Resolutions adopted at the rally included calls for the suspension and trials of six police officers, appointing representatives of African Americans, civil organizations and labor to the panel of D.C. Commissioners, an impartial investigation into police killings, and compensation to victims’ families.

National marches for civil rights had been held previously in the city in 1922 over lynching and 1933 over the “Scottsboro Boys.”  However, this marked the first mass action in the streets of a significant size over a local African American issue in Washington since the 1919 picketing over the Moen’s school child abuse case.

First White Officer Indicted

In mid-July, the grand jury indicted Sobolewski for manslaughter. The Afro American reported it was the first time in D.C. history that a white policeman was charged in the death of a black person.

The National Negro Congress followed up the Communist Party-led march and demands by organizing a conference of over 100 organizations at the Lincoln Temple Congregational Church on July 31.

Negro Congress Leader Doxey Wilkerson at Town Hall Radio: 1942

Doxey Wilkerson (2nd from left).

The meeting was presided over by Rev. Arthur Gray in preparation for a mass meeting to be held the next day. Among the principal NNC speakers were Doxey Wilkerson of Howard University, former judge James A. Cobb, and former judge William C. Hueston.

Alphaeus Hunton, a Howard University professor, outlined eight proposed demands to be adopted at the mass meeting. They included removal of Major Brown; denial of pension rights to former officer Vivian Landrum, who had killed Leonard Basey two years earlier; suspension and trial for officers involved in shootings and recent brutality; public hearings on police brutality; and compensation for victims.

Ministers Rally 1,200

The next day, 1,200 rallied at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church under the auspices of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, where the pastor C. T. Murray presided.

John P. Davis, national secretary of the National Negro Congress, as quoted in the Washington Post, spoke of the “terror of urban lynching” which led to an “intolerable state of affairs” as “unwarranted beatings and needless killings were perpetrated by the police.”

NAACP Counsel Charles H. Houston Speaks: 1940 ca.

Charles Hamilton Houston.

Charles Hamilton Houston, counsel to the NAACP, blamed the lack of voting rights of citizens in the District and pledged legal services to help fight police brutality.

The National Negro Congress also announced a petition drive to seek 50,000 signatures to President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress.  A collection of $170 was taken up by Rev. William Jernagin from the ministerial alliance to be divided equally between Mollie McKnight and the NNC.

The petition campaign brought new allies into the fight.  The Washington Insurance Underwriters Association pledged 5,000 signatures to be collected through its 55 agents. The American Civil Liberties Union, the American League for Peace and Democracy, and the United Federal Employees also established committees to seek signatures.

The coalition organized “flying squadrons” that went house to house seeking signatures. Both black and white ministers conducted Sunday sermons across the city to popularize the cause.

Sobolewski was acquitted of manslaughter after two hours of deliberation by an all-white jury in September. In addition, Sobolewski was also brought before a re-constituted police trial board in September where he was again exonerated. The two officers who shot Leroy Keys were also cleared of charges by a police trial board.

However, despite the coroner’s jury verdicts, the grand jury failure to act, an acquittal at trial, and the police trial board whitewashes, change was in the air in Washington.

A Year Free of Police Killings

On June 26, 1939, one year after McKnight was killed, the NNC held a meeting at the Second Baptist Church at 3rd & I Streets NW attended by 1,500 people and hailed “a year free of police killings.”

National Negro Congress leader John P. Davis: 1940 ca.

John Preston Davis.

The meeting was presided over by local NNC president Rev. Arthur Gray.  Police superintendent Major Ernest W. Brown also spoke, trying to assure the group that he took the issue seriously. Other speakers included John P. Davis, Rev. J. L. S. Holloman of the Interdenominational Ministers Alliance, and Eugene Davidson of the New Negro Alliance.

The Washington Tribune saluted the work and said the “job could not have been done had it not been for the tireless energy and leadership the National Negro Congress gave to other organizations in this fight against police crimes on the Negro people of Washington.”

Rev. Gray, the D.C. NNC president, said after the campaign that the new trial board for police officers made a difference, according to Gellman’s book. The board obtained some suspensions and indictments against several police officers and Gray said, “The number of incidents has markedly decreased.”

A. Phillip Randolph Speaks at 1940 Negro Congress Convention

A. Phillip Randolph speaking at the 1940 National Negro Congress convention.

NNC Weakened

During 1939-40, the NNC was weakened by a campaign by U.S. Rep. Martin Dies (D-TX) to smear the group as a communist organization.  Then, in 1940, the president of the NNC, A. Phillip Randolph, refused to stand for re-election at the group’s Washington, D.C. national convention after delegates approved a resolution condemning the “imperialist war” in Europe and another calling for closer ties to the unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

The NNC’s broad political umbrella was broken. Randolph was president of the AFL Sleeping Car Porters and his departure left the NNC without its most prominent leader. The Dies attack and Randolph’s withdrawal caused a number of organizations, clergy and others to drift away.

Even with its weakened state at the national level, the organization continued to wage an effective campaign in the city to desegregate defense-related employment throughout most of World War II. Further, despite the friction at the national level, the Washington, D.C. NNC continued relatively strong relationships with both the NAACP and the clergy at the local level.

Renewed Brutality in Washington

However, as time passed the initial success achieved during the 1938 police brutality campaign began to fade.

Protests spread to the Capitol Police force after the shooting and wounding of 10-year-old Fred Walker Jr. in the Senate Office Building on June 24, 1940. Sergeant Vernon Deus was quickly suspended while rights leaders demanded his dismissal and prosecution.

A month later the NNC, along with the Elks, several churches, the NAACP and the Washington Committee for Democratic Action, held a series of protest meetings against police brutality in the 4th police precinct in the city.

Over 100 people attended a mass meeting at the Zion Baptist Church at 333 F Street SW on July 18. Leaders, including pastor A. Joseph Edwards, condemned police for intimidation of African Americans in the precinct against attending the rally.

At another rally at the Mount Lebanon Church at 814 25th Street NW on July 29, Dr. C. Herbert Marshall, local NAACP president, urged African Americans to “stick together” to achieve the rally’s purpose, to “stop the cops from beating Negroes,” according to the Washington Post.

The broad coalition against brutality, now re-named the Citizens Committee Against Police Brutality, took up the issue of a laundry workers’ strike at the Arcane-Sunshine Company, where police intervened on the side of strike breakers and beat pickets with their clubs.

On April 30, police officer Francis E. Davis arrested Robert Gray for disorderly conduct near 13th & Q Streets NW. According to Davis, Gray struck him and ran from the scene and when Davis caught up to him a scuffle ensued. Davis then shot Gray twice in the abdomen and Gray later died.

A coroner’s jury quickly cleared Davis, but the NNC demanded that the case be presented to a grand jury.

Three More Killed by Police

Three more African American men were shot to death by police officers in early August.  Police sergeant John Leach came upon an apparent robbery in an alley near the 1300 block of Ninth Street NW. Leach testified that Clarence Whitby struck him and fled, then Leach fired two shots, one striking Whitby and killing him.

Just days later, police officer Donald R. Webber came upon two men in an alley near 14th and Florida Avenue NW, standing beside an automobile.  Webber testified later that when he demanded a driver’s license from the two brothers they told him, “We don’t have to show you our driver’s permit,” according to the Washington Post.

During his testimony before a coroner’s jury, Webber testified he shot Jasper and Edward Cobb August 4 after he tried to place Jasper under arrest for being drunk and the two resisted. There were no other witnesses to the shooting, although Edward Cobb said before he died that he intervened in the arrest when Webber began beating his brother.

Longtime NNC nemesis police chief Maj. Ernest W. Brown was forced to retire just days after the three killings. Brown’s retirement was only tangentially related to the police brutality issue and was mainly due to Congressional concern over District crime rates and an internal police spying scandal.

But Brown’s departure also marked an opportunity for the anti-brutality coalition when Edward J. Kelly was named chief from among several internal candidates. Kelly had enemies within the department and needed broad political support to succeed as its head.

Stephen Gill Spottswood: 1940 ca

Rev. Stephen Gill Spottswood.

More than 1,500 jammed the John Wesley A.M.E.Z. Church August 17 for the funeral of the Cobb brothers. Rev. Stephen Gill Spottswood, pastor of the church declared, “this is not a funeral service, it is a mass meeting, protesting this occurrence,” according to the Afro American.

Spottswood continued, “They are but symbols, these two men, typical of what might happen to any of us, to you or to me. We must cooperate in decisive action to demonstrate our interest in the freedom of black men and women in the nation’s capital.”

Even as outrage against the killings was building during the month of August, coroners’ juries exonerated all the police officers in the three deaths.

Protests Escalate Again

In September, the Citizens Committee Against Police Brutality in Washington called for mass protest.

Crowd Listens to Speakers at Rally Against DC Police Brutality: 1941

Over 1,100 rally at the Metropolitan Baptist Church Sept. 7, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Image Collection. All rights reserved.

At the Metropolitan Baptist Church on the 1200 block of R Street NW, a crowd estimated by the Afro American at 2,000 (the FBI estimated 1,100) gathered on September 7th to hear a wide array of speakers denounce police violence.

Doxey Wilkerson, an NNC leader and Howard University professor, presided at the meeting and called the police the enforcers of a system where black people “were segregated in living conditions and public affairs and also discrimination in employment,” according to Gellman.

Wilkerson added, “Police brutality used to be considered a local problem, today it must be viewed in terms of world significance. Police brutality and racial discrimination are part and parcel of this evil we are fighting on an international front,” the Afro American reported.

Hugh Miller, white leader of the Washington Committee for Democratic Action, said “the problems of the Negro were also the problems of the white” and urged the group to fight “Hitler’s theory” of “racial superiority” demonstrated by the killings, according to Gellman’s account.

John P. Davis, the national NNC leader, demanded permanent reforms in the department, shouting, “Don’t take no for an answer,” according to Gellman.

DC Police Chief Kelly Speaks at Anti-Brutality Rally: 1941

DC police chief Kelly speaks at anti-brutality rally on Sept. 7, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Images Collection. All rights reserved.

Wilkerson then introduced the new police chief Major Kelly, who addressed the crowd. “As long as I am head of the police department, I will not tolerate violence against any citizen or against any police officer,” he declared, according to the Afro American.

Kelly evaded calls for grand jury action against the officers involved in the three killings by saying he was not in charge at the time and urging the crowd to lobby the district attorney, but agreed with adding civilians to the police review board

Kelly also supported hiring additional African American officers, promoting an African American to captain and ending the police practice of holding people without specific charges.

It was a remarkable achievement for the group to have the police chief at the meeting and respond favorably to specific demands.

Following Kelly, a quartet from the United Cafeteria Workers Local 471 sang spirituals.

J. Finley Wilson, leader of the Elks, led off the second half of the rally saying that government protection of African American soldiers and civilians was necessary before the Elks would “battle and defend America and make it safe for the black and white under the ‘Stars and Stripes,” according to Gellman’s account.

Other speakers included Rev. L. Collins, Curtis Mitchell, Rev. E. C. Smith, pastor of the Metropolitan Baptist Church, and Jack Zucker, representing the Washington Industrial Council.

The rally ended with a call for marches through the streets of Washington the following week that would converge for a single rally against police brutality.

Four Marches Through the City

Protesting DC Police Brutality in Washington: 1941

One of four simultaneous marches marking each victim, Sept. 14, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Images Collection. All rights reserved.

A week later on September 14, four marches from different points in the city got underway involving an estimated 2,000 total participants. Each march was dedicated to one of the four recent victims.

Signs carried by protestors included, “Old Jim Crow Has Got to Go,” “Protect Our Civil Rights” and “Police Brutality is a Disgrace to the Nation’s Capital.” A hearse and an undertaker’s automobile carried signs in memory of persons shot in recent months by the police.

The treks converged at 10th and U Streets NW for a rally where about 500 remained to hear a number of speakers including Alphaeus Hunton, professor at Howard University, who reiterated the six demands put forth at the rally that were developed at the previous week’s meeting.

Demands included holding police officer Webber for grand jury action in the Cobb brothers shooting, internal police action to curb brutality, a citizens trial board to replace the current police board, appointment of 50 African American police officers, charges to be placed immediately against anyone arrested, and compensation to be granted dependents of those killed by the police.

Rev. Frank Alstork of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance argued for a peaceful solution but warned, “he who lives by the sword will perish by the sword,” according to the Washington Post.

CIO Union Speaks Against DC Police Brutality: 1941

Craig Vincent of the CIO speaks at anti-police brutality rally, Sept. 14, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Images Collection. All rights reserved.

Dorothy Strange of the National Negro Congress and the police brutality committee urged the crowd to sign and circulate a petition to be sent to the District government and the police department with the six demands.

Other speakers were Henry Thomas of the CIO United Construction Workers, Craig Vincent of the local CIO Industrial Council and Frank Donner, chair of the case committee of the brutality group.

In closing the rally, Doxey Wilkerson led chants of “Police Brutality has got to go” with the loudest for “Old Jim Crow has got to go,” according to the Afro American.

Aftermath

The U.S. entered World War II in December 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and  the subsequent German declaration of war.

The local NNC was weakened shortly afterwards when the National Negro Congress moved its headquarters to New York. In addition, Alphaeus Hunton, a key organizer behind the scenes, also moved to New York City. In 1943 Doxey Wilkerson, another local NNC leader, quit his post at Howard University to take a position with the Maryland Communist Party.

Rally Against DC Police Brutality on U Street: 1941

Crowd begins gather at 10th & U St. NW for anti-brutality rally, Sept. 14, 1941. DC Public Library Historic Image Collection. All rights reserved.

Other NNC organizers entered the armed services. The local NNC continued the fight for integration of war-related industries.  Mass protest activities continued up to the march demanding hiring of African American operators at Capital Transit in May 1943.

While large-scale actions faltered after this point, the local NNC continued to press for rights throughout the war and resumed larger protest activities after GIs began returning after the war ended in 1945.

The police brutality campaign marked a new chapter in the African American struggle for rights in the city. Charles Hamilton Houston of the NAACP summed up the police brutality campaign by writing,

The persistent and forceful campaign, which the Washington Council [of the National Negro Congress] and allied organizations have waged against police brutality in Washington, has been one of the most significant battles for civil rights and personal freedom and security ever conducted in the District of Columbia.

While this campaign achieved some limited reforms and curbed some of the more egregious police brutality, the lasting contribution may have been to bring new forms of mass protest to the local Washington, D.C. civil rights struggle, much as the Scottsboro campaign had done on a national scale just a few years previously.

This post was updated April 21, 2013 to reflect that officer Sobolewski was acquitted of manslaughter in the death of Wallace McKnight.


Author’s notes:

The five-year campaign against police brutality united the disparate elements among African Americans into a single unified local coalition that lasted for a significant span of time.

The effort produced both institutional reforms and an overall reduction in brutality.  Just as importantly, the campaign moved the local civil rights struggle beyond mass meetings in churches and small picket lines into mass marches in the streets. The campaign also used creative tactics from investigative reporting to utilization of radio broadcasts.

The mock trial of police practices involved every strata of the local African American community and attracted significant support from whites as well. Building off the “Scottsboro Boys” campaign, the NNC used a petition campaign to involve those unable or reluctant to join the protest activities.

The Dies Committee designated the National Negro Congress, which led the campaign, as a communist dominated organization in 1941.  Again, in the late 1940s, it was called a communist front group by the Truman administration.

The truth was significantly different. The Washington, D.C. NNC was a truly broad based organization that worked well with other rights organizations in the city.  In addressing its broad character, Thelma Dale, a youth leader and NNC member in Washington, D.C. said in a 2003 interview with Erik Gellman,

Sunday Worker on Sale at Rally Against DC Police Brutality: 1941

A woman sells the Communist Party’s Sunday Worker at an anti-brutality rally  Sept. 14, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Image Collection. All rights reserved.

“In Washington in the fight against police brutality, were we going to put a circle around a Communist? Martin Chancey…the head of the Communist Party in Washington, D.C. functioned fully openly. So, who were we to turn them away? We didn’t.”

For activists today, the issue of how to work independently and in coalition with others who hold different viewpoints is just as complex as it was during this era. While conditions faced are vastly different, the same questions arise.

The 1938 police brutality campaign perhaps illustrates how divergent groups can work separately, but also function together around a common goal.

During the campaign organizations independently organized around the brutality issue in the communities, but also worked within the coalition together to strengthen the broad campaign and present a united front. Those on the left did so even when they thought the demands put forward by the coalition were limited and the tactics passive.  Likewise, participants who opposed left-wing political views and sometimes their militant tactics welcomed their help in building a campaign around the brutality issue.

In this instance, it produced an ongoing movement that began to break down the worst aspects of Jim Crow in the city.

Sources for this article include Erik Gellman’s book Death Blow to Jim CrowThe Chicago Defender, The Washington Post, The Afro American, The Atlanta Daily World, The Washington Herald, The Washington Star and The Crisis. 


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 email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


Related Posts:

“Scottsboro Boys” – New Tactics & Strategy for Civil Rights
The Fight Against Jim Crow at Capital Transit
A DC Labor & Civil Rights Leader Remembered: Marie Richardson


DC’s Old Jim Crow Rocked by 1939 Marian Anderson Concert

14 Mar
Marian Anderson Sings at the Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 6

Marian Anderson arrives in Washington, D.C. for her 1939 concert. Photo: Scurlock Studio.

By Craig Simpson
3rd in a series

The Lincoln Memorial became the symbolic focal point for civil rights in 1939 when over 75,000 people attended a Marian Anderson concert there after she was barred from performing at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s (DAR) Constitution Hall and from the all-white public Central High School in Washington, D.C.

Most versions of the story focus on first lady Eleanor Roosevelt dropping her membership in the DAR and President Roosevelt’s Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes arranging for the concert to be held on federal parkland. But the struggle to desegregate theaters in Washington was much more complex. It began long before Anderson’s 1939 concert and did not end in victory until long afterwards.

This was a struggle led primarily by the African American elite in the city and at times was a microcosm of the tensions inherent between the struggle to uplift all and the quest for individual achievement.

Segregation in the city

Segregation in public accommodations in the District of Columbia had actually been prohibited since Frederick Douglass’s son, Lewis H. Douglas, successfully introduced a bill into the District of Columbia Legislative Council in 1872.

But while that law was not repealed, it was removed from the published city code in the early part of the 20th Century, when many gains achieved during the Civil War and Reconstruction were reversed.

Laws were passed mandating segregation in public schools and parks, but attempts at mandating Jim Crow on streetcars, housing and other areas were defeated. However, even without segregation laws, businesses were imposing the practice throughout the city by the 1920s and courts upheld this discrimination as the right of individuals or businesses.

Many theaters for the performing arts in Washington required Jim Crow seating arrangements, often relegating African Americans to the upper balcony. Some barred admission to African Americans altogether or staged separate performances for blacks and whites. A very few venues barred African American performers altogether. A minority of theaters, mostly those oriented toward African American audiences, permitted mixed seating.

No Jim Crow for Civil War Vets: 1922

Civil War vets have the only integrated seating at the 1922 Lincoln Memorial dedication.

Lincoln Memorial Dedication

The African American elite in the city looked forward to the dedication of the “great emancipator” Abraham Lincoln’s memorial on May 30, 1922.  President Warren Harding took office as a Republican the year before and there was great expectation that he would reverse the policies of his Democratic predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, who had introduced segregation into the federal government and fired hundreds of black workers.

They believed that the President might announce new civil rights initiatives at the ceremony. But when they arrived on a blazing hot day to their reserved seats in Section 5, the invited African Americans discovered they had been roped off from the rest of the guests in Jim Crow seating by Lt. Col. Clarence O Sherrill, Director of Public Buildings and Parks in the city.

Shelby Davidson, president of the Washington, D. C. NAACP wrote afterward,

Platform seats reserved for white were in chairs and within distance of the speakers that might be called reasonable, considering the crowd, while back of those seats were those reserved for colored roped off from those occupied by the white and placed about a block away from the Memorial in the grass and weeds with rough hewn benches with no backs or supports.

The Harding administration did not invite any activists to address the crowd and instead asked Booker T. Washington protégé Dr. Robert Russa Moton, principal of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, to speak on behalf of African Americans, and required Moton to submit his speech for approval in advance.

Dr. Moton Speaks at Lincoln Memorial Dedication: 1922

Dr. Robert Russa Moton speaks during Lincoln Memorial dedication in 1922.

After a brief exercise by an integrated group of Civil War veterans, Moton spoke perhaps more forcefully than Harding expected. Moton departed from his prepared speech, according to published reports, pointedly saying, “among 30,000 persons convicted of disloyalty during the last [Civil] war, not a single one was colored.”

Moton went on to call on the country to fulfill

the task imposed upon it by the martyred dead: that here it highly resolves that the humblest citizen of whatever color or creed, shall enjoy that equal opportunity and unhampered freedom…

But Harding ‘s own speech downplayed issues of race discrimination and did not mention the Dyer anti-lynching bill pending in Congress. He praised the South and credited Lincoln not for the Emancipation Proclamation but for saving the union.

The African American press castigated the ceremony after the event with one headline summing it up, “Opened But Not Dedicated Stands Memorial to Lincoln.”

Refuse to Perform

The fight against Jim Crow performing arts theaters and concert halls in the District of Columbia began in the 1920s and was waged in the city by the NAACP and other African American rights groups for more than a dozen years before the Anderson concert.

National Council of Negro Women Mary McLeod Bethune: 1930 ca

Mary McLeod Bethune circa 1930.

One of the first organized actions occurred on May 5, 1925, when more than 200 African American artists refused to take the stage at the newly opened Washington Auditorium at 19th & E Streets, NW, in a protest over segregated seating.

The “All American Music Festival,” sponsored by the International Council of Women, had given written assurances to Mary McLeod Bethune, president of the National Council of Negro Women, that there would be no Jim Crow seating at the event.

However when singers from the Richmond Treble Clef, the Howard University Glee Club, the Hampton Institute Choir and the Howard University Choral Society arrived at the hall, they found all black people in the audience seated on the left side of the hall and in the balcony.

The groups walked out of the hall and refused to perform. African American members of the audience followed the singers and left the theater.

Roland Hayes

Singer Roland Hayes circa 1925

Seating at Roland Hayes Concerts

The fight over Jim Crow continued at tenor Roland Hayes’s concerts.

Hayes first achieved fame in Europe when career avenues were shut to African Americans in the United States. In the 1920s he returned to the U.S. and took the country by storm.  He was the most famous African American of his time.

A 1925 Atlanta, Georgia concert ignited a firestorm of criticism of Hayes when he performed before a Jim Crow audience in the city.  He was scheduled for a concert on January 5, 1926 at the Washington Auditorium and the District’s African American rights organizations swung into action.

The NAACP, Equal Rights League, National Race Congress and ministers throughout the city began bombarding the hall and the promoter with telephone calls, telegrams and letters protesting the planned Jim Crow seating.  The local NAACP’s head of the “Ladies Service Group,” Beatrice Francis, coordinated the campaign.

Hayes, unsure of how to proceed, called promoter Katie Wilson-Greene who agreed to arrange to mix the tickets.  Hayes performed without incident. The next night, however, protests failed to change Jim Crow seating at the Lyric Theater in Baltimore.  Hayes delayed taking the stage for 32 minutes before relenting and performing before a segregated audience.

Roland Hayes Blasted for Jim Crow Performance: 1926

Afro covers Hayes on front page January 9, 1926

Hayes Blasted by Activists

In a debate that continues today over the role of prominent African Americans in the civil rights struggle, there was fierce criticism and impassioned defense of Hayes within the African American community as he continued to perform before Jim Crow audiences.

“From a popular hero, acclaimed because of his European and American success, Mr. Hayes became overnight an outcast, who betrayed his race for gold,” the Afro American wrote in 1925.

Dr. Kelly Miller, a Howard University professor, responded in his weekly Afro column, “He [Hayes] will serve his race to better advantage if we permit him to function before the world as an artist, and not as a professional Negro agitator.”

Hayes was confronted with the issue again in another Washington concert in 1928. Hayes sang before a segregated audience where African Americans were relegated to the back rows of the balcony at Poli’s Theater.

Neval Thomas, president of the local NAACP, said, “Mr. Hayes could make it far easier for us in the campaign we are conducting if he would end his policy of silence.” Thomas added, “Upon Mr. Hayes’ last appearance in Washington, we urged him to condemn the Jim Crow seating arrangement and his only reply was that, ‘I make my speech from the stage,’” according to the Afro.

Hayes continued to have defenders with one reader of the Afro writing, “I could agree with you [the Afro] in blaming a Garvey or DuBois or Trotter for tolerating race conditions in Washington, but surely not a Hayes or Marian Anderson.”

NAACP criticism of Hayes became more muted when Hayes agreed to perform a number of benefit concerts for the organization, including an April, 1930 event at the Belasco Theater in Washington.

Constitution Hall Desegregated

The DAR opened Constitution Hall in 1929, and the Wilson-Greene Agency booked Hayes for a concert on January 31, 1931. African American leaders again sought assurances that the audience would not be segregated. This time Wilson-Greene, which was responsible for ticket sales, agreed to sell tickets to African Americans in any area of the hall.

Howard University Professor Kelly Miller

Howard University professor Kelly Miller defended Hayes. Photo undated.

Accounts of what occurred that evening differ. Immediately after the event, The Afro American reported that the concert went off without incident and that there was no Jim Crow seating. The paper also reported that there were few black people in the audience.

Fred Hand, the hall manager who ultimately initiated Jim Crow policies, ten years later related that Hayes refused to sing until a large group of African Americans seated together were dispersed in the crowd, although he said Hayes relented and performed.

Following the Hayes concert, the Hampton Choir performed on March 21 at Constitution Hall. After the concert, the Washington Daily News blasted the DAR for its treatment of African Americans:

The DAR management ruled that only two blocks of seats, those on the corners of the surrounding tiers, might be sold to colored people…hundreds of colored people were turned away.  The turnout of Washington’s regular concertgoers was small…consequently the Hall was two-thirds empty. The seats assigned to colored people were packed; beside them were empty blocks.

The DAR didn’t take long to respond. They began including a “white artists only” clause beginning with all contracts starting on March 23, 1932.

Marian Anderson Rises in Fame

Meanwhile Marian Anderson’s career began to blossom. Anderson started as a young girl singing at neighborhood events for small amounts of money that began to grow larger over time. She was active at her church in the junior and, later, the adult choir in her youth. She gained attention in both church and other venues where she was often a featured singer.

The Philadelphia black community banded together and paid for private music lessons when she was refused admittance to the all-white Philadelphia Music Academy.

She continued her studies in New York, where she booked to favorable reviews at several concert halls, including Carnegie in 1928. However, the opportunities for an African American singer were limited and like Hayes, she went to Europe where she became a star.

Anderson returned to the U.S. and the contralto began giving concerts, including one at New York’s Town Hall in 1935 that received highly favorable reviews. She was soon a star in the states and continued to give concerts in Europe and the U.S. throughout the late 1930s.

Singer Todd Duncan in undated photo

Singer Todd Duncan in an undated photo.

Desegregation Attempts Continue

The fight to desegregate Washington’s theaters continued into the 1930s. This time, however, high-profile African American performers would lead the effort.

Todd Duncan and Anne Brown, the two leads of “Porgy and Bess,” announced their refusal to perform at the whites-only National Theater unless the theater admitted a fully integrated audience.

Howard University Professor Dr. Ralph Bunche: 1934 ca

Dr. Ralph Bunche circa 1934.

They were threatened with being fired from the show and fined by the actor’s union, but they held their ground and the rest of the cast backed them. Ralph Bunche, chair of Howard’s Department of Political Science Department and a leader of the Howard Teachers Union (HTU), rallied other labor groups and met with management, threatening to picket the theater.

The theater finally offered a compromise: blacks could sit in designated sections. The cast rejected this and held firm that they would not perform if there were any restrictions. The National Theater management gave in and the performance opened on March 16, 1936 with African Americans present in every section. The victory was short-lived, however, as the theater immediately went back to its whites-only seating.

Howard University Approaches DAR’s Hall

The same year, Howard University treasurer V. D. Johnson approached Hand about booking Anderson at Constitution Hall, perhaps thinking that the controversy then being generated by the dispute over “Porgy and Bess” would win the day for an acclaimed singer like Anderson.

Hand simply reminded Johnson of the “whites only” clause. Johnson let the matter drop and Anderson was booked in Washington at the public African American Armstrong High School in 1936 and 1937 and at the larger Rialto Theater in 1938, appearing in all cases before mixed audiences.

In 1939, with Anderson’s popularity outgrowing these theaters, Charles Cohen, chair of Howard University’s concert series that arranged Anderson’s performances in Washington, applied to the largest venue in the city—the DAR’s Constitution Hall. Three days later Hand wrote back that April 9 was already booked, and reminded Cohen of the whites-only performers clause.

Marian Anderson 1933

Marian Anderson 1933.

Eleanor Roosevelt Refuses to Help

This time officials at Howard balked at the refusal. The hall often booked more than one performer on a Sunday and there was no other suitable venue available.  In early February of 1939, Johnson reached out to first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to rebuke the DAR. However, Roosevelt initially refused to do so.

Anderson’s manager Sol Hurok and Howard’s University’s Cohen scrambled to find another venue. They singled out the District of Columbia public whites-only Central High School’s large auditorium as being most suitable.

But on February 3, Superintendent Frank Ballou wrote back, “In the opinion of the school officers, it is not possible under the law for the Community Center Department to grant your request for the use of Central High School auditorium to present Miss Marian Anderson.”

Howard officials were ready to take the fight to the next level and turned to Walter White, executive secretary the NAACP and to Doxey Wilkerson, professor of Education at Howard, who was also one of the leaders of the HTU and of the local National Negro Congress.

Wilkerson presented the appeal to use Central High School at the February 15th meeting of the Board of Education.  The Board upheld Ballou’s decision to deny the use of the school.

Howard University Professor Doxey Wilkerson: 1940 ca.

Doxey Wilkerson circa 1940.

Protests Ignite

The American Federation of Teachers reacted first at a February 18th meeting at the YWCA, where they condemned the school board’s refusal to permit Anderson to sing and began circulating petitions.

The following day, Feb 19, Charles Edward Russell, chair of the citywide Inter-Racial Committee, convened a meeting that formed the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee (MACC) composed of several dozen organizations, church leaders and individual activists in the city.

Among the groups were the NAACP, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Washington Industrial Council-CIO, American Federation of Labor, and the National Negro Congress. Some predominantly white citizens’ associations also joined.

By February 20th the group was picketing the board of education, the first time that the school system had been picketed since the Moen’s case drew thousands of African Americans into mass meetings and picketing in March of 1919.

The MACC collected signatures on petitions and planned a mass meeting February 26th and a mass protest March 1st at the next board of education meeting. MACC elected Charles Hamilton Houston as chairman, John Lovell, Jr. as secretary, and Bertha Blair as vice chair.

First Mass Protest

Fliers called upon Washingtonians to rise,

Marian Anderson is a Negro. Thus, even as in Naziland, superb art is here crucified upon the altar of racial bigotry. Shall we permit the DAR and the Board of Education to impose this unwholesome policy upon our community? Shall the people of Washington dictate, or be dictated to?”

Over 1,500 people crowded into the Lincoln Temple Congregational Church at 1701 11th Street, NW to hear Doxey Wilkerson,

We must note that … if it is legal to present a white artist in Armstrong Hall, for a considerable fee, as was done recently, before a mixed audience, then it is equally legal to present a colored artist in the auditorium of a white school before a similar audience.

The growing protest movement also caused Roosevelt to reconsider her earlier refusal to condemn the DAR. She sent a telegram to the rally saying, “I regret extremely that Washington is to be deprived of hearing Marian Anderson, a great artist.” Unknown to the meeting, Roosevelt resigned her membership in the DAR the same day.

Roosevelt Announces Resignation

The next day, Roosevelt announced in her weekly newspaper column and at a press conference that she had resigned from a major organization to which she had “belonged since coming to Washington.” The Anderson situation turned quickly from one covered in the local newspapers and the African American press to one also covered by the white press across the nation.

DC School Board Member Col. West A. Hamilton: 1940 ca.

Col. West A. Hamilton circa 1940

Hundreds of Washington residents descended on the Franklin School on March 1st to protest the school board’s decision. Telegrams began pouring in to the school board from around the country and 3,000 signatures were presented at the board meeting.

Charles H. Houston, speaking for the NAACP, called the school board’s decision a “travesty on democracy.” Sidney Katz of the local CIO spoke for the Anderson committee, comparing her treatment to “the treatment of Jewish artists in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.”

Col. West A. Hamilton, one of two African American members of the school board, made a motion to permit Anderson to sing at Central, but failed to get a second. The board voted to defer a decision to a committee meeting the following day.

Board Sets Impossible Conditions

Fearing the consequences of an outright refusal, the school committee voted to permit Anderson to use the school on a basis that did not set a “precedent” and

only on the positive and definite assurance and agreement…that the Board of Education will not in the future again be asked to depart from the principle of a dual system of schools and schools facilities.

The full board upheld the committee decision on a 6-2 vote on March 3rd.

Charles Hamilton Houston & the Capital Transit Fight (Photo 3)

Charles Hamilton Houston circa 1940.

Houston was stunned by the decision, “I had expected Friday a real hearing by the Committee, and had obtained thru the Committee (MACC) new signatures on the petition, a file of newspaper comments, letters and telegrams of endorsement [and] resolutions.”

All rights leaders were appalled. They could accept the no-precedent language, but not a restriction on whether anyone could ever apply again. After considering their options, Cohen wrote that he would accept the auditorium, but not the conditions.

Superintendent Ballou withdrew the offer March 17, writing, “The responsibility for making the Central High School auditorium unavailable for the concert of Miss Marian Anderson on April 9 must be assumed by you and your associates of Howard University.”

MACC leaders vehemently denounced the board and scheduled another mass meeting. Houston summed it up best when he said after the school board decision, “I wanted Marian Anderson to sing in Central, but not at the cost of my dignity and self-respect.”

Scramble for a venue

While the fight with the school board was playing out, efforts were made to find other solutions.

Hurok surreptitiously discovered that April 8th and 10th were available at Constitution Hall and applied for those dates, but Hand responded on February 15th that, “the hall is not available for a concert by Miss Anderson.”

Options were growing narrower, since the Rialto Theater was closed for repairs and the National and Belasco theaters would not give definitive answers.

It is not clear who came up with the idea to stage the concert at the Lincoln Memorial. The director of music at Howard, Lulu Childers, had said in exasperation in early January that Anderson would “Sing here—even if we have to build a tent for her.“

Hurok announced publicly in late February that Anderson would keep the April 9th concert date and sing “out in the open air in the park immediately in front of Constitution Hall. She will sing for the people of Washington and there will be no charge.”  NAACP Executive Director White, however, opposed holding the concert at that location, believing it would show weakness.

Venue discussions were taking place among Howard officials, Hurok, Houston and White in early March and they included ideas about outdoor concerts.  According to one account, White favored Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, early in the strategy sessions.

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 5

Marian Anderson and Oscar Chapman 1939.

Lincoln Memorial

But by March 13th, White drafted a resolution adopted by the NAACP directors calling for Anderson to give her concert at the Lincoln Memorial. White approached Oscar Chapman, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, about the use of the Lincoln Memorial.

Chapman was a fervent New Deal Democrat who had previously worked on anti-lynching legislation. He had been active in a number of progressive causes and was even accused of being a communist in 1938 by Rep. Noah Mason (R-IL) because of his support for the loyalist cause during the Spanish Civil War.

Chapman recalled in a 1972 interview that White approached him saying, “Oscar, wouldn’t it be a ten strike if we could have her sing at the feet of Lincoln, at the Lincoln Memorial?”

Chapman immediately agreed and contacted Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes. Chapman recalled appealing to Ickes’ vanity saying,

We’ll build a platform on that low level of steps so cameras down here can take pictures of Lincoln right straight through from the platform we build for you and Marian Anderson who will be sitting there. And when she’s singing, they’ll be taking pictures; we can get the picture of Lincoln, you, and Marian Anderson all the time.

Chapman added after his recollection, “Well that pleased him.” Ickes quickly agreed to use the Memorial and contacted President Franklin Roosevelt who also gave his assent. With only days to prepare, Marian Anderson had a place to sing in Washington, D.C.

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 2

Marian Anderson and the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial 1939.

The Marian Anderson Concert

While the parks department began site preparation, the NAACP began organizing buses to come to the concert. Nobody really knew how many people would turn out for the event and Anderson had never performed outdoors before.

Sunday, April 9 was a cold, blustery day and rain threatened throughout the day. Nevertheless, more than 75,000 people—black and white– showed up to hear Anderson, with no segregated areas. Millions more listened to the radio broadcast by NBC.

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 3

April 9, 1939 crowd at the Marian Anderson concert

The DAR’s refusal of a concert hall to an African American performer turned into the largest affirmation of civil rights at that time. It marked an unofficial dedication of the Lincoln Memorial by African Americans. The battle for civil rights was far from over, but the concert also signaled a turning point in the fight against Jim Crow.

Anderson, who avoided political statements and claimed to know little about the battle over her concert venue in Washington, did her part that day. In a slight twist of words, she gave a new civil rights meaning to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” when she sang, “to thee we sing” instead of “of thee we sing.”

Battle Far from Over

While the concert marked a turning point, the long battle to desegregate theaters went on in Washington, D.C.

Picket at the National Theater: 1947 ca.

A picket at the National Theater circa 1947.

The fight continued at the National Theater, where picketing began in 1946 over the lessee’s refusal to admit black patrons.  The theater even employed a “spotter” in an attempt to bar anyone trying to “pass” as white.

President Harry Truman crossed the picket line in 1947 to see a performance of “Blossom Time,” but that only inflamed the protests led by the Committee for Racial Democracy chaired by Leon Ransom.  Later that year, the Actor’s Equity Association ultimately voted to ban performances until the theater desegregated.

Marcus Hyman, who held the lease, converted the theater to a movie house rather than desegregate and the landmark theater didn’t open its doors to African Americans until his lease expired and it was reconverted to a theater in 1952.

Desegregate Lisner Auditorium Pickets: 1946 # 1

Pickets at the opening of Lisner Auditorium in 1946. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Ingrid Berman Spat on At Lisner

The Lisner Auditorium opened at George Washington University in 1946, excluding African Americans.  Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, the star of the play “Joan of Lorraine,” said at a press conference the day before the show opened, “If I’d known black people weren’t allowed in, I’d have never set foot in this town.”

Bergman reported that pro-segregationists waited outside her dressing room and spit on her and called her an “n_____-lover.”

The Washington chapter of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare set up a picket line opening night October 29 demanding that African Americans be admitted. The cast of the production signed a petition denouncing the “deplorable and un-American practice of segregation.” A veterans group and other students at the school joined them in subsequent days.

In response to the outcry against segregation, the university voted to admit African Americans as patrons of university sponsored events in 1947. However, privately-sponsored events at Lisner continued to be segregated until 1954.

Protest Signs, Campaign to integrate Uline Arena, (1948-49)

Picket signs plastered on Uline Arena circa 1948.

The Warner Theater desegregated in 1953. Other battles, including picket lines at the Uline Arena and at movie theaters throughout the city, were waged continuously in the post World War II period.

Concert venues and theaters in the city accelerated desegregation in the wake of the 1953 Supreme Court decision reinstating Washington’s “lost laws” prohibiting segregation in facilities open to the public, and the Court’s 1954 Bolling vs. Sharpe decision outlawing segregated schools in the District.

Marian Anderson in D.C. after 1939.

Anderson was invited to appear at DAR Constitution Hall for a World War II relief benefit in January, 1943. Her representatives demanded that the audience be mixed and that the ban on black artists be lifted. The DAR agreed to a mixed audience, but refused to drop their “whites-only” performers clause, except on a case-by-case basis. Anderson ultimately sang, citing the need for wartime unity.

Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial: 1952 # 2

Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial in 1952.

She reprised her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial on April 20, 1952 in a remembrance service for Harold Ickes. Over 10,000 came out to the event.

She performed again at DAR Constitution Hall in 1953—the same year the organization finally dropped its “whites only” performers clause—and appeared several other times at the hall in subsequent years.

Perhaps in triumph as she gazed out on the 250,000 gathered, she sang at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—again at the Lincoln Memorial.

Perspective

Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert was in many ways the symbolic beginning of the end of Jim Crow.  Though taking the form of a concert, it marked the first mass rally for civil rights, using the emblematic Lincoln Memorial as the backdrop.

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 1

Marian Anderson concert April 9, 1939.

Most accounts miss the symbolic dedication of the Lincoln Memorial by African Americans that took place with the 1939 Anderson concert. It stood in stark contrast to the segregation at the official dedication held in 1922.

The same accounts usually give most of the credit to President Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt and Interior Secretary Ickes for Anderson’s historic concert, but in 1939 local NAACP secretary John Lovell Jr. saw it a little differently when he wrote in The Crisis,

The spirit they [D.C. African Americans] showed this year was beyond the recollection of the oldest old-timer. They flooded the newspapers with letters, bitterly and skillfully written. They got their friends from outside to shower Congressmen with petitions. They hung from the rafters when the Board of Education met.

They demanded a picket line against the DAR national Convention and shouted for the opportunity of being the first to ride in the Black Marias [police paddy wagons], if the Black Marias were to materialize.

The national press put the credit for the furor upon Mrs. Roosevelt and Secretary Ickes; but it was the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee which first notified Mrs. Roosevelt and which got her first response.

The 75,000 who heard Miss Anderson on Easter Sunday were a tribute to the fighting Negroes in the District of Columbia as much as to democracy and the preservation of art.

(Note: This post was updated March 14, 2016 to clarify that while there were not explicit laws requiring segregation of public facilities such as theaters, housing and restaurants; the courts upheld the “right” of individuals and businesses to impose Jim Crow. Further, restrictive covenants requiring houses to be sold only to whites were upheld by the courts)


Watch and listen to Marian Anderson’s rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at the 1939 concert:


This is the third part of a series on civil rights marches on Washington and rallies at the Lincoln Memorial that laid the basis for the landmark 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. Next Installment: The March that Wasn’t & a Renewed Focus on Washington

Read Part I, “Before 1963: the 1922 Silent March on Washington
Read Part II, “‘Scottsboro Boys’ – New Tactics & Strategy for Civil Rights”


Author’s Notes:

Central High School was the old name for what is now known as Cardozo High School.

Sources include The Washington Post, New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Afro American, Washington Afro American, Chicago Defender, Atlanta World, New York Amsterdam News, Washington Daily News, Washington Star, Allan Keller’s “Marian Anderson: A Singers Journal,” Victoria Garrett Jones, “Marian Anderson: A Voice Uplifted,” The Crisis, and Howard Kaplan’s “Marian Anderson.”


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 email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


Police Break Up Unemployed Protest at White House: 1930

26 Feb

Police at the White House broke up a protest by the unemployed on March 6, 1930. The demonstration was part of the first nationwide protest response to the Great Depression that had begun the previous fall.

Protests were held in Detroit, New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Boston, Milwaukee, Seattle, Las Angeles and San Francisco among other cities. Demonstrations were also held on the same day in cities around the world.

Blacks, Whites Protest Job Losses: 1930 No. 1

Pickets arrive at the White House, March 6, 1930. Photo courtesy of the LIbrary of Congress.

The clash began when District of Columbia local Communist Party leader William “Bert” Lawrence stopped and began to speak to the crowd, police in street clothes attacked him. Uniformed police then assaulted the picketers and bystanders with tear gas and black jacks. Some the protestors fought back against the police.

Some reports said President Herbert Hoover watched the demonstration from the White House windows along with a delegation from the District of Columbia Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), while other reports had his wife watching along with the DAR.

The District of Columbia Communist Party and allied groups began preparations in the city for weeks before and police responded by arresting 10 people on April 30 for holding soapbox style speeches on the street corners near the Communist Party headquarters at 1337 7th Street NW. Similar meetings and police harassment took place at the Women’s Christian Temperance Union statue at 7th Street and Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

Unemployment Rally in DC: 1930

Meeting at 1337 7th St. NW prior to picketing, March 6, 1930. From the Library of Congress

The communists and along with others held a rally the night before at the Communist Party headquarters where speeches were given and signs were made for the next day’s demonstration. The main themes were demands for good jobs, against police brutality, Jim Crow schools in the District and lynching.

Among the organizers were Lawrence, Solomon Harper of the International Labor Defense and Edith Briscoe of the Young Communist League.

Briscoe was among those arrested at the White House picket line after she jumped on the back of a police officer he was getting ready to strike an African American demonstrator. Lawrence was detained and charged with speaking in a public place without permission.

Harper was arrested for disorderly conduct, but was acquitted. He still faced charges from an outdoor speech he gave the night before condemning the lynching of sixty-year-old Laura Wood at Barber Junction in North Carolina.

Tear Gas Quells Reds: Washington Post 1930

Jobless pickets are the lead story for the Washington Post, March 7, 1930.

Public demonstrations of this type were fairly infrequent at that time and public protests involving blacks and whites even more infrequent.

The picket in front of the White House was held with blacks and whites locking arms while picketing. Press reports estimated that several thousand nearby office workers came out to watch. The newspapers also indicate that 13 picketers were arrested with an unknown number of injured, but only one that required hospital treatment.

The demonstrations made front-page news and were the lead stories in the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun and helped put the Communist Party at the forefront of the fight against unemployment and racial discrimination in the District for the next decade.


To see still photos of the March 6, 1930 demonstration, go to the Washington Area Spark Flickr site.

The photos in the short video are courtesy of the Library of Congress. The video clips were originally from Sherman Grinberg, but are believed to be in the public domain. The clips were misidentified as part of the the 1932 bonus march in a Newsreel production. The Library of Congress has mis-dated some of the photos to a period earlier than they actually were taken.

Note: This post was updated February 28.

‘Scottsboro Boys’ – New Tactics & Strategy for Civil Rights

19 Feb
4000 March in Washington to Free ‘Scottsboro Boys’ – 1933

4,000 march on Washington on May 8, 1933 to “Free the Scottsboro Boys.” ©Bettman/Corbis.

By Craig Simpson
2nd of a series

During the height of the Great Depression, on May 8, 1933, a crowd of 4,000 people marched more than six miles through steady rain in Washington, D.C. demanding freedom for the “Scottsboro Boys” and other prisoners.

More than ten years had passed since the last predominantly African American mass march in the nation’s capital centered on a call for anti-lynching legislation and basic civil rights.

The “Scottsboro Boys” were nine African American youths accused of the rape of two white women in Alabama. Eight of them were convicted and sentenced to death. A mistrial was declared for the ninth, 13-year-old Roy Wright, after the jury deadlocked on the death penalty.

‘Scottsboro Boys’ with Attorney Leibowitz: 1933

‘Scottsboro Boys’ with Attorney Leibowitz: 1933

An all-white crowd packed the courtroom during the trials while thousands more gathered outside. When the first verdicts were announced, a band began playing, “It’s going to be a hot time in the old town tonight.”

The case inspired unprecedented activism in black communities across the country and cast a worldwide spotlight on treatment of African Americans in the United States.

The tactics used in the fight to free those accused also set off a years-long,  acrimonious public debate between the Communist Party (CP) with its legal arm, the International Labor Defense (ILD), and the NAACP.

Communist Party Takes Control of Case

During the initial trial a local lawyer, hired with the assistance of a ministers’ group allied with the NAACP, did a poor job of representing the Scottsboro defendants. The ILD attorneys then took control of the case with the support of the youths and their mothers.

Eight of the defendants had been sentenced to death on April 11, 1931 and were scheduled for execution on July 10th. The CP acted quickly to organize protests across the country, characterizing the trial as a “legal lynching.”

Blacks, Whites Protest Job Losses: 1930 No. 2

Solomon Harper shown at a 1930 picket line at the White House. National Photo Company, courtesy of the LIbrary of Congress

In Washington, D.C. meetings and rallies were held, including one on May 29, 1931, led by ILD District of Columbia leader Solomon Harper at Fisherman Hall (320 F Street, SW).

Harper outlined the holes in the prosecution’s case, pointing out, for example, that three trial witnesses had placed the defendants in different locations.   Harper also  addressed those criticizing communist involvement by calling for a united front to aid the youths. Ada Wright, mother of two of the defendants, also spoke and appealed to the crowd for aid in freeing the youths. Wright’s 17-year-old son, Andy, was scheduled for execution in six weeks.  Her other son Roy, 13, was still in jail, awaiting sentencing.

Letters and telegrams poured in to the county, the courts, the attorney general, the governor, Congress and the President to free the young men.  Nationwide direct action—including civil disobedience—was employed on an extraordinary scale in the quest for the young men’s freedom.

Communist parties in other countries also led marches and rallies to demand release of the youths, including a July 1931 rally of 150,000 German workers who heard Wright speak and plea to save her sons.

In addition to the mass pressure, the ILD challenged the initial guilty verdict in the courts on three broad grounds: that the trial had taken place under mob intimidation, that the defense was incompetent and had deprived the young men of a fair trial, and that African Americans had been excluded from the jury pool.

NAACP Leader DuBois in Washington: 1932

W.E.B. DuBois, shown at an Alpha Phi Alpha dinner, blasted communist tactics of mass action. Photo by Addison Scurlock, courtesy of National Museum of American HIstory.

NAACP Blasts Tactics

The NAACP was initially reluctant to take on an appeal. However, once the communists brought public attention to the youths, they fought bitterly to regain control of the case, even offering the services of famed trial lawyer Clarence Darrow at one point.

W. E. B DuBois, editor of the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine, blasted the ILD in a 1931 article, “If the Communists want these lads murdered, then their antics of threatening judges and yelling for mass action. . . is calculated to insure this.”

The NAACP also didn’t believe any significant legal principles were involved in the case. NAACP executive secretary Walter White wrote in a letter to field secretary William Pickens, “It is equally true that there is no broad legal principle to be established in the cases. The principle involved in them was established by us in the Arkansas Cases…ruling that a trial in a court dominated by mob influence is not due process of law.”

However, events proved the NAACP leadership wrong.

Case Goes to Supreme Court

The communists directly challenged every institution involved in the case—local officials, state officials, judges and the federal government—denouncing them as tools of the ruling class.

The CP engaged in high profile civil disobedience when they staged a banned demonstration at the Supreme Court on November 11, 1932–the day the Court was due to deliver its first decision in the case. A captain of the Capitol police, Stephen Gnash, refused to issue a permit because the protest “might be interpreted as an attempt to coerce the Supreme Court.”

The ILD held the demonstration anyway and police broke it up with clubs and tear gas, but not before the pickets threw a few counter-punches at the police.  Reports of the clash were met with horror by more conservative elements in the African American community.

7 'Scottsboro Boys' Win: 1932

Protestors are arrested at the Supreme Court prior to the ruling reversing the Scottsboro verdicts, November. 1932.

Precedent Set by Court

But in a precedent-setting ruling, the Supreme Court found that the defense provided the Scottsboro youths was incompetent and ordered a new trial. Justice Felix Frankfurter said at the time that the ruling was “the first application of the limitations of the [fourteenth] amendment to a state criminal trial.”

The Court also rejected the mob intimidation legal theory with the majority writing, “It does not sufficiently appear that the defendants were seriously threatened with, or that they were actually in danger of mob violence. . .” This was another blow to the NAACP and White, who had earlier written this was the sole basis for overturning the convictions.

The Alabama prosecutors then split the defendants into different groups for retrial,  where eight of the youths were again found guilty.

March on White House and Capitol

The CP continued its campaign to free the youths, their efforts climaxing in the 1933 march on Washington.

The night before the march, several thousand African Americans mixed with several hundred white supporters at the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church located at 3rd and I Streets, NW. There they heard Ruby Bates, one of the accusers of the youths who had recanted her testimony during the second trial, say,

They were framed-up at the Scottsboro trial, not only by the boys and girls on the freight train, of which I was one, but by the bosses of the southern counties.

Scottsboro March Rates Four Photo in Afro American: 1933

Afro American publishes four photos of the 1933 march on Washington.

The next day the lengthy march began at Florida and New York Ave NE and wound through the city before heading toward the White House and then on to the Capitol, where it was to disband near the House office buildings. Ruby Bates and Janie Patterson, the mother of defendant Haywood Patterson, led the group.

Marchers also called for freeing labor leader Tom Mooney, a Maryland African American named Euel Lee who was also facing the death penalty, and Angelo Herndon, a black communist labor organizer charged with insurrection in Georgia.

Roosevelt Refusal Angers Demonstrators

The demonstrators were angered when President Franklin Roosevelt refused to see a delegation. Instead the White House appointments secretary received representatives who presented a petition with 145,000 signatures. The crowd paused their march and gathered outside the White House where they sang The Internationale and shouted, “Free the Scottsboro Boys.”

Delegation Demands Justice Depart Action on Lynching: 1940

William D. Patterson, 2nd from left, shown in 1940. Photo by Addison Scurlock, courtesy National Museum of American History.

They then marched to the Capitol where a delegation led by William D. Patterson (no relation to defendant), a leader of the ILD, met briefly with Speaker of the House Henry Rainey and Vice President John Garner. They presented more petitions demanding freedom for the Scottsboro Boys and for the passage of an anti-lynching law.

Rep. Oscar De Priest (R-IL), the only African American in Congress at the time, continued the debate over tactics. He rebuked Patterson, telling him the case “cannot be settled by your parading in the capital: it is a case for the state and your presence in Washington fails to help the cause.” DePriest, who also opposed higher taxes on the wealthy and federal relief programs, was defeated in an election the following year.

Louise Thompson Patterson - late 1920s, CRC Worker, Former Wife of Wallace Thurman

Louise Thompson said the 1933 Scottsboro march was only the beginning and predicted a million would return. Photo: Carl Van Vechten.

The march concluded with a rally at Seaton Park near the Capitol where the throng heard a dozen speakers, including Louise Thompson. She told the crowd this was “only the beginning” and that “another time will come when 500,000, even a million marchers” will descend on Washington.

Mothers Return to D.C.

On the morning of Mother’s Day, May 13, 1934, four of the mothers and Ruby Bates returned to Washington and spoke at churches throughout the city.  In the afternoon, they were refused an audience with the President or any of his representatives. That evening several hundred people rallied in support of the Scottsboro defendants at the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, 901 Rhode Island Avenue, NW.

'Scottsboro Boys' Mothers: 1934

Four of the Scottsboro mothers and Ruby Bates at the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA in Washington, DC in May 1934. Photo by Addison Scurlock, courtesy of National Museum of American History.

Janie Patterson, whose son had three times been sentenced to die in the electric chair, told the crowd, “The President wouldn’t see me and he is supposed to be my President too.” Viola Montgomery, mother of defendant Olen Montgomery, stated, “If a colored woman had been attacked by white men, nothing would have been done.”

Ida Norris, mother of Clarence Norris, praised the ILD, “If it hadn’t been for them, our boys would have been electrocuted or lynched long ago. If you are ever going to vote, vote nothing but the Communist ticket.”

The group went back to the White House the following day and was received by the President’s representatives.

Court Rules Jury Exclusion Illegal

The case came back before the Supreme Court as Norris vs. Alabama on February 15, 1935. The Court overturned the guilty verdict again in another precedent-setting decision, finding that Alabama’s exclusion of blacks from the jury rolls violated the “equal protection” clause of the Constitution.

“Scottsboro Boys Must Not Die,” DC Mass Meeting: 1934

Flyer for a 1934 Washington, D.C. protest meeting on the ‘Scottsboro Boys.’ Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

By this time, the ILD had made its own mistakes in handling the case, including two ILD members being caught trying to bribe the principal accuser of the youths.  In addition, the NAACP was under pressure by its members to end its fight with the communists.

A joint legal defense committee, supported by both groups, the ACLU and others, was finally formed in 1935 to take charge of the case. With the legal defense under a unified banner, the CP and ILD continued to organize mass pressure.

Partial Victory

Patterson’s fourth trial, in January, 1936, resulted in another rape conviction, but this time he was sentenced to 75 years—the first time in Alabama that a black man had avoided the death penalty after a conviction for the rape of a white woman.

In July, 1937, prosecutors dropped charges against Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Eugene Williams and Roy Wright after they had spent six years in prison. Wright, 13 at the time of the events, had been imprisoned all that time, even though he was never tried again after the first mistrial.

During an altercation, a deputy shot and wounded Ozie Powell in 1936 while he was being transported to a prison. Powell eventually pled guilty to assaulting the deputy and the rape charges were dropped as part of the plea deal. Powell was released in 1946.

The other three were convicted of rape. Clarence Norris, Andrew Wright and Charlie Weems were eventually paroled in the 1940s, and Patterson escaped in 1948. Wright was sent back to prison for a parole violation and wasn’t released until 1950.

New Rights, New Tactics

The debate over tactics would continue for decades, but the Scottsboro campaign established that direct action could produce change.  The defendants weren’t all acquitted, but they were all saved from the death penalty. Two new important precedents were set: the right to competent defense counsel and a prohibition against excluding African Americans from juries.

145,000 Protest Scottsboro to Roosevelt: 1933

The May 10, 1933 New York Amsterdam News headlines the Scottsboro mass protest.

Equally important was the communists’ use of mass protest and civil disobedience alongside a strident legal defense. Charles Hamilton Houston, who served as the first NAACP special counsel from 1935-40, summarized the Scottsboro case and put the Communist Party/ILD approach in perspective when he wrote in 1935:

By its uncompromising resistance to Southern prejudice the ILD has set a new standard for agitation for equality. Through its activity in the Scottsboro case the ILD has made it impossible for the Negro bourgeoisie in the future to be as complacent and supine before racial injustices as it was prior to Scottsboro. It has introduced the Negro to the possibilities and tactics of mass pressure.

Years later, Houston reflected that Scottsboro marked “an historic departure” and that African Americans

were made to feel that even without the ordinary weapons of democracy…[they] still had the force…with which they themselves could bring to bear pressures and affect the result of the trial…

Nobody who ever sent a telegram of protest to any of the Scottsboro judges…ever inside himself accepted the fact that he was willingly from then on going to tolerate the system and the oppression to which he hitherto had been unresistingly subject.


This is the second part of a series on civil rights marches on Washington and rallies at the Lincoln Memorial that laid the basis for the landmark 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. Next Installment: The 1939 Marian Anderson Concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

Read Part I, Before 1963: the 1922 Silent March on Washington

Read Part III, DC’s Old Jim Crow Rocked by Marian Anderson Concert


Author’s notes:

In 1976, Norris, the last living defendant at that time, was pardoned with the support of the NAACP and civil rights groups across the country. The Scottsboro Museum and Cultural Center was opened in the town in 2010, acknowledging the history of the youths’ ordeal.

This year, two bills were introduced into the Alabama legislature that would finally clear all the defendants.  A resolution would find the Scottsboro youths “victims of a series of gross injustices” and declare them exonerated. The other legislation would grant the state parole board the power to grant posthumous pardons, a legal prerequisite before pardons to the now deceased defendants could be issued. Though 82 years late, observers predict that both bills will pass.

The quotes by Charles Hamilton Houston are excerpted from Genna McNeil’s, “Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights.” Quotes by the Scottsboro mothers, Ruby Bates and Louise Thompson are from articles from The Afro American. Quotes from Walter White and W.E.B. DuBois came from “Remembering Scottsboro: The Legacy of an Infamous Trial” by James A. Miller. Other sources include: The Crisis, The Afro American, The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Chicago Defender and The Amsterdam News.


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 email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


600 Black Women Stand Strong: The 1938 Crab Pickers Strike

5 Dec
A Face of the CIO Union in Crisfield, MD: 1938

Pauline Schofield with CIO button, Crisfield, MD, May 1938. Original image courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

By Craig Simpson

Working people in Crisfield, Maryland, were in desperate straits on the first of April in 1938.

The Great Depression hadn’t lifted yet, and 300 garment workers, mostly women, had been thrown out of work two weeks earlier when two factories had closed. One town official estimated that 90% of the Crisfield workforce was unemployed at that time.

Then, on top of everything else, on April 4th the town’s packing companies cut the amount paid to hundreds of crab pickers from 35 cents per gallon to 25 cents per gallon. The packers might have figured that the pickers would just be thankful to have a job.

Instead, two days later, 600 predominantly African American women crab pickers walked out on a five-week strike. They demanded that the rates be restored to 35 cents and that the packing companies recognize the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) as their union.

They defied mob intimidation and long weeks of privation, but won their strike—and a union.

Climate of Racial Fear

The town had a mixed history of race relations. It had experienced brutal racial violence, but also cooperation at times among black and white workers against the packinghouses.

Crisfield, previously named Somers Cove, had a population of about 6,000 in 1938, over one-quarter of whom were African American. The town, located near the southernmost portion of Maryland’s Eastern Shore on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, was heavily dependent on the seafood industry.  It billed itself the “Seafood Capital of the World.”

The town took its name from John W. Crisfield, one of the largest slave holders in the state during the 1860s and a pro-slavery congressman during the Civil War. He was defeated in 1863 by abolitionist John Cresswell in what is widely believed to be vote fraud conducted by federal troops in the state. Crisfield secured the financing that brought the Eastern Shore Railroad to the town in 1867 and the town’s name was changed to honor him.

Lynching occurred all too frequently on the Eastern Shore up into the 1930s. One had occurred in Crisfield 30 years before and there were several others in surrounding towns in more recent years.

In 1907, James Reed allegedly shot and killed Crisfield police chief John H. Daugherty.  Reed was captured while fleeing the town by boat. He was beaten to death and hung from a telegraph pole and his body was later buried in a marsh. Unsatisfied, white rioters dug up Reed’s body, cut it up, shot it with bullets and then threw it into a bonfire.  Following this, the mob ran through the black community pulling people from their homes and beating them.

Thirty miles away in Salisbury in 1931, Matt Williams suffered a similar barbaric death administered by a mob. Again in 1931, a gang of whites in Snow Hill, 35 miles from Crisfield, beat white International Labor Defense attorney Bernard Ades and a male and female companion when they couldn’t find their African American target Euel Lee.

Twenty miles away in Princess Anne in 1933, George Armwood was dragged from the local jail with a rope around his neck, beaten, stabbed and kicked. The mob tied him to the back of a truck and dragged him down the street to a large tree. The crowd cut off his ears, took his gold teeth, and then repeatedly dropped his lifeless body from a large limb to the ground. They then dragged Armwood’s corpse back to the courthouse in the center of town where it was hanged from a telephone pole and set on fire.

Racial Solidarity in 1931 Strike

The virulent racism that characterized some sectors of the population wasn’t the whole story in Crisfield, and 1938 was not the first year crab pickers had resisted the packinghouses’ attempts to reduce their pay.

Housing at W. T. Handy Packinghouse 2: 1940

Workers who picked crabs, shucked oysters or canned vegetables were paid little and had little. Shown is housing for permanent workers at the W. T. Handy plant in Crisfield, MD  ca 1940. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 1931, the packers also reduced rates from $0.35 per gallon to $0.25 per gallon (the equivalent of seven cents to five cents per pound) of picked crabmeat.

Leroy R. Carson, who owned one of the largest packinghouses in Crisfield and also owned a packinghouse in Hampton, VA, led the move.   In what would become a recurring practice, Carson reduced rates in Hampton and used the Virginia competition as a reason to reduce rates in Crisfield.

In response, on September 8, nearly 300 crab pickers quit working and went on strike.

The strikers marched from door to door through working class neighborhoods enlisting support. Their ranks bolstered, they marched through downtown Crisfield.

In all, between 700 and 800 crabmeat pickers—of whom about 100 were white—from 22 crab-picking plants joined the strike.

They had the backing of a racially mixed group of oyster shuckers whose season was about to begin and who feared their rates would also be reduced. The U.S. Department of Labor, US Conciliation Service’s Georgia Johnson stated, “Much solidarity is reported between all workers, white and colored…”

Johnson went on to say that, “The operators are holding out, because they wish continued wage reductions through the oyster-shucking season which opens today; and that this reduction is chiefly to fix oyster shucking wages through the autumn, winter and spring seasons.”

The owner of one of the three largest seafood businesses in Crisfield, J. C. W. Tawes, was quoted as saying that “…rather than submit to the strikers’ demands he would sell out and leave Crisfield.”

Tawes demanded that Mayor William H. Bradshaw order out the police, arm the citizens or order out the militia, ostensibly to protect black women who he claimed didn’t want to strike.  He alleged they were intimidated by a mostly white, male group of oyster shuckers.

Instead, Bradshaw brokered an agreement where some packinghouses agreed to a compromise rate of 30 cents per gallon. Both the packers and the strikers were dissatisfied with Bradshaw’s deal and the packers quickly reneged and kept the rate at the 25 cent reduced level.  The strike had ended in defeat.

Labor Unrest Continues

Women Picking Crabmeat in MD: 1940 ca

Crab pickers at Milbourne Oyster Co., Crisfield, MD, 1940 ca. Image courtesy of Maryland State Archives, educational use only.

Labor unrest continued in subsequent years and there were allegations of intolerable working conditions and of the exploitation of children. Worker advocates called for crab pickers and oyster shuckers to be classified as wage workers and paid an hourly rate.

In response to federal inquiries, the packers raised the rates back to the 35 cents per gallon level.

However in February, 1934, packinghouse owner Carson told a National Recovery Act administrator that crab pickers in Crisfield were lying about conditions.  He insisted that it was not rates that were to blame for poor conditions of workers in Crisfield, but instead the federal government: “I can prove that one family there is getting $15 a week federal aid.  The wife won’t pick crabs and the husband won’t shuck oysters.”

He went on to say that the rate for crab pickers should be about 5 cents a pound and that he was opposed to an hourly rate.   He reasoned that the crab harvest was unpredictable and thus could not be subjected to an hourly wage.

In December, 1935 the packers again unilaterally reduced rates and 100 workers struck, temporarily closing all but three packinghouses that had not reduced rates.

CIO Organizing on the Shore

On Maryland’s Eastern Shore unions were scarce and organized African Americans were almost unheard of. But by 1937, the CIO was leading a movement that organized male and female, black and white workers into single industrial unions.

Union Business Cambridge Strike 1937

Black & White workers at the Phillips plant in Cambridge MD unite during 1937 strike. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The first big battle in the packing industry on the Shore occurred at the massive Phillips packing plant in Cambridge, MD, during a strike in 1937. Over 2,000 black and white workers united and waged a vigorous two-week struggle demanding wage hikes and unionization.

At one point a group of several hundred white and black strikers marched on the city jail and freed a black striker. They ultimately lost the strike and did not achieve a union independent of the company, but the effort was well publicized throughout the Eastern Shore.

The United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America, CIO that had been active in the Phillips strike began organizing in Crisfield.  In November 1937, three organizers of the cannery union were run out of Crisfield by a crowd of about 50 whites while trying to organize among oyster shuckers.

Leif Dahl, east coast organizer and national executive board member of the union, telephoned Governor Harry W. Nice and asked for protection for Michael Howard, secretary-treasurer of the Baltimore Industrial Council, and his other organizers.

Crisfield Chief of Police Willard Laird claimed no knowledge of the incident but Mayor Bradshaw said he told the organizers to “withdraw peacefully” from the town because it “was not the proper time for their efforts”, according to the Washington Post.

Dahl vowed that the organizers would return to Crisfield, and the union representatives came back to organize quietly among oyster shuckers and crab pickers. Despite the intimidation, one of the smaller crab picking houses was organized in 1937.

The Strike Begins

In 1938, pickers’ pay was back up to 35 cents per gallon. At that rate many pickers earned between $1 and $1.50 weekly, although faster pickers could make as much as $5 per week or more. Out of these earnings, workers paid 35 cents weekly for removal of the crab shells they had picked.

A reduction back to 25 cents a gallon meant many workers’ already meager earnings would be cut by as much as a third.

The packinghouse owners announced the cut April 4, with the exception of Nelson R. Coulbourn’s packinghouse that continued to pay the old rate of 35 cents per gallon.

Pickers at every packinghouse except Coulbourn’s walked out April 6 and the packinghouses shut down.

The packers may have initially thought that the women would cave after a few weeks and the houses would be open in time for crab season that was to begin May 2.

The packers may also have considered the timing of their rate reduction.  The 1931 rate reductions occurred just before the beginning of oyster season and threatened the rates of oyster shuckers.  This reduction occurred near the end of the oyster season, making the oyster shuckers’ support of a strike less of a factor.

Shiloh United Methodist Church, Crisfield: 2012

Shiloh ME Church, Crisfield, MD shown in 2012. The CIO crab pickers union held meetings in the church & the grassy area in foreground is where a union organizer’s car was overturned & burned.

Local stores were pressured to cut off credit to the strikers, but Howard organized a food committee and began raising funds and food for strikers among the CIO unions and churches in Baltimore.

The workers—mostly African American women—held meetings to keep the strike organized and cope with their lack of income at the Shiloh ME (United Methodist) Church just off Route 413 on N. Fourth St. at the entrance of the town.

As the strike began its third week, Robert W. Knadler, a field examiner for the National Labor Relations Board, arranged a meeting between the packers and Howard. The conference quickly broke up when Howard demanded a contract guaranteeing rates for a definite period.

As the strikers held firm, the packinghouses, watermen and farmers combined forces. The watermen who set the lines to catch crabs were nearly all white, and the season was about to start with the packinghouses closed. Local farmers feared the cannery union would organize agricultural workers like it was attempting in New Jersey.

Mob Terrorizes Community

A white crowd estimated at between 100 and 300 gathered near a black section of town on N. Fourth Street on April 21. The mob broke into the home of two sisters who were on the strike committee, Eleanor Coulbourne and Martina Cooper.

Afro on Crisfield Strike with Headline, Article & 3 Photos: 1938

Afro American April 30, 1938 with banner headline “Troopers Halt Crisfield Mob,” story, “600 Girls on Strike” & 3 photos of strike, including Howard’s overturned & burned auto.

Mob leaders declared they would “ruin” Cooper and Howard if they found them, according to the Afro American newspaper. They broke into at least one other house on the street, but couldn’t find Cooper, Howard or another strike leader whose name they said was Terry Fowler.

Unable to find the strike leaders or the CIO organizers, they turned to the Shiloh Church on N. Fourth St. where Howard’s auto was parked. The mob overturned Howard’s car and set fire to it in front of the church.

The Associated Press reported, “The men were said to have been incensed because the organizers had been seen often in the Negro settlement.” According to oral history in Crisfield, Howard was hidden in Upturf, another black neighborhood located on Collins Street, about a half mile north of the church.

The local strike leaders stayed at home during the day, but took refuge with friends at night. Unable to find any of the organizers or strike leaders, members of the mob threatened to “burn the whole block,” according to the Afro American.

Mayor Bradshaw blamed the incident on “radical” and “hot-headed” persons, according to the Associated Press. The Afro American reported that Bradshaw said he was “not sure” whether the mob burned the car at all or whether it “caught fire itself.”

Union Organizers Forced Out of Town

Crisfield Sheriff William Dryden said he and his deputies were out of town during the car burning and when they returned did not make any arrests. The next day, Dahl reported from Salisbury that he had been “forced out of town” by vigilantes. He sent a telegram to Governor Nice requesting protection. Mayor Bradshaw denied any knowledge of Dahl’s eviction from the town.

Upturf Area, Possible CIO Refuge in Crisfield: 1938

Upturf area of Crisfield where CIO organizer Michael Howard may have been when his car was overturned & burned. Original photo courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

The following week, another CIO organizer was accosted. The men stopped an unidentified Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) union representative in front of Boycraft factory, where 200 shirt makers were employed.

He was taken down a dirt road to the Somerset County line and was warned not to try to organize workers.  “We don’t want to hurt you, but you got to get out of town,” said one member of the mob.  According to the Washington Post, the departing organizer stood up in his automobile and said, “I am a CIO organizer and I don’t want to get hurt, but I’m coming back.”

Federal Conciliator Evicted From Crisfield

On April 28, the same day the ACWA organizer was run out of town, federal mediator Stanley White was also ushered out.

In the morning, a group estimated at 150-200 men, who thought he was Howard, stopped White and detained him, then let him go.

When he went back to his lodging, proprietor James Byrd ordered him out of the Somerset Hotel.

“I ordered him out because back of him there was possible trouble. For three days he has been riding around town with Michael Howard and has been a bigger nuisance than Howard. He has even started more trouble,” Byrd said, according to an account in the Washington Post.

Byrd contacted US Rep. Thomas Goldsborough (D-MD) and asked him to get White recalled by the federal government.  A telegram arrived to that effect several hours later.

Before he left town, White went to a meeting where town officials, packinghouse owners and union representatives were to meet and confer.

A. Stengle Marine, Maryland Commissioner of Labor and an Eastern Shore resident, was asked by the governor to attend to help attempt a settlement. Governor Nice also dispatched Major Elmer P. Munshower, commander of the state police, to Crisfield to “report the true facts.”

Before Marine or Munshower arrived, some of the vigilante crowd began tossing firecrackers at White, the federal mediator. The situation became uglier and White left the meeting and went to his car.  When he cranked the ignition, a blast was heard and the auto rocked violently.  Someone had rigged a type of loud explosive to go off when the car was started, although no actual damage was done to the auto. White was then escorted out of town.

The crowd, unsatisfied at evicting White turned their attention to Howard. After much shouting and firing weapons into the air by the crowd, Howard was also escorted out of town.

Mob Violence Begins to Backfire

The anti-strike group had overplayed their hand. Running union organizers out of town usually didn’t attract a lot of attention, but evicting a federal mediator not far from Washington, DC was perhaps like poking a sleeping bear.

Crab Pickers Union Meeting in Crisfield: 1938

Meeting of CIO crab pickers union at the Shiloh M E Church May 1938. Original photo courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

The Baltimore Sun editorialized, “One need not pass judgment on the merits of the strikers’ demands to insist that a community has failed in its duty when its police do not protect a labor organizer or an official interested in settling the strike. The situation at Crisfield is confused by the race issue, since the crab pickers are almost entirely Negro women, but that fact, while it may explain the antics of the vigilantes, does not excuse them.”

The Afro American was more direct: “Observers here point out that the defiance of the packers is one of the most open revolts against the National Labor Relations Act and are watching to see what the NLRB will do in the Crisfield situation where both labor and racial rights have been invaded.”

“So grave is the situation that the slightest untoward happening, it is said, would act as a spark to begin an orgy of lynchings, murders, burnings and the general destruction of property,” the Afro American wrote.

An in-depth article in the Baltimore Sun by Alfred Charles, an Eastern Shore resident, was published April 30 with the headline, “Crisfield Merchants and Citizens Lay Crab Pickers Strike to CIO.” The piece gave the impression that the packers might be willing to settle the strike, but not to bargain or sign a contract with the CIO.

Food Shipments to Strikers Blocked

Vigilantes began stopping all cars coming into Crisfield and demanding that occupants state their business.

Howard had collected 1,000 pounds of food to distribute, but was prohibited by town authorities from moving it in, according to the Afro American. Dahl asked Gov. Nice to provide an escort for the food, but Nice stalled for time.

The Afro wrote, “Crab packers, who have openly defied all constituted authority, together with local officers and leaders, have resorted to the tactics of starving the striking crab pickers out in order to force them back to work.”

N R Coulbourn: Packinghouse Did Not Reduce Rates: 1938

Virginia Lankford or Jackson at N. R. Coulbourn packinghouse in May 1938. Coubourn did not reduce rates and workers did not strike this plant. Original image courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

Throughout the strike, the women had not engaged in picketing and had instead organized quietly out of the public view.

Five smaller packinghouses opened back up with the start of the crabbing season May 2, one paying the old rate of 35 cents and the other four paying the reduced rate, in addition to the N. R. Coulbourn house that had operated continuously since the strike began. This first chink in the strikers’ armor now put some pressure on the strikers, although the large packinghouses remained closed.

Perhaps coincidentally with the reopening of some of the packinghouses, twelve extra state troopers began appearing in Crisfield, assigned by Munshower to keep order in the town. In any event, no arrests were reported of those involved in illegal activities designed to intimidate the striking women.

Women Head to Washington

On May 3, the striking women made their next move. Three of the striking crab pickers, along with Howard, traveled to Washington. There, Senator Robert La Follette (Prog.-WI) promised careful consideration of their request for an investigation after hearing of the deplorable working conditions and the violence directed toward the strike organizers and leaders. The women, whose identities were closely guarded, also met with Maryland’s two senators, Labor Department officials and federal conciliators.

The packers again failed to appreciate the politics of their actions. The Afro reported that “Packers have let it be known that the women sent to Washington to complain to the government won’t be safe if they return to Crisfield.”

The same day, the union filed charges that eleven Crisfield packing companies were violating the National Labor Relations Act.

Packers Change Their Tune

Now understanding for the first time that the tide was beginning to turn against them, the packers altered their public position.

Back in Crisfield, Marine reported the packers did not attend scheduled meetings on April 30 or May 3 to attempt to settle the strike because—they now claimed—the plants were closed because of unprofitable operations and not because of any refusal to deal with the CIO.

Marine went on to report that J. C. W. Tawes told him, “When we are ready to operate we will deal with the representatives of the workers.”

The women were holding firm while pressure was mounting on the packers. The widespread press exposure of mob activity and resistance to the Depression-era labor laws brought political pressure from both the Governor and the federal government to settle the strike..

As the strike moved into the crab season, watermen were forced into longer, more expensive trips to sell their crabs elsewhere and the Crisfield packinghouses were losing money to packers in other towns.

Victory for the Strikers

CIO Union Wins at Crisfield: 1938

May 13, 1938 edition of the Labor Herald, an independent Baltimore based labor newspaper.

On May 9, most of the large packers broke ranks and gave in.  Meeting at the Cambridge home of Marine, representatives of eight packinghouses and Howard agreed to the terms of a contract.

The agreement was signed May 10 to restore the rate to 35 cents a gallon and recognize the CIO cannery union as the bargaining agent for the workers.  Howard, whose auto had been burned and who had been run out of town more than once, signed for the union.

Tawes, who once said in 1931 that he would close the plant rather than accede to strikers’ demands, was a signatory.  The N. R. Carson Company, which had led the drive to reduce the rates, was another signer.  In all, the agreement signed by eight packinghouses covered well over half of the crabmeat pickers in Crisfield. It was among the first large seafood worker contracts on the East Coast.

Aftermath

The national cannery union had only been formed in 1937 and achieved explosive growth, particularly among African Americans in the South and migrant workers in the West. By the Spring of 1938 it had 347 locals and 118,000 members. The cannery union also made progress in Crisfield and was able to organize oyster shuckers at a number of plants in Crisfield by 1942.

The cannery union quickly came under attack for communist influence. US Rep. Martin Dies (D-TX), who chaired the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities, took testimony before his committee that named Dahl as a member of the Communist Party in 1938. In 1941, the Washington Post reported that the Dies committee named Michael Howard as a communist.

Leif Dahl, East Coast Cannery Union Leader: 1936

Leif Dahl, in charge of East Coast organizing for the CIO cannery union shown at a New Jersey meeting of agricultural workers in 1936. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The American Federation of Labor, in a bitter rivalry with the CIO at the time, sent in its own organizers to try to wrest some of the packinghouses from the CIO union and organize the unorganized. They gained a foothold at several packinghouses in Crisfield in the early 1940s, including the W. T. Handy Co., one of the larger packinghouses where the CIO had not obtained an agreement.

In 1944, the cannery union became the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers of America (FTA) and was by then a leader among unions for the rights of women. Sixty-six percent of the contracts nationwide contained “equal pay for equal work” provisions, 75% contained maternity leave without loss of seniority provisions, and 44% of its elected representatives in the food service division were women.

However, after World War II, the FTA came under vicious red-baiting attacks by AFL unions, employers and elected officials, and it began losing units as quickly as it had gained them in the late 1930s.

By 1948, the AFL Meat Cutters & Butcher Workman’s Seafood Workers Local 453 were voted as the exclusive bargaining agent for nearly all packinghouses in Crisfield including J. C W Tawes & Son and C W. Howeth, completely supplanting the CIO union.

In 1950, the FTA was expelled from the CIO with nine other unions for alleged communist influence. Already in decline, it fell apart quickly after the expulsion and its few remaining workers were folded into the Distributing and Processing Workers of America.

Seafood Workers Local 453 continued to represent the workers in Crisfield and made significant improvement in wages and working conditions from the 1950s until the end of the 1980s. However, the ongoing decline of the Chesapeake Bay crab and oyster harvests and the related closure of nearly all packinghouses meant a long, slow decline in membership.  The closure of a Mrs. Paul’s frozen fish plant put an end to the union in March 1990.

(This post was updated 12/10/2012 to include Addendum 2 as part of this post.)

(This post was updated 12/28/2012 to include the Labor Herald image  in Addendum 2)

Author’s Notes

This 1938 strike led by black women workers that ended in a tangible victory is remarkable for many reasons and it represents one of the few victories on Maryland’s Eastern Shore by African Americans fighting against determined resistance prior to the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

The material for this article is derived mainly from resources in the Maryland State Archives, the National Archives, The Crisfield Heritage Foundation, The Baltimore Sun, The Afro American, The Washington Post, Pedersen’s The Communist Party in Maryland 1919-57, Reutter’s Making Steel, & Feltault’s It’s How You Pick the Crab.

Accounts of this strike would be strengthened by original material from the strikers themselves—oral history, letters, diaries etc.  Hopefully future researchers will bring more of this remarkable story to light.

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 email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


Addendum I: Crisfield Heritage Foundation – “Returning Home: Photographs from 1938”

In Aug. 2009, a photography instructor in California who had historical images of the Crisfield area contacted the Tawes Museum.

They are well composed, high quality images taken during or immediately after the strike (a wall calendar in one of the photos is turned to May 1938). However, the photographer, purpose and how they ended up on the West Coast are unknown.

The style, subject matter and medium are similar to US Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information photographs from that period and cover most aspects of life in Crisfield.

Ten of the images are on permanent display at the Tawes Museum at 3 Ninth St. in Crisfield. Call ahead at (410) 968-2501 to arrange to see all of these stunning photos (there are 88 total images).

The images shown from the collection on this site are low-resolution, distorted versions of the photos and it is worth the trip to see the whole collection and the detail portrayed in the collection. The images shown on this site do not do the originals justice.

One of photos in the collection may show the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters marching in Crisfield, while others show farm life, scenes of the town, industry and the people who lived in that period, including a number of photographs related to the crab pickers strike.

The photographs in this series are property of the Crisfield Heritage Foundation. All rights are reserved.


Addendum 2: Michael Howard – Fighter for Workers

Crab Pickers Union Meeting in Crisfield: 1938

Union meeting at Shiloh ME Church in Crisfield MD, May 1938. Speaker is possibly Michael Howard. Original photo courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

Michael “Mike” Howard (formerly Smith—he took his wife’s last name when they married) joined the Young Communist League in 1932.

By 1936 he had joined the Communist Party (CP) and secured work at the Eastern Rolling Mill, a steel plant of about 1,000 workers just outside of Baltimore. Bethlehem Steel owned the plant and was fighting unionization tooth and nail at all its locations.

Howard put the first chink in the company armor when he successfully led a strike at the mill in 1936 that led to wage and benefit gains for the workers.  In 1937, he obtained union recognition for the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel & Tin Workers Local 1245 and signed the first contract as president of the local union.

He served as secretary-treasurer of the Baltimore Industrial Council, the umbrella group for CIO unions.

As an organizer for the cannery workers’ union, he traveled constantly through hostile territory on Maryland’s Eastern Shore . He helped guide the largely African American women crab pickers to victory in their 1938 five week strike against the Crisfield, Maryland packinghouses, despite being run out of town on several occasions and having his car overturned and burned.

In 1936, as a member of the CP, he helped a team recruit new CP members from Cumberland, MD at the huge Celanese Mill. They ended up forming much of the core for the successful CIO organizing in Western Maryland.  Howard became the liaison between the CIO and the Communist Party in Maryland.

Eastern Rolling Mill Strike Won: 1936

Howard led the strike at Eastern Rolling Mill to victory in 1936. Labor Herald, Vol. 1, No. 5, June 26, 1936.

As a CP member in 1936 he also volunteered to go door-to-door in East Baltimore to gain support for unionization at Sparrow’s Point, the massive mill in Dundalk outside of Baltimore. He worked briefly as an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America before securing employment himself at the Point.

He worked hard to persuade his co-workers to vote for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in a 1941 National Labor Relations Board election. Following the union victory, he was elected zone committeeman in charge of all grievances for 2,400 workers in the open hearth department, the biggest in the mill.  Notably while there he fought for promotions for black steelworkers. Eventually he was chosen to chair the whole mill’s grievance committee.

When President Harry Truman seized the coal mines during a 1946 strike and the Taft-Hartley anti-labor, anti-communist act passed in 1947, Howard felt Truman was moving to reverse all the gains that labor had made. He threw himself into the third party candidacy of Henry Wallace in 1948 and quit attending CP meetings when he felt they were not sufficiently backing Wallace’s candidacy.

The steelworkers union was backing Truman and promptly removed Howard as zone committeeman on trumped-up charges of malfeasance. In 1951 he was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) where he refused to answer questions about individuals, despite the CP expelling him three years earlier.

The company didn’t fire him as he expected, but he was stung when his coworkers, whom he had fought so hard for, stopped speaking to him. Many eventually came back around but, in a 1982 interview with author Mark Reutter for the book Making Steel, he reflected:

Really, I thought I was fighting on a different level. I was fighting on a level which went to my Marxist beliefs, and I was working for them on a level which represented only their particular interactions with the company. And perhaps it shows what a poor job I did in radicalizing and politicizing the people in my department. Perhaps I should have done a better job of bringing the two together. I’m sure I could have done a better job than I did.

Isolated from his coworkers and his comrades and frozen out of his union, Howard quit the plant in 1953, went back to school, and later worked conducting experiments with precision instruments that he had first encountered in the steel mills. Michael Howard died on June 30, 1986.

A DC Labor & Civil Rights Leader Remembered: Marie Richardson

19 Nov
Marie Lucinda Richardson (Harris)

Marie Richardson, a labor & civil rights leader in the 1940s, was imprisoned during the McCarthy era for 4 1/2 years. Photo D A Harris, ©Afro American Newspapers.

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.

DC Red Caps Union: 1938

Griffin Richardson (back row, 2nd from right) with Washington red caps union in 1938. Photo: Scurlock, courtesy National Archives.

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.

Cardozo High School Class: 1938

Marie Richardson (3rd row, middle, surrounded by those in white) with Cardozo High School 1938 mid-year class. Photo: Scurlock, courtesy National Archives.

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.

Marie Richardson at Home at Her Desk

Marie Richardson at Florida Ave NW home in 1946. Photo: D. A. Harris Jr.©Afro American Newspaper.

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.

Mary Markward Testifies Before HUAC: 1951

Mary Markward testifies before HUAC. Her testimony helped convict Marie Richardson and send her to prison. World-Telegram & Sun Newspaper Collection, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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.

Committee to Defend Marie Richardson Pamphlet: 1952 ca

Committee to Defend Marie Richardson pamphlet, 1952 ca.

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 judgeBarrington 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.

DC Home of Marie Richardson: 2012

DC home of Marie Richardson where she grew up and stayed during her trial shown in 2012.

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’s Release

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 washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.