McLaurin Oral History Interview with John L. LeFlore

[The following transcription was made from taped interviews with John L. LeFlore, 1970-1972. The tapes are part of the Melton McLaurin Collection at The McCall Library.]

Dr. McLaurin: This particular recording session is dated August 7, 1970. Students listening to the tape might refer to the document in the NAACP papers dated May 25, 1940, for the subject matter of this tape.

Ms. 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 Teague case and other railway cases.

Mr. Leflore: Thank you Miss LaVorne. Before making commentary about the Teague case, perhaps I should attempt to give you a background that led up to the Eddie Teague case. Up until World War I, when the federal government took over the railroads, there was very substantial wage differential between black and white firemen, as an example, black and white brakemen, and in 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 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 fireman – and you had steam locomotives in that day – and man had to use shovels in order to, well we won't say stroke coal, in order to put coal into the firebox of the locomotive, and it was rather back bending 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, a white fireman was 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 back bending work of putting coal, 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, either 1917 or '18, at the time the federal government had control of the railroads, whereby that 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 of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen (and incidentally, this particular union at that time catered primarily to white firemen), the agreement was that 51 percent 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 of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen 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 [where] black firemen were shot down at night whenever the locomotives would stop at water spouts, as they called them (that was a colloquial expression)…. 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 of Locomotive Firemen 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 Teague 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 were heading the NAACP at that time. It so happened 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 of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, and it was the union that was driving the black firemen, black men, off the railroads. An appeal was directed to the then president of the GM&N, 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 found [or] 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 Defense 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 were going to challenge, who did challenge 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 Teague case 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 v. 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, of a particular carrier, and that no agreement made between a given railroad and the union could supersede the railroad's responsibility to respect the seniority of its employees regardless of race, color, or creed. It was a most significant 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 there were new avenues of employment 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 hold, it appears in the employment, that blacks today 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 there are other avenues of employment to blacks that would equal or surpass the wage opportunity, of the wage potential, that one would find with the railroads.

There 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 porters were the first terminated. There was no substitute job offered to porters 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 porters and Eugene Johnson was left on the streets of Montgomery without employment despite more than twenty years of service with the Louisville & 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 Commission charging this carrier with racial discrimination and violation of Title 7 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 [a] conference held the other day with proper federal authorities, that nine of fourteen switchmen employed during a given period by a certain rail 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 [number] of blacks who have regular runs on the railroads operating in and out of this area. The same holds true, we understand, in other sections of the South. Young blacks today are not as inclined, they're not as enchanted, with railroad employment as their forbearers were of thirty or forty of fifty years ago. Of course, you know, 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.

Ms. 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 riot of May 25, 1943.

Mr. 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 the people were very definitely 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 their 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 maintained 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, as we mentioned, 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 Commission 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 Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company 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 Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company. They developed a riot, and reports were that a number of blacks were killed. Of course this proved [un]true, I mean that this was not 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 Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company 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 approximately – I think our reports will show – that 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.

Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company 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 Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company. 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 Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company. Today, as a result of this effort over the past eight or nine years, we have blacks working as machinists, as boiler makers, as electricians, as clerks and 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 Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company. 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 Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company 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.

Ms. LaVorne: [Missing...] 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.

Mr. Leflore: Ms. LaVorne, that was a very interesting period and it was, I would say, a challenge with regard to the right of 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 privileges related to housing and other factors which would affect a seamen while he was in 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, that the situation eventually 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 [19]40s, in 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, right here in Mobile, the Frank Dodd – where black seamen were persona non grata. There were several other ships at Pensacola and several other ships at 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 the Port of 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 apparently was resisted, or disapproved of, by the whites who were aboard ship, at least by the vast majority of those who were aboard ship. We immediately 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 Seamans' 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 Seafarers' International Union and the Seamans' 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 immediately contacted the federal authorities in Washington. 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 whereby 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's crew. And instead of one Negro or black person being 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 union, the SIU and the SUP, had attempted to put ashore and to put off the ship. It was in our opinion another very significant victory in this long fight 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, one 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 Seafarers' International Union. It has to do with beaching Negro seamen. Would you comment briefly on that particular incident please, if you have recollections about it?

Mr. Leflore: Thank you Dr. McLaurin. 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 Seafarers' International Union. We're 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 Seafarers' International Union, in 1948, in many of the ports, had a very rigid policy of disregarding the seniority of black book-members, 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 book-members. 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 book-members were supposed to have seniority over the men who were just trip card members. But in the instances affecting the black seamen – and at that time the Seafarers' International Union just about exclusively kept black people in the stewards department – but even there their seniority was not respected – white trip card members were given preference over black book-members. 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 Seafarers' International headquarters in New York and with the NAACP labor director at that time, Clarence Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell has been a very versatile sort of person. He has been most helpful in furthering the rights of black people, far more so than he's been given recognition for having done. But he's been a very integral part of the struggle of black people for their rightful place in American society. 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.... [Here, side one of the tape ends.]

[Interview continued]