Tag Archives: African American

DC’s fighting barber & the end of public school segregation

20 Aug
Boycott Browne school: 1947

The Consolidated Parents Group pickets the Board of Education in 1947.

By Daniel Hardin

It took an uprising by working class African Americans  to spark a Supreme Court decision to outlaw Washington, D.C. school segregation and break new ground in interpreting the “due process” clause of the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.

Gardner Bishop worked as a barber after moving to Washington, D.C. in 1930, living east of the Anacostia River. In 1947 his 14-year-old daughter Judine was enrolled in the District’s public schools.

The segregated school system was grossly overcrowded with inferior facilities and substandard equipment.

Bishop sought a transfer for his daughter to the elite African American Banneker School, but was turned down by the black school officials because he was only a barber and schools like Banneker were reserved for the children of lawyers, ministers and other professionals.

He tried to gain admittance for Judine to the nearby white Elliot Junior High where student vacancies existed, but was also turned down based on the city’s long-standing dual school system. Bishop termed this “double Jim Crow.”

Bishop reflected back on those times 30 years later and said,

Segregation was not only white against black, but it was also upper class blacks against the lower class. We were on the bottom shelf. I’m black and I’m poor, so I’m segregated twice.

 Already substandard, now half the education

The whites-only Elliot Junior High School had a capacity of 918 students but only 783 enrollees. By contrast, the African American Browne Junior High, the neighborhood school Judine was assigned to, had a capacity of 783 but an enrollment of 1,638.

Garnet C. Wilkinson, longtime DC school official: 1950 ca.

Garnet C. Wilkerson, asst. supt. of DC black public schools.

Browne students began the school year in double shifts. Garnet Wilkinson, the African American assistant superintendent in charge of black schools, devised a plan where Browne would end some of the double shifts by using the formerly white, but now unused Blow and Webb elementary schools as annexes.

Browne students’ parents were outraged. The double shifts effectively cut students education in half while the use of the elementary schools meant longer walks for students to facilities with no equipment and desks too small for the larger adolescents.

Wilkinson’s plan went into effect December 1st. Classroom assignments called for 1,146 students to “shuttle” between the Browne school at 24th Street and Benning Road NE, the Blow School at 19th Street and Benning Road NE and the Webb School at 15th and Rosedale Streets NE. At the same time 680 students would continue their part time status at Browne.

Bishop disdained the Browne PTA, calling them “handpicked.” According to Bishop they had property owners in the area, various civic association representatives and non-parents in leadership. When working class parents attended the meetings, they felt “passed over,” according to Bishop.

In response, Bishop organized Browne students’ parents who “worked two jobs and went to church on Sundays” to meet at the Jones Memorial Church where they voted to stage a student strike or “sit-out.” The group would come be known as the Consolidated Parents Group.

Enough is enough

DC rights leader Gardner Bishop: 1950 ca.

Consolidated Parents Group leader Gardner Bishop.

The day before the planned boycott, Bishop organized a cab caravan to transport students to the Board of Education meeting at the Franklin Administration Building at 13th & K Streets NW.

Without any warning, Bishop led 40 children into the meeting and announced, “These are children from the Browne Junior High School and there’s not going to be—not one of them—or anyone else—at that school tomorrow, so I just wanted to explain who’s doin’ it and why.”

Browne recalled the board initially denied him the right to speak, but relented. “They sat there like a bunch of fools not believing a word they heard.”

The boycott began December 3rd with all children staying away from school and with children picketing at the schools and parents at the Franklin building. The city’s newspapers picked up the story and ran sympathetic articles.

Consolidated organized itself further and Bishop came to rely on a core group of leaders composed of Marie W Smith and Burma Whitted, vice presidents; Unity T. Macklin, secretary; and James Haley Sr., Treasurer along with a dozen other member activists among the hundreds of members.

Down with DC school segregation: 1947

Consolidated Parents pickets the board of education at 13th & K NW in 1947.

By mid-December, under ferocious attack from more conservative elements in the black community, Consolidated partially ended their boycott by having children return to Browne but continue boycotting Blow and Webb.

Supplementary classes for children were set up by the group at Jones Memorial Church.

As the weeks wore on, the strike began faltering and some parents began sending their children to the annexes. Shortly afterward a settlement was finally reached whereby students returned to the classrooms February 3, 1948.

The issues that arose in the strike would be settled by two lawsuits. One sponsored by the Browne PTA asked that the Board of Education be enjoined from assigning black junior high students to elementary schools while there was space available in white schools. The other sponsored by Consolidated Parents challenged the unequal facilities of the segregated school system itself.

As part of ending the strike, the Board of Education agreed to house the students in five different self-contained school buildings and ended students “shuttling” between facilities.

Consolidated Parents bonds with Houston

Getting to a lawsuit was a big leap for Bishop. He was distrustful of “upper class Negroes” as were the other parent members of Consolidated. The “highfalutin” and “comfortable” blacks didn’t use tactics that Bishop believed would lead to results.

However as the strike continued without resolution in December 1947, they voted to have Bishop contact Charles Hamilton Houston, a former NAACP litigation director and former head of Howard University’s law school.

Houston Challenges Board over Marion Anderson: 1939

Charles Hamilton Houston before the Board of Education in 1939.

It was a decision born of desperation. Houston was seen as one of the upper class of blacks that had disparaged working class African Americans and helped to “hurt” the “little people,” according to Bishop. However, Bishop was willing to try rather than have the strike end in abject failure.

Houston was in private practice and was working to become appointed as one of the District of Columbia commissioners—there was no elected representation at that time.

Bishop went to a Houston for Commissioner rally in mid December and introduced himself. Bishop said Houston was “elated” to meet the leader of the strikers. Consolidated Parents met with Houston at his home at 3611 New Hampshire Ave. NW where the venerable civil rights attorney told them, “You got yourself a lawyer.”

Houston took two legal approaches—accusing the school board of failing to provide black facilities equal to those of white students and of perpetuating fraud by claiming that black children could receive as much education in one half day as white children in a full day.

Gardner recalled that Houston “never let up…never backed down…never ceased working…and never accepted a penny,” even paying the filing fees out of his own pocket. Houston enlisted help from Howard University professors and from other attorneys from the Houston law firm.

Consolidated Parents meeting: 1949

Consolidated Parents Group meeting flyer from 1949.

While the cases were winding their way through the courts, Bishop and other leaders of Consolidated held hearings, bombarded the school board with complaints about teacher/pupil ratios and filed suits on behalf of black children excluded from kindergarten, overcrowding at Cardozo High School and other manifestations of the separate and unequal school system.

Lawsuits dismissed

The court cases were dismissed in 1950. The PTA’s case of Carr v. Corning was turned down by the court of appeals because the double shifts and “shuttling” were ended before the suit was heard. In the other cases, the courts found that the District’s schools had been segregated since the 1860s and that the white and black schools were equal enough to meet the requirements of the 14th Amendment.

The outcome was not unexpected by Houston and Bishop. A report by George Strayer detailing the District’s systemic exclusion of black children from kindergarten, inadequate classroom space and facilities for African Americans and disparate teacher/student ratios was issued too late to be introduced as evidence.

In preparation for defeat, Bishop and Houston agreed to radically change their approach. They would directly challenge the so called “separate but equal” system itself, hoping to overturn the 1896 Supreme Court decision that established the “separate but equal” doctrine in the Plessy v. Ferguson.

James Nabritt: 1950 ca.

James Nabritt circa 1950.

In April 1950, Houston realized he was dying and called Bishop to his bedside. He asked Bishop to permit James Nabritt to take over as attorney for Consolidated Parents.

Bishop, Nabritt and Houston agreed that they wanted nothing to do with what Bishop called “the social club” NAACP suits that sought to equalize the separation. Instead they would attack Jim Crow head on. It was a risky strategy that carried the peril of upholding segregation.

Houston died days after their meeting and a giant of the early civil rights movement and a champion of African Americans in the District was gone.

Spottwood Bolling takes center stage

Fresh with victory in the Carr case, the DC school board continued to build segregated schools. They opened the white John Phillips Sousa Junior High in Anacostia on September 11, 1950 with a large auditorium, double gyms, seven basketball courts, a softball field and a number of empty classrooms.

Bishop escorted eleven black children to enroll on the first day of school.

Those black children walked in there and they saw the most beautiful school they had ever seen. All those wonderful typewriters, the laboratories, the great gymnasium…

While the principal of the all white school graciously took them on a tour, he refused to admit the students.

Victory in Bolling v. Sharpe: 1954

Spottswood Bolling in front of his home in May 1954.

One of the students was Spottswood Bolling Jr., whose mother was a bookbinder for the federal government. Bolling was assigned to Shaw Junior High on U Street NW, an overcrowded black school with no science equipment and no playground.

Nabritt enlisted another Washington, D.C. civil rights attorney, George E. C. Hayes, as co-counsel. They filed suit with Bolling’s being the first name on the document. The suit named C. Melvin Sharpe, the District’s school superintendent as the defendant.

Nabritt avoided citing the 14th Amendment that applied only to states and because it would be too easy to get an outcome that merely increased spending on black schools—or worse—found the schools equal enough.

Instead, Nabritt cited the due process clause of the 5th Amendment, a guarantee binding on Congress that in turn administered the District of Columbia.

Two years passed while the case moved through the courts when Nabritt received a telephone call from the clerk of the Supreme Court who indicated that the Court wished to consolidate the case with others challenging Jim Crow schools. Bishop was suspicious and insisted that the NAACP, which provided representation in the other major school suits, be excluded from the Bolling v. Sharpe team.

Nabritt filed the necessary petition to the Supreme Court to bypass the court of appeals. The Court granted the petition and arguments were heard December 9, 1952. The case was consolidated with four others and re-argued December 8th and 9th 1953.

Arguments to the Court

Nabritt and Hayes took turns presenting oral arguments to the Court in 1953.

George E C Hayes: 1948

Co-counsel George E. C. Hayes circa 1950.

Hayes opened saying,

The position we are taking with respect to these cases, that segregation, per se, is unconstitutional, and that without regard to physical facilities, without regard to the question of curriculum and that if, as a matter of fact, there is a designation that one must go to a particular school for no other reason than because of race or color, that that is a violation of the constitutional right; and as this Court has said, wherever the issue is raised with respect to color, then it is upon the Government to show that the reason for it, that there is a reason for it—that there is a reason that is a justifiable reason.

Nabritt strenuously argued the distinction between the 14th Amendment and the 5th Amendment.

The basic question here is one of liberty, and under liberty, under the due process clause, you cannot deal with it as a quantum of treatment, substantially equal. You either have liberty or you do not. When liberty is interfered with by the state, it has to be justified, and you cannot justify it by saying that we only took a little liberty You justify it by the reasonableness of the taking. We submit that in this case, in the heart of the nation’s capital, in the capital democracy, in the capital of the free world there is no place for a segregated school system. This country cannot afford it, and the Constitution does not permit it, and the statutes of Congress do not authorize it.

Victory

Washington Post leads with end of school segregation: 1954

Washington Post on the Supreme Court decision banning school segregation.

The court, led by newly confirmed Chief Justice Earl Warren decided unanimously in favor of the plaintiffs.

In his opinion, he noted that while the 14th Amendment, whose Equal Protection Clause was cited in the more famous Brown vs. Board in order to declare segregation unconstitutional did not apply in the District of Columbia, the 5th Amendment did in fact apply.

Warren held that “the concepts of equal protection and due process, both stemming from our American ideal of fairness, are not mutually exclusive.” While equal protection is a more explicit safeguard against discrimination, the Court stated, “…discrimination may be so unjustifiable as to be violative of due process.”

Referring to the technicalities raised by the case’s location in the District of Columbia, the Court held that, in light of their decision in Brown that segregation in state public schools is prohibited by the Constitution, it would be “unthinkable that the same Constitution would impose a lesser duty on the Federal Government.”

The Court concluded: “racial segregation in the public schools of the District of Columbia is a denial of the due process of law guaranteed by the 5th Amendment.” The Court restored both Bolling and Brown to the docket until they could reconvene to discuss how to effectively implement the decisions.

Bishop and Consolidated Parents had their victory for working class African Americans in the only major school case decided without counsel from the NAACP.

After the Court’s decision, Bishop stepped down as head of the Consolidated Parents Group. Bishop continued to hold his own court in his B&D Barbershop near 15th & U Streets NW where he worked until he retired in 1985. He died November 25, 1992.


Postscript

White students terrorize Anacostia black students: 1954

White students at Anacostia High chase black enrollees October 4, 1954.

Conservatives have consistently attacked the specific Bolling v. Sharpe decision through the years as going beyond the bounds of reasonableness.

Implementation of the Court decision was not without resistance. White students, with backing by some parents, staged walkouts and confrontations with newly enrolled black students on the first day of District of Columbia school integration October 4, 1954.

Students at McKinley, Eastern, Chamberlain Vocational high schools and McFarland and Taft Junior high schools staged demonstrations in the days following. Attendance at schools across the city was down after calls for a student strike by white students.

In the most egregious incident white students at Anacostia High School attempted to attack black students in October 1954 and staged student rallies and marches in opposition to integration, including one that drew hundreds of students and parents.

Integrated students at Anacostia High School: 1957

Integrated class at Anacostia High School in 1957.

Court ordered integration did not solve the problem of equal opportunity and quality education.

Community activist Julius Hobson filed suit in 1967 to end a tracking system by the District’s schools that put working class African Americans on a vocational “track” denying them the opportunity afforded to white students and black children from professional parents. A 1968 decision was awarded in Hobson’s favor that abolished the District’s tracking system.

However, the issue of providing a quality education to the District’s working class African Americans is an ongoing one that has not as yet been resolved in the 21st Century.


Author’s notes:

Gardner Bishop in his barbershop: 1974

Gardner Bishop in his barbershop at 15th & U Streets NW in 1974.

Gardner Bishop held an abiding disdain for all—black or white—that behaved in a condescending or uncaring manner toward the issues of working class African Americans.

An example of Bishop’s sharp tongue occurred in 1937 when he passed a “whites only” park where his four-year-old daughter wanted to get on the swing set. As Judine was swinging back and forth, a police officer came up and pointed out the “whites only” sign.

Bishop responded, “She can’t read.” The remark cost Bishop a $10 fine for disorderly conduct.

Given this incident, it was no surprise that the Consolidated Parents Group also fought for equal recreation facilities.

When a 14-year-old African American boy died after swimming after hours in the segregated Rosedale pool at 17th & Gales Streets NE in June 1952, Consolidated joined other groups in picketing the playground and the board of recreation. The ongoing picketing culminated in a number of arrests.

In September, over 100 children climbed over the fence of the whites-only pool and entered the swimming area. The recreation staff closed the pool, but the following day the children returned and by shear numbers integrated the pool. One police officer said, “I can’t arrest these children. They’re having such a good time.”

The pool closed for the season shortly afterward and the recreation board opened the Rosedale playground to all. Before the pool opened in the spring, the board voted to integrate the pool as well.

Bishop’s legacy may be more than his victory over segregation. His determination to fight and form new forms of organization to challenge what others said couldn’t be challenged may be equally important. It’s a lesson that was learned in the 1960s with the formation of SNCC and the transformation of CORE and with the attempts today to form organization out of the struggle in Ferguson.

Sources include the Afro American, The Washington Post, The Daily News, The Washington Star, The Pittsburgh Courier, Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights by Genna Rae McNeil, Jim Crow’s Children: The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision by Peter Irons, First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School by Alison Stewart.


Want to see and read more?

Additional images of the fight for DC school desegregation

Images of the fight for DC parks and recreation integration in the 1940s and 1950s

Images of a 1919 mobilization by DC school parents

Images of a 1930s boycott movement to end segregation at DC stores

Images of the fight to integrate theaters and performance venues in DC

Images of the fight to integrate employment at the Capital Transit Company

Images of the fight against racism at the Library of Congress

The story of the fight to integrate theaters and performance venues in DC

The story of the fight to integrate employment at the Capital Transit Company


Maryland slaves make bold bid for freedom: July 7-8, 1845

2 Jul

Fighting the Mob in IndianaReportedly marching six abreast on open roads during daylight, dozens of enslaved African Americans made their way along Maryland roads toward freedom July 7-8, 1845.

The plot began in Charles County led by Mark Caesar and William Wheeler. The group of several dozen African Americans armed themselves with a pistol, scythe blades, bludgeons, swords and clubs and began their trek to Pennsylvania, about 110 miles away.

The Charles County band was joined by others seeking freedom from St. Mary’s County. While marching north en route through Prince George’s County, still others swelled their ranks to nearly 75.

The plan was to make their way “in great haste” before slave owners had a chance to gather men to pursue them, according to the Montgomery Journal.

Battle Near Rockville

The group made good progress and the Journal reported the group was seen “within two miles of Rockville” on the Frederick Road (today’s Route 355).

A group of white men on horseback called the Montgomery Volunteers caught up with those marching toward freedom and surrounded them somewhere between Rockville and Gaithersburg. Caesar and Wheeler reportedly ordered the group to fight back.

Fugitive Slaves Recaptured: 1850A brief skirmish erupted and 35 members of the group were captured by the white slave catchers and several African Americans were killed. Others, including Wheeler, initially escaped.

Some of the captured, upon defending themselves, had been shot and wounded.  One witness reported that the group was shot with powder and ball, and the survivors chained and driven off like beasts.

The Port Tobacco Times reported, “They had to be fired upon before they would surrender.”  All of those seized, including five who were badly injured, were taken to the jail at Rockville under the assumption that they had run away from their masters. Most of the recaptured were sold out of state to new slave masters.

A group of four who escaped the Montgomery Volunteers were captured in Westminster, about 20 miles from the Pennsylvania border. Wheeler was still at large on July 16 when the Maryland Journal asked readers to, “Keep a look out for him, as lots of money will be forked over to any one who may nab him.”

Wheeler captured, convicted & escapes

Wheeler was eventually captured and brought to Port Tobacco in Charles County for a trial that began September 1, 1845.

Bill Wheeler convicted in MD slave insurrection: 1845

Wheeler is convicted of insurrection.

The Times called Wheeler and Caesar the “prime movers and instigators in the late Negro insurrection.” The Times reported that the two, “If proved to be guilty, will, in accordance to the law in relation to this crime, suffer the penalty of death.”

Wheeler was found guilty by a jury of white men on September 2nd and sentenced to hang until dead. Fearing that Wheeler’s death sentence may be commuted, a law was passed by the Maryland General Assembly in March 1846 to insure he would remain in jail for the rest of his life:

An Act to authorize and require the Warden and Keepers of the Penitentiary of Maryland, to receive and keep negro William Wheeler, now under sentence of death into Penitentiary, in the event of the commutation of his sentence by the Governor.

However, Wheeler escaped the county jail after four months of incarceration in the facility. Despite a $100 reward offered for his apprehension, Wheeler was never re-captured.

Mark Caesar’s Trial

Mark Caesar sentenced for MD slave rebellion: 1845

Caesar is sentenced to 40 years.

Caesar was charged with insurrection and his trial began September 4, 1845, three days after Wheeler’s.

A jury split 8-4 in favor of conviction and the result was a hung jury. The prosecution decided to re-try Caesar, a 35-year old free black man who worked as a carpenter, on different charges. This time Caesar faced charges of “aiding and abetting slaves in making their escape from their masters,” according to the Port Tobacco Times.

Caesar was then found guilty and sentenced to 40 years in the penitentiary where he died of consumption (tuberculosis) in 1850.

Aftermath

News of the uprising terrified slave owners in Charles, St. Mary’s, and Prince George’s Counties, according to the Journal.

Prison record of revolt leader Mark Caesar: 1850

Mark Caesar’s prison record showing he was a 35 year old,  5’8″ carpenter who could read and write at the time he was sentenced.

“This is the most daring movement which has ever come under our observation.” Never before had an armed group of enslaved men taken a “public road in open day, within 2 miles of a County town, and in a thickly settled neighborhood,” the Journal noted.

As a result, Charles County sought “to confine the slaves within proper limits, and to keep them free from those influences which poison their minds and tend to render them dissatisfied with their condition,” the Journal wrote.

According to the Maryland Archives, some slave owners desired to have a special militia created for the purpose of suppressing any uprising and capturing runaways. They proposed anyone taking part be rewarded for their efforts.

In St. Mary’s County, it was decided that a “Committee of Vigilance” would be formed, with ten people in each election district to watch any travel of African Americans within the county.  The “Montgomery Volunteers” reportedly received many new enlistees.

Despite the efforts of slave catchers, it appears some of those who made their break for freedom with Caesar and Wheeler were never apprehended.


Editor’s notes:

Slavery hung on in Maryland until the Civil War. Union occupation of the state resulted in a new state Constitution adopted April 1, 1864 November 1, 1864 outlawing the practice. Voting rights were extended to non white males in the state in 1867.

Long live Mark Caesar and Bill Wheeler.

Sources include the The Maryland Archives, Resistance to Slavery in Maryland by Cheryl Janifer LaRoche, the Port Tobacco Times and the Maryland Reporter.

Post updated 7/5/15 to reflect the correct effective date of the Maryland Constitution outlawing slavery. Thanks to Ben Fischler

 

 

Standing Against the Maryland Klan 1971: A Personal Memory

2 Jan
Klan Protests Black Minister In Camp Springs MD: 1966

Klan rally in Camp Springs, MD, 1966. Photo by Walter Oates. Courtesy DC Public Library, Washington Star Collection©Washington Post.

by Bob Simpson
Cross-posted at The Daily Kos

I don’t mind telling you how scared I was that morning of June 20, 1971. That was the day we were going to Rising Sun, Maryland to picket the Klan at a picnic they were sponsoring. The fear was deep and profound. Butterflies in the stomach? Well, I had a gang of scorpions brawling down there.

Sure, this was Maryland, not Mississippi. It was 1971, not a few years before when the Klan was still leaving a trail of bodies all over the South. But part of the Klan’s power was its ability to install fear in people. It was sure working on me.

So why was I going to travel through rural Maryland to picket a Klan picnic? Well, a few weeks earlier the little Maryland radical collective I belonged to had received a call. It came from a socialist group based in Wilmington, Delaware. They were members of an organization called Youth Against War and Fascism (YAWF).

They told us that the Klan had been causing trouble in a workplace where YAWF had connections, pitting workers against one another along racial lines. People were afraid and YAWF wanted to cut through that fear by standing up to the Klan. The Klan was also blanketing the tri-state area of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware with hate literature.

In 1967, the KKK had launched an arson attack on Laurel, Maryland’s small black community, sparking 3 nights of racial violence. Laurel African Americans organized armed patrols in the community until the Klansmen were arrested. The small Maryland Klan was still a potential threat and was showing signs of life again. YAWF wanted us to bring as many people as we could to Rising Sun, where the Maryland Klan traditionally had their gatherings.

St Marks Church Target of Klan in 1967

Laurel, MD church target of Klan attack in 1967.

Based out of Prince Georges County, Maryland our little group called ourselves the Mother Bloor Collective, after an early 20th century American radical. Most of us had been associated with University of Maryland Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in our student days. Early in its history, around 1964-1965, University of Maryland SDS had confronted the Klan in Prince Georges County at open housing protests, so we were part of a tradition.

Several of us (including me) were also union activists. I belonged to the Washington Teacher Union (AFT) and we had several people in AFSCME. We also had friends and allies all over the DC area. We knew that the greater our numbers, the better our chance to confront the Klan successfully.

Maryland, My Maryland: A legacy of white supremacy

Although now considered a generally blue liberal state, Maryland was not always like that. Just check out the state song with its pro-Confederate, anti-Lincoln lyrics. Located south of the Mason-Dixon Line but north of the Old Confederacy, Maryland has been contested racial terrain since it was founded as one of the 13 original colonies.

Maryland’s racial nightmares began in the 17th century when European colonists defeated the Piscataway and the other Native American nations of the Chesapeake region with guns and disease. Maryland soon turned to chattel slavery to develop an economy heavily dependent on the drug trade, i.e. tobacco. This was racialized slavery based on naked white supremacy.

Enslaved Marylanders resisted whenever they could, the most famous being Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman who both  joined the abolitionist movement. Harriet Tubman supported armed revolution against slavery and was one of the conspirators involved in supporting John Brown’s raid.  By the time of Lincoln’s election in 1860, half of Maryland’s black population was already free because of opposition to slavery and the decline of the tobacco-based economy.

As the outbreak of Civil War approached in 1861, Maryland’s loyalty teetered between Union and Confederate. Lincoln resorted to preventive detention of Confederate sympathizers to keep the state in the Union. Marylanders fought on both sides, with the bloodiest battle of the war fought along the quiet ripples of Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland. John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Lincoln, was a pro-slavery Marylander.

Slavery was abolished in the state in 1864, but was replaced by Jim Crow segregation, although that was applied unevenly because of the state’s economic diversity. Maryland also had its raging white mobs and lynchings. In the 1920s the KKK could assemble crowds in the thousands but also faced strong opposition. Baltimore citizens rioted when a Klanswoman tried to speak at a Baptist church in the city, and arsonists tried to burn down the offices of the Thomas Dixon Branch of the Klan.

Women Break Up Klan Rally: 1966

Two women who broke up Klan rally leaving the Hyattsville, MD police station in 1967. Photo by Randolph Routt. Washington Star Collection© Washington Post.

The civil rights movement finally put an end to formal segregation, sometimes against violent resistance, as in the long and difficult struggle in Cambridge, Maryland. Sometimes however, resistance to segregation took a more comical turn. In 1966 the Klan was holding a small rally in Mt Rainier Maryland when two women grabbed the Klan bullhorn and started singing “We Shall Overcome”. The stunned Klansmen called the cops claiming that the women had slapped them and torn their robes.The Klan was always more “courageous” away from the light of day. There’s a reason why they were called night riders.

George Wallace, the Alabama segregationist who stood in the schoolhouse door, always did well in Maryland presidential primaries between 1964-1972, but was also met by militant anti-racist demonstrations. In 1972, there was an assassination attempt against Wallace while he was speaking at a Laurel, Maryland shopping center.

Maryland was far from being another Mississippi, but believe me, Dixie-style racism was still very much alive in the state in 1971.

You don’t just walk into a confrontation with the KKK

The great thing about fear is that it focuses your attention. We had made careful preparations for our protest against the Klan picnic. I knew YAWF mostly as the group with the most colorful taffeta banners at antiwar protests as well as by their combative style if right-wingers or police physically attacked them. They fought back.

I soon learned that they were also meticulous planners. The parent group of Youth Against War and Fascism was the NYC based Workers World Party (WWP). The descendent of many splits in the Marxist left, the WWP had some experienced people among its leaders.

Entrance to Town of Rising Sun, MD: 2012

Entrance to the town of Rising Sun, Maryland shown in 2012

Our collective had a meeting with some of the NYC leadership to plan for the picnic confrontation. They came with maps of the Rising Sun area and had already worked out escape routes if things got too ugly. The Klan picnic was not in the town of Rising Sun, but at a nearby farm on an isolated two-lane rural road.

The idea was that we would park our vehicles and picket alongside the road next to the farm. The KKK also promised a cross burning that evening, but we had no intention of being around for that. At night on a lonely country road with revved up racists in sheets? No thank you.

The issue of firearms came up. Eventually it was decided that one car would have weapons in the trunk and people would be assigned to armed self-defense if it came to that. To my great relief, I was not chosen to be one of those people. I could hit a paper target with the .38 caliber revolver that I owned, but I had never pointed a gun at another human being. I was unsure how I would I react in the fear and confusion of an actual shootout.

Our collective organized some friends and allies who agreed to come. We estimated a turnout of maybe 50.  That was when the local authorities pulled a fast one on us. Somebody scouting out the location a couple of days before noticed that there were now “No Parking” signs all up and down the road near the site of the picnic. Since the Klan could park on the farm property, the signs were clearly aimed at us. You may have heard the chant, “Cops and Klan work hand in hand!” This was a concrete example of that.

No problem. We would just assign one person per vehicle to drive up and down the road and just trade off drivers periodically. I wish we had thought to attach signs to the side of the vehicles, though. That would have been more dramatic.

Demonstration Day Arrives

The morning of the demonstration I placed an old axe handle in the back of the Ford van I owned. It was intended for self-defense. Segregationist Lester Maddox had used an axe handle to stop black civil rights demonstrators from entering his Georgia chicken restaurant in 1964. Maddox and his axe handle became a symbol of die-hard Jim Crow. The irony of taking an axe handle to an anti-Klan protest appealed to me.

We assembled at a house shared by three of our Mother Bloor members to caravan to Rising Sun, about an hour’s drive away. One of our members tearfully announced that she had lost her nerve and was going to stay back. I tried to console her because she agreed to sit by the phone until people returned safely. In the days before cell phones and Skype, that was an important job.

Part of Former Boyle Farm in Rising Sun, MD

Part of former farm in 2012 where a 1971 picket of a Klan rally was held near Rising Sun, MD.

When we arrived at our destination near Rising Sun, we met up with the people from Delaware and NYC, and began picketing next to the farm where the KKK picnic was scheduled. We were soon joined by state police and some plainclothes cops that I assumed were FBI. They kept their distance.

We numbered between 50-60 as we chanted, marched, and switched off with the drivers. We really couldn’t see the picnic, but periodically Klan members would approach us on their side of the fence and exchange jibes.

My personal fear had largely evaporated in the warm Maryland sun and the anti-Klan energy we were generating. Nothing really threatening had happened yet and we had no intention of invading the picnic. The presence of the cops nearby was another factor in keeping Klan members from acts of blatant violence.

Then a large blond Klansman sauntered slowly over with a broad grin on his face. Resting his elbows on his side of the fence, still with that silly smile, he looked us over. He really did resemble the Nazi Aryan ideal. I kept my eye on him as we marched around when suddenly he spat directly in the face of a short skinny YAWF member. Without hesitation, the YAWF member spat back directly back into the Klansman’s face. Adrenaline surged through me as I stood my ground and thought, “Oh shit, this is it!” I was expecting the worst.

The Klansman stepped back looking shocked and bewildered. The dumb bastard had no idea what to do. Turning slowly, he walked away accompanied by some rude verbal encouragement from us. A small victory for our side. Shortly afterward the owner of the farm approached the fence and assured us that he didn’t want any trouble and hoped we didn’t either. I don’t recall what we told him, but we were planning to leave soon anyway.

Laurel MD Arms Against Klan: 1967

Klan graffiti in Laurel, MD circa 1967. Photo: Joseph Silverman. DC Public Library Washington Star Collection©Washington Post.

We stayed a while longer and then packed up and left. I felt we had made our point. That night Klan honcho Tony LaRicci charged in on a horse to lead a good old fashioned cross burning. It was ironic that the Maryland Klan had a leader with an Italian name. The KKK was once fiercely anti-Italian when Italians were not yet considered white people. Go figure.

Days later Wilmington YAWF contacted us and said the demonstration had helped ease the grip of Klan fear as they had hoped. They considered the protest a success.

Damn, that news felt good.


Author’s Notes:

Special thanks to Craig Simpson and Ron Jacobs for research help. Resistance to the Klan in Maryland” by Craig Simpson, “Cecil County Klan Rally draws nearly 400” — the Baltimore Sun June 21, 1971, “No incidents reported at Klan rally”— the Washington Post June 21, 1971, Ku Klux Klan: An Encyclopedia by Michael Newton & Judy Ann Newton.


Robert “Bob” Simpson is a former University of Maryland and Washington, DC area social justice activist who moved to Chicago, Illinois in the mid-1970s. He is one half of the Carol Simpson labor cartoon team. Bob remains active in greater Chicago and is a regular contributor to the Daily Kos, Counter Punch and has his own blog The Bobbosphere.


See more related photos from the Washington Area Spark Flickr set: Resistance to the Klan in Maryland


The Washington Post Strike at the Crossroads, December 1975

12 Dec

by Craig Simpson

Post Pressmen & Supporters Picket George’s Store

Post Busts Pressmen's Union 1975 # 3

A mass picket line by striking pressmen and supporters in front of a George’s appliance store in Greenbelt, Maryland in December 1975. Photo by Reading/Simpson, non-commercial use permitted.

The International Printing and Graphic Communications Union Local 6, the pressmen’s union, was engaged in a bitterly fought strike at the Washington Post that reached a turning point in December 1975.

When the strike first began on October 1, a number of advertisers switched to the rival Washington Star as the Post struggled to publish a credible newspaper. It appeared for a time that the Star might supplant the Post, unless the strike was settled.

But the management gradually produced more and more pages per day without union workers, and advertisers began switching back to the Post. Picket lines were set up at stores around the metropolitan Washington area at George’s, a local discount appliance store, and K-Mart in December 1975, but failed to dissuade the advertisers from returning to the Post.

Origins of the Strike: The 1973 Printers’ Dispute

Post Printers Lockout

Printers’ union members picket the Post in November 1973 after union member Michael Padilla was fired for engaging in a slowdown at the paper. When printers stopped work, the Post evicted them from the building after calling US Marshals. Photo by Michael Dresser, some rights reserved.

The tipping point in labor relations at the Post came during a November 1973 dispute with International Typographical Union Local 101, the printers’ union.

The Post was a profitable newspaper, but its margins were slipping compared to its other holdings. New management at the paper made the determination that profits could be increased by squeezing more out of fewer workers.

The Post prepared for a confrontation with its unions and trained non-union personnel at an anti-union facility in Oklahoma to produce the newspaper in the event of a strike by one or more of its unions. It also opened its own training facility in Northern Virginia where non-union staff were trained on the relatively new “cold” type press production that needed fewer workers.

The printers were the largest union at the Post and prepared the molten lead “hot” type for printing. They stood in the way of the Post’s drive to cut costs and increase profits.

The printers began engaging in a work slowdown to pressure management to back off its aggressive bargaining posture as they approached the expiration of their labor contract. The management retaliated by firing one printer, Michael Padilla, for engaging in the slowdown. The union responded with a sit-down strike and the Post evicted them from the building after calling US Marshals.

The Post management then prepared an edition of the paper with non-union staff and prepared to run the presses themselves.  Members of the pressmen’s union were made aware of the Post’s plans by other union members in the building and entered the Post’s facilities saying that they were the only ones entitled to run the presses and they intended to do so.

However, they quickly staged their own sit-down strike and some minor damage was done to a few presses. They halted the paper from publishing and took the position they would not work until all other unions returned.  The Post negotiated a quick settlement with the printers and reinstated Padilla.  All the unions returned to work with nothing said about the minor damage. The pressmen were heroes to other craft union members.

But to the Post management, including publisher Katherine Graham, they had a bulls-eye painted on them and over the next two years a number of smaller skirmishes were fought leading up to the expiration of the pressmen’s labor contract.

Pressmen’s Strike Begins October 1, 1975

Post Busts Pressmen's Union 1975 # 1

Pressmen outside the Washington Post building in the early morning hours of October 1, 1975. Photo: Pete Schmick, Courtesy DC Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post, All Rights Reserved.

The regular pressmen numbered about 200, of whom only about 100 were long term employees. Most of the others migrated to Washington from out-of-town papers for higher wages or because their local unions had been broken during strikes at other newspapers.

The pressmen were viewed as the strongest union at the Post and set the pace for the other nine unions.  Their contract was due to expire September 30, 1975, but the pressmen didn’t plan to strike.  Instead they planned to continue to negotiate while honoring the picket lines of the smaller machinist union at the newspaper whose contract expired at the same time.

However, the machinists were forced to back off of a strike at the last-minute when the Post invoked a binding arbitration clause in the machinists’ contract.

The pressmen’s union leadership decided not to call a strike right away, but a relatively small, organized group of pressmen began disabling the presses at about 4 am and detained and injured a manager. A small fire was set in the printing press room. The strike was on when workers left the building and set up a picket line.  The union leadership then passed out strike signs that had been previously printed in the event of a work stoppage.

The Post was unable to publish for a day, but cobbled together non-union offset print shops around the region to print a reduced version of the paper on the second day and began returning their own presses to running order. They flew the paper produced at the Post by helicopter to printing facilities located within 200 miles of Washington. Later they printed the Sunday and other supplement material as far away as Miami and had it trucked to Washington, DC.

The other unions at the Post either went on strike or respected the picket lines of the pressmen. The exception was the Newspaper Guild, which twice held fierce debates over supporting the strike. Reacting to reports of physical abuse of some members who crossed the picket lines and the damaged presses, they overrode their leadership and voted to continue working on two different occasions, although a minority of Guild members did honor picket lines.

The striking unions called for a boycott of the Post that was supported by local organized labor, but its effects were limited. The Post’s newspaper sales dropped by about 35,000 and advertising fell from about 70% of the newspaper market to about 65%–significant, but not crippling. Some major advertisers switched to the Star and others advertised more heavily in the rival paper.

The Post’s public relations successfully exploited a highly exaggerated version of the pressroom damage (The Post filed suit for $25 million, but the actual damage figure did not exceed $270,000) as an attack on the “free press.” Later the Post demonstrated its power when a grand jury was convened to investigate strike activities, further demonizing the workers.

As advertisers began to return and revenue began to rebound by late November, the Post made a final offer to the pressmen’s union, a formality before hiring permanent replacements.  The offer would have essentially torn up the expired pressmen’s contract, while providing for some nominal pay raises.  The offer was rejected by a vote of the union members and the Post began advertising for permanent replacements for the pressmen in December.

The Post also isolated the pressmen’s union from much of the rest of the city by repeatedly pointing out the lack of any significant number of African American or women press operators in a city that was nicknamed “Chocolate City” and had more women than men.

They moved to further divide the unions from the city’s working people by exploiting long-standing charges of discrimination against the craft unions and reached an agreement with the Washington Printing Specialties & Paper Products Union, whose members moved the heavy rolls of paper around the shop and performed other manual labor.

The 100 member union was predominantly African American and had been battling the mainly white craft unions over discrimination against its members before the strike and had filed suit against several–although not against the pressmen’s union. They  returned to work and joined many of the Newspaper Guild’s members  crossing the picket lines. While not essential to publishing the paper, the agreement with the paper handlers union legitimized the Post’s position and further discredited the strikers in the eyes of many African Americans.

The momentum in the battle had clearly swung toward the management.

1,000 March & Burn Katherine Graham in Effigy

K Graham Burned in Effigy 1976 # 28

Over 1,000 striking pressmen and supporters staged a march and rally on the one year anniversary of the strike on October 2, 1976 that culminated with burning Katherine Graham in effigy in front of the Post headquarters. Photo by Reading/Simpson, non-commercial use permitted.

As the strike moved into 1976, the Post was effectively producing the newspaper at its own printing plant with the permanent replacements of the pressmen and non-union pressmen imported from other areas of the country. The permanent replacements were mainly African Americans along with a few women. The diversity of the replacements was showcased by the Post.

The Post unions had a support committee that worked hard to convince the broader public to back the strike. At one point a petition was circulated among prominent local residents asking that the dispute be submitted to binding arbitration.  The Post refused arbitration. AFL-CIO president George Meany held a meeting with publisher Katherine Graham, but accounts of the meeting indicate that Meany didn’t push hard and Graham was firm that the pressmen had been permanently replaced.

With defeat staring at them, the other Post unions undertook serious negotiations with management over resolving their own issues. Individual members of the various craft unions began drifting back to work.

On February 17, 1976 the mailers’ union, who sorted and bundled the newspapers, reached an agreement with the Post. They returned to work along with the printers’ union—representing about half of the 1,400 craft union workers. The other unions and their members followed shortly thereafter.

The strike was lost at this point and the pressmen’s union was broken. They were now out on their own–along with a few members of other unions who refused to go back and a committed group of supporters.

The U.S. Attorney obtained indictments against 15 pressmen while none of those who crossed picket lines and assaulted strikers were charged.

On the first anniversary of the strike– October 2, 1976–over 1,000 pressmen and their supporters rallied at McPherson Square and marched to the Post building where they burned Katherine Graham in effigy. The march was defiant, but for the pressmen it was more like a funeral.

The pressmen continued to picket the Post through the judicial proceedings. On May 20, 1977, after plea agreements were concluded in court, fourteen pressmen were given sentences that ranged from fines for most individuals to a year in jail for one pressman. The light sentences for most pressmen vindicated their account that the initial disabling of the presses was relatively minor, but it was a hollow victory.

Local 6 was decimated by the strike and ceased to exist after the Washington Star newspaper folded in 1981. The strike was one of the biggest defeats ever suffered by organized labor in the District of Columbia.

Could the Pressmen Have Prevailed?

K Graham Burned in Effigy 1976 # 30

Helicopter at Post building one year after strike began. Management used helicopters in the early stages of the strike to ferry ready-to-print versions of the paper to offset print shops within 200 miles of Washington. Photo: Reading/Simpson, non-commercial use permitted.

Most accounts written after the strike point to the initial disabling of the presses on October 1, 1975 as sealing the pressmen’s fate, but that is an oversimplification.  Even with the Post’s account of “violence” monopolizing the media, the outcome was not certain two and half months into the strike.

Certainly the property damage was a factor in the Guild’s decision not to honor picket lines and gave the Post ammunition to use against the strike. But a significant number of Guild members would have crossed the picket lines in any event and the Post intended to publish utilizing non-union labor even if no damage had occurred.

Simply pointing to the “violence” in which one person was hurt and some relatively minor damage done to property does not take into consideration that the Post settled the 1973 dispute after similar, although not as widespread, disabling of the presses.

The larger error that the pressmen made was viewing the impending confrontation as a traditional battle fought by a group of skilled craftsmen who were necessary for production against a management that was making unprecedented demands but could be forced to back down as they had in the past. The pressmen applied the lessons they had learned from previous battles, like the printers’ dispute, and believed they could prevail by withholding their labor. The rump group that disabled the presses followed this thinking to its logical–but ultimately wrong–conclusion.

Instead, the pressmen faced a powerful enemy who had negated the crafts’ advantage in earlier labor confrontations. The pressmen failed to grasp the impact that technological improvements like cold type would have on the ability to produce the paper in the workers’ absence. They further underestimated the ability of replacements and management to print a paper, despite the printing craft unions’ experience in other cities. They believed that the “liberal” Washington Post would not openly “bust” a union. Perhaps most critically, they didn’t have a winning strategy to sway the broader public to their cause.

In such circumstances, the pressmen were unprepared to cast their battle as part of a larger struggle of working people that were then vigorously resisting similar demands. Employers during the 1970s sought to reverse hard-won work rules and increase productivity while holding down wages due to increased international competition and flattening profits. Workers in the Washington area and around the country were waging strikes, both legal and illegal, over the employers’ demands for more work with less pay in order to maintain their profit margins.

The craft unions at the Post did ultimately realize their need to wage a broader struggle after the strike began. They banded together and formed a “Post Unions United” group and organized a strike support committee–gathering support from other unions and activist groups throughout the city. They launched a campaign to boycott the Post, trying to identify their struggle with broader struggles with a “No Grapes, No Lettuce, No Post” slogan. They hit back at the Post for “union-busting.”

However, these slogans did not resonate. Some accounts after the strike simply noted that Washington was not an industrial city with strong unions.  This is not entirely accurate either.  The city is not industrial in nature, but the upswing in public employee unions in the late 1960s and early 1970s actively engaged tens of thousands of workers in and around the city. Strong established unions already existed in the hotels, grocery,  communications, transit, trucking & warehouses and in construction as well as other sectors.  And, workers were in a fighting mood, like those across the country.

The problem with the campaign message is that it did not capture the reason why the workers were striking and translate it into a just cause that other working people could embrace. The message used would not override the Post’s campaign against “violence” and defense of a “free press.”

Further, the pressmen left themselves vulnerable to be divided from a large, natural ally in the metropolitan area–African Americans who supported unions in much higher percentages than other population groups.

Of the craft unions, the pressmen weren’t the worst when it came to discrimination. They were not one of the unions sued by the paper handlers at the Post. They had taken on some African American apprentices and junior apprentices and had a few black journeymen. However, that didn’t alter the fact that they were overwhelmingly white in a city that was overwhelmingly black, and the larger public didn’t make fine distinctions among the various craft unions.

Unlike the city’s transit union leadership which helped force a desegregation of operator ranks within the union in 1955 prior to a long strike with the Capital Transit Company in order to diffuse the issue, the pressmen’s union did not fully recognize the damage that would be done to their position. And that’s without considering the good will that would have been generated by strides toward full desegregation of their ranks.

It’s easy now to look back and debate what should have been done 40 years ago to prepare for this confrontation and it should be remembered that the pressmen and the other craft unions, despite whatever weaknesses they had, waged a toe-to-toe battle against a determined foe for nearly three months before the tide turned against them.

We’ll never know if a clear message linking the Post unions’ struggles with those being waged by other working people, along with a reputation as a progressive union, would have made a difference in the outcome. But we can know that doing so would have made for a more effective boycott, reducing subscribers and thereby keeping more advertising dollars away from the Post. This in turn would have strengthened the rival Washington Star, putting increased pressure on the Post to reach an agreement.

Author’s Notes:

As a young union activist, I brought the Post craft unions’ boycott materials to my transit union meeting. Some of the officers of the union removed the material from the sign-in table and castigated me for supporting a strike of unions that had discriminated against African Americans. We argued for a while and a lot of the rank and file at the meeting listened in interest, but the damage that was done to the strike’s cause by unions that had failed to take meaningful steps to integrate their ranks cannot be overstated.

Most of the material for this article came from the Washington Star, New York Times, Washington Post, Washington City Paper and flyers produced by strike supporters.


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.


For more photos of the strike

For more photos of the one year strike anniversary march and rally

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.