Chicago’s Union Stockyards Gate

Union Stockyard Gate, Chicago, Illinois

August 9th, 2017, morning

~ Dedicated to Tracy Runyon 

This July and August, I’ve toured the United States for about three weeks before crossing the seas to pursue a Master’s degree at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. I’ve driven north from Oakland, California to Spokane, Washington and zigzagged my way east to Chicago, visiting places as far north as Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota to as far south as Hannibal, Missouri. It’s been an absolutely exciting and glorious journey, and I’m not at all ready for it to end.

Yet today’s my last day in Chicago; I fly out headed for Europe this evening. There’s plenty of time to make a couple of stops today at interesting historical sites besides taking care of last minute details (donating my tent and other things I don’t want to lug with me to Europe to a thrift store, returning the rental car, etc). My first stop is a special request from a dear friend, who also generously helped sponsor this trip.

On June 1st, 1865, a crew of workmen began work on what would be the first example of modern industrial production of food on a massive scale. The Union Stockyards opened on Christmas Day that same year: ‘The Union Stock Yard & Transit Co. of Chicago received its first bellowing arrivals on Christmas Day 1865. …[It] covered a half square mile west of Halsted Street between Pershing Road and 47th Street- Anderson … [and] held on until 1971, when it closed forever…’, wrote Jon Anderson for the Chicago Tribune.

The Great Union Stock Yards of Chicago, ca. 1878, by Charles Rascher. Published by Walsh & Co of Chicago. Public domain via Library of Congress

I’m standing here in front of a pale limestone gateway at Exchange Avenue and Peoria Street. This gateway was built around a decade and a half after the work on the stockyards began, but my sources differ as to exactly when. One source says 1875, another says 1879, yet another says the exact date is unrecorded and therefore unknown. I do find an illustration of the stockyards by Charles Rascher published in 1878 and a gate like this appears to be included in it: if you look closely at the top of the quarter-circle formed by the curved railways and straight roads along Transit Park in the lower half of the picture, you’ll see a three-arched light-colored gateway represented there. However, the top of the gate in the illustration is flat across the top while this is not; it’s hard to say whether it’s the same gate represented a little inaccurately, or an earlier gate at the site. The current gateway was almost certainly designed by the Chicago architectural firm of Burnham and Root, who designed other buildings at the stockyards.

Another view of the Union Stockyard Gate, Chicago. According to the City of Chicago’s Chicago Landmark website, ‘The limestone steer head over the central arch is traditionally thought to represent “Sherman,” a prize-winning bull named after John B. Sherman, one of the founders of the Union Stock Yard and Transit Company.’

Leslie Orear plaque at the Union Stockyard Gate, Chicago, Illinois

The 320-acre expanse of land that the stockyards occupied at its largest, like the site of our nation’s capital, was once conveniently-located but hard-to-develop swampland, and therefore available for builders visionary and determined (crazy?) enough to transform it. The stockyards were built because for many years, livestock traders and meatpackers thought that operating scattered yards and plants was far less efficient than one unified, or ‘union’ stockyard would be. Civil engineer Octave Chanute designed the grid layout which would make it possible to process live animals into fresh and packed meat products at a rate incredible at the time: down from 8-10 hours for a single butcher, even with assistants, to 35 minutes per animal passing through a Union slaughterhouse’s assembly line. John B. Sherman, who had owned one of Chicago’s earlier largest stockyards, oversaw all this efficiency, managing the Union Stockyards and the Transit Company for many years. According to tradition, it’s the head of a bull named after him that’s sculpted above the center arch of the gate.

Stock Yards National Bank Building near the Union Stockyard Gate, Chicago, IL. It was built in 1925 and its design inspired by Independence Hall in Philadelphia

Stock Yards National Bank Building near the Union Stockyard Gate, Chicago, IL. The words inscribed in the arched niche in the low wall marking the old rail line read: ‘In Honor of Those Who Traveled this Path to Toil at the Union Stockyards’

Even more than for their size and efficiency, the Union Stockyards are likely most often brought to mind today for the horrific scenes described by Upton Sinclair in his 1906 book The Jungle. Sinclair, a socialist, wanted to demonstrate that unfettered capitalism did not, as it was so often claimed, result in more good than harm for working people, or reliably produce safe, quality products. His novel described the exploitation of desperate immigrants working for obscenely low wages in dangerous and filthy conditions; poorly fed, overcrowded, and sickly livestock; diseased livestock and other animals not legal to butcher for food processed into meat;  rotten meat and extremely poor quality offal disguised by heavy processing and spices in packed meat products; and so forth. While many protested that Sinclair’s novel was just that, all fiction, the public outcry reached many public figures and worker’s rights activists ready to receive his message, including Progressive President Theodore Roosevelt. He immediately sent out an inspection team who found that the very same conditions that Upton described so graphically were, in fact, rampant at the stockyards. Sweeping legislation protecting worker and consumer health and safety followed soon after.

Over time, as transportation became more efficient, it also became more efficient and much cheaper for meat producers to process livestock where they were raised. The shrinking Union Stockyards closed for good in 1971. Its arched limestone gate was declared a public landmark on February 24th, 1972.

See below for links for more excellent introductory sources to the history of the Union Stockyards, and scroll down to see the two signs I find at the site which also provide a brief history.

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and inspiration

Anderson, Jon. ‘The Chicago Stockyards Open‘, Chicago Tribune 

Bramley, Anne. ‘How Chicago’s Slaughterhouse Spectacles Paved The Way For Big Meat.’ NPR: The Salt, Dec 3, 2015

Chicago Landmarks. ‘Stock Yards National Bank (Former)‘ and ‘Union Stock Yard Gate.‘ Website published by the City of Chicago

City of Chicago Landmark Designation Reports #210: Union Stock Yard Gate. City of Chicago, 1976.

Gregory, Terry. ‘Union Stockyards.’ Chicagology website

Rouse, Kristen L. ‘Meat Inspection Act of 1906.’ Encyclopædia Britannica

Twa, Garth. ‘The Jungle.Encyclopædia Britannica

Wilson, Mark R., Stephen R. Porter, and Janice L. Reiff. ‘Union Stock Yard & Transit Co.‘ The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago.

Paul Robeson, Black Dockworkers, and Labor-Left Pan-Africanism, by Peter Cole

Actor Paul Robeson, photographed at Madame St. Georges studio in London in 1925 (AP Photo/Courtesy Paul Robeson Jr.). Click to hear Robeson’s incomparably beautiful baritone voice sing ‘Shenandoah’

In honor of singer, actor, and civil and labor rights activist Paul Robeson’s birthday, April 9, 1898, here’s an excellent piece by Peter Cole, originally published at the African American Intellectual History Society blog

Paul Robeson was one of the greatest black internationalists of the twentieth century. A gifted actor and singer, he was also an unabashed leftist and union supporter. This resulted in his bitter persecution, destroying his career and causing, to a surprising degree, his disappearance from popular–if not academic–memory. Robeson’s connections to the fiery black dockworkers of the San Francisco Bay illuminate a form of black internationalism still left out of scholarly analyses –what I will refer to as Labor-Left Pan-Africanism.

Robeson’s life exemplified Pan-Africanism, a global movement of politically conscious black people who believed they shared much in common with all people of African descent in Africa and across the African Diaspora. In the 1930s, Robeson embraced this ideology, along with communism, and supported the Soviet Union. Robeson and other leftwing, Pan-African black intellectuals and activists—such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Eslanda Robeson, Vicki Garvin, and Hubert Harrison—fought long and hard for racial equality in the United States and for liberation of African and Caribbean nations abroad.

Robeson connected struggles for civil rights with socialism and working class politics. His interest in black equality first came from his father, William Drew Robeson, who was born a slave and successfully liberated himself. Robeson’s leftist politics emerged in the 1930s, first visiting the Soviet Union in 1934, and subsequently embracing socialism for treating black people as equals. He combined politics and artistry from then onwards.

In 1935, Robeson performed in the London debut of the American play Stevedore.1 The reviewer in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine concluded: “Stevedore is extremely valuable in the racial–social question—it is straight from the shoulder.” Later that year, he also played the lead in C. L. R. James’ take on Toussaint L’Ouverture, itself written shortly before James’ classic history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins (1938).

In 1937, back in the United States, Robeson helped to establish the Council on African Affairs (CAA), which promoted African liberation in an era when few Americans actively engaged in such matters. Perhaps its greatest achievement came in 1946, when the CAA submitted a memorandum to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in support of the African National Congress (ANC). Led by its US-educated President, Alfred Xuma, the ANC successfully fought to prevent the annexation of South-West Africa (now Namibia) by racist, white minority-ruled South Africa. Alas, the CAA was red-baited out of existence shortly after this victory.

In 1942, during WWII, Robeson traveled to Oakland to champion the black and white union workers contributing to the Allied war effort on the home front. One of Robeson’s most famous photos shows him singing the “Star Spangled Banner” amidst a sea of black and white workers at Moore Shipyard in Oakland. The image captures his politics brilliantly, all the more so since Robeson had worked as a shipbuilder during WWI.

Paul Robeson, world famous baritone, at Moore Shipyard in Oakland, CA, leading workers in singing the Star Spangled Banner.

After WWII, the Cold War commenced and black people linked to communism, like Robeson and Du Bois, were persecuted by the US State Department, the FBI, and many so-called patriots intolerant of dissent. Historian Penny M. Von Eschen cites Robeson’s “extreme advocacy on behalf of the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa” as an explanation for his career’s destruction in the Red Scare. I would also add his labor activism.

Just like Robeson, many of the black dockworkers I study adhered to Labor-Left Pan-Africanism. In the San Francisco Bay Area, thousands of African Americans belonged to the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU).2  This leftwing union was renowned for its fierce and proud commitment to racial equality and black internationalism. Indeed, during WWII, Robeson became an honorary member of the ILWU. Robeson and the ILWU were, in many ways, a perfect fit.

The ILWU was—and remains—amongst America’s most radical unions, led for decades by its leftist President Harry Bridges and supported by many leftists in the rank-and-file. The union put socialism into action in its hiring halls, which dispatched members based upon a “low man out” system in which the person with the fewest amount of hours worked, that quarter, received the first available job.

In keeping with its politics, the ILWU attacked racism on the waterfront beginning with its initial “Big Strike” even though the workforce was 99% white in 1934. Local 10 welcomed thousands of African Americans during the WWII-induced shipping boom and these blacks, alongside leftist white allies, fully integrated their union and fought for civil rights in the Bay Area and nationwide. Due to their aggressive efforts, ILWU Local 10, which represents dockworkers in San Francisco, Oakland, and throughout the Bay Area, became black majority in the mid-1960s with blacks elected to every leadership position available. Truly, the ILWU embodied what historian Robert Korstad labeled “civil rights unionism.”

Robeson understood the significance of the ILWU as a platform from which to demand civil rights. Two of Robeson’s best friends– Joe Johnson and Revels Cayton— belonged to the ILWU. Together, these three black men articulated a commitment to Labor-Left Pan-Africanism.

The best example of its Pan-Africanism was ILWU’s commitment to the struggle against apartheid and, more broadly, for the liberation of all the peoples of southern Africa. In the 1950s and 1960s, the union repeatedly condemned white-minority rule in South Africa and also noted the ironic similarities with Jim Crow segregation in the States. In the 1970s and 1980s, rank-and-file members of ILWU Local 10 formed the Southern Africa Liberation Support Committee, which stood at the vanguard of black working class anti-apartheid activism during this period. Leo Robinson, Texas-born and a child of the 2nd Great Migration to Oakland, followed in his father’s footsteps to the waterfront in 1963. In Local 10 Robinson became a communist and activist who helped found the SALSC after the Soweto student uprising of 1976. Although Robeson died that same year, after declining health and decades in forced retirement due to McCarthyism, other radical longshoremen inspired by socialism and liberation movements in Africa joined Robinson and following in Robeson’s footsteps.

The black and white members of the SALSC fought for the liberation of black people in South Africa, Mozambique, Rhodesia, and elsewhere in the best way they knew how: direct action on the job. To leftist, Pan-African dockworkers, the most logical way to attack apartheid and racial capitalism was flexing their economic muscle, i.e. stop work. In 1962, 1977, and for eleven days in 1984 (shortly after Reagan’s landslide re-election), they refused to unload South African cargo. By contrast, other black Pan-Africanists embraced consumer boycotts or economic divestment. Local 10’s actions set the bar for US anti-apartheid activism and helped inspire many in the Bay Area to join the solidarity struggle. Nelson Mandela thanked the union on his first visit to Oakland in 1990 and Robinson received a posthumous award from the now-democratic South African government.

Long after his death, Paul Robeson continued to inspire African Americans in the ILWU including the Bay Area’s Alex Bagwell. Like Leo Robinson, Bagwell’s family moved to San Francisco during WWII. In the 1960s, he dropped out of college after admission to the union, which had elevated so many black folks into the middle class. Like Robeson, Bagwell was a leftist and active in the union’s anti-apartheid efforts. He and his wife, Harriet, belonged to a radical choir, Vukani Mawethu, founded by a South African who belonged to the ANC and had gone into exile. Alex and his wife were among those in Vukani who sang when Mandela visited Oakland.

In the early 1990s, though not yet retired, Bagwell finished his B.A. and then earned his M.A. in Creativity and Arts Education at San Francisco State University. For his graduate degree, he wrote a play on Robeson’s life, conducting interviews with twenty people who knew him including Local 10 member Joe Johnson, Robeson’s long-time friend.

After the birth of a multiracial, democratic South Africa, the Bagwells traveled to the country, as part of Vukani Mawethu, to perform there. Other black and white radicals in the ILWU did so, as well. The Pan-Africanism of these dockworkers clearly followed in the footsteps of Robeson, who first championed the rights of black South Africans in the 1940s. The spirit and ideals of Robeson continue to shape the Pan-Africanism of working class black dockworkers who now have established connections with black dockworkers in South African ports. Robeson would be proud.

  1.  Stevedore is an older term for dockworker or longshoreman, workers who load and unload cargo ships.
  2. The ILWU’s original name was the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union but, in 1997, a resolution was approved, unanimously at its biennial convention, that made its name gender-neutral. “What’s in a Name? For ILWU, it’s not ‘men’,Journal of Commerce, May 4, 1997

~ Peter Cole is a historian of the twentieth-century United States, South Africa and comparative history. Dr. Cole is Professor of History at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia (University of Illinois Press, 2013) and currently at work on a book entitled Dockworker Power: Race, Technology & Unions in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He writes on labor history and politics (Bio credit: AAIHS)

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Photobook: Brown Building, Site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of March 25, 1911, Manhattan, NYC

Brown Building, formerly the Asch Building in Manhattan, NYC, photo 2014. This is the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of March 25, 1911 which killed 146 people and became a pivotal event in the history of labor laws in the United States. The deaths of these working poor, locked into their overcrowded, unsanitary, and unsafe factory rooms, challenged the doctrine of ‘freedom of contract.’  This doctrine had long caused courts to strike down laws protecting workers on the assumption that employment was an entirely voluntary, non-coercive relationship between two fully consenting, legally equal parties. The pain and horror of these deaths, suffered mostly by teenage girls forced to choose between burning to death or leaping from a window, awoke the conscience of Americans and galvanized a progressive labor movement as no other single event had yet done.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911, photo published in the New York World, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Brown Building, formerly the Asch Building, site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Manhattan, NYC

New York Tribune, NYC, 26 March 1911. Chronicling America – Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King, Jr.!

Sculpture of Martin Luther King, Jr by Lei Yixin on the Mall in Washington D.C.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., born January 15, 1929, is among the world’s most influential and memorable civil rights leaders. The young, respected theologian and pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association in late 1955, which ran the bus boycott following Rosa Park’s refusal to move to the back of a segregated bus earlier that year. King proved to be a charismatic and eloquent leader and soon moved to the forefront of the larger movement to end legal and social discrimination and segregation in the American South. His philosophy of nonviolent direct action, heavily influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, resonated widely and still does. It’s consistent with key religious sentiments and principles found in King’s and the majority of Americans’ Christianity, as well as other philosophical and religious systems which emphasize both justice and mercy. The nonviolent tactics that King endorsed also kept the movement on such a moral high ground that it stymied would-be white critics who found it necessary to resort to smear campaigns and ad-hominem attacks, including and especially J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI administration. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and his ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail’ are two of the most moving and most influential creations of the American modern Civil Rights Movement, or indeed of any civil rights movement.

King was cut down by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968, outside of his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was engaged in worker’s rights activism, another major cause to which he dedicated his life.

Learn more about the complex, flawed, and great Dr. King at:

About Dr. King ~ at The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change

Envisioning Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Twenty-First Century ~ by Dr. Elwood Watson for Black Perspectives, blog of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS)

I Have A Dream ~ speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1929-1968) ~ by Clayborne Carson for BlackPast.org

Martin Luther King ~ by the BBC

Martin Luther King, Jr. ~ by David L. Lewis and Clayborne Carson for Encyclopædia Britannica

Martin Luther King and Union Rights ~ by Michael Honey for Clarion, newspaper of PSC/Cuny

Martin Luther King, Jr: An Extraordinary Life ~ a project by The Seattle Times

Martin Luther King Jr.: Leader of Millions in Nonviolent Drive for Racial Justice ~ obituary by Murray Schumach for The New York Times

A Reading of the Letter from Birmingham Jail ~ by Martin Luther King, Jr, read and recorded by The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and project participants

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Two Stories About Following the Life and Work of John Steinbeck

Bust of John Steinbeck and sculptures of people who inspired Cannery Row, Monterey, CA

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

March 4th – 9th, 2017

For several days this last week, I’ve been on a literary retreat hosted by Clay Jenkinson, Becky Cawley, and Russ Eagle. You may remember Clay and Becky from the account of my last retreat with them at Lochsa Lodge in the Bitterroot Mountains in January. Clay is a humanities scholar who has been very influential in my own study and thought for the last few years, Becky has worked with Clay for many more years than that co-creating historical, cultural, and literary tours throughout the United States, and Russ Eagle has made Steinbeck a special study for many years as well. At Lochsa Lodge this winter, we read and discussed Walden Pond and Henry David Thoreau’s concept of living deliberately, as well the history of the Native Americans of the Great Plains and the wars of the United States’ expansion into their territories through the 1800’s, and the echoes of those wars and that expansion in the DAPL fight today.

This tour took us to Monterey, Pacific Grove, the Salinas Valley, and the mountains and coastline of this beautiful region of California following the life and work of the great American writer John Steinbeck

* See my profile of Julia Ward Howe, whose Battle Hymn of the Republic provided the title of The Grapes of Wrath, and which is printed in the opening pages of the novel

Read the written version here and here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Paul Robeson, Black Dockworkers, and Labor-Left Pan-Africanism, by Peter Cole

Actor Paul Robeson, photographed at Madame St. Georges studio in London in 1925 (AP Photo/Courtesy Paul Robeson Jr.). Click to hear Robeson’s incomparably beautiful baritone voice sing ‘Shenandoah’

In honor of singer, actor, and civil and labor rights activist Paul Robeson’s birthday, April 9, 1898, here’s an excellent piece by Peter Cole, originally published at the African American Intellectual History Society blog:

Paul Robeson was one of the greatest black internationalists of the twentieth century. A gifted actor and singer, he was also an unabashed leftist and union supporter. This resulted in his bitter persecution, destroying his career and causing, to a surprising degree, his disappearance from popular–if not academic–memory. Robeson’s connections to the fiery black dockworkers of the San Francisco Bay illuminate a form of black internationalism still left out of scholarly analyses –what I will refer to as Labor-Left Pan-Africanism.

Robeson’s life exemplified Pan-Africanism, a global movement of politically conscious black people who believed they shared much in common with all people of African descent in Africa and across the African Diaspora. In the 1930s, Robeson embraced this ideology, along with communism, and supported the Soviet Union. Robeson and other leftwing, Pan-African black intellectuals and activists—such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Eslanda Robeson, Vicki Garvin, and Hubert Harrison—fought long and hard for racial equality in the United States and for liberation of African and Caribbean nations abroad.

Robeson connected struggles for civil rights with socialism and working class politics. His interest in black equality first came from his father, William Drew Robeson, who was born a slave and successfully liberated himself. Robeson’s leftist politics emerged in the 1930s, first visiting the Soviet Union in 1934, and subsequently embracing socialism for treating black people as equals. He combined politics and artistry from then onwards.

In 1935, Robeson performed in the London debut of the American play Stevedore.1 The reviewer in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine concluded: “Stevedore is extremely valuable in the racial–social question—it is straight from the shoulder.” Later that year, he also played the lead in C. L. R. James’ take on Toussaint L’Ouverture, itself written shortly before James’ classic history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins (1938).

In 1937, back in the United States, Robeson helped to establish the Council on African Affairs (CAA), which promoted African liberation in an era when few Americans actively engaged in such matters. Perhaps its greatest achievement came in 1946, when the CAA submitted a memorandum to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in support of the African National Congress (ANC). Led by its US-educated President, Alfred Xuma, the ANC successfully fought to prevent the annexation of South-West Africa (now Namibia) by racist, white minority-ruled South Africa. Alas, the CAA was red-baited out of existence shortly after this victory.

In 1942, during WWII, Robeson traveled to Oakland to champion the black and white union workers contributing to the Allied war effort on the home front. One of Robeson’s most famous photos shows him singing the “Star Spangled Banner” amidst a sea of black and white workers at Moore Shipyard in Oakland. The image captures his politics brilliantly, all the more so since Robeson had worked as a shipbuilder during WWI.

Paul Robeson, world famous baritone, at Moore Shipyard in Oakland, CA, leading workers in singing the Star Spangled Banner.

After WWII, the Cold War commenced and black people linked to communism, like Robeson and Du Bois, were persecuted by the US State Department, the FBI, and many so-called patriots intolerant of dissent. Historian Penny M. Von Eschen cites Robeson’s “extreme advocacy on behalf of the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa” as an explanation for his career’s destruction in the Red Scare. I would also add his labor activism.

Just like Robeson, many of the black dockworkers I study adhered to Labor-Left Pan-Africanism. In the San Francisco Bay Area, thousands of African Americans belonged to the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU).2  This leftwing union was renowned for its fierce and proud commitment to racial equality and black internationalism. Indeed, during WWII, Robeson became an honorary member of the ILWU. Robeson and the ILWU were, in many ways, a perfect fit.

The ILWU was—and remains—amongst America’s most radical unions, led for decades by its leftist President Harry Bridges and supported by many leftists in the rank-and-file. The union put socialism into action in its hiring halls, which dispatched members based upon a “low man out” system in which the person with the fewest amount of hours worked, that quarter, received the first available job.

In keeping with its politics, the ILWU attacked racism on the waterfront beginning with its initial “Big Strike” even though the workforce was 99% white in 1934. Local 10 welcomed thousands of African Americans during the WWII-induced shipping boom and these blacks, alongside leftist white allies, fully integrated their union and fought for civil rights in the Bay Area and nationwide. Due to their aggressive efforts, ILWU Local 10, which represents dockworkers in San Francisco, Oakland, and throughout the Bay Area, became black majority in the mid-1960s with blacks elected to every leadership position available. Truly, the ILWU embodied what historian Robert Korstad labeled “civil rights unionism.”

Robeson understood the significance of the ILWU as a platform from which to demand civil rights. Two of Robeson’s best friends– Joe Johnson and Revels Cayton— belonged to the ILWU. Together, these three black men articulated a commitment to Labor-Left Pan-Africanism.

The best example of its Pan-Africanism was ILWU’s commitment to the struggle against apartheid and, more broadly, for the liberation of all the peoples of southern Africa. In the 1950s and 1960s, the union repeatedly condemned white-minority rule in South Africa and also noted the ironic similarities with Jim Crow segregation in the States. In the 1970s and 1980s, rank-and-file members of ILWU Local 10 formed the Southern Africa Liberation Support Committee, which stood at the vanguard of black working class anti-apartheid activism during this period. Leo Robinson, Texas-born and a child of the 2nd Great Migration to Oakland, followed in his father’s footsteps to the waterfront in 1963. In Local 10 Robinson became a communist and activist who helped found the SALSC after the Soweto student uprising of 1976. Although Robeson died that same year, after declining health and decades in forced retirement due to McCarthyism, other radical longshoremen inspired by socialism and liberation movements in Africa joined Robinson and following in Robeson’s footsteps.

The black and white members of the SALSC fought for the liberation of black people in South Africa, Mozambique, Rhodesia, and elsewhere in the best way they knew how: direct action on the job. To leftist, Pan-African dockworkers, the most logical way to attack apartheid and racial capitalism was flexing their economic muscle, i.e. stop work. In 1962, 1977, and for eleven days in 1984 (shortly after Reagan’s landslide re-election), they refused to unload South African cargo. By contrast, other black Pan-Africanists embraced consumer boycotts or economic divestment. Local 10’s actions set the bar for US anti-apartheid activism and helped inspire many in the Bay Area to join the solidarity struggle. Nelson Mandela thanked the union on his first visit to Oakland in 1990 and Robinson received a posthumous award from the now-democratic South African government.

Long after his death, Paul Robeson continued to inspire African Americans in the ILWU including the Bay Area’s Alex Bagwell. Like Leo Robinson, Bagwell’s family moved to San Francisco during WWII. In the 1960s, he dropped out of college after admission to the union, which had elevated so many black folks into the middle class. Like Robeson, Bagwell was a leftist and active in the union’s anti-apartheid efforts. He and his wife, Harriet, belonged to a radical choir, Vukani Mawethu, founded by a South African who belonged to the ANC and had gone into exile. Alex and his wife were among those in Vukani who sang when Mandela visited Oakland.

In the early 1990s, though not yet retired, Bagwell finished his B.A. and then earned his M.A. in Creativity and Arts Education at San Francisco State University. For his graduate degree, he wrote a play on Robeson’s life, conducting interviews with twenty people who knew him including Local 10 member Joe Johnson, Robeson’s long-time friend.

After the birth of a multiracial, democratic South Africa, the Bagwells traveled to the country, as part of Vukani Mawethu, to perform there. Other black and white radicals in the ILWU did so, as well. The Pan-Africanism of these dockworkers clearly followed in the footsteps of Robeson, who first championed the rights of black South Africans in the 1940s. The spirit and ideals of Robeson continue to shape the Pan-Africanism of working class black dockworkers who now have established connections with black dockworkers in South African ports. Robeson would be proud.

  1.  Stevedore is an older term for dockworker or longshoreman, workers who load and unload cargo ships.
  2. The ILWU’s original name was the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union but, in 1997, a resolution was approved, unanimously at its biennial convention, that made its name gender-neutral. “What’s in a Name? For ILWU, it’s not ‘men’,Journal of Commerce, May 4, 1997

~ Peter Cole is a historian of the twentieth-century United States, South Africa and comparative history. Dr. Cole is Professor of History at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia (University of Illinois Press, 2013) and currently at work on a book entitled Dockworker Power: Race, Technology & Unions in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He writes on labor history and politics (Bio credit: AAIHS)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Steinbeck Retreat, Monterey Bay and Salinas Valley Region of California, March 4th – 9th, 2017

Bust of John Steinbeck and sculptures of the local people who inspired Cannery Row, Monterey, CA

For several days this last week, I’ve been on a literary retreat hosted by Clay Jenkinson, Becky Cawley, and Russ Eagle. You may remember Clay and Becky from the account of my last retreat with them at Lochsa Lodge in the Bitterroot Mountains in January. Clay is a humanities scholar who has been very influential in my own study and thought for the last few years, Becky has worked with Clay for many more years than that co-creating historical, cultural, and literary tours throughout the United States, and Russ Eagle has made Steinbeck a special study for many years as well. At Lochsa Lodge this winter, we read and discussed Walden Pond and Henry David Thoreau’s concept of living deliberately, as well the history of the Native Americans of the Great Plains and the wars of the United States’ expansion into their territories through the 1800’s, and the echoes of those wars and that expansion in the DAPL fight today.

This tour took us to Monterey, Pacific Grove, the Salinas Valley, and the mountains and coastline of this beautiful region of California following the life and work of the great American writer John Steinbeck. It was a special joy for me that this retreat was all about history, literature, and gorgeous scenery from my home state of California. I had read and loved Steinbeck’s novels especially when I was in my late teens to mid-twenties but it had been far too long since I revisited his work. I re-read some of his novels for this occasion, and some were new to me. I found a rich source of beauty and wisdom much more revealing to me with the added benefit of a decade and more of life-years.

Interior of Rocinante, the customized camper truck from John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley

We read Travels with Charley, Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, and The Pearl; selections from The Red Pony, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, and East of Eden (though most of us read the latter in full since it’s a general favorite); and read and discussed most in depth what Clay, myself, and many others consider his greatest work, The Grapes of Wrath.

The Grapes of Wrath, as you may know, is the story of the epic journey of the Joad family as they flee the loss of their crops and their family home in the Dust Bowl disaster in Depression Era America. The Joads are a fictional family but their struggles are closely based on the struggles of actual immigrants as they face the life of much-maligned, much-neglected, and much-abused refugees from drought and debt in their own nation. Some members of the clan die in the course of their journey, some strike out on their own, a family friend who accompanied them is murdered by a vigilante trying to break up the worker’s rights movement that he had joined, and one becomes a fugitive after he kills his friend’s assassin. Throughout the novel, Ma Joad is transformed from mother to matriarch as she holds the family together through the terrible hardships they suffer in search of work and a new home. She’s one of my favorite female characters in all fiction in her strength, courage, integrity, wisdom, generosity, and great heart. Others in the family are ennobled and transformed as well: the ex-convict, fugitive son Tom joins the worker’s rights movement after his friend is martyred; the disillusioned, tortured loner and binge drinker Uncle John works until he nearly drops to help save the family from a flood and sends a stillborn infant downstream in a crate, Moses-on-the-Nile fashion, to alert others of the migrant’s wrongs; and narcissistic, immature daughter Rose of Sharon … well, I won’t spoil the powerful, disturbing, beautiful ending in case you haven’t read it yet.

Bust of Ed Ricketts memorializing the spot where he died in Monterey, CA

Over the course of several days, we toured Monterey and the settings of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, centered around the character of Doc, modeled on his great friend the charismatic biologist Ed Ricketts, and visited one of Steinbeck’s homes in neighboring Pacific Grove, only several blocks away. We visited the aquarium, housing so much of the marine wildlife which fascinated Steinbeck and Ricketts; walked beautiful Point Lobos, well-loved by Steinbeck and where his family held a memorial service for him and spread some of his ashes; hiked in Pinnacles National Park, not directly associated with Steinbeck but linked to the Gabilan Mountain range which Steinbeck describes in such glowing terms in East of Eden; and, on perhaps my favorite outing of all, we climbed Fremont Peak, as Steinbeck did when on a visit to his old home town in Travels With Charley. Fremont Peak itself is beautiful, its chapparal terrain glowing green from the prolonged rains that rescued California from severe drought this winter and spring, scattered with cloud-gray rocks of the perfect size and grippy roughness to scramble around on, and the view from it is just spectacular: sprawling agricultural fields on one side, Monterey Bay on the other.

The rest of the retreat group spent their last day in Salinas at the Steinbeck Center, the Steinbeck House, and the Garden of Memories where Steinbeck and many of his family members are buried. I didn’t make it to Salinas with the group, having to return to work for the day, but I did visit the Steinbeck Center and House earlier on the first day of the trip since I was free. Unfortunately, I ran out of time to make it to the Garden of Memories before I was due to join the retreat.

I didn’t take many pictures during the trip; I was in retreat mode and in the mood to mostly leave my electronics put away so as to lose myself in the beauty and spirit of these places, unfiltered, unmediated. But I did chronicle my own visit to the Steinbeck Center and the Steinbeck House in Salinas and our day touring Monterey and Pacific Grove. Here are a few photos, below, in addition to the ones above.

It was such a lovely week, and I’m still enjoying the afterglow. Thank you, older, newish, and brand-new Odyssey Tour friends! ‘Til we meet again…

* See my profile of Julia Ward Howe, whose Battle Hymn of the Republic provided the title of The Grapes of Wrath, and which is printed in the opening pages of the novel

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

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Main Street, Salinas, CA. According to a sign out front, John Steinbeck ate at Sang’s Cafe, in the white building with the blue trim just to the left of Maya Cinemas

Rocinante, the customized camper truck from John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley. As you may remember, Rocinante was the name of Don Quixote’s horse. At the Steinbeck Center in Monterey, CA.

Steinbeck House, Salinas, CA, where John Steinbeck was born

Ed Ricketts’ Pacific Biological Laboritories, Monterey, CA. Ricketts was an important figure in Steinbeck’s life and work. Steinbeck also studied marine biology at Stanford, but did not receive a degree there. But not for lack of interest in marine biology or learning in general…

Interior of the downstairs lab area of Ed Rickett’s Pacific Biological Laboratories.

Discussion with Susan Shillinglaw, Steinbeck scholar and writer of books about him and others central to his life and work, upstairs in the Pacific Biological Laboratories, with Clay Jenkinson and Russ Eagle

John Steinbeck’s home and garden at 147 11th Street in Pacific Grove, CA

Monterey and its beautiful Bay with its rich tidepools

Me on Fremont Peak. Thanks for the photo, Larry!