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Eleanor Roosevelt arriving at opening of CIO Canteen, by Joseph A. Horne, 1944

Eleanor Roosevelt arriving at opening of Labor Canteen, by Joseph A. Horne, 1944

During World War II, canteens were sponsored nationwide by a wide array of different organizations, their overall goal to provide U.S. servicemen with refreshments, entertainment and good company.  Often the food, entertainment and the company of the hostesses was all volunteer.  The Washington Labor Canteen was sponsored by the Federal Workers of America, Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).  It opened with great fanfare on February 13, 1944.  The party was to start at 8pm, with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt scheduled to appear soon after.

photo by Joseph A. Horne, 1944

Folksinger Pete Seeger, photo by Joseph A. Horne, February 1944

Photographs from opening night show that there was good food, good company, great music and big smiles in abundance.

Folksinger Carlie Tart, photo by Joseph A. Horne, February 1944

Folksinger Carlie Tart, photo by Joseph A. Horne, February 1944

I first learned of the canteen because of my research into the life of Joseph Anthony Horne, where I chanced upon that iconic photo he took of a young Pete Seeger performing before the First Lady.  Horne was one of several photographers at this inaugural event, and so there are many photos capturing the uniqueness of the gathering.

photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life Magazine, 1944

photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life Magazine, 1944

Unique not so much because of the presence of the First Lady or the musical entertainment, but because of the interracial mix of party guests, having a good time together, as equals.  Operated by the CIO Women’s Auxiliary, the Labor Canteen was the only Washington canteen that was open to servicemen of all races.  Others provided services and entertainment to men of one color only.

photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life Magazine, 1944

photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life Magazine, 1944

Washington, DC, like much of America, was deeply segregated in the 1940s.  The photos by Horne and the other photographers suggested something special was taking place. In her February 16, 1944, My Day column, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote:  “After dinner Sunday night I went to the opening of the labor canteen under the auspices of the Washington Industrial Union Council.  It was crowded with servicemen and the hostesses were very busy providing entertainment and refreshments.  I think this will be a popular canteen, and I am sure that those who work there will find it very rewarding.”

Canteen Hostesses, photo by J. A. Horne, February 1944

Canteen Hostesses, photo by J. A. Horne, February 1944

Additional research pulled up several articles in a weekly newspaper called the Baltimore Afro-American.   Still in operation today (though in a very different format), it is apparently the longest running African American, family owned, newspaper in the U.S. dating back to 1892.  A February 1944 article in the newspaper highlights Eleanor Roosevelt’s support of the canteen as well as the consternation of others in Washington.

In June 1944, the article Army Jim Crow Hits CIO Canteen described the canteen being denied use of facilities due to “army policy” though the author indicates that the denial had more to do with the canteen’s racial integration.

Agnes Smedley, 1914

Agnes Smedley, 1914

In that same issue, another article stood out with its title A White Woman Tours the South by Agnes Smedley (1892-1950).  I’m not sure how her tour originated but Ms. Smedley, based in New York, had traveled to speak in the deep South.  Afterwards, she wrote in her article, “I am so bitter from experiences… that everything seems dark.”  The ferocity with which she wrote prompted me to look her up.  Quite a story there, but you can read more about her life via the links at the bottom of this post.

By December 1944, there was a new article in the Afro-American newspaper celebrating the 10-month success of the interracial canteen as a “victory for democracy.”  Labor Canteen hostess Miss Dorothy Shatson is quoted:  “The existence of a successful interracial canteen in a Southern city like Washington represents a victory of democratic forces, and the realization of some of the things for which we are fighting.”

A Washington Labor Canteen Hostess, photo by J. A. Horne, Feb. 1944

A Washington Labor Canteen Hostess, photo by J. A. Horne, Feb. 1944

In another newspaper article from March 31,1945, Mrs. Fern Urling, writes that she gives all her spare time to the canteen because she, too, feels it stands for real democracy.  Co-manager of the canteen at the time, she adds, “At first some Southern whites are startled to see the interracial atmosphere but they usually come back and finally get used to it and are just as contented as we are. … It is unfortunate that the Army won’t publish any of our activities in its official bulletin. We have to depend mostly on personal contact to advertise the canteen.”

Marian Anderson, photo by Roger Smith, 1943

Marian Anderson, photo by Roger Smith, 1943

Perhaps most surprising for me was the discovery of an October 1945 article in the Afro-American, The Democratic Labor Canteen Flays Mrs. Truman’s Stand.  In short, the membership of the canteen wanted Mrs. Truman to break her relationship with the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), citing as an example the actions of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who had resigned from the DAR after the organization refused to allow Marian Anderson, as a person of color, to sing at Constitution Hall.  The telegram highlights how the the canteen’s two-year success was “living proof” of the fallacies of segregation.

photo by Joseph A. Horne

around a table at the canteen, photo by Joseph A. Horne

So what happened to the Washington Labor Canteen?  With the war’s end, I imagine the canteen closed.  But what a legacy to leave behind.  What seeds of friendship and camaraderie — or maybe just a little bit more respect — were planted in those few years between people who had few other opportunities to positively interact.

 

Sources/Further Reading

Prior Interlude features can be found HERE

Eleanor Roosevelt’s My Day Newspaper Columns

More about the Baltimore Afro-American

Army Jim Crow Hits CIO Canteen in Baltimore Afro-American, 1944

Democratic Labor Canteen Flays Mrs. Truman’s Stand in the Baltimore Afro-American, 1945

What Washington Citizens Are Doing (Fern Urling) in the Baltimore Afro-American, 1945

About Agnes Smedley on Wikipedia and summary from PBS Documentary

Agnes Smedley Collection at Arizona State University

Other famous canteens:

The Stage Door Canteen

The North Platte Canteen

 

 

 

 

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foreword to the interludes

On February 21, 2014, an article appeared in the New York Times reporting that the city intended to remove over 400 children from 2 homeless shelters.  The article goes on to highlight how these 400 are part of “a swelling population of 22,000 homeless children.” Such numbers have not been reported in New York since the Great Depression.  Nearly two decades before the Great Depression, on January 1, 1911,  Joseph Anthony Horne was born and then orphaned in that city.  He could easily have become homeless.

Young Horne

A Young Joseph Anthony?

Even then it was quite clear that there was a widening divide in the city, and across the nation, between haves and have-nots.  The late 1800s into the early 1900s was the Gilded Age  for the country, with a rapidly expanding economy resulting in some growing extremely wealthy (e.g. Carnegie, Mellon, Morgan, Vanderbilt, etc) while others sank into poverty.  Especially affected during this era were children like Joseph, i.e. those who were orphaned or abandoned.  Even for children remaining with their families, so many families had so few resources that children had to work alongside parents for survival.

Spinning Boy by Lewis Hine

Spinning Boy by Lewis Hine

Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, New York was a major port of entry for people of many backgrounds and skills seeking a new life for themselves and their children.  Some within the U.S. were eager to welcome these immigrants to work in growing cities and homestead “empty” lands out west.  When Joseph was born, the population of the U.S. was estimated at nearly 94 million.  In 1818, less than 100 years before his birth, the population had been only 9 million.  That staggering increase in population in such a short time was primarily due to immigration from England, Ireland and Germany (including territories then considered part of the German Empire like Poland).

Children Sleeping in Mulberry Street (1890) by Jacob Riis

Children Sleeping in Mulberry Street (1890) by Jacob Riis

For those immigrants who arrived with few funds, they took whatever jobs they could find.  New York photographer and journalist Jacob Riis chronicled the life led by some of these people in the late 1800s in his book How the Other Half Lives. So, even as on one side of the city people were enjoying the wealth and prosperity of “the age of innocence,” on the other side of the city, people were experiencing a very different life.  It is also around this time, in 1883,  American poet Emma Lazarus wrote The New Colossus, a poem that would be engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the lower level of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, including those famous lines:  “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …”

In the Home of an Itlaian Rag Picker, Jersey Street by Jacob Riis

In the Home of an Italian Rag Picker, Jersey Street by Jacob Riis

During this time, there were few labor laws in place to prevent mistreatment and abuses of all sorts.  In fact, in 1911,  one of the worst industrial disasters in U.S. history took place in New York City at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.  A fire led to the deaths of 146 men and women who were killed by the fire, smoke inhalation or by jumping to their deaths.  The owners had locked the doors and any exits, a common practice in those times.  It was one of those tragic events that would help to usher in new workplace safety standards.  And eventually through the efforts of photographers like Lewis Hine child labor laws would be created as well.

Jo Bodeon, back-roper in mule room at Chace Cotton Mill, Burlington, VT, by Lewis Hine

Jo Bodeon, back-roper in mule room at Chace Cotton Mill, Burlington, VT, by Lewis Hine

Midnight at the Glassworks by Lewis Hine

Midnight at the Glassworks by Lewis Hine

As an investigative reporter for the National Child Labor Committe, Lewis Hine documented the working and living conditions of children across the U.S. between 1908 and 1924.  Many images can be found on the Library of Congress website.  Leading up to World War I (1914-1918), as manual labor work increased, there was no more cheap and readily available labor than that of a child.

Little Lottie A Regular Oyster Shucker, Bayou, LA, 1911, by Lewis Hine

Little Lottie A Regular Oyster Shucker, Bayou, LA, 1911, by Lewis Hine

Hughestown Borough PA Coal Company Breaker Boys by Lewis Hine

Hughestown Borough PA Coal Company Breaker Boys by Lewis Hine

Reformers, like those who started the National Child Labor Committee, and many other people were aware that the practice of putting children to work had to end, not only for their immediate safety but to facilitate giving them an opportunity for  schooling and increasing any chances they had at breaking out of a cycle of poverty.  One such reformer was philanthropist Charles Loring Brace.  In 1853, he formed the Children’s Aid Society in New York City.  At the time, abandoned and homeless children lived on the streets or were placed in institutions where they could stay until a certain age (e.g. 14) before being expected to leave.  Brace and others felt that it would be better to collect these children, and even to accept children from poor families who could not take care of them, and to send those children to live with families outside of the city, in farming communities.  These “foster families” could even adopt the children.  As for how these children, including an orphaned baby Joseph, would travel to one of these families? By train.

Celebration of completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad at what is now Golden Spike National Historic Site, Promontory Summit, Utah. Photo by A. J. Russell, 1869

Celebration of completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad at what is now Golden Spike National Historic Site, Promontory Summit, Utah. Photo by A. J. Russell, 1869

With the support of wealthy families like the Astors and other philanthropists, from 1854 to 1929, the Children’s Aid Society and the New York Foundling Hospital, would send nearly 250,000 children of all ages by “orphan trains” to cities and towns across the country, primarily to the American Midwest.  The children ranged in age from babies like Joseph to teenagers.  Notices would be sent out to communities before the children departed.  Agents would be sent along with the children as chaperones.  Stories have been collected over the years.  It is clear that sometimes children were fostered as “helping hands,” but it is also clear that children were taken in to be cared for and loved as part of a family.  Such is likely the case with Joseph.

Orphan Train, Kansas State Historical Society

Orphan Train, Kansas State Historical Society

Joseph and a baby girl named Pearl were taken in by farmer  Anton J. Wisnieski and his wife, Anna.  The German-speaking couple of German and Polish ancestry would raise the two children in Webster Township, Dodge County, Nebraska.  So instead of growing up on the streets of New York City, young Joseph grew up on the Great Plains where he fished for buffalo carp in the Platte River and had many other adventures into the 1920s.  And then something happened. He felt a calling to travel back east and even cross the Atlantic into worlds very different from the farmlands of Nebraska.  In his travels, he would deepen his knowledge of “dead languages,” literature, music and religion and somehow pick up his first camera … just in time to return to the States and join the ranks of one of the most legendary groups of documentary photographers in U.S. history.

More about those adventures and that walk through history in March.

A Few Recommended Links …

The Gilded Age

Lost Children: Riders on the Orphan Train

PBS American Experience:  The Orphan Train

A History of the Orphan Trains

Washington Post article by Andrea Warren

Early Child Labor in U.S. with Lewis Hine Photography

NYTimes Slide Show of Jacob A. Riis Photography

Orphan Train: A Novel

National Orphan Train Complex

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