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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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In February 1944, a photographer took a series of photos at the opening of a Labor Canteen in Washington, DC.  The entertainment that night was a young Pete Seeger and in the audience First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.  Two years after I found the picture, I wrote Mr. Seeger asking if he remembered the photographer.  I was hoping for but not really expecting a response.  But one day I checked my mail and there was a postcard.

One side was covered with words, actually one word, peace, translated into many languages.  On the other side, handwritten, was essentially the following note:  “Cynthia, I’m 94 years old. The details from that time aren’t so clear anymore but my memoirs are being updated and I will make sure that the photographer’s name is duly noted.  Joseph Anthony Horne.”

Joseph A. Horne

Joseph A. Horne

Joseph Anthony Horne was born in 1911 and died in 1987.  I began researching his life out of curiosity.  You see, I knew a man who kept telling stories of a 1950s and 1960s childhood spent in exotic places.  Of fishermen in Genoa, Italy dropping seahorses into his hands. Petting a white elephant belonging to the Maharaja of Mysore. Skating in Vienna by doctor’s orders.  It was a life made possible by his father, Mr. Horne, working for the U.S. foreign service, a post he’d taken on after World War II.  As for what he’d done during the war, “something involving art and books while stationed in Germany.”  In the 1960s the family moved back to the U.S. to the Maryland/DC area where Horne continued to work in foreign service until retirement.

Photo by Joseph A. Horne, 1944, Library of Congress

Photo by Joseph A. Horne, 1944, Library of Congress

I already knew from the son that his father had been a photographer, loved books and music, and that the foreign service position held in all the various countries had involved working with libraries and inviting American musicians, writers and other artists to share their works.  Perhaps inspired by that PBS show, History Detectives, I asked the son was there anything more he’d like to know about his father.  I was given carte blanche to research as I liked.  Those mysterious post-war German years working with books drew my attention but soon I was researching his early years as well. So many files from the early and mid-twentieth century have been digitized, but I kept hitting a wall with finding information prior to 1940.  When I queried the son he mentioned, “that might be because he changed his name. ”  Turned out that Mr. Horne used to be Mr. Wisniewski and had grown up in Nebraska not Maryland as I had assumed.  “So he was born to the Wisniewski family?”  The son shook his head.  “He was adopted, along with a baby girl.  My father thought he’d been born in New York.”  When asked why he had selected Horne of all names, the son replied with a smile, “He thought he was an illegitimate love child of two New York families. the Astors and Langhornes.”  As I stared at the son, he laughed.  “My dad was quite the storyteller.  He even mentioned studying in Europe and hearing G. K. Chesterton.”

One bit of information was easy to find thanks especially to National Archive records available online.  In 1946, Joseph Anthony Horne joined the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archive unit.  From 1947-1948, he would serve as the director of the Offenbach Archival Depot, one of the primary collection points for preserving and returning books, artwork and cultural items stolen by Nazi Germany during World War II.  He had been a Monuments Man.  As for how an orphaned baby in New York City might travel to the American Midwest (along with many thousands of other orphaned and homeless children), and how a young man from Nebraska might find himself working as a photographer in Washington, DC … not to mention exactly who were the people, places and events experienced in Europe during and after the war … Well, all of that, would take a bit more digging.  It would be a treat to discover his connection to photography historians like Erich Stenger and artists like Karl Hofer and quite a surprise to learn of the drama at Offenbach involving missing books and the complex decisions made as the Cold War loomed, reminiscent of decisions made in the world today.  This post is just to set the stage.  More stories to follow.

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