Oral History Project
Second taping session, August 7, 1970
Lavorne: Mr. Leflore, today we would like you to discuss efforts, especially during the World War II years to upgrade employment opportunities for Blacks in the Mobile area. We understand that significant steps toward this goal were taken in several areas including railway, ship-lines the shipyard, and vocational schools. Could you possibly begin your comments with the Eddie Tate Case and other railway cases.
Leflore: Thank you Miss Lavorne. Before making commentary about the Tate Case, perhaps I should attempt to give you a background that led up to the Ed Tate Case. Up until World War I, when the Federal Government took over the railroads, there was substantial wage differential between Black and White firemen, Black and White brakemen and other bi-racial categories in the operating department of the railroads. That was south-wide, and of course most of the employment on the railroads for Blacks was in the South. The railroads perhaps made substantial profits at the expense of Black workers because they were lower paid for the same work. During World War I, the Federal Government took over the railroads. President Woodrow Wilson appointed his son-in-law at that time, William Gibb Macadoo, as Director General of the railroads. Of course the federal authorities could not very well say it was palatable to have a differential in the wage scales of White and Black workers doing the same work. So, the Federal Government equalized the wages of White and Black firemen, White and Black brakemen.
Now it is interesting to note that up until this was done and for a few years afterwards, White locomotive firemen, and you had steam locomotives in that day and man had to use shovels in order to put coal in the firebox of the locomotive and it was a rather backbending work, it was a laborious job, so very few white men wanted that kind of work. In order to appeal to the ego of Whites doing that sort of labor, and at the same time to give them a chance for advancement, they were known as an apprentice engineman, which meant that they would step up to the position of engineer. But black firemen were forever circumscribed to the backbending work of shoveling coal into the boiler of the locomotive. White brakemen were known as apprentice conductors. So there was a differential in the wage scale and the railroads found it of course more convenient to use a large number of Blacks than Whites. However, with the change brought on by the federal government, in 1918 I think it was, the wage structure was equalized. It appears that the railroads lost interest in the protection of Black workers in these jobs. During the post World War I period, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, which is still a very powerful labor organization, and the railroads in the South, apparently conspired to have what was known as the South-Eastern Carriers Agreement. This agreement between the railroads and the Brotherhood (and incidentally, this particular union at that time catered primarily to white firemen), the agreement was that 51% of the men on each division would be white, thereby giving the Whites the voting power to direct the employment policies of the railroads in whatever direction and toward whatever objective they saw fit. And of course the objective was, it was later revealed, to run the Blacks off the roads.
The salaries were decent, perhaps they were about the best paying jobs that the ordinary black man could secure back in that day. And a systematic effort was devised by the Brotherhood to have the railroads, in the operating departments especially, and in the skilled job areas, strictly white. The campaign was very successfully carried out. There was terror, there was violence involved, especially in the states of Mississippi and Louisiana when black firemen were shot down at night whenever the locomotives would stop at water spouts as they called them (that was a colloquial expression) but at water tanks for the purpose of re-filling the locomotive tank. It was necessary for the fireman in that day to crawl on the back of his tank and with the use of a light to put the spout over the opening in the tank and of course for the purpose of filling the tank with water. Any number of black firemen were shot down as they went through this performance of their responsibilities. Many of them died. It is a part as we said, of a reign of terror correlated with the overall conspiracy to drive black men from the railroads. The railroads of course did give their support to what the Brotherhood was doing. They began disregarding the seniority of black firemen and black brakemen, and the situation became so tragic for the black man that very few of the railroads had black men in regular trained operations positions at the time that the Ed Tate Case was developed.
It was a matter of desperation that drove the black firemen together and they formed an organization in Jackson, Tennessee for the purpose of fighting this sort of thing, realizing they had nothing to lose and all to gain. They came down to Mobile, Alabama to confer with those of us who heading the NAACP at that time. It so helped them that we attempted to get a conference with the person who is now president of the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad, Mr. G.P. Brock, who was at that time in charge of operations for the Gulf, Mobile and Northern Railroad. Of course, subsequent to this occasion, the Gulf, Mobile and Northern and the Mobile and Ohio merged to form what is now known as the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad. Mr. Brock refused to grant the conference on the grounds that the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen represented the firemen although no black fireman could join the Brotherhood. An appeal was directed to the then President of the GMNM, Mr. I.W Tigret at Jackson, Tennessee, which was Mr. Tigret's headquarters. Mr. Tigret directed Mr. Brock to hold the conference with the representatives of the black union at that time, and those of us who represented the NAACP. No satisfactory solution was offered by the Railroad to the plight of black firemen, and it was decided by the firemen and us to go to court. The NAACP Legal Defence and Educational Fund in New York was then a part of the overall NAACP. A very brilliant constitutional lawyer, Charles H. Houston, headed the battery of able attorneys who challenged the right of the railroad and the white union to run blacks off the roads without any regard for their seniority or their right to work. During the process of preparing the hearing it was decided to change cases and the Ed Tate was dropped and instead the case of a black fireman connected with the Norfolk and Southern Railway by the name of Tunstall was substituted.
And this case was styled as Tunstall vs. Norfolk and Southern Railway. This particular case went to the United States Supreme Court, and the Court in a landmark ruling decreed that Negro or black firemen seniority was inviolable, that the railroads had no right to disregard the seniority, that these men were entitled to jobs on the basis of the number of years they had been in the employ of the carrier, and that no agreement made between a given railroad and the union could supersede the railroads responsibility to respect the seniority of its employees regardless of race, color or creed. Their was a more significent victory, and it was one which enabled black men to regain their seniority and permitted others to become employees of the railroads. This sort of program continued effective until their were new avenues of employments opening to blacks, and a decline in the interest of blacks to become connected with the various rail carriers in the South, and of course in view of a change because of new laws, we would say throughout the nation. Blacks today do not have the same desire to become employees of railroads as they did a decade or so ago. As we have mentioned, this is due primarily to the fact that their are other avenues of employment to blacks that would equal or surpass the wage opportunity that one would find with the railroads.
Their was still a new discrimination in the matter of employment opportunity for blacks in recent years. As an example, a black train porter by the name of Eugene Johnson of Montgomery was recently put into a job as a bridge tender, the first of his race, because of efforts on our part in view of the fact that this man was completely cut out of service when the railroads began cutting back on passenger trains a few years ago and the porter's were the first terminated. There was no substitute job offered to porter's by the railroads. In most every other category of employment when employees were cut out of their jobs because of a cut back in service, there were new jobs opened for them on a basis of seniority. But this was not true of the train porter's and Eugene Johnson was left on the streets of Montgomery without employment despite more than twenty years of service with the Louisville of Nashville Railroad. We urged him to apply for a brakeman's position with the L&N and this was done and it was quite obvious that Mr. Johnson was overlooked primarily because of race or color. In view of that particular circumstance, we filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commision charging this carrier with racial discrimination and violation of title seven of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In addition to that we filed a complaint with the proper federal authorities in connection with contract compliance and we charged this carrier with violating executive order 11246. The matter was finally settled and Eugene Johnson became the first bridge tender in the employment of the L&N Railroad in at least the last forty or fifty years.
It was because of this and other cases that we and perhaps some other people may have presented to proper federal authorities that the railroads in this section have begun to open new employment opportunities to blacks primarily young and middle class blacks. As an example, it was found in conference held with proper federal authorities, that nine of fourteen switchmen employed during a given period by a certain carrier in this area happened to be black. Other carriers have called on our office and other offices for black employees. There remains and continues a steady decline in the amount[?] of blacks who have regular runs on the railrods operating in and out of this area. The same holds true we understand in other segments of the South. That young blacks today are not as inclined, not as enchanted, with railroad employment as their forebearers were of thirty or fourty of fifty years ago. Of course, it is well known that the legendary song of Casey Jones involves a black firemen in that particular wreck. Today only a few black firemen remain on the railroads. This is not so much because of rigid barriers that may be found against their employment today, but is because very few blacks have a desire to become railroad employees in the operating department of the various rail carriers in the Deep South.
Lavorne: In relation to Thurgood Marshall's telegram of May 26, 1943, would you like to discuss efforts to obtain better positions for blacks in the shipyard at Brookley, as the war industry became a major part of the Mobile economy. You may wish to refer to the right of May 25, 1943.
LeFlore: Thank you Ms. Lavorne. I remember quite vividly the situation which produced that riot. The vast majority of the white employees of the shipyard came from the rural areas of Alabama and Mississippi. And these people were very definantly of a type who lived under the influence of the Dred Scott decision of 1857, that black people had no right which whites were bound to respect. It was there intention to keep blacks in the most menial jobs possible at the shipyard. At that time, the Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company here was building a number of ships for the federal government. In addition, the company retained its repair yard. Employment at this shipyard at one time totaled more than 26,000 we understand. It was actually the major industry of the Mobile area. The whites who were in employment there, desired that blacks would hold the most menial jobs. As a consequence, when we were able to get what was then the War Manpower Commision to put a welding school at the foot of Government Street for the purpose of training black men for welding jobs, there was strong opposition to the effort. We pushed it, we persevered, and the school was finally located there. Many of the men who finished the welding course went to work at the Sun Shipbuilding Company at Chester, Pennsylvania and we sought employment for and did finally get approval through the Fair Employment Practices Committee, for blacks to go into ADDSCO in skilled capacities as welders; that they would be assigned a certain number of ships on which to do their welding; also that blacks would be upgraded or hired as shipfitters. This precipitated a riot. Despite the fact that black boys were fighting, bleeding, and dying on foreign battlefields, this made no impression on the whites who were workers at ADDSCO. There developed a riot, and reports were that a number of blacks were killed. Of course, this proved not to be true; a number of blacks were injured, some rather badly hurt. We asked the federal authorities, we wired the Fair Employment Practices Committee, we also wired the Defense Department to send in investigators to cover the trouble in Mobile. A wire was also sent by us to president Franklin D. Roosevelt in connection with this matter. The trouble became so serious at the ADDSCO yards that it was necessary for the federal government to send troops in from Brookley Air Force base where they were stationed to restore order. Clarence Mitchell, who is now Washington bureau director of the NAACP, flew into Mobile as a representative of the Fair Employment Practices Committee to make a study of the situation. It was found that approximatly, (I think our reports will show, more than) one hundred blacks were hurt, some rather severely by the white mobs that ran rampant at the shipyard. The troops were able to restore order and the blacks continued to work in their skilled capacities from which these whites had attempted to bar them.
The ADDSCO continued to build ships until the end of the war, and then the yard returned to a repair status. There was a determined effort on the part of the company and the union, our findings disclose, to again relegate blacks to menial jobs. This was rather successfully carried out until during the last years of the Eisenhower Administration we filed a complaint with proper authorities in Washington against racial discriminatory policies at the ADDSCO. We contended that blacks were being denied equal job opportunities. We also found that the ratio of blacks in the overall employment of the shipyard had dropped substantially and that they were not employing as many blacks as they had been in previous years on that particular basis. We were able to continue this fight through the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and today, or last year rather, we were able to achieve an affirmative action agreement with ADDSCO. Today, as a result of this effort over the past eight or nine years, we have blacks working as machinists, as bioler makers, as electricians, as clerks, stenographers and as foremen and at almost all capacities that they are able to qualify. This does not mean, however, that there is not still job discrimination at ADDSCO. It does not mean that there isn't job discrimination in almost any facet of employment that you could name where men are employed in large numbers. But the situation today is one which is quite hopeful, and there is a growing indication that we are about to reach an era where people are going to be respected on jobs for their qualifications and that race, color, or religion will be a secondary factor. The ADDSCO in our judgment represents an indication of what can be achieved when people perhaps know what they are doing, persevere in what they are doing, and do it in a manner that would be conducive to the best interests of an entire community, or an entire state, or of the entire nation.
Lavorne: [...] opportunities for blacks in the Merchant Marine, three documents in the collection are dated 3/28/1944, 1/3/46, 2/24/1948. Would you please comment on the problems facing negro seamen.
LeFlore: That was a very interesting period and it was a challenge with regard to black seamen to sail the seas on American ships in any capacities that they were capable of serving, and at the same time to be able to enjoy ordinary port privilages related to housing and other factors which would affect a seamen when he was at port on an equal basis with others. We especially remember that there was a thoroughly organized effort on the part of some of the unions to keep blacks out of certain jobs aboard ship. As an example, back in that day, the Seafarers International Union had a very rigid policy of discrimination against blacks, a policy against which we filed protest a number of times with proper authorities and also with the Union headquarters in New York. We believe that as a result of our complaints and federal intervention cleared up in the Seafarers International Union. So today, if the reports we have about the Union are correct, blacks are able to sail in any department for which they may qualify as seamen.
But it has not been too long ago, in the forties, 1946, that there were several ships in this area--one was the Martin Johnson at Pensacola and the Hiram Bingham at Pensacola, and one was known as the Frank Dodd right here at Mobile--where black seamen were persona non grata. There were several other ships at Pensacola and Mobile that were likewise affected. Our direct confrontation with this question was offered by the Frank H. Dodd. The Frank H. Dodd came to Mobile from San Francisco. It was a Matson[?] navigation line ship and aboard, when it came into Mobile were a Negro first cook and a Negro steward. Well, the steward takes the official capacity of an officer and whites had to serve him, they had to clean his room and things of that sort. This apparantly was resisted, or disapproved of, by the whites who were aboard ship, at least by the vast majority who were aboard ship. We immediatly contacted, upon learning the plight of this steward, the federal authorities in Washington. The steward's name was William K. Vance we understand, and he was the chief steward aboard this ship. The union to which Mr. Vance belonged was not a racist type union at that time--I think it was the Marine Cooks and Stewards--but there were two unions which had seamen aboard the ship that had very strong anti-black policies at that particular period - they were the Seafarer's International Union and the Seaman's Union of the Pacific. These two unions had a larger part of the crew than any of the other unions who had members aboard this particular ship. This ship was scheduled to sail from Mobile in the early part of January 1946 with a cargo of food commodities for Greece that was being shipped under the Marshall Plan. Twenty-four hours before the ship was scheduled to sail with the steward being the sole black person aboard, the white members of the Seafarer's International Union and the Seaman's Union of the Pacific struck the ship [they left] and they refused to sail with a black seaman. They didn't leave the ship, they refused to sail. We immediatly contacted the federal authorities in Washington and we also wired President Truman and told him about the situation and we wired the man's union in San Francisco, the Marine Cooks and Stewards, which had at that time a man by the name of Hugh Bryson as vice-president. Mr. Bryson was a two-fisted fighter for equal justice for everybody. It may be incidental to most of us, that Clarence Mitchell, who is now director of NAACP's Washington Bureau, was at that time director of field operations of the Fair Employment Practices Committee. We were able to have the ship tied up here for an entire week because of the discrimination against this black steward. When Mr. Mitchell came into Mobile, we were able to work out an agreement wherein the crew of the ship was changed and instead of sailing with an SIU/SUP crew, the ship sailed with an NMU crew - the NMU would be the National Maritime Union crew. And instead of one Negro or black person aboard when the ship sailed for Greece, you had a model crew, a mixed crew in its entirety. You had black AB's and black ordinary seamen and white AB's and white ordinary seamen. You had black and white men in the steward's department under the direction of the same steward, the Mr. Vance, that the previous unions had attempted to put ashore and off the ship. It was in our opinion another very significant victory in this long fights for equal rights for black people. It was in another category, that of the right of black seamen to have equal job opportunities, that we felt an important victory had been scored, that played a very tangible part in leading up to the status enjoyed today by black seamen all over the United States.
Dr. McLaurin: Mr. LeFlore, Ms. Lavorne referred to one of the documents dated 2/24/1948 which also concerns Negro seamen and the Seafarer's International Union. It has to do with beaching Negro seamen. Would you comment briefly on that particular incident.
Mr. LeFlore: I recall very well that this was another area in which we had to continue developing a persistent fight. We don't like to continue referring to the SIU, were doing it without prejudice but were doing it because it is historically important I believe that in order to grasp how far we've come today we've got to look at how far we were back yesterday. The SIU, in 1948, in many of the ports had a very rigid policy of disregarding the seniority of black bookmembers, as they called themselves. These were men who had been in the union over a period of time and had won the right to become bookmembers. Shipping was slow, and as these blacks would come in from various ports throughout the world, they were not reassigned to ship out. The men who were bookmembers were supposed to have seniority over the men who were just crip card members. But in the instances affecting the black seamen--and at that time the SIU just about exclusively kept black people in the stewards department but even there their seniority was not respected--white crip card members were given preference over black bookmembers. And as a consequence we filed another complaint with the federal authorities in February 1948 against this sort of discrimination, and we also filed it with the SIU headquarters in New York and with the NAACP labor director at that time Clarence Mitchell. The federal government did send someone in here to investigate the condition and we also were able to have investigations made out of the SIU headquarters.
Lavorne: The next topic in the Seamen's case is concerning obstacles placed in the way of a proposed hotel for colored seamen in Mobile. Would you care to comment please.
LeFlore: The United Seaman's Service, which had housing facilities for American seamen throughout the world, established such a facility here for seamen during the war days. One has only to remember that German submarines were taking a heavy toll of allied shipping, including American ships, and that German dive bombers would fly out to sea to attack cargo ships carrying war materials and food stuffs to Europe. This was very taxing physically as well as a challege to the nervous system of seamen. The United Seamen's Service (USS) cognisant of that fact, began constructing or leasing facilities for American seamen in ports throughout the world. One such port was Mobile. The USS would set up a local committee. And in this instance, the committee was composed of a large number of whites and three or four blacks. I think if I remember correctly, the blacks were the late Dr. Benjamin F. Baker, the retired school principal, Mr. C.E. Powell, John L LeFlore and perhaps one other. The whites included your public officials, especially those connected with the city and the county and other prominent white citizens. The question arose as to the housing of the seamen. Those of us who were black on the committee and who were the minority insisted that all of the seamen would be housed under the same roof. At that time, the place selected for a seamen's hotel was the building which is now occupied by the First Federal Savings and Loan Association on St. Joseph at St. Michael Street. It was known as the George Self Hotel. But despite the fact that black boys and white boys manned the ships and when they were attacked by German submarines or divebombers that they fought and manned the guns together and if the ship happened to be hit, they bled and died together, the power structure here in Mobile at this time could not reconcile itself to feeling that there should be complete equality while these men were in port at home. The plea of the three or four blacks on the committee was turned down by a majority of the whites including at that time city commisioner Ernest Megginson. And Mr. Megginson's viewpoint was apparantly not favorable toward housing the seamen under the same roof. So we had to set about to locate a place for black seamen which we found on Dearborn Street between Dauphin and St. Francis. This facility was named the Dory Miller Seamen's Hotel. It was rather repugnant to us to have to submit to this sort of humiliation because those who represented the power structure at that time in Mobile could not except the fact that all men are equal and that black seamen and white seamen should have been permitted to be housed together in American ports at home, just as they manned the ships together at sea, fought, bled and died together if necessary, when their ships were attacked by German submarines or planes, in an effort to destroy what we regard as a democratic way of life by destroying the nations military might and also the effort that we were making as Americans to feed Europe, especially that part of Europe that was allied with us in the war against the Germans at that time.
Lavorne: During the war and post-war years there were several efforts to open vocational training to Negroes. Two documents in the files are date 11/11/1940 and 3/16/1946. Would you care to comment on these efforts to open vocational training.
LeFlore: Apparantly, blacks were taking a more serious attitude toward the necessity of developing the nation's full manpower productivity for the purpose of winning the war than the whites. We say that for this reason, there was discrimination against blacks about vocational training opportunities. This was an almost intransigent situation. Whites, those who were in authority, just would not capitulate (if we may use that sort of terminology) to the opening of equal vocational opportunites to black people. It became necessary for us to direct a letter of protest to the then National Defense Advisory Commission head, the late Sidney Hillman, on this question and that was in 1940. Because of the efforts we continued to make before the War-Manpower Commission and other federal agencies, also protests we continued to file with the president of the United States, we were finally given as I mentioned previously, a school for training blacks in welding. The whites who were being trained (there were schools available for whites in Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile) they were being sent to high paying jobs as far away as Honolula, Hawaii. But the only jobs that blacks could get anywhere would be in the most menial capacities as laborers, helpers and similar categories. We were able to finally get a welding school here and get in-plant training for blacks, and certain other limited number of skills. When the war was over, these opportunities ceased to exist; The schools were discontinued. Then the veterans began coming back. Training was set up for white and black veterans on a dual basis. The only training that was availiabe for black veterans who had fought in the Pacific or European theater of the war was at a cooking and baking school. It certainly was an insult to the dignity of black people that our own government condoned and permitted this sort of condition to exist, which meant that all the black boys who desired training would take training to become cooks and bakers. The whites of course had training open to them which would prepare them for employment in the various skills of that time and day. As a consequence, we continued to file complaints here until finally this sort of school dissapeared from the scene, that is the cooking and baking school for blacks, but for a long period of time in the post-war period that was the only training available to Negro veterans returning from having fought for their country. It is interesting to note that in our files, is a letter from a black war veteran to us on 3/16/1946, in which he states: "I am a veteran of World War II. I wish to attend a vocational school. I'm wondering why there isn't a vocational school for the benefit of the colored race. We have about 150 men eligible for this type of training and no place to take up the training. In my case I am disabled from taking the job I had before I entered the service." Now we can well understand the frustrations of these people who have been out to fight a war for their country and to come back and find conditions in their country that were far more intolerable than perhaps the enemy itself would have imposed on them if they had remained on foreign soil. This is one of the hypocritical situations about American policy, as it relates to race relations affecting black citizens of our own country.