In 1969, a successful strike by thousands of public housing tenants against the St. Louis Housing Authority attracted national attention at a time of great civil rights ferment.
But that action wouldn’t have worked without decades of labor militancy in St. Louis that laid the groundwork for organized, coordinated fights for economic justice — actions that were led by black women.
That’s the thesis of “Gateway to Equality,” an analysis by St. Louis native Keona K. Ervin, an assistant professor of history at University of Missouri-Columbia. She traces the labor movement back to a strike against the Funsten Nut Co. in 1933.
Ervin argues that “black working-class women’s socio-economic status and economic experiences were central to the formation of progressive black urban political agendas and the means by which black middle-class reformers established power and prestige in their communities.”
Though the importance of their walkout may not have been apparent at the time, Ervin said the women at the nut company involved were playing a high-stakes game.
“Most importantly,” she writes, “the strike established black working-class women as central actors in the battle for workers’ rights. Black working-class women formed the majority of the leadership and the rank and file; they were the face of the struggle. They effectively politicized their status as marginal wage workers at the intersection of struggles for economic, racial, and gender justice.”
The injustice was clear. Ervin notes that compared to their fellow workers, primarily women of Polish descent, black women earned 3 to 4 cents per pound of shelled nuts, not the 4 to 6 cents the immigrant workers earned. Black women did work that caused physical strain, picking nutmeats from their shells, while the Polish women had the preferred assignment of sorting and weighing the pieces.
In the short term, the strikers prevailed, winning a contest that reverberated far beyond their workplace. But whatever gains the nut pickers made did not last long. Funsten responded by cutting jobs in the St. Louis area, to the point that by the following year, most of its local plants were closed, with operations moved farther south.
Still, the action spawned a legacy of protests and strikes in areas from workers in households, retail stores, the garment industry and, during World War II, munitions factories, where “black Rosies” riveted for the cause and laid “the ground work for the emergency of postwar social justice struggles rooted in women’s long struggle for economic dignity.” A slogan of “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” struck a chord for many workers striving to improve their lives.
Anyone familiar with local civil rights pioneers will recognize lots of names here, including Marian Oldham, Frankie Freeman, DeVerne Calllway and Ora Lee Malone. In fact, Ervin writes that the book project began as a biography of Malone, sparked by conversations with her before she died at the age of 93, but it grew into an assessment of the generation that preceded her.
Malone, who moved to St. Louis from Alabama in 1951, “fashioned a cutting-edge activist ethos that merged the struggle for economic justice with that for civil rights and gender equity and the aspirations of poor and working-class persons, people of color, and women.”
The nut pickers, Ervin says, became symbols “of the conditions that had come to define industrial capitalism and a model of the power of workers’ self-organization. She quotes a prediction from a Post-Dispatch editorial during the depths of the Depression:
“Some future social historian, writing on the country’s plight in 1933, may well view as a significant phenomenon of our times that 1,200 adult woman workers in St. Louis went on strike against a wage scale of 50 cents and less a day, and won terms that were expected to double their pay.”
While the facts and figures of Ervin’s argument are persuasive, “Gateway to Equality” could have used an editor to make her words more appealing to a general audience. Her writing is dry and academic, as demonstrated in this description of the Funsten strike:
“Nut pickers disrupted hegemonic representations of a model household when they grounded their claims for economic protection in assertions about the primacy of their economic caretaking and financial influence.”
But readers who make their way through such prose will find an interesting, well-reasoned case for the importance of black women in the local labor movement and beyond.
Dale Singer retired in January after 45 years as a journalist in St. Louis. He lives in west St. Louis County.