Shirley Graham Du Bois – Political Activist, Composer, Playwright, and Author

Shirley Graham, Carl Van Vechten Photographs, Library of Congress (source)

Shirley Graham, Carl Van Vechten Photographs, Library of Congress (source)

I wrote a short piece for the Facebook page last week on Shirley Graham Du Bois, but feel that this remarkable woman deserves more attention. Not only was she a well-established political activist before she married her famous husband, W.E.B. Du Bois, in 1951, she was also a composer , a published playwright, a lecturer and an author. Taught as a child to stand up to injustice, she wrote her first editorial when she was 13 and never looked back.

Born November 11, 1896, Shirley was the oldest of five children born to David A Graham, an African Methodist Episcopal minister and his wife Elizabeth Etta Bell Graham. The family moved frequently because of her father’s assignments. Living in both northern and southern states such as Indiana, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Colorado, they ended up in Spokane, Washington, where Shirley graduated from Lewis and Clark High School. Her father officiated at her first marriage to Shadrach McCants in 1918. The couple had two boys, Robert (1923) and David (1925), before obtaining a divorce in 1927.

After the divorce, Shirley left her two boys with her parents and traveled extensively, studying and teaching. She studied at Howard University School of Music, the Institute of Musical Arts in NYC, and at the Sorbonne before entering Oberlin College in 1931 where she received her undergraduate degree and a Masters in Music. She taught music and fine arts during this time to support herself. Later, she took classes toward a doctorate in English at Yale and New York University.

During her time at the Sorbonne, she met many people of African descent and developed a desire to express African and African-American themes through her music. In 1932, her opera, Tom Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro, premiered in Cleveland, Ohio to great acclaim, making her the first African-American woman to write and produce an opera with an all-black cast. It told the story of Africans’ journey to North America as enslaved people, their struggles, and finally their freedom.  It took place in a stadium setting and attracted 25,000 people to the first two performances. She wrote other musicals, as well as comedic and tragic plays, including Deep Rivers (1939), It’s Morning (1940), Track Thirteen (1940), and Elijah’s Raven (1941).

After her time at Oberlin, Shirley served as a director of a unit of the Chicago Federal Theater, the YWCA-USO Director at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and founded the Graham Artists Bureau in Chicago with her brother Bill to secure bookings for African-American artists. Dismissed after defending men who were protesting the deaths of three black soldiers at Fort Huachuca, she was hired by the NAACP as a field secretary to organize new branches across the country.

Shirley was a prolific writer having written her first editorial at the age of 13, after being barred from a YWCA swimming pool. She wrote in several genres, but is particularly known for her biographies for both adults and children. Her first book, George Washington Carver, Scientist, was published in 1944, followed by Paul Robeson, Citizen of the World (1946), and Your Most Humble Servant: Benjamin Banneker (1949), among others. She focused not only on famous African-Americans, but also on international individuals such as Gamal Nassar and Julius Nyerere. She also wrote two novels, Zulu Heart (1974) and a historical novel about the life of Frederick Douglass, There Once Was a Slave (1947) which won the Messner Prize.

W.E.B. Du Bois c. 1946, Carl Van Vechten Photographs, Library of Congress (source)

W.E.B. Du Bois c. 1946, Carl Van Vechten Photographs, Library of Congress (source)

Politically active throughout her life she wrote and delivered many speeches and published articles on a variety of topics related to minorities, women, and peace. Her focus was not confined to issues in the United States, but was global. In 1961, she was one of the founders of Freedomways, a civil rights magazine, and became its first general editor. She was also one of the founders of the Progressive Party and in 1948 gave the keynote address at the convention in Philadelphia which nominated former Vice President Henry Wallace for President.

Shirley’s second marriage was to W.E.B. Du Bois on Feb 27, 1951, about six months after the death of his first wife. Thirty years his junior, she had known him since she was a child and as an adult had worked as a colleague on many common causes.

After their wedding, he was indicted for “un-American” activities, but there was insufficient evidence for a conviction. For the next 10 years, they fought legal battles with the government and continued to be harassed by US officials because of their left-leaning stances.  Finally, they decided to emigrate to Ghana in 1961. They became citizens and even after W.E.B.’s death in 1963, Shirley remained in Ghana until the coup d’etat in 1966.

A woman of many talents, after her husband’s death, Shirley worked with Ghana Television, developing studio space, training staff, and helping to develop the national infrastructure. In 1966, with the overthrow of the government led by Kwame Nkrumah, she moved to Cairo, Egypt to live with her son David who was working as a journalist.

In Cairo, Egypt, she traveled throughout the world speaking and promoting the cause of liberation for Africans, African-Americans, and women. In 1971, she also published her memoir of W.E.B., His Day Is Marching On. In 1977, Shirley traveled to Beijing, China, for cancer treatment, where she died on March 27th.

Shirley Graham Du Bois was a very talented and versatile woman who had a passion for justice that wouldn’t be denied.


Shirley Graham Du Bois Papers, Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

DuBois, Shirley Graham (1896-1944) at Black Past Remembered & Reclaimed

Shirley Graham Du Bois at Wikipedia

Helene Stöcker – Fighting for Women’s Control Over Their Lives

Helene Stöcker c. 1900 (source)

Helene Stöcker c. 1900 (source)

From time to time in women’s rights protests you see signs saying something along the lines of “Didn’t my Grandmother fight for these rights?” It’s true, the battles aren’t new, or confined to any particular country. One of the earliest champions for women’s rights, including control over their own bodies, was Helene Stöcker of Germany.

Born November 13, 1869 in Elberfeld, Germany, Helene grew up in a strict Calvinist household. She was the oldest of eight children born to Peter Heinrich Ludwig Stöcker and Hulda Bergmann Stöcker. Her father had wanted to be a missionary, but had to take over the family business, still Bible reading and daily prayer were part of the family routine. Helene eventually rejected her father’s religion, but acknowledged his influence on her values, including personal integrity, charity, and a sense of justice.

Her mother also influenced her future concerns. Like Margaret Sanger, Helene saw the toll that eight births had taken on her mother. Only five of Hulda’s children survived to adulthood, and when there were complications at the birth of her only son, Helene had to take on the responsibilities of the household. This (along with Gretchen’s situation in Goethe’s Faust, as she later said) led her to consider the consequences related to reproduction for women in traditional relationships.

Helene was a voracious reader and an independent thinker. She attended a girls’ school and in 1890 a teacher’s seminary, preparing to be a teacher. But, instead of following this path, she moved to Berlin and began to attend classes at the university in literature, philosophy and economics. At the time, the university didn’t allow women to obtain degrees, so she moved on to Glasgow and finally to the University at Bern where she received her doctorate in Literature in 1902, becoming one of the first women in Germany to do so.

In 1905, Helene became the head of the League for the Protection of Mothers (Bund für Mutterschutz) which had been founded in Berlin in 1904 by Ruth Bré. The change in leadership was due to a conflict over the direction of the organization. Bré was primarily concerned with the situation of single mothers and their children. In addition to promoting equality of illegitimate children under the law and establishing homes for unwed mothers, Helene also promoted sex education, access to contraceptives, and the legalization of abortion. In 1908 the League was renamed the League for the Protection of Mothers and Sexual Reform (Bund für Mutterschutz und Sexualreform).

The League was engaged in practical solutions, but also political activism and debate. It included many well-known intellectuals both men and women, including Lily Braun, Marie Stritt, Adele Schreiber, Max Weber, and Friedrich Naumann. Their activities and theoretical debate were publicized through two journals, edited by Helene, called Mutterschutz and Die Neue Generation. According to Allen, Stöcker was the intellectual leader of the group. One of her colleagues, Grete Meisel-Hess said that “Her personality expresses a calm self-confidence; no attack can intimidate her or deter her from her chosen course of action.”

One attack common to many feminist groups of the time was the accusation that they promoted “free love.” While the focus of the group was traditional heterosexual relationships, they insisted on the need for equality between men and women in marriage, but also legal recognition of what they called “free relationships,” which included not only support for single mothers, but homosexuality, and the right to divorce.

Beginning during WWI, Helene shifted much of her energy to the Peace movement. She had long been a pacifist having joined the Deutsche Friedensgesellschaft (German Peace Society, DFG) in 1892 while in Berlin. And in 1921, she was involved in the founding of the organization named Paco which later was known as the War Resisters’ International and is still in existence.

Helene never married. In 1899, she spent one semester in school at Glasgow. There she met and fell in love with a German lecturer named Alexander Tilly. Tilly was married with children, but when his wife died in 1902, Helene briefly returned to care for him and his children. She found, however, that maintaining her professional life while being a wife and step-mother was too difficult and she returned to Berlin. In 1905, she met Bruno Springer, a lawyer with whom she had a relationship until his death in 1931. They never married, but kept separate apartments on the same floor to be near each other.

Helene’s written works were extensive, as was her political support for her ideas, including her anti-war efforts. For this reason, life in Germany became difficult during the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazi party. In 1937, she was stripped of her German citizenship and her doctorate degree. Her bank account was seized, her writings blacklisted, and her manuscripts burned. She first fled to Switzerland and then England. Attending a conference in Sweden when the war broke out, she decided to stay, but when Norway was invaded, she left Europe and eventually ended up in the United States where she died of cancer on February 24, 1943.

Note: Most of Helene Stöcker’s works don’t seem to have been translated into English, but the journal article in Signs by Ann Taylor Allen gives an excellent analysis of her ideas and how they contrasted with other men and women both in and outside of the League. If you’re interested in her ideas I highly recommend it.

Helene Stöcker (1869-1943) (link to pdf file)

Allen, Ann Taylor. “Mothers of the New Generation: Adele Schreiber, Helene Stöcker, and the Evolution of a German Idea of Motherhood, 1900-1914”. Signs 10.3 (1985): 418–438.(Behind a subscription wall at Jstor, but you can read three articles free every 14 days.)

Braker, Regina, “Helene Stocker’s Pacifism in the Weimar Republic: Between Ideal and Reality“, at Project Muse. (The full text is available only through institution subscription, but the summary has good information.)

Women in Law: A Bio-bibliographical Sourcebook by Rebecca Mae Salkar and Mary Volcansek (excerpt from Google Books)

Helene Stöcker, “The Modern Woman” (1893, at German History Docs

10 Women Who Refused to Give Up Their Seats Before Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks c. 1955 (source)

Rosa Parks c. 1955 (source)

When Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on the bus, the community didn’t hesitate to rally around her and begin the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She was a pillar in the community with an unimpeachable character. She was also an activist with experience in the civil rights movement, and the perfect person to give a face to the struggle.

Rosa was seated in the “colored section” of the bus when the “white section” filled up and the driver told her to move. She refused to obey and was subsequently arrested. Her action prompted the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She was an active civil rights worker and at the time secretary of the Montgomery Chapter of the NAACP. Although her court case became bogged down in state courts, her action, the boycott, and the successful case of Browder v. Gayle, finally brought about desegregation of the city’s bus system.

This post is intended in no way to take away from what Mrs. Parks did. Rather it is to highlight the fact that there were many brave women who took similar actions.

Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith

Each of these four women were arrested during 1955 for refusing to give up their seats on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Of these four women, Claudette Colvin is probably the most well-known. On March 2, Claudette was forcibly removed from a bus for refusing to give her seat to a white man. She was 15 years old, a student at Booker T. Washington High School, and an active member of the NAACP’s Youth Council. Initially, it was thought that her case might be used to organize a boycott, but when they discovered that Claudette was pregnant the idea was put on hold.

However, after the boycott began, following Parks arrest, attorneys Fred Gray, E.D. Nixon, and Clifford Durr decided to initiate a civil action suit separate from Parks’ case. When Browder, McDonald, Colvin, and Smith agreed to be plaintiffs, they filed Browder v. Gayle in District Court. Another woman, Jeanette Reese, was initially part of the suit but withdrew because of intimidation from the white community. On June 13, 1956, the district court ruled that the bus segregation was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment, and the decision was affirmed by the US Supreme Court on November 13, 1956.

Sarah Keys

In 1952, Sarah Keys was a WAC private headed home on furlough from Fort Dix, New Jersey. The bus was integrated; the decision in Morgan v. Virginia had declared Jim Crow laws inoperable on interstate buses in 1946. When Sarah boarded a Carolina Trailways bus in Washington DC, she had no difficulties, but when a new driver took over in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina he demanded that she move to the “colored section” of the bus and give her seat to a white marine.

When she refused to give up her seat, the driver directed all the passengers to another bus and prevented Sarah from boarding. An altercation resulted and Sarah was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. She was kept in jail overnight without being allowed to contact anyone, convicted and charged a fine of $25.

Sarah and her father contacted the NAACP and were referred to Dovey Johnson Roundtree and her law partner Julius Winfield Robertson. Roundtree had been a WAC recruiter in the Deep South and had a similar experience in 1943, in Florida. It was a long battle, but eventually, on November 7, 1955, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued a ruling in Sarah’s favor, finding that forced segregation violated the Interstate Commerce Act.

Sadly, in his position as Chairman of the Commission, J. Monroe Johnson (from South Carolina), failed to enforce the ruling. It wasn’t until after the violence during the Freedom Riders campaign that the Commission was forced to implement their ruling by US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

Irene Morgan

Unlike Rosa Parks, Irene Morgan wasn’t trained in non-violent civil disobedience, so when she was told to move to give up her seat to a white couple, she fought back physically. On July 16, 1944, Irene was seated in the “colored section” of a Greyhound bus when a white couple boarded. Irene and the woman seated next to her were told to move further back. When she refused, the angry driver drove to the jail in the town of Saluda, Virginia, where she was presented with an arrest warrant.

Irene tore up the arrest warrant. When an officer tried to grab her, she kicked him in “a very bad place.” She clawed and tore the shirt of another officer. When she was finally subdued and dragged off of the bus, she was charged with resisting arrest and violating Virginia’s segregation laws. She pleaded guilty of resisting arrest and paid a $100 fine. However, she pleaded not guilty to the violation of the segregation laws and refused to pay the $10 fine.

Eventually, her case, Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, made it to the Supreme Court, with a legal team led by Thurgood Marshall, and won. On June 3, 1946, the US Supreme Court ruled that segregation in interstate travel was unconstitutional. Although the ruling was ignored in much of the South, the Freedom Riders paid tribute to Irene, “Get on the bus, sit anyplace, ‘Cause Irene Morgan won her case. You don’t have to ride Jim Crow.”

Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells c. 1893 (source)

Ida B. Wells c. 1893 (source)

On May 4, 1884, a conductor on a Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company train asked Ida Wells to give up her first class seat to a white man and move to the “Jim Crow” car, which also happened to be the smoking car. The 1875 Civil Rights Act banned discrimination on the basis of race, creed, or color on public transport, but this was in Memphis, Tennessee, and several companies ignored the ruling, especially in the south where they could get away with it. (This was before the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision of “separate but equal.”)

Ida refused to give up her seat saying that the other car was a smoker and she was in the ladies’ car. The conductor tried to remove her and she held on to the seat and bit the back of his hand. He then went for help from two other men and the three of them succeeded in dragging her out of the train.

Ida hired an attorney, who was paid off by the company, then hired another attorney who won the case in the local circuit court with an award of $500. The company appealed, however, and the decision was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth (source)

Sojourner Truth (source)

In 1865, Sojourner Truth refused to give up her seat and challenged the segregated horse car system in Washington DC. Usually drivers refused to stop when she wanted to ride, even when they did, they insisted that she ride in the Jim Crow car. Sojourner complained to the president of the car system and the Jim Crow car was removed.

Once when a driver refused to stop, she began yelling “I want to ride!” It startled so many people that traffic came to a stop and she was able to get on the horse car. When told to go ride up where the horses were, outside the actual car, she refused. She told him she wasn’t from Virginia or Maryland, but New York, and knew the law and wouldn’t be intimidated!

On another occasion she was slammed up against a door. Reporting the incident got the driver dismissed. Sojourner continued her riding campaign, encouraging others to do the same. According to Margaret Washington, “She acted boldly, and with flair. She knew that because her name was known, she could focus attention on the illegality and injustice of segregation. She repeated her ride-ins often enough and over a long enough period of time to drive home her point.”

Elizabeth Jennings Graham
Elizabeth Jennings Graham c. 1895 (source)

Elizabeth Jennings Graham c. 1895 (source)

Elizabeth Jennings was a schoolteacher and the church organist at the First Colored American Congregational Church in New York City, and on July 16th, 1864 she was running late. She and her friend, Sarah Adams, hailed a horse-drawn streetcar and didn’t notice if there was a sign saying that “Negro Persons” were allowed on the car. The conductor told them to get off and Elizabeth refused telling him he was an “impudent fellow for insulting decent persons while on their way to church.”

Sarah got off, but Elizabeth clung to the window frame when he tried to force her off. The conductor drove on, but stopped when he saw a police officer. When the officer boarded, he pushed Elizabeth off of the car and to the sidewalk, damaging her bonnet and dress.

Elizabeth wrote a letter detailing her treatment. It was read in church and sent to Horace Greeley’s newspaper, The New York Daily Tribune. Her father also contacted a lawyer, Chester Arthur, the future US President. Arthur won the case against the Third Avenue Railway Company, saying that “colored persons” couldn’t be kept off of public transportation by company rules “nor by force or violence.”

Frances Watkins Harper
Frances Watkins Harper (source)

Frances Watkins Harper (source)

Frances Watkins Harper was writer, teacher, and public speaker, lecturing on abolitionism, prohibition, and women’s suffrage, both before and after the Civil War. During the Reconstruction era, she also traveled in the south to report on living conditions of freedmen.  In April of 1858, while traveling in Pennsylvania, she was asked to leave one of the city cars. She refused and told her own story in a letter to William Lloyd Garrison’s paper The Liberator.

“The other day, in attempting to ride in one of the city cars, after I had entered, the conductor came to me, and wanted me to go out on the platform. Now, was not that brave and noble? As a matter of course, I did not. Some one interfered, and asked or requested that I might be permitted to sit in a corner. I did not move, but kept the same seat. When I was about to leave, he refused my money, and I threw it down on the car floor, and got out, after I had ridden as far as I wished. Such Impudence!”

"The Liberator" (April 23, 1858) article by Frances Watkins Harper

“The Liberator” (April 23, 1858) article by Frances Watkins Harper

Browder v. Gayle: The Women Before Rosa Parks
Keys v. Carolina Coach Co. at Wikipedia
Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia
Ida B. Wells and Her Passion for Justice
Sojourner Truth: A Life Led By Faith
The Narrative of Sojourner Truth by Margaret Washington
The Schoolteacher on the Streetcar (Elizabeth Jennings)
The Liberator (April 23, 1858) – article written by Frances Watkins Harper

Madame Mathilde Anneke – Revolutionary

Mathilde Anneke (source)

Mathilde Anneke (source)

In her older years, Madame Anneke was described as tall, rigid and erect, with a “white silk cloth at her wrist where her right hand had been amputated.” She presided gently, but firmly, over her students at the girl’s school she founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But in spite of her gentle demeanor, her fighting spirit could be seen in her opposition to slavery and her fight for women’s rights. This spirit and her considerable skills had been developed at the printing press and on the battlefield of her native land.

Mathilde Franziska Giesler was born April 3, 1817, to a wealthy, noble family in Lerchenhausen, Westphalia, in the Ruhr Valley of present day Germany. Her father owned coal and iron mines and extensive lands where she was raised in luxury. Mathilde was educated by private tutors and showed an interest and ability in writing as a girl as well as a love for nature.

Mathilde’s happy life ended when she married Alfred von Tabouillot at the age of nineteen.The marriage ended in divorce one year later and was followed by a bitter custody battle over their daughter. This experience gave her first hand knowledge of the injustice of laws related to the rights of married women and she became a staunch advocate of women’s rights.

After the divorce, Mathilde turned to her writing skills to support herself. She did well, writing and editing, publishing a volume of poems and short biographies. She even wrote a play, Oithono oder die Tempelweihe, “The Inauguration of the Temple”, which was successfully performed in both Germany and later in the United States.

Fritz Anneke c. 1870 (source)

Fritz Anneke c. 1870 (source)

In 1847, Mathilde married Fritz Anneke, a Prussian artillery officer. They shared common political ideas and together began publishing a daily paper for working class people in Cologne. This was during a time of increased desire for freedom among the people of the German Confederation, and eventually, Fritz was imprisoned for his political activities, but Mathilde continued publishing their paper until it was banned. Unwilling to have her voice silenced, the next year she started the first German feminist newspaper, Frauen-Zeitung.

When Fritz was released from prison, he joined the revolutionaries fighting against the Prussian invasion of the Palatinate. Mathilde cut off her long hair, donned trousers and went with him to serve as his adjutant. She was nearly six feet tall, courageous, and an excellent horsewoman. She also handled a gun well as one stranger found when he tried to sneak into camp late at night. Coming face-to-face with Mathilde’s pistol he said “My God, a woman!” Fortunately for him, he was able to explain his presence in the camp.

When the revolutionaries were defeated, Mathilde and Fritz were force to flee and joined many Germans who fled to the United States. In the US, Mathilde was faced with many of the same social conditions for women and she was also appalled at the conditions of African Americans. In 1852, she started the first feminist journal published by a woman in the US, Deutsche Frauen-Zeitung, and spoke out against slavery. She was an eloquent speaker and spoke and wrote in support of the Union cause. She and Fritz were in accord on this matter and he served in the Union Army as colonel and commanding officer of the 34th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

While other publishers conspired against her in Milwaukee, possibly out of professional jealousy, Mathilde went on a speaking tour to raise funds for her own printing shop. The tour was very successful and the next month she began publication in New York, Jersey City and Newark, New Jersey. She traveled abroad to report on international events as well as news within the United States. Mathilde worked hard and was successful for three years until ill health forced her to stop the paper.

After the Civil War, separation from her husband, and his death in 1872, Mathilde Anneke continued to speak out for women’s rights, the vote, and economic opportunities. She had also continued to bob her hair since the war in Germany. In spite of her strong opinions and commanding presence, she was known for her tact and the ability to win others to her way of thinking. This skill was very useful to her when she began her career as a teacher.

In her final years, Mathilde, now usually called Madame Anneke, chose to pass on her knowledge and ideals to young girls. She opened a school where she instructed about 40 girls at a time (and over the years a few boys.) Her style was unusual and surprisingly modern. Instead of standing to recite, the girls sat around a long table with their teacher at the head. In a newspaper article from the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1930, one of her former students, Miss Ida Fernekes had this to say: “It was not her idea to pour knowledge into a child. She drew out, removed obstacles, gently led the way. She allow a child to grow, standing by only to give the growth guidance and purpose.”

For roughly 18 years, Mathilde Anneke imparted wisdom, bolstered confidence, and encouraged talents. I’m sure she was greatly missed when she died November 25, 1884.Madame Anneke was buried beside her husband and wrote the words which adorn the headstone. A loose translation says the following:

“We have never bent the knee
before false gods,
We have never cowered in
stormy weather,
Be we have always had faith
in a divinity
That ever consecrates a
shrine to love.
 – From “Ruins and Ivy”

Mathilde Anneke's headstone by Michelle Woodham (source)

Mathilde Anneke’s headstone by Michelle Woodham (source)

National Honor Sought for Madame Anneke: Older Residents Recall Fight for Women’s Rights, Milwaukee Sentinel, April 27, 1930, retrieved from Wisconsin Historical Society website
Anneke, Mathilde Franziska (Giesler) 1817 – 1884 (Wisconsin Historical Society)
Madame Mathilda Franziska Anneke: An Early Wisconsin Journalist, The Wisconsin magazine of history: Volume 21, number 2, December 1937

Clara Lemlich – A Lifetime of Organizing

Clara Lemlich in 1910

Clara Lemlich in 1910

I first heard of Clara Lemlich on the American Experience special “Triangle Fire” about the tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911.  Prior to the fire, in the fall of 1909, garment workers in New York City went out on  a massive strike referred to as the Uprising of 20.000.  Clara Lemlich’s words prompted the final decision to strike.

Clara Lemlich was born in Gorodok, Ukraine on March 28, 1886. Her family was Jewish and primarily spoke Yiddish, but against her parent’s wishes Clara learned to read Russian and devoured as many books as she could get. She did sewing and wrote letters for illiterate neighbors in order to raise money for books. It was during this time that a neighbor introduced her to revolutionary literature and she became a socialist.

In 1903, after the Russian Orthodox celebration of Easter, a riot began against the Jews in Kishinev the capital of the Bessarabia province of the Russian Empire (now the capital of Moldova.) The pogrom continued without intervention of the police or military until the third day resulting in approximately 50 deaths, 600 wounded, and 700 houses and businesses looted and destroyed. After this pogrom and a second one in 1905, tens of thousands of Jews left the Russian Empire for the west. The Lemlich family was among them.

The pogram in 1903 captured the attention of the world. Theodore Roosevelt telling the tsar to stop oppressing the Jews.

The pogram in 1903 captured the attention of the world. Theodore Roosevelt telling the tsar to stop oppressing the Jews.

Clara immigrated with her family in 1903 to New York City and quickly found work in the garment industry. The conditions in the factories were terrible with low pay, long hours, lack of advancement, and often humiliating treatment from supervisors. The introduction of the sewing machine, rather than making the work easier, served to increase the required output for each day. Workers were often subcontracted and paid even less than those hired directly. Lemlich along with others rebelled against these conditions and joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. She quickly became a leader, organizing strikes and even returning to the picket line after being injured.

On November 22, 1909, a mass meeting was held at Cooper Union to rally support for striking workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company and the Leiserson Company. (Clara had been arrested 17 times while picketing outside the Leiserson factory, been beaten, and left bloody on the sidewalk with broken ribs in September.) Leaders in the labor movement and socialist movement spoke for a couple of hours and Clara grew impatient. Finally, she asked to be heard and was raised to the platform. I’ve read a couple of different versions of what Clara said that night. It could be because she spoke in Yiddish and the differences are in the translation, but basically she said that she was tired of talk. She had listened patiently to generalities, but they were there to make a decision, so she moved that they make the decision to strike. The crowd responded and voted for a general strike beginning the next day. Approximately 20,000 workers went out on strike the next day. It lasted until February 10, 1910, with union contracts at most shops. Sadly, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory held out and refused to make changes or allow the Union into their shop. Then on March 25, 1911, it became the site of a fire that took the lives of 146 people, mostly women and girls.

The fire department arrived quickly, but their ladders didn't reach to the floors where the workers were trapped.

The fire department arrived quickly, but their ladders didn’t reach to the floors where the workers were trapped.

After the Uprising, Lemlich was blacklisted from the garment industry and at odds with the more conservative leadership in the Union. She then took up the cause of women’s suffrage. She believed that suffrage was necessary to improve working women’s lives. Everyone around them in the workplace, the bosses, foremen, inspectors, and owners, were almost all men and they had a vote, but the working women had no vote. The primary suffrage organization, The National American Woman Suffrage Association, was oriented toward middle and upper class women, so she founded the Wage Earners League as a working woman’s alternative. The Wage Earners League, an alternative to the NAWSA was however, dependent on non-working class women for support. It soon passed out of existence and Clara continued her work for suffrage through the Women’s Trade Union League.

Her life took a different direction when Clara married Joe Shavelson in 1913. They moved to a working-class neighborhood and eventually to Brighten Beach. Clara had 3 children, Irving Charles Velson, Martha Shavelson Schaffer and Rita Shavelson Margules and didn’t return to work full-time for the next 30 years. She didn’t give up organizing however. While she devoted herself to raising her family she joined with other Jewish housewives to protest high prices and fight evictions through rent strikes. With Kate Gitlow, she organized the United Council of Working Class Housewives for this purpose and to raise money for relief for strikers.

Striking Garment Workers

Striking Garment Workers

During this time Clara had become a member of the Communist Party, from which she launched the United Council of Working Class Women. This organization was very successful for a time with over 50 branches in NYC and branches in Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Detroit. Although the Council recruited among Communist Party members, it didn’t identify with the Party or press members to join. It eventually was renamed the Progressive Women’s Councils which prompted the Party to withdraw support. Nevertheless in the early 1950s, the PWC was forced to shut down because of Communist Party affiliations.

Clara finally retired from garment work in 1954 and had to fight to get a pension. Over the following years, she was involved in various activities through the Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women’s Clubs, which she helped to found. She protested nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War, and campaigned for ratification of the UN Convention on Genocide and Civil Rights reform.

After her second husband, Abe Goldman, died in 1967, Clara moved to California to be near her children. She moved into the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles, and even there she organized. She convinced the management to join with the United Farm Worker’s boycott of grapes and lettuce, and organized the workers at the Home. I think it’s safe to say that Clara Lemlich agitated and organized as long as she was physically able. She died on July 25, 1982 at the age of 96

Clara Lemlich 2

“One Woman Who Changed the Rules”, Dwyer, Jim (March 22, 2011) New York Times  (From this article you can click through to see a series of articles published about the Triangle Fire.)
Clara Lemlich” – Wikipedia
The 1911 Triangle Factory Fire – Cornell University website
“Remembering the Waistmakers General Strike, 1909” (pdf)
The Labor Wars by Sidney Lens
A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn