BLACK STEELWORKERS BUILT THE USWA AT THE POINT
By Tim Wheeler People’s Weekly World February, 2009
BALTIMOREHelen Evans was turning the pages of an album of photos of her father, Joseph P. Henderson, when her eye fell on a picture of him as a Laborers union organizer in Washington D.C. during the 1940s.
Henderson had been a chauffeur for “Underwear King” P.H. Hanes in Winston-Salem, N.C., she told a visiting reporter. “Daddy kept asking him for a raise and Hanes refused,” she said. “My father had a friend who got him a construction job in Washington, D.C. Daddy jumped at the opportunity.”
When Hanes learned that he was losing the handsome driver of his Cadillac limousine he was furious. “Hanes told him, ‘What do you want? I’ll pay anything,’” Helen said, laughing at the memory. “Daddy told him, ‘It’s too late. I’ve got another job.’”
So Henderson moved with his family to the nation’s capital. He was smart and energetic and soon the Laborers Union recruited him as an organizer. He was signing up so many of his fellow workers that he became a target for revenge. Returning home from a meeting, one night, shots rang out, barely missing Henderson.
“They were trying to kill or intimidate my father. But they couldn’t scare him. He just went right on organizing,” Evans recalled.
It wasn’t all terrorism. The labor movement was surging at that time. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was organizing millions in the steel, auto, and other basic industries. Labor gave crucial mass support for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and helped elect and reelect Roosevelt. Joseph P. Henderson’s talents were not overlooked by people in high places.
The phone rang one day and it was the White House inviting Henderson to come for a visit.
“Eleanor Roosevelt was requesting his presence,” Helen Evans said. “They told my father Mary McLeod Bethune was going to be at the White House that evening. They wanted him to come over.”
Helen Evans smiled at that bright memory and its special meaning today. President Barack Obama had just invited labor leaders to come to the White House to see him sign several Executive Orders to “level the playing field” between labor and management. “Daddy must be smiling. We have come full circle,” she said.
By 1945, the CIO had signed Joe Henderson up as an organizer. They sent him to Baltimore where he got a job at ARMCO Steel and later at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point mill. Henderson recruited 1,300 workers to the United Steelworkers of America, mostly African American workers segregated in the coke oven department of the giant mill.
Henderson was a determined and resourceful foe of Bethlehem Steel’s racist job practices. During a memorial for Joe Henderson at USWA Local 2609 in Dundalk, May 5, 1996, steel union leader Bernard Parish, spoke movingly of Henderson’s leadership in that fight.
For many years, Parish told the crowd, his father, Charlie Parish, had struggled to win promotion to millwright at Sparrows Point. Repeatedly, the company rejected him. One excuse was that Charlie Parish lacked the skills and knowledge to become a millwright.
“Joe and a white worker, Bill Wood, taught my father how to read blueprints so he could pass the exam and become a millwright,” Parish said. Charlie Parish would go to the Henderson home where the three steelworkers pored over blueprints until Parish could quickly decipher them. Parish went on to make history as the first Black millwright at Sparrows Point.
Both Henderson and Wood were members of the Communist Party of Maryland, an organization then waging a determined struggle to win job equality.
Henderson and his close friend, George A. Meyers, who had been President of the Maryland-D.C. CIO, were hauled before witch-hunt hearings and blacklisted from the steel and other basic industries during the 1950s. Meyers spent four years in federal prison under the infamous Smith Act. Bill Wood’s brother, Roy Wood, also went to prison on the same trumped up charges.
Blacklisted, Joe Henderson and George Meyers became partners in installing awnings on houses in and around Maryland. For as long as they lived, both were deeply engaged in the struggles of organized labor, against racism and for world peace. Both continued as leaders of the Communist Party USA until they died.
The witch-hunt had nothing to do with “violent overthrow of the government.” It had everything to do with corporate America’s vicious drive to decapitate organized labor. Helen scoffed at the Cold War caricature of her father. “If a family in Turner Station was about to be evicted, Daddy would go over and pay their rent,” she said. “If they were hungry, he would buy food for them,” she said. “He was not a violent man. He was full of love for people.”
This is an edited version of an article which can be found at http://www.pww.org/article/articleprint/14410/