Friday, May 31, 2013

Hose ‘em Down—A Naked Lady in History

On May 31, 1678 the first Godiva Processional was held in the streets of Coventry commemorating the legendary ride of an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman through the streets of the town some time shortly before 1057.  The parade, featuring a scantily clad, but never actually nude local woman, was a continuing tradition into the 1960’s.  Local authorities hoped to down play Godiva as a symbol of Coventry.  But the lady proved to be far too popular, and the tradition has been re-established as part of an even larger Godiva Festival.

The reality behind the legend is murky.  But there was a real noble woman born before 1040 according to the Doomsday Book completed in 1086 shortly after the woman’s death and the charters to various churches and monasteries to which the Lady and her husband were benefactors.  Godiva is a Latinized version of the Old English name Godgifu or Godgyfu, a then popular moniker meaning Gift of God.

Leofric, Earl of Mercia, reputedly one of the wealthiest land owners in England, took Godiva, a very young widow, as his wife.  Together they became patrons of several monasteries  and made generous gifts of gold jewelry and silver plate to several churches, including St. Paul’s Cathedral in London—the third building of that name which burned in 1088.  It was said that this generosity was at the behest of the very pious Lady.

Of course such larges was expensive.  In order to sustain it, and the lavish lifestyle expected of a leading noble, Leofric raised the rents and taxes on his vast holdings, which included the still new city of Coventry.  Evidently taxes became so extreme that they reduced the residents of the city to want and hunger.

According to the earliest version of the story given in Flores Historiarum by Roger of Wendover about 1230, almost two centuries after the fact, after receiving appeals from the people, Godiva repeatedly begged her husband for relief.  He steadfastly refused.  Finally in exasperation he supposedly told Godiva that he would grant her wish if she would ride the city naked.  Given his wife’s famous piety, he must have considered this a good bet.

But pluck Godiva held him at his word.  In the original tale she rode through the streets still thronging with citizens accompanied by two knights.  The author quoted earlier writings, which, however, have never been found.

Like all good tales, this one gained something in the re-telling.  By the 17th Century the tale has Godiva ordering that all of the citizens of the town remain indoors as she made her ride alone, her long hair partially covering her nakedness.  Still later the story of Tom was added to the tale.  Tom, reportedly a tailor by trade bored a hole in his shutters to espy the Lady as she passed.  But for his shamelessness, he was supposedly struck blind and Godiva’s modesty preserved.  

In all versions of the story the repentant Leofric rescinds the hated taxes and Godiva is celebrated as the heroine of the town.

Whether or not any of this actually happened is anybody’s guess.  Kill joy scholars will provide lots of arguments why the tale is spurious, but have no more proof that it is a lie than there is proof that Godiva actually rode.

We do know that Leiofric died in 1057 and Godiva inherited his estates.  She survived the Norman Conquest of 1066 and more remarkably was one of the few Anglo-Saxon nobles—and even fewer women—who retained her lands.  But she died sometime before the records in the Doomsday Book, at which time her lands were in other hands.  She either left no heirs or the rapacious Normans found away to seize the lands.

The story of Lady Godiva has inspired numerous painting, poems, songs, plays, a line of expensive chocolates, and a Technicolor film starring Maureen O’Hara who, alas, was never shown in all of her glory.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Memorial Day 1937—A Walk in the Sunshine Turns Deadly

It was a hot, muggy day.  But the sun was shining brilliantly.  Due to the week old strike and the Memorial Day holiday, the giant mills nearby were not belching their customary heavy smoke.  Maybe those unaccustomed dazzling skies contributed to the air of a holiday outing as steel workers, their wives in their finest summer dresses, and their children converged by bus, trolley, auto, foot on Sam’s Place, an erstwhile dime-a-dance hall, turned into a makeshift soup kitchen and strike headquarters on Chicago’s Southeast Side less than a mile from the Republic Steel mill.
It was May 30, 1937.   The Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), the pet project of John L. Lewis’s Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), had shocked the nation earlier in the year by bringing industry behemoth U.S. Steel under contract by infiltrating the company unions and having them vote to affiliate.  Face with rising demand as there seemed to be a recovery under way from the depths of the Depression on one hand and a popular, labor friendly administration in Washington on the other, the nation’s dominant steel company quietly surrendered.
Buoyed by the success, organizers turned their attention to Little Steel, the smaller, independent operators in Pittsburgh, Youngstown,  Chicago  and other grimy industrial cities.  But the bosses of Youngstown Sheet and Steel, Republic, Bethlehem, Jones and Laughlin and others were a tougher bunch than the Wall Street stock manipulators that ran the huge rump of the old Steel Trust.  In fact they had nothing but contempt for the monopolists, their old business enemies, and their “weakling” attitude toward unionization.  Little Steel vowed to fight.  Tom Girdler, President of Republic, had said that he would go back to hoeing potatoes before he met the strikers’ demands.
The ferocity of the opposition to unionization was not just empty rhetoric either.  They had shown they meant business in blood on more than one occasion.  Famously in Youngstown, Ohio back in 1916 strikers accompanied by their wives and children marched from the slums to the gates of the Sheet and Tube mill to keep strike breakers from reporting to work.  Inside the gates a small army of private security forces responded by throwing dozens of tear gas bombs.  As the thick, poisonous haze hung over the workers obscuring their vision, guard unleashed volley after volley of rifle fire directly into their ranks.  The exact toll may never be known as workers were afraid to bring the wounded to medical attention.  At least three were killed, probably twice that many including women.  Twenty-seven injuries were confirmed, but strikes made oral reports of more than a hundred.  Enraged as the dead and wounded lay bleeding on the ground the strikers attacked the guards with stones and bricks and perhaps a pistol shot or two before retreating to town.
In rioting over the next two days, workers burned much of the town’s business district only to be eventually crushed by Ohio National Guard troops.  The memory of those events was still fresh to workers more than twenty years later.  Especially when Little Steel bosses quietly let it be known that they had been stockpiling armories for years and were ready, even eager to repeat the carnage.
The USWOC had called their national strike against Little Steel a week earlier.  In Chicago it had been marred by predictable violence, particularly on the part of the Chicago Police Department which had a long history of being used as armed strike breakers.  Beatings and arrests on the picket lines were occurring daily.  Some strike leaders had been kidnapped and held incommunicado.  For their part senior police officers were “subsidized” by corporate bosses who also bought political clout with the usual campaign contributions and bribes to local officials.  They also pledged to reimburse the city for police over time during the strike.  In addition the still largely Irish Catholic force was kept inflamed by homilies preached in their parishes deriding USWOC as “Godless Communists.”
Despite this, moral among the strikers was high.  After only a week out, families had not yet felt the full pinch of lost incomes and strike soup kitchens kept them fed.   Organizers made a point of engaging workers’ wives from the beginning, including them in planning and giving them important support roles.  This was critical because many a strike had been lost in the past when families went hungry and the women urged their men to return to work.
As the large crowd gathered at Sam’s Place for the first mass meeting of the strike, vendors plied the crowd with ice cream, lemonade, and soft drinks.  Meals were passed out from the soup kitchen.  Other families munched on sandwiches wrapped in wax paper brought from home.  Many of the men passed friendly bottles as they settled into a round singing—mostly old Wobbly songs including Solidarity Forever  and Alfred Hayes’s I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.
Then came the rousing speeches.  Joe Webber, USWOC’s main organizer pointed his finger at the distant plant. The plan was to establish the first mass picket at the gates of the Republic Works.  Some workers carried homemade signs.  Organizers passed out hundreds of pre-printed placards stapled to lathing emblazoned with slogans.
With a sense of a gay holiday parade the strikers marched away from Sam’s Place behind two American flags singing as the went one block up the black top and then turned into the wide, flat prairie that separated them from the distant plant. 
Historian/novelist Howard Fast later described the scene.
…snake-like, the line of pickets crossed the meadowland, singing at first...but then the song died as the sun-drenched plain turned ominous, as five hundred blue-coated policemen took up stations between the strikers and the plant. The strikers’ march slowed—but they came on. The police ranks closed and tightened… now it was to unarmed men and women and children that a police captain said, “You dirty sons of bitches, this is as far as you go!”
About two hundred and fifty yards from the plant, the police closed in on the strikers.  Billies and clubs were out already, prodding, striking, nightsticks edging into women's breasts and groins. It was great fun for the cops who were also somewhat afraid, and they began to jerk guns out of holsters.
“Stand fast! Stand fast!” the line leaders cried. “We got our right! We got our legal rights to picket!”
The cops said, “You got no rights. You Red bastards, you got no rights.”
Even if a modern man's a steelworker, with muscles as close to iron bands as human flesh gets, a pistol equalizes him with a weakling--and more than equalizes. Grenades began to sail now; tear gas settled like an ugly cloud. Children suddenly cried with panic, and the whole picket line gave back, men stumbling, cursing, gasping for breath. Here and there, a cop tore out his pistol and began to fire; it was pop, pop, pop at first, like toy favors at some horrible party, and then, as the strikers broke under the gunfire and began to run, the contagion of killing ran like fire through the police.
They began to shoot in volleys. It was wonderful sport, because these pickets were unarmed men and women and children; they could not strike back or fight back. The cops squealed with excitement. They ran after fleeing men and women, pressed revolvers to their backs, shot them down and then continued to shoot as the victims lay on their faces, retching blood. When a woman tripped and fell, four cops gathered above her, smashing in her flesh and bones and face. Oh, it was great sport, wonderful sport for gentle, pot-bellied police, who mostly had to confine their pleasures to beating up prostitutes and street peddlers—at a time when Chicago was world-infamous as a center of gangsterism, assorted crime and murder.
And so it went, on and on, until ten were dead or dying and over a hundred wounded. And the field a bloodstained field of battle. World War veterans there said that never in France had they seen anything as brutal as this.
Because workers were afraid to bring their injured to hospital, the exact casualty count may never be known for sure.  Ten men were confirmed dead.  All shot in the back. More than 50 gunshot wounds were reported. At least a hundred were badly injured, many more with scrapes, bruises, and turned ankles from police clubs and the panicked stampede to escape.
Many reporter and photographers were on the scene.  Police confiscated most of their film.  Newsreel cameras caught the action, but the companies were pressured not to show the footage.  The next day, led by the rabidly anti-union Chicago Tribune, most of the press dutifully recorded that the police had come under attack by fanatic Reds and had acted in self-defense. 
Although covered in the labor press, the nation as a whole was kept in the dark about what had happened.  Even the workers supposed friend Franklin D. Roosevelt, pretty much accepted the official account and told reporters that “the majority of people are saying just one thing, ‘A plague on both your houses.’”
A Cook County Coroner’s Jury ruled the deaths that day as “justifiable homicide.”  Not only was no action taken against any of the police involved that day, but senior officers were commended and promoted.
The truth about what happened was very nearly suppressed, as so many atrocities committed against working people had been.  But a single newsreel cameraman saved the footage he shot from the roof of his car.  Some of the photographers on the scene retained their shots.  The stills and the moving pictures were placed on exhibit during the hearing on Republic Steel held by the subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Education and Labor almost a year later.  A shocked nation saw for itself the senseless, unprovoked brutality of the police.
As for the strike, it dragged on through the summer, as did regular violence on picket lines.  Then on July 19th it was Ladies Day on the picket line in front of the Republic Steel mill in Youngstown.  After a company guard assaulted one of the women, they were pelted with rocks and bottles.  Retreating into the plant, in an eerie replay of the 1916 violence, guards let loose with tear gas and then opened fire, many firing down on the crowd from virtual snipers’ nests.  At least two were killed and dozens wounded.  Once again the National Guard was called in and the town became a virtual occupied territory.  The strike was crushed and workers went back.
But the Steel Workers turned to the new National Labor Relations Board for help.  They complained of unfair labor practices by the Little Steel companies.  The case took years to resolve.  But in 1942, with another war on and the need for industrial peace, the NLRB ordered the companies to recognize what had become the United Steel Workers Union.
Today a local union hall stands on the site of Sam’s Place.  The Republic Mill and other Little Steel plants are closed and pad-locked eyesores.  The city seeks desperately to find some way to redevelop what are now called simply Brown Fields.  Recently the site was suggested as one possible future home for Barack Obama’s Presidential Library.  USW members and the Illinois Labor History Society sometimes gather in remembrance of that terrible day.  And the last aging survivors, including some of the children present, fade away one by one, their stories untold.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Rhode Island—Better Late to the Party than Never

This Federalist cartoon illustrated the increasing isolation of Rhode Island as it held out from ratifying the Constitution and joining the Union.

Always contrarian Rhode Island had stamped its tiny foot and threatened to hold its breath until it turned blue.  No, they would absolutely not ratify the tyrannical document known as the Constitution of the United States. 
Sure, the monied interests in big states were for it—Virginia. New York, Pennsylvania. And not-quite-so-big Massachusetts and Connecticut had voted for ratificationbut that was all the more reason to be suspicious.  The big bullies were likely to swamp the sovereignty of the pipsqueak.  And Massachusetts had been literally threatening the existence of the Colony since Baptist Roger Williams and his followers escaped the clutches of Puritans and set up a refuge of religious toleration.  Connecticut on the other side was now even more firmly in the hands of the highly orthodox Black Legion of Congregational ministers deeply suspicious of loose religious practices next door which included a thriving Jewish congregation, Quakers, and even—horror of horrors—Catholics.
Rhode Island, heavily dependent economically on its ports and merchants, had been such a hot bed of opposition to heavy handed British taxation and trade restriction policies that a mob of locals had done the faux Indians at the Boston Tea Party and burned the grounded revenue schooner Gaspee to the water line back in 1772.  And it became the first colony, a mouse roaring at a lion, to sever its ties to the mother land, declaring its independence on May 4, 1776, two months before the Continental Congress got around to it.  Its delegates at the Congress, Stephen Hopkins and William Ellery naturally cast Rhode Island’s single vote for Independence.
During the war the British easily occupied Newport, which became a major base Royal Navy Base.  Yet the tiny colony still managed to provide one of the most important and reliable Regiments of the Line for George Washington’s often beleaguered Continental Army.  When the French entered the war as allies, American troops under General John Sullivan, including the all Black 1st Rhode Island Regiment of state militia, in somewhat uneasy cooperation with French forces under Admiral the Comte d'Estaing dislodged the British. 
Ruined Newport became the principle base of operations for the French and General Washington took up residence there planning to go on the offensive when their combined forces could be brought to bear in unison.  It was from there that the General launched his long march to Yorktown to trap Lord Cornwallis’s army on a peninsula bottled up by the French fleet.  You probably recall how that worked out.
But having played a critical role in the Revolution, Rhode Island’s post war economy was more devastated than most of the other colonies.  Its merchant traders had trouble re-establishing old trade routes as the British cut off lucrative trade with the sugar and Spice Islands of the Caribbean.  Instead they used their ships to turn increasingly to the Slave Trade and within a few years Rhode Island dominated between 60 to as much as 90% of that trade, tying its economy to the slave holding South.
When the Articles of Confederation failed to provide enough centralized government to retire war debt and facilitate trade, Rhode Island suspicious of the undertaking, never even sent delegates to what became the Constitutional Convention.
In the years following the adoption of the Constitution by the convention in 1787 there was a vigorous national debate aimed at encouraging the former colonies to ratify the Constitution and officially join the new Federal Union.  The eloquent and elegant arguments of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay were countered by dire warnings of tyranny and the re-imposition of monarchy by wily political leaders like Edmund Randolph, George Mason, and New York Governor George Clinton who styled themselves Anti-Federalists.  Rhode Island was firmly in the Anti-Federalist camp.
To assuage those fears, ten new Amendments to the Constitution, collectively known as the Bill of Rights were added to the original document.  Rhode Island, however, was still suspicious.
Rhode Island voters—property owning white men—rejected ratification in a popular referendum on March 27, 1778 by the lopsided margin of 237 to 2,708 after neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut had affirmed it.
One by one all of the other 12 former colonies fell into line isolating and surrounding the littlest state, which seemed determined to hold on to its own independence. 
It is said that no state was forced to ratify the Constitution, but that might be a stretch in the case of Rhode Island.  With her ports becoming havens for smugglers, gunboats began cruising menacingly off shore.  Annual muster days of Massachusetts were marked by drill that hinted that a march against its neighbor might be in the offing. 
George Washington had already been elected first President of the United States under the Constitution, and had taken the oath of office in New York City where Congress was also meeting.  A new national government had become a reality.
On May 29, 1790 after a bruising debate in the legislature, members finally ratified the Constitution by the narrowest of margins—34 for to 32 against.
Rhode Island became the last of the “Original 13” to join the union.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Sojourner Truth in Her Own Real Words

Like all of her other portraits, this was taken in Sojourner Truth's old age and semi-retirement after the Civil War.

On May 28, 1851 fifty-four year old Sojourner Truth mounted the platform and addressed the delegates to an Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron.  The meeting was held only three years after the inaugural Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. 
Truth was a former slave who had gained fame as a lay preacher and abolitionist speaker.  Accounts differ as to whether she was fully welcomed or if there were some women afraid that her presence would antagonize men otherwise sympathetic to her cause.  But Truth was already friendly with leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and most of her audience that day were either already convinced abolitionists, or at least sympathetic. 
The speech Truth gave has outlasted any other comments at the meeting and it is widely quoted by both feminists and African-American activists.  But the speech she gave may not have been the one widely quoted with its repeated refrain of “Ain't I a Woman?” 
Truth was born a slave in 1797 in Swartekill, New York.  Her birth name was Isabella Baumfree, one of thirteen children.  The Hardenbergh family that owned her was from old Dutch colonial stock and Dutch was her first language.  She was sold along with a herd of sheep at the age of nine to English speaking tavern keeper John Neely for $100. 
By her later accounts Neely beat and raped her.  She was sold twice more becoming the property of John Dumont of West Park in 1810.  Conditions were less harsh than with her previous owners and Isabella, called Belle, labored there for several years.  She fell in love with a slave named Robert from a neighboring farm, but his owner forbad the relationship and beat him so severely that he later died.  Robert fathered her first two children. 
In 1817 Dumont selected another of his slaves, Thomas, to be her husband and he fathered three more children by 1826.
Under New York’s gradual emancipation law slavery would become officially ended on July 4, 1827.  Dumont had promised her release early in exchange for “doing well and faithful,” but reneged after a hand injury left her less than a fully effective worker.  Feeling cheated but determined to be fair to her master, she spun him 100 lbs of wool, what she thought her remaining time was worth and escaped with her infant daughter. 
She could not take her other children because even under emancipation they would be held as bond servants until they were 21.  She found a sympathetic home with Isaac and Maria Van Wagener who took her in and settled her debt with Dumont for $20.  She stayed with them until emancipated under the law. 
Learning that Dumont had illegally sold her five year old son south to Alabama, she sued her former master with the support of the Van Wageners and after several months was able to recover her son.  She was the first black in New York State to successfully sue a white man. 
During her time with the Wagner family she experienced a religious conversion and became a devout Christian. 
In 1829 she moved with her son Peter to New York City to serve as housekeeper for evangelist preacher Elijah Pierson.  Through Pierson she met the religious charlatan Robert Matthews, a.k.a. Matthias Kingdom and the Prophet Matthias who had bilked Pierson and several others out of two houses and large sums of money.  Bella went to work for him in 1832.  When Pierson died a short time later both she and Matthews were charged with his murder but acquitted.  Mathews headed west in an attempt to strike up an alliance with the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith leaving Belle behind. 
Despite the notoriety of the trial she was able to scrape together a living in the city.  Her son Peter signed on whaling ship in 1839 and after three letters never heard from him again. 
In 1842 she adopted the name Sojourner Truth because, “The Spirit calls me and I must.”  She became a Methodist, and like many others became a lay preacher and traveling evangelist mixing in a heavy dose of abolitionism.  Gaining a reputation she was invited to join Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Massachusetts in 1844.  One of many utopian social experiments of the era, the Association was founded by abolitionists and supported women’s rights and pacifism.  Other members of the association included leading abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Fredrick Douglas.  Like other communal experiments of the era, the Northampton Association collapsed 1847 and Truth went to work as a housekeeper for Garrison’s brother-in-law. 
While there she dictated her memoirs to her friend Olivia Gilbert.  In 1850 Garrison arranged a private printing of The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave.  The book was widely read in liberal circles and cemented Truth’s reputation.  The same year she was able to buy her own home in Northampton for $300 and attended the first full National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts where she shared the platform such leaders as Lucy Stone, Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis, Ernestine Rose, Antoinette Brown as well as old friends Garrison and Douglas.  More than 900 people attended the convention, which attracted wide, if sometimes derisive, coverage. 
Truth came to the 1850 meeting in while on a western speaking tour with abolitionists George Thompson.  The first published version of her speech was transcribed by local newspaperman Marius Robinson and was published a month after the event.  The speech was stirring and contrasted the leisure afforded white women who were “put on a pedestal” with the grim “work or die” reality for Black women both slave and free.  But it was rendered a standard English and no where included the words “Ain’t I a woman.” 
Those were included, along with idiomatic—and stereotypical—southern Black speech patterns in a version of the speech published 13 years after it was given by one of the meetings organizers, Frances Dana Barker Gage.  Gage’s version is the won widely quoted today.  Yet it has its many doubters.  It is unlikely that Truth, a native Dutch speaker who had spent her entire life well north of the Mason-Dixon Line, spoke with any kind of southern drawl, Black or otherwise.  On the other hand, supporters of the Gage version argue that Robinson “cleaned up” Truth’s raw language for his genteel readers. 
More telling are factual inaccuracies in the Gage version, including the claim that she had 13 children “most of which” were sold into slavery.  In fact she had five children, one of whom was temporarily sold into slavery.  Gage also embellished the circumstances of the speech, making it sound as if Truth spoke to a hostile audience, where as contemporary accounts, including her own, attested to a warm reception.  The speech as recorded by Gage in 1863 began:
 Wall, chilern, whar dar is so much racket dar must be somethin' out o' kilter. I tink dat 'twixt de niggers of de Souf and de womin at de Norf, all talkin' 'bout rights, de white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all dis here talkin' 'bout? Dat man ober dar say dat womin needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to hab de best place everywhar. Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober mud-puddles, or gibs me any best place! 'And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman?...
By contrast Robinson recorded:
 I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman's rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now...
To my ears, the originally published journal sound much more likely to have been given by a woman who had been raised in the North, had spend many years in association with highly educated people, and made a living as a preacher and speaker. 
Truth spent the next decade touring in support of abolition and women’s rights working in close association with Robinson.  She had many colorful encounters with hostile audiences, including one where a heckler insisted that she was a man so she opened her shirt to show her breasts. 
In 1856 she sold her Northumberland home and moved to the Battle Creek, Michigan area which she would consider home for the rest of her life.  The household in her new home included a grown daughter, Elizabeth Banks and two grandsons. 
With the outbreak of the Civil War she saw her older grandson, James Caldwell enlist in the famous Black 54th Massachusetts while she recruited other blacks to rally for the Union.  In 1864 she was called to Washington to join the National Freedman's Relief Association to improve the lot of newly freed slaves.  She met President Abraham Lincoln, and almost a hundred years before Rosa Parks insisted on riding Washington horse car trolleys effectively, if temporarily ending segregation on them. 
She tried to claim her 40 acres and a Mule as a freedman herself, appealing to President Ulysses Grant himself in 1870.  But despite seven years of effort was turned down because she was a woman and had been freed by a northern state years earlier. 
Truth returned to speaking tours after the war then returned to Battle Creek to try to vote in the 1872 Election.  But she was tiring out.  Sojourner Truth died in her Battle Creek home on November 26, 1886 at the age of 86.