Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘segregation’

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

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

In today’s Washington Post, there is another powerful story involving hands, in this case, what happens when people lend a helping hand to strangers. The article is by Michael Ruane and is called “Shipwreck survivor recalls how town altered his idea of race.”  I highly recommend you read the entire article if you can, but if you can’t here’s the crux of the story:   In the winter of 1942, an 18-year old black man serving in the U.S. Navy survived a shipwreck off the coast of Newfoundland.  He is the only black man among a group of white sailors who made it to shore.  The son of sharecroppers and great-grandson of slaves, he had been raised in the segregated deep south, and served in the deeply segregated military.  His heart was well on its way to being filled with hate for the people around him, especially for those people who treated him as if he had little value.  But fate intervened.

On the shores of a strange land, covered in oil and freezing, the young man was approached by white people who held out their hands to lift him up, to warm him by a fire, and to wash the oil from his body.  Now in his 80’s, he recollects that one of the locals remarked that day, “I can’t get the oil off his body.”  The sailor had to explain that “It’s the color of the skin.  You can’t get it off.”  Eventually one of the townspeople took him home, fed him soup, and basically treated him as the human being he was.  The actions of those townspeople forever changed the perceptions of that young man about his world and the people in it.

One act of kindness changed a life.  And, if you read the article, you get the sense that that young man went on to change other peoples’ lives,  whether in the military, walking with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, AL, or with his own family.

At first the article made me sad as I remembered my father’s stories of military prejudice when he served in the Korean War.  It also reminded me of the rise in hate by people in this country of other people in this country based purely on skin color and certainly religious belief.  But in the end, the article made me hopeful, reminding me that there has been and still is goodwill in the world, and that there is meaning and impact in lifting one’s hands to help even just one other person.

You can read the article here.

Read Full Post »

There are times when I sit still, often in sunlight, that I am suddenly filled with a sense of gratitude.  This bright beautiful morning I am filled with gratitude toward my parents.  They were born in the 1920s and 1930s in the segregated south.  Until certain laws were passed, they had to sit in the back of buses and use separate but decidely unequal facilities.  They were spat upon — my father told me of incidents involving white kids on a school bus.  They were certainly called nigger.  They had every opportunity to let hate fill their hearts and to then pass that hate onto their children.  But they did not.

Make no mistake.  They shared their experiences with my brothers and I.  They helped us process our own experiences.  And though they may have expressed anger, they always taught us to love our fellow man.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  That is what they communicated, if not in words, than certainly by their deeds.  How grateful I am that our life journeys intertwined for so long.

Read Full Post »