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!

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

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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!

Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 1 Part 1, and a 100 Year Anniversary

Flyer for Sanger Clinic, Brownsville, Brooklyn, image courtesy of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project

Flyer for Sanger Clinic, Brownsville, Brooklyn, image courtesy of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project

Tuesday, October 18th, 2016

I start the morning preparing my itinerary for the day as I fortify myself with coffee and the first half of a sandwich.

My first stop is also the furthest east I’ll go this trip, to the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. I take the C train to the Rockaway station, head south on Saratoga, and wander around getting a feel for the neighborhood. It’s predominantly black, solidly working class, with lots of handsome old buildings, mostly well worn with peeling paint. I see lots of mothers and grandparents with strollers and very small children (it’s around noon during work hours), people taking smoke breaks in backdoors, and some very poor and homeless people. Reaching Pitkin’s busy sidewalk, I see shoppers, people going out for lunch, and shop and cafe proprietors in front doorways under brightly colored signs, and I hear many accents and many languages spoken, English, Spanish and French, and many others I don’t recognize. It reminds me of neighborhoods I frequent at home in Oakland. I turn north on Amboy Street, which runs north and south between Pitkin and E. New York Ave.

At 46 Amboy Street, just north of Pitkin, Margaret Sanger opened the United States’ first birth control clinic two days less than 100 years ago today, on Oct 16th, 1916. Though just a  little late for the anniversary, I’m happy to be here at this historic place, humble as it now appears. The clinic was in the tall red brick building to the right of the tan one with the ‘diamond’ pattern on the upper center front of the façade. You’ll find a photo below that shows the clinic as it originally appeared, and here as well.

46 Amboy St, site of Sanger's first birth control clinic

Sanger’s first birth control clinic, given address 46 Amboy St. One thing’s more or less the same: the little pale brick building with the crenelated top still stands next to where the clinic was, as you can see two photos down. The narrower red brick building against and to the left of the larger one, with a sign now identifying it as 42 Amboy, stands on the former clinic site.

46 Amboy St, site of Sanger's first birth control clinic

Another view, angled more like the view in the photo below. The two red brick buildings appear not to be original unless they’ve been changed so much as to be unrecognizable. As you can see from the photo below, there was space between the original clinic building and the tan one, but not so for the current structure. The clapboard building beyond may be original.

Photograph shows women and men sitting with baby carriages in front of the Sanger Clinic, LOC

Women and children sitting with baby carriages in front of the Sanger Clinic, with the white curtains in the windows. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Before opening this clinic, Sanger had trained and worked as a nurse for many years among the poorest and most oppressed Americans, the immigrant and minority working class and poor. Originally a Socialist radical, Sanger came to realize that Marxists, philanthropists, and charity workers alike were making the same essential mistake. Since they failed to identify the root cause of human misery in the slums, the crowded tenements, and the factory floors, all of their well-intended efforts to help were failing and sure to continue to fail. Sanger came to feel this way about her own nursing, which addressed the effects and not the cause, so she turned her efforts to where she believed she could do the most good: birth control activism.

Margaret Sanger as a nursing student around 1900, by Boyce Photographer, White Plains, courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College

Margaret Sanger as a nursing student around 1900, by Boyce Photographer, White Plains, courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College

As a nurse, Sanger cared for poor women broken down in health and mind by laboring all night and caring for children all day, often pregnant all the while, often miscarrying, and the infant mortality rates were very high. So were death rates for the mothers, be it from childbirth, diseases secondary to exhaustion and malnutrition, and worst of all, from self-inflicted abortions. The mothers who resorted to the latter were desperate: they had often already watched other children die, or suffer every day from hunger, or forced into the factories or other labor at a very young age in the struggle to survive.

Though there were plenty of organizations trying to help these families, governmental and charitable, they could not keep up since the need was so great and increasing every day. Industrialization, Sanger recognized, encouraged rapid population growth by the ever-increasing demand for more labor and more future customers. And the workers responded to the social pressure by producing more children in hopes that their offspring could help the family by going out to work. But those hopes were often in vain since the population growth always kept up with or surpassed the need for laborers, constantly driving down wages. And so the cycle continued: immiseration through near-starvation wages, families barely keeping up with the cost of feeding themselves if at all, and children deprived of an education and of health as factory and other hard work often left children stunted, with malformed and weak bones and muscles, and often injured by machinery and chemicals.

Sanger thought: instead of trying vainly to keep up with the spiraling misery caused by this cycle, why not get at the root of it? After all, as the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If women were empowered to decide whether to have children, and only as many as their health and financial circumstances would allow, all this misery could be prevented in the first place since parents could adequately care for the children they did have, mother’s bodies would no longer be broken down by constant pregnancy, infants and mothers would more likely survive childbirth, overcrowding and its accompanying epidemics would be mitigated or even disappear, and a reduced labor force would force employers to compete for workers, driving wages up. And as we’ve seen over the decades, high population growth is strongly correlated with endemic poverty, high infant and mother mortality rates, women’s rights abuses, and high income inequality.

But people will never stop having sex, as Sanger pointed out. Sex is just too powerful a force in human nature. Our need for love, for affection, for physical pleasure and release, are too powerful to be squelched, and in fact, shouldn’t be. Love and the need for physical connection are positive things, indeed, two of the best things in human nature. Birth control, thought Sanger, was the answer.

I’ll be exploring Sanger’s ideas on these and other topics in more detail in upcoming essays, stay tuned. In the meantime, the Margaret Sanger Papers Project has a wealth of articles and original works by Sanger available online, and I’ve relied on them more than on any other single resource for my own project. (See below for the links). Thank you so much to the good people at the MSPP, I very much appreciate what you do!

Photobombed in Brownsville, Brooklyn, NY

Photobombed in Brownsville, Brooklyn, NY

Street with handsome row houses on Bergen Street, Brownsville, Brooklyn, NYC

Tree lined street with attractive row houses on Bergen Street, Brownsville, Brooklyn, NYC

Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, near the Rockaway station, 2016 Amy Cools

Street scene at the Rockaway station entrance near the northern edge of the Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY

Hipster Gourmet Deli in Brownsville, Brooklyn, Amy Cools 2016.

Hipster Gourmet Deli in Brownsville, Brooklyn. I took this photo on the way to Amboy St, after my laughter subsided enough to take a picture.

I head back to the station, on the way stopping to photograph some scenes in the neighborhood, including an especially pretty row of houses on Bergen Street as a young man photobombs my pic with a laugh and a smile. On the train back, I eat the now rather smashed second half of my egg salad sandwich and write my notes. I transfer a couple of times and head north to Grand Central Station…. To be continued

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!

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Sources and Inspiration:

Alter, Charlotte. ‘How Planned Parenthood Changed Everything‘. Time.com, Oct. 14, 2016

Chesler, Ellen. ‘Was Planned Parenthood’s Founder Racist?Salon.com, Wed, Nov 2, 2011

Child Labor in U.S. History‘. From the Child Labor Public Education Project by the University of Iowa Labor Center

Demographics and Poverty‘, Center for Global Development.

Jacobs, Emma. ‘Margaret Sanger Clinic (former): the First Birth Control Clinic in the United States‘. From Places That Matter

Margaret Sanger Papers Project by New York University.

Regan, Margaret. ‘Margaret Sanger: Tucson’s Irish Rebel.Tucson Weekly, Mar 11, 2004.

Sanger, Margaret. The Pivot of Civilization, 1922. Free online version courtesy of Project Gutenberg, 2008, 2013.

Sanger, Margaret. Woman and the New Race, 1920. Free online version courtesy of W. W. Norton & CompanyOakland Tribune Article about Margaret Sanger's NY clinic, Oct 21, 1916 evening edition