December 13, 2019
While working on a timeline for the Academy of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Washington University that situated Wash U history in the context of St. Louis, I stumbled upon a powerful story in Keona Ervin’s (2017) Gateway to Equality. Black Women and The Struggle for Economic Justice in St. Louis. She documents the ways that African American and immigrant women, most likely from Germany, Italy, Ireland, Poland, Russia, the Balkans, and Southern and Eastern Europe (Wayman, 1978; The State Historical Society of Missouri), came together to change the course of history. While unevenly privileged by industries and society according to their races and ethnicities, the women in this story identified their common class struggle and united.
Ervin explains that St. Louis had an industrial employment sector that catered to women. In 1933, due to a host of discriminatory practices, 40% of African American workers were jobless. 92% of employed black women - even when well-educated and equipped for higher paying fields - served in manual labor or domestic and personal service. 80% served in the domestic sector. 13% were confined to exploitative sectors of manufacturing in food processing, laundries, cigar, and tobacco factories.
The R. E. Funsten Nut Company hired African American and immigrant women to deshell and weigh nuts in poorly ventilated factories, without health standards, and under harvest seasons that fluctuated. Black women were assigned the most arduous labor, earning 3-4 cents per pound of deshelled nuts or approximately $4.60 a week. Immigrant women sorted and weighed the shells, earning 4-6 cents per pound. In the early 20th century, Funsten sales and factories expanded, “but nut shellers’ wages were so low they decreased statewide median wages” (Ervin, 2017, p. 28).
After years of wage cuts, black female workers created their own union, demanded fair wages, and when not heard, inspired 1,000 black and immigrant women to walk out on the job. They organized one central arbitration committee over all the nut shops. Carrie Smith was nominated to be the strike leader, and she educated Mayor Dickmann on the irony of $2.00 - $4.60 per week.
The women were breadwinners in their families who were cultivating food through hard manual labor, and yet they could not afford to feed their families. They emphasized that their own children had to fend for themselves to find food. They implored the state to step in as their protector when industries exploited them and did not follow state mandates. In the absence of black middle-class organizational support, they drew on community-based organizing practices, establishing governing rules, creating cross-trade unions, setting up post-strike chapters for each shop and a centralizing board with representatives from every shop.
They won on many fronts. An abusive foreman left. The mayor and local black politicians ensured their pay was doubled. They set cross-race and cross-trade organizing in motion. Female membership to the Food Workers Industrial Union grew.
St. Louis silk, cotton, and garment industry workers borrowed from their negotiating practices and struck as well. Nut workers facing similar conditions and wage cuts drew on Funsten worker strategies and launched the largest Mexican and Mexican American strike in San Antonio. Needle trade strikes occurred in Chicago. St. Louis domestic workers, who carved out an advocacy space for themselves at the Urban League were most likely influenced by the nut strikers as well. Electric and automobile workers also followed suit. And previous legacies of African American female organizing and regional leadership deepened and expanded with each new decade moving forward.
In taking a stand for their right to equal employment and to safe working conditions, amongst other areas of equality they were also pursuing, they helped grow the Labor Movement and model the collaboration of cross-trade and cross-race unions. They came together and made visible the ways that they were similarly, although certainly not evenly exploited. And they called out injustice through strategic coordinated educational campaigns that other races, classes and cultures could build on. They kept the momentum of race and class civil struggle from prior generations moving forward and they continued to grow their impact in St. Louis and beyond.
No doubt, a common awareness of class similarities helped the women unite. And the larger the privilege gap among people, the steeper the learning curve can be on how to unite. Yet, the women created a platform for St. Louis that we as the greater Metropolitan St. Louis area have the opportunity to celebrate – that provides us a way forward – through the race, class, gender, ethnicity, religious, sexual orientation, ability, and cultural inequalities we have inherited.
We are in a time where division is popular and scarcity mentalities are the temptation. What would it look like though if we operated as one united family? One united region? Nation? World? Committed to a belief that everything we all need lies in the gifts we have been given for one another. This Community Allies article series is dedicated to providing a framework for cross-cultural communication to help us chart that path forward.
Because division and competition are our capitalist norms, to get to abundance mentalities, there is much personal and relational work to be done. As the women in this story demonstrate, capitalism is a system that when left unchecked, builds wealth for some on the backs of others. And that is how our St. Louis communities have been designed. For years, federal and local housing policies have been centered in mortgages for white people – often in suburbs and public housing for brown and black people - often in cities (Gordon, 2008). In the past, these policies incentivized realtors to use restrictive covenants to perpetuate segregation. The policies contributed to landlords not keeping up black and brown rented properties. The policies incentivized realtors to encourage white people to move to white neighborhoods and brown and black people to move to brown and black neighborhoods. Housing policies have created room for developers to use urban renewal practices for their own gain, further destabilizing vulnerable populations – who time and again live in communities labeled “blighted” and who are subject to continual movement and displacement.
Under the flight of businesses and people, our St. Louis city tax base has depleted, limiting the dollars going into schools, transportation, and more. On top of race, class, and gender discrimination in employment, jobs that used to be closer to vulnerable neighborhoods, have moved further away (Cambria et al., 2018). Under urban renewal practices, our most vulnerable populations have had a much harder time securing stable housing. When the only affordable housing is public housing or housing in areas at risk of being blighted, communities are at risk for being displaced, evicted, and homeless. When families are fighting to tread water, unable to afford transportation to employment, consistent phones and homes where employers can reach them, youth have a harder time making it to school and through school (Cambria et al., 2018).
The result of this perpetuation of sustainable communities for some at the expense of others is layers and layers of trauma for our most vulnerable populations. Those who live in well-funded communities often don’t witness the layers of this trauma firsthand, and they don’t understand how they are connected to it. Thus, there is righteous anger. Not only is it common for people to feel exploited and left behind. Their lives and their pain are invisible to others. They can feel abandoned, criminalized and blamed as the problem.
There can also be deep resentment because people with access to consistent security in housing, income, family wealth, education, etc. – I include myself here - cannot see all the ways the world has created our advantages at the expense of many. That means the more comforts and access to security in life we have, the more we often have to learn how to open our eyes – how to listen. Hard. Deep. From our hearts. It means when cross-cultural confusion arises, we need to communicate through our body language, our actions, help me understand what life is like for you. What do you see in the world, in me that I can’t see? What are you hearing in my words that I don’t understand?
No matter where we find ourselves on the continuum of inequalities, we have personal and relational work to do. These divides didn’t happen overnight, and they have deeply impacted all of us. We all have different degrees of awareness about this segregation and its impact – on each of us. It takes tremendous humility, a forgiving and a believing spirit in our own humanity and in the humanity of every single person in our world, to place our eyes on the prize - the bigger picture of what we will do together for our region the moment we commit to understanding we are all people – flawed and beauty-filled. We are all on a journey – we are teachers to every person we meet and every person we meet is our teacher. And we are here to walk alongside one another – and as my good friend Mark Robinson would say – to walk each other home.
We need one another to build a better, stronger region. We need one another to experience the cross-cultural joys that are meant to transform us. Our children are depending on us – all of us – to put down our pride, to push through our confusion, to really look at ourselves and others – from our hearts – and to lock arms. Wrap our arms around all of our youth and families. Be that village for one another.
So many people from every cultural background in cities across our country are losing access to affordable housing and are facing skyrocketing costs of living. I believe St. Louis is poised as a city to do something very different. There are so many people in this region who are doing exceptional work around creating access to affordable housing, quality food, medical care, transportation, education, and to everything that is needed for sustainable communities. What would it look like to coordinate our efforts and build the kind of model that transforms this region, our nation, and the world – a model everyone can build on? We are just the region to do that. And as we reach out from our hearts to one another and build on the path that African American and immigrant female leaders created, in good company with other St. Louis community leaders, we will win – for everyone.
Cambria N, Fehler P, Purnell JQ, Schmidt B. Segregation in St. Louis: Dismantling the Divide.
St Louis, MO: Washington University in St. Louis. 2018.
Ervin, Keona. (2017). Gateway to Equality. Black Women and The Struggle for Economic
Justice in St. Louis. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky.
Gordon, C. (2008). Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City. University of
Pennsylvania Press. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7zw7k2
The State Historical Society of Missouri. Immigrant experience research guide.
Wayman, N. (1978). Neighborhood Histories. STLOUIS-MO.Gov.