Tag Archives: women

The DC Women Streetcar Operators of World War II

20 Mar
Women Operators in Superintendent's Office: 1943

Women operators at the superintendent’s office in 1943.

By Craig Simpson

In December, 1942, the Capital Transit Company began a series of advertisements in wartime Washington, D.C. newspapers seeking women to operate the city’s streetcars and buses.

African Americans and their allies were demanding that the company end its Jim Crow practices and hire black operators, but the owners instead opened the door a crack to white women.

Women Workers Converge on D.C.

During the first year of World War II, many thousands of men left their jobs and entered the armed forces while tens of thousands of women moved into Washington to work in the rapidly expanding federal city and fill many jobs traditionally held by men.

The District was not a blue-collar town, but women quickly began turning out ships’ guns at the Naval Gun Factory and driving trucks. They also filled the jobs of store and bank clerks that had been traditionally held by men. But most of all, they came to join the federal government’s rapidly burgeoning clerical corps.

A Woman Operating DC Streetcar: 1943

Collecting a fare on a DC Streetcar in 1943.

The Capital Transit Company was desperate. The company adamantly refused to consider hiring African Americans, even though streetcars and buses lay idle in the barns and yards for lack of operators. While women had driven buses for some smaller suburban companies and operated streetcars in a few other cities, none had ever been employed as operators in the biggest transit company in the Washington area.

The same week that the federal Fair Employment Practices Commission issued a preliminary order to Capital Transit to hire African American operators, the company began its advertising for women workers.

Recruiting women, however, was going to be no easy matter. The new workers were required to work split shifts covering both rush hours and there were plenty of other help-wanted ads filling the newspapers.  The company also imposed other restrictions. The openly biased Washington Post wrote,

The last bastion of male drivers in the District has fallen before the assault of the gentler sex, but the hands that guide the trolleys down the track must not be too gentle. It’s Amazons, not Veronica Lakes, who’ll qualify according to the specifications. Applicants must be between 25 and 35 years old, at least 5 feet, 5 inches tall without shoes, and–listen to this, you dieters—must weigh at least 130 pounds or more.

First Women Hired

Betty Whitehurst and Dorothy Berlett became the first women trainees on January 6, 1943. Capital Transit’s plan was to first train them as conductors, then streetcar operators, and later, perhaps, on the buses.

At the same time, pressure was building on the company to provide adequate transportation in the federal city. Milton Diehl of the Office of Defense Transportation, said, “We want to keep the transportation system going here in Washington and I think it is awfully serious when 200 buses are idle because there are not enough men to operate them.”

Capital Transit President E. D. Merrill: 1940

Capital Transit president E. D. Merrill (far right)  in 1940. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Capital Transit president E. D. Merrill sought other means besides integration, and he called for draft deferrals for the men operating streetcars. He said up to 600 new workers would be needed to maintain the level of service the company was attempting to provide.

Plans to use women, however, were dealt a blow when both of the initial trainees quit only two weeks into the training program. Whitehurst dropped out when she and her husband, who was also an operator, decided one member of the family working odd hours was enough. Berlett’s Navy husband was transferred to New Orleans and the couple decided to relocate.

Company Renews Commitment

Capital Transit, under intense fire from advocacy groups and from the federal Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) for its racial policies, was determined to make the women’s program work.

The Washington Post reported,

Undiscouraged by the recent defaulting of its two pioneer women bus drivers, the Capital Transit Co. is still training its Amazonian operators, a company official disclosed last night. As a matter of fact, two of the girl graduates are already getting experience as conductors on the Fourteenth Street streetcar lines during the afternoon rush hours while three others are immersed in the academic courses. Enrollment in the streetcar seminary is light, but the transit company still approves the idea and is welcoming possible freshmen to the ranks.

The company tried to entice women to apply for the jobs by offering Sundays off and prohibiting night work by women. This was in contrast to previous new hires who would be at the bottom of the seniority list and end up with the least desirable days off and hours.

First All-Female DC Streetcar Crew: 1943

Edna Cobb & Bessie Allison are the first all-female streetcar crew. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Women soon began going out unaccompanied by trainers on streetcar and bus lines. On April 8, 1943 two women left the Fourteenth Street barn and headed to the Bureau of Engraving as the first all-female trolley crew in the city. Bessie Allison piloted the vehicle while Edna Cobb served as conductor.

Allison came to Washington from Mullen, West Virginia, where she had been assistant manager of a dairy store. Cobb became a spokesperson for the women transit workers during the war years, attempting to recruit more women to the ranks.

Women’s Auxiliary Transit (WATS)

In May 1943, company president Merrill announced the formation of the Women’s Auxiliary Transit Service (WATS) and an ambitious plan to recruit 100 women a week to the group. The group was modeled after the initially civilian Army WAC and Navy WAVE programs and was designed to promote the idea of women temporarily serving in essential wartime transportation in the city.

Join Capital Transit WATS: 1943

WATS advertisement in June 1943.

When it was first formed, WATS was composed of seven streetcar operators, two bus operators, and five in training, plus 19 fare collectors at the Pentagon. Merrill began promoting his idea to recruit more women with regular advertisements in the city’s newspapers appealing to patriotism.

Before long, Merrill hired a women’s counselor to head the group and recruited a panel of Washington, D.C. business and professional women to form a “Women’s Committee to Sponsor the WATS.”

The Committee opened a lounge for the transit women at 4702 14th Street NW, across the street from the Northern streetcar and bus barn. It was dedicated with a housewarming party on July 13, 1943. By this time there were 16 women streetcar and bus operators and 19 conductors. All the women were assigned to the 14th Street streetcar line or the buses in that section of Northwest Washington that operated out of the Northern barn, although later they operated out of other locations as well.

Transit Women Between Shifts: 1943

Women operators between shifts in 1943.

The lounge was equipped with three rooms and a basement for the women’s exclusive use. The rooms contained easy chairs, a radio, a Ping-Pong table and reading material.

The women had the option to wear skirts or slacks at work. The slacks, skirts and blazers were navy blue, the shirts were grey and the ties were black. Operators’ caps had a visor whereas the fare collectors at the Pentagon wore foldable “overseas” caps.

The Women Operators and Conductors

Among these women was Ruth Rautio. She had been a homemaker until joining her husband who was already a streetcar operator. The two worked the same streetcar line, passing each other several times during the day.

Bus operator Elsie Stone reported few problems with customers who she said had grown used to seeing women on the trolleys and buses. “But once in Petworth a man ran real fast to catch the bus and backed right out when he saw me driving,” according to the Washington Post.

A Woman Conductor Washington DC: 1943

Hattie Sheehan in 1943.

Another was Hattie Sheehan, who had worked three months on the midnight shift at the Glen L. Martin Aircraft factory north of Baltimore. Sheehan decided day work was more appealing and moved to Washington to take a streetcar operator job. Sheehan’s sister, Eva Bennet, joined her on the job. The two were originally from Harrisonburg, Virginia.

The most senior operator was Bessie Allison, who had a strong West Virginia accent. “I’m a hillbilly and don’t mind who knows it. But I’m having a lot of fun running streetcars in Washington,” she said, according to the Washington Post.

A Woman Outside Her DC Streetcar: 1943

Frances Lewis in 1943.

Still another was Frances “Tennessee” Lewis, who came from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Valeria Schwalenberg hailed from Greensboro, N.C. She said operating a streetcar was “awfully exciting” compared with her life back home, according to the Post.

Sheehan, Allison, Lewis and Schwalenberg formed a quartet that sang songs learned from childhood. One song that everyone knew was “I’ve been working on the railroad,” according to Sheehan. She added, “It sure is a good theme song for us,” according to the Post.

African American Fired

Sarah Grayson was hired in September, 1943 and worked without incident as a streetcar operator on 14th Street NW until January 31, 1944, when she was summarily fired.

100 Women Operators Needed: 1943

Capital Transit refused to hire African American men or women and fired one woman after she had worked five months when they discovered she was black.

The company rejected the application of an African American neighbor of Grayson’s because of skin color. The applicant reportedly told the company representative, “I don’t see why you can’t hire me when you have a colored girl working for you,” according to the Afro American.

Grayson, who had light skin and blue eyes, told the Afro, “I made no effort to conceal my identity.  The question just never came up.” Grayson had previously been a clerk at a People’s Drug Store.

Grayson told the Afro that it was amusing when her male coworkers would try to chat her up while making derogatory remarks about African Americans [See an image of Grayson: click on “browse this newspaper” and navigate to the February 5, 1944 edition, page 11].

Shortages Continue to Occur

The operator shortages continued to occur throughout 1944 with the company delaying, making excuses, but not outright refusing to hire African Americans. Throughout this time, the FEPC never acted to enforce an order to desegregate transit in Washington.

Appeal for More Women Operators: 1943

Operator Edna Cobb (center) often acted as a recruiter of women. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Apparently believing they could recruit more (white) women by a makeover of the current operators, Capital Transit opened a “charm school” in May, 1944, for the 55 women streetcar and bus operators. Classes taught make-up, hair styling and skin care. Hannah Sherman, school director, said, “We don’t want any you-hooing on buses and streetcars, but we want to make the girls feel pretty and important,” according to the Post.

By February of 1945, the company had 150 buses idled for lack of drivers and was 450 operators short. Still refusing to hire African-Americans, the company began advertising for both men and women part-time operators. The number of women peaked at about 70 after the introduction of part-time employment.

Post World War II

The war in Europe ended in May and in Japan in September.  Post-war propaganda had already begun calling for women to “return to the home.” Merrill estimated that only 25 women remained as operators or conductors at the end of 1945.

Operator Speaks Out at Union Meeting: 1945

Streetcar operator Thelma Hodges speaks at a union meeting during a 1945 strike. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Wages had been held down during the war and the pent up demand resulted in two unauthorized strikes by Capital Transit workers in November 1945. Thelma Hodges, a streetcar operator, told co-workers at the Turner Arena during a strike meeting that “The men ought to make enough pay so their wives could stay home.”

No additional women were hired after World War II ended. By 1948 there were only ten remaining women operators. When streetcar operator Harriet Smith died in September, six of the remaining women acted as pallbearers wearing their Capital Transit uniforms. The six were Bernice Harding, Elizabeth Mann, Martha Blanton, Ethel Drake, Katherine Snyder and Mary Small.

Last of the DC Streetcar Women Operators: 1961

Last of the D.C. WW2 women streetcar operators (2nd row) in 1961. From ATU Local 689.

In 1955, Capital Transit finally desegregated its operator ranks. The company was sold after a two-month strike later in 1955 and it was renamed D.C. Transit.

Two women can be seen in a 1961 group photo of D.C. Transit operators in front of the U.S. Capitol, but by 1962 streetcar service had ended in the nation’s capital–and with it, women transit operators.  By one account, the few remaining women streetcar operators were offered the choice of clerical jobs or retirement.

First Female Bus Operator for DC Transit: 1967

Sarah Owens, first African American woman bus operator hired by D.C. Transit is shown in a screen capture of a 2007 ATU Local 689 video.

After a six-year interlude, the next woman employed as an operator by the D.C. Transit system was Sarah B. Owens, an African American. Owens was turned away at the company employment office in 1966, but filed a complaint with the District government. A year later Owens began her career as a bus operator in June 1967. Owens went on to operate the Metrorail trains as well after that service began in 1976.

This time, employment of women in the D.C. transit industry grew rapidly.  Today hundreds of women operate buses and trains for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the successor company to the D.C. Transit and Capital Transit companies.


Want to see and read more?

For more images related to the World War II era D.C. women transit operators.

For an article on the desegregation of the Capital Transit Company.

Do you know more about these women? Comment below or e-mail us at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com


Author’s Notes:

Sources include The Washington Daily News, The Washington Star, the Washington Post, The Afro American, and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689.


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.


When Abortion Was Legalized: One Woman’s DC Experience

15 Jan

by Anonymous
Originally published February, 1972 in the Montgomery Spark 

Disclaimer: This article is reprinted for its insight into subject of abortion in the District of Columbia in 1972 and should not be used for medical advice. Current practices should be consulted. The article is slightly edited from the original. Included after the article is the author’s reflections 40 years after publication.

Abortion can be a frightening word – especially when you’ve just found out it’s going to happen to you. Fear of the unknown makes you eager to find out exactly what’s going to be done to you, and how it feels, and what effects it will have.

If you have friends who have gone through it, you can go to them and find your answers – at least some reassuring fact comes from each person you ask. But in case none of your friends have had abortions or they’re afraid to admit it, or they’ve scared you with their stories, or if you’re afraid to ask anyone — maybe it will help if I tell you about my abortion.

The Decision

I had been using contraceptive foam (Delfen) because I had been led to believe it was effective – and it had been for three years. But then I missed a period.

I don’t like to admit unpleasant possibilities to myself, so I waited until a couple of days after I’d missed my second period before I went to the D.C. Free Clinic for a pregnancy test. Don’t ever wait that long if you can help it – your pregnancy could be over ten weeks along and abortions can be much more difficult (and expensive) then.

For awhile before I went to the Free Clinic, the man I live with and I had thought a lot about what we’d do if I were pregnant. What good things would happen if I went through with it and had a baby? (1) A new person would come into being and . . . and what?

The bad things were much more evident. We couldn’t afford the hospital bill, I wouldn’t be able to work for a couple of months, our lives are too unstable right now to properly help a child to grow, we might subconsciously resent the child for causing this change and stifling in our lives, and what if the two of us ever decided not to live together anymore?

So it was evident that either the baby had to be given up for adoption (I went through that once before and always regretted it), or I’d have an abortion.

So by the time I received the results of the pregnancy test (positive, huh?) I was convinced that abortion was the answer. But I was afraid. Even after a really good explanation by a very kind counselor at the Free Clinic, I was still apprehensive, to say the least.

What Next?

All I knew at this point was that I had barely escaped the ten-week deadline, there were several places I could call, in D.C. and in New York, that they were all reliable (no witch-doctors or black-sedan/shady-deal/incompetent or unskilled malpracitioner), and that I had to raise $150 in less than a week.

First DC Abortion Clinic Opens: 1971

Phone counselors at Preterm clinic shortly after it opened in March 1971. Photo: Rosemary Martufi, courtesy DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

So the next day I made an appointment at a downtown D.C. abortion clinic called Pre-Term. I was to go in the following Monday, at 7:25 a.m. They assured me I’d be out of there by 11:00, but I had my misgivings.

Getting the money was hard to do, but we found we had more friends than I thought we had. The man I live with called up his friends, and within a couple of hours they had it all together – without question of when they would get paid back. And they couldn’t really afford it – they just know what it is to be a friend.

Luckily, we didn’t have to take their money because three of my women friends each had $50 stashed away and offered it to us. (Sisterhood is powerful!)

I had told several people that I was going to have an abortion, and some of the women told me about their abortion experiences. I kept asking questions because I was really afraid, but for some reason I didn’t want them to know I felt that way. It’s not a good way to behave, but it was hard for me to entrust my feelings to anyone. I guess I was afraid I’d lose the courage to go through with it if I broke down my defenses in any way.

Most of the fear came from not knowing what was going to happen. The man I live with was the only one I could communicate even a part of this fear to, and that’s mostly because since he’s not a woman, he can only imagine what it’s like to have things like this done to your body. He could offer infinite comfort and courage – and he did. But another woman would know what I felt, and because of my defenses I could not let that happen.

So I just pretended – to myself and others – that it wasn’t going to be such a big thing.

Arriving at the Clinic

My friend Annie went with me to the clinic that Monday morning. I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink anything before the abortion, so I was sleepy from no coffee and hungry from no breakfast. I guess my fear woke me up enough, though.

Pickets Outside Preterm Clinic: 1972

Anti-abortion pickets outside Preterm clinic March 24, 1972. Anonymous did not face pickets when she entered the clinic earlier in the year. Photo: Rosemary Martufi, courtesy DC Public Library Washington Star Collection @ Washington Post.

I was surprised to see about ten other women in the waiting room when I got there. Some were with their mothers, who looked calm and accepting, although I’m sure some mothers wouldn’t be, and some fathers would pretend like the situation didn’t even exist.

Some women were with their husbands, who looked sort of concerned but mostly as if they didn’t understand that abortion is not an easy thing for a woman to go through. And some women were alone – one of whom, I found out later, was a college student from the Deep South, had secretly flown to D.C. the night before, and planned to be back in school the next day. They don’t allow abortions in most places.

After about a 20-minut wait, the receptionist accepted my payment and asked for my medical history and a few other details.

Pelvic Exam

Then I was given a preliminary pelvic exam. In case you’ve never had a pelvic examination, here’s what they do. You lie on a table with your feet in some things that look like stirrups, and you spread your knees apart. You feel sort of vulnerable in this position. (You are, but nobody’s going to hurt you.) The thing is to relax. The more tense you are, the more uncomfortable it will be.

I keep telling myself this, but I always get tense at the beginning. Then the doctor takes a metal instrument called a speculum and gently puts it inside your vagina. It feels weird, but it doesn’t hurt. When the doctor presses on the handles of the speculum, the part that’s inside you spreads open the walls of the vagina so the doctor can look inside. It never takes much more than a minute – usually not that long.

It sounds horrible, but it’s not. Women in the D.C. area are learning to do their own pelvics so they can learn more about themselves.

Counseling & Birth Control

After I had the pelvic exam, they sent Annie to the friends’ waiting room, where, she said later, a lot of the people got into good discussions about abortions and women’s rights in general.

Meanwhile, a clinic counselor named Judy took me to an office down the hall. She was so friendly and reassuring that I began to relax a little about what was going to happen.

We talked about birth control, both of us laughing a little about my ignorance in thinking that foam alone could keep me from getting pregnant. It’s really not funny, though, when you think of the millions of women who know precious little about birth control, and therefore can’t control what happens to their bodies.

Lippes Loop

The Lippes Loop IUD that was recommended for Anonymous.

We discussed what kind of birth control I would use after the abortion. I didn’t want a diaphragm because it’s a hassle. Pills scare me because they can have bad side effects. She told me that I could have an intrauterine device (IUD) put in right after the abortion, while I was still on the table. If you’ve had a baby before, it’s relatively easy to adjust to, so we agreed on an IUD called a “Lippes Loop”.

If you’ve never had a baby before, or if you’re susceptible to infections, don’t let them talk you into an IUD immediately after an abortion. Six weeks is a safe time after an abortion to get an IUD . . . meanwhile you must let your body rest and recover from this physical trauma, not even having sex during that time. If you have had a baby, it’s still a good idea not to get an IUD for a while. In women who have not had babies, IUDs cause very severe cramping and bleeding, and lots of times your body rejects it and it comes back out.

After the birth control rap, Judy described for me, using an anatomical diagram, exactly what would happen during the abortion. This helped to ease my mind, but the misgivings were still there. They needn’t have been, though, because everything happened just as she said it would.

Into the Room

By now it was about 10:00, time for it to actually happen. The counselor brought me into a room that looked like any doctor’s examination room.

I was ready, the doctor came in. He was the first man I had seen there – most of the staff were women. He told me his name (Alexander, I think), and we spoke lightly for a few minutes.

The first thing he did was to put the speculum inside my vagina, only this speculum was the kind that stays open so he can have his hands free to work.

The next thing that happened was one of the things I had been most apprehensive about: three anesthetic shots in my cervix. When Judy had told me about this, I had freaked because it sounded so awful. As it turned out, I was just lying there on the table, with the speculum inside me, wondering what was going to happen next, when Judy said, “You’ve had your anesthetic – did you feel it?”

I was amazed that anything had happened, because I hadn’t felt it. The reason is – there are hardly any nerves in your cervix, so it can’t feel things like that.

The next part of it hurt a little, like minor menstrual cramps. The doctor placed a series of instruments, graduating from pencil size to finger size, inside me to dilate the opening to my uterus so that he could do the abortion. It hurt, but not very much. I’ve had worse pain with menstrual cramps. All this time, Judy was telling me what was going on, and the three of us were talking about other things not even related to what was happening. This helped me to relax and take my mind off the abortion.

The Procedure

Now we were finally ready to do it. They use a machine with a long tube attached to it. The doctor placed the end of the tube inside my uterus and, in less than a minute, I wasn’t pregnant anymore.

Drawing of “Vacuum Aspiration” Procedure: 1972

Drawing of vacuum aspiration procedure by Anonymous for Montgomery Spark, 1972. Reprinted with permission.

The machine sits on the floor, making a low, humming noise, generating suction while the doctor guides the end of the tube inside and around the wall of the uterus, making sure to get all of the embryonic material out. (Many women have been fucked over by quack doctors who leave some of this material behind, causing severe infection and often death!)

After it was over, the pain diminished immediately to regular cramps. The doctor put the IUD in (I didn’t feel it at all) and then left for his next patient. I felt dizzy when I got up from the table, so I sat on a chair for a minute.

Judy took me down the hall and we said goodbye in the recovery room where I was supposed to remain for a half hour.

I lay down on a couch, still feeling kind of dizzy. The other women who had come in when I had at 7:30 were there, and we all felt very close in sisterhood because of what we had all just gone through. And all of us felt relieved that it was over. After a few minutes the dizziness went away, and after ten minutes the cramps were gone.

At Home

When I was ready to leave, one of the clinic women took my temperature to make sure I had no fever (a sign of infection). She also told me to come back in a week for a checkup to see if everything was all right.

Then I went and found Annie and we went home. We’d been there for only three and a half hours, but in that time the clinic had given me two new kinds of freedom. I was no longer pregnant, and I was protected (by the IUD) from getting pregnant again.

When we got home, I ate a light snack and slept for a few hours. After that I felt really good. The only evidence of something different was the bleeding. The bleeding was constant, but always very light, for about two weeks, and then it came and went for two more weeks.

I guess I was lucky not to get an infection or have bad cramps or bleeding. A lot of women have these problems after abortions, but they’re easily curable if a doctor is consulted right away.

Abortion Obstacles

Abortions are definitely needed if women are ever to gain control over their own bodies. But there are three big problems in our way:

  1. They cost money. What happens to women who aren’t lucky enough to be able to get $150 -– or more – together? The government condemns them for having so many children, but forbids them abortion and birth control . . . or else sterilizes them.
  2. Abortion is illegal in most places. D. C. and New York are the only places on the East Coast, or even near it, where abortions are legal. This forces many women to have dangerous illegal abortions or, even worse, try to do their own abortions.
  3. Too many women don’t know enough about abortion facilities, counseling services and clinics, and too many women don’t know anything about birth control. How can we control our bodies and our lives if we don’t even know these basic things?

We have to get ourselves together and learn all we can about our bodies and what we must do to take care of them. We have to protect ourselves from this system that forces us, by keeping us ignorant and helpless, to remain in submission to whatever disaster that may befall us.

If you think you may need an abortion, go to a counseling center as soon as you can to get a pregnancy test and find out what to do next. The D.C. Free Clinic has a good pregnancy counseling service.

Obviously a lot of women need abortions. The clinic I went to does 50 every day. A lot more women need birth control counseling so that someday abortions won’t be necessary.

Meanwhile, if you are going to have an abortion, I hope this article has helped to ease your mind. You are not alone – your sisters are with you at counseling centers and clinics and everywhere around you. Sisterhood is powerful!


Reflections After 40 Years

by Anonymous

Court Voids DC Abortion Law: 1969

The DC law limiting abortion was struck down in 1969 by a District Court, but it wasn’t until 1971 that a US Supreme Court ruling essentially legalized abortion in Washington DC.

The abortion experience account I wrote in the February, 1972 issue of the Montgomery Spark provides a pretty good picture of the mentality and conditions of the times. Some things are different now, and some haven’t changed. In case you weren’t around in the early 70s, or even if you were, here’s a bit of perspective.

Washington, D.C. was one of the few cities in the U.S. where abortion was legal in 1972. It wasn’t until January 22, 1973 that the Supreme Court in the Roe v. Wade decision affirmed the constitutional right to privacy and a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.

Back Alley Abortions

Much more prevalent than legal abortions were the brutal, toxic, often lethal procedures performed by unethical or untrained people on women who – for whatever reason – felt they must end their pregnancies.

Back then, much more so than now, unwed motherhood was a huge crisis in a woman’s life. Parents disowned their daughters, schools expelled pregnant girls, and society in general viewed them as stupid trash, unworthy of acceptance in their social world.

In the early 70s the women’s liberation movement had just begun to have an impact on the general perception of women’s rights and equality. People were beginning to realize that sex was happening a lot more than anyone had been admitting, and that something really needed to be done about birth control. Sadly, birth control education was far from reaching the saturation point needed for it to effectively prevent unwanted pregnancy.

Reflections on 1972

When I wrote the Spark article I was active in the women’s liberation movement and didn’t have concerns about what the world would think about my pregnancy. My reason for seeking an abortion was more centered on my ability to care for a child and provide for his or her upbringing.

My boyfriend and I loved each other very much, but we were not ready to commit to each other for the rest of our lives and neither of us had any reliable financial resources.

DC Demonstration for Women’s Rights: 1970

1970 march for rights in Washington, DC on  50th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Photo: Paul Schmick, courtesy of DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

My choice would have been for me to continue with the pregnancy and give the baby up for adoption. I had already done that, though, four years before, and I didn’t ever want to go through that emotional pain again.

In retrospect, I’m sure we would have found a way to raise that child if we had decided against the abortion or adoption. I became pregnant the first time because I was completely ignorant about birth control. No clue. This time I was only slightly more knowledgeable, believing that contraceptive foam would prevent pregnancy.

At the time I didn’t see anything morally wrong in ending my pregnancy, as long as it was well within the first trimester. Neither my boyfriend nor I believed we were taking the life of a human being.

Present Views on Abortion

This, of course, is where the current controversy becomes heated. When does a fetus become a human being? What do we mean by “right to life”? What about the mother’s life? What if the child was conceived during rape?

The best exploration of the whole question is in an article by Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan, “The Question of Abortion: The Search for Answers.”

Sagan and Druyan explore the meanings of “pro-life” and “pro-choice” and delve into the science, morality and legality of all the shades of meaning that are involved. In their introduction they present the dilemma:

In the simplest characterization, a pro-choicer would hold that the decision to abort a pregnancy is to be made only by the woman; the state has no right to interfere. And a pro-lifer would hold that, from the moment of conception, the embryo or fetus is alive; that this life imposes on us a moral obligation to preserve it; and that abortion is tantamount to murder. Both names–pro-choice and pro-life–were picked with an eye toward influencing those whose minds are not yet made up: Few people wish to be counted either as being against freedom of choice or as opposed to life. Indeed, freedom and life are two of our most cherished values, and here they seem to be in fundamental conflict.

They lead into their detailed exploration with these questions:

If we do not oppose abortion at some stage of pregnancy, is there not a danger of dismissing an entire category of human beings as unworthy of our protection and respect? And isn’t that dismissal the hallmark of sexism, racism, nationalism, and religious fanaticism? Shouldn’t those dedicated to fighting such injustices be scrupulously careful not to embrace another?

Reading this article helped me to refine my own position on the question of abortion. Before I read it I had some gut-level feelings but hadn’t reasoned it out logically and without bias. The result is that I believe a woman has the right to choose to end her pregnancy in the first trimester and after that there are shades of morality involved. I believe every case should be considered individually. I believe every woman has the right to control what happens to her own body.

Back in Time?

Now I’ve lived forty more years since I wrote the Spark article, and I sometimes think about what I would do if I could go back in time knowing what I know now.

I wouldn’t give my first child up for adoption because now I know that I could’ve found a way to take care of him. It’s okay, though, because I later found his adoptive parents and learned what joy he brought into their lives. He is happy and has four beautiful children of his own.

I probably wouldn’t have an abortion now (if it were physically possible for me to even get pregnant), and I think my boyfriend and I could have managed to raise a child if I hadn’t had that abortion in 1972. Maybe we took the situation too lightly, but it seemed to be the right decision at the time.

The debate continues, and there will continue to be many perspectives on the question. We all agree that abortion is not a very good method of birth control. It would be a better world if we could reduce the number of abortions, just as it would be better if we could reduce the need for heart transplants and chemotherapy. A lot depends on education and the availability of birth control.  Sagan and Druyan again:

“Our Bodies Our Selves”: 1971

1971 cover of Our Bodies Our Selves that sold 250,000 copies largely by word of mouth.

By far the most common reason for abortion worldwide is birth control. So shouldn’t opponents of abortion be handing out contraceptives and teaching school children how to use them? That would be an effective way to reduce the number of abortions. Instead, the United States is far behind other nations in the development of safe and effective methods of birth control–and, in many cases, opposition to such research (and to sex education) has come from the same people who oppose abortions.

If you have an opinion about abortion or if you’re still struggling with it, I recommend that you read the Sagan and Druyan piece.  For in-depth information about women’s bodies, reproduction, birth control, women’s physical and mental health and much more, I recommend Our Bodies, Ourselves, a book first compiled and published by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective in the spring of 1973 and updated periodically up to 2011. It’s available at Amazon.com. You can also visit Our Bodies Ourselves, a huge and valuable global resource for women’s health issues.

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.

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