“Boom Times” in Baltimore?

In early 1951, the New York Times predicted “boom times” for the Baltimore region. The business community had already identified 1950 as its best year since World War II, and executives in several industries planned to expand production to meet demand for defense orders, making the new year even better. Unemployment in Maryland was at its lowest level since the war’s end, and industrial employers expected to have to search out of state to fill a projected ten thousand positions for skilled workers. Many residents of Baltimore shared in the prosperity the city’s boom times created. Studies of local economic activity revealed that they were celebrating the flush times with shopping sprees and splurging on big-ticket items. Retail sales were on the rise, as was demand for electricity to power the many consumer products that had flooded the market after the war, items such as televisions, washing machines, and refrigerators. Area residents were also taking to the roads with increasing frequency. Car registrations were up, and gasoline consumption was rising quickly. For growing numbers, cars sustained suburban lifestyles as city natives abandoned Baltimore entirely for a new start.1

But not everyone in Baltimore benefited equally from the city’s boom times. Persistent employment discrimination kept Black city residents on the margins or at the bottom of the city’s industrial economy. Anna “Nan” Butler’s family was representative. In 1950, she was thirty-seven years old and the mother of four. Although as a child she had sometimes imagined for herself a career in nursing, the aspiration had proven difficult to achieve in Jim Crow Baltimore. Instead, like most Black women of her generation, Butler turned to domestic work. She might have preferred the life of a housewife, attending to her own children and home instead of juggling family responsibilities with the demands of cleaning and caring for others. But her husband’s income as a laborer, the occupational category that included the largest number of Black men in Baltimore during the first half of the twentieth century, could not sustain their family. So Butler cleaned for white families to help make ends meet. Her wages were low—minimum-wage laws excluded domestic workers—but she did what she could to boost them. When she took on new clients, she exaggerated prevailing wage rates and sometimes won herself a raise. The small victories were important but not enough to lift her family out of poverty. “We were poor,” one of her daughters recalled, but then added pensively, “but we didn’t know we were poor. Everyone was poor.”2 Her recollection was not far off. During Baltimore’s boom times, when employers anticipated recruiting relatively highly paid skilled workers from out of state, well over half of the city’s Black residents lived in poverty.3

To combat widespread insecurity, during the postwar era, civil rights leaders worked relentlessly to incorporate African Americans into their city’s boom times. The task was daunting. Known as the nation’s northernmost southern city and southernmost northern city, Baltimore had an industrialized, Jim Crow economy, and there were few forms of discrimination Black residents did not confront. Nevertheless, building on campaigns with roots in the 1930s, African American leaders endeavored to improve conditions. They took on Jim Crow segregation and sometimes met with success.4 Simultaneously, they remained unwavering in their determination to fight employment discrimination. The ticket to the city’s boom times lay in integrating the mainstream economy and thereby winning for African Americans both better jobs and greater protection from the nation’s welfare state—access to Social Security and unemployment insurance, the right to join a union and earn the minimum wage. Such protections were buoying the economic fortunes of many white workers but did not consistently extend to laborers, domestic workers, and others in the precarious jobs often filled by African Americans. The health of the local—and national—economy had long depended on a racially segmented labor market in which whites confined African Americans to low-wage jobs. Change did not come easily. Despite some very hard-won and important civil rights victories, the system largely remained in place through the 1950s. As a result, gains accrued by many in the white working class during Baltimore’s boom times remained out of reach for many Black families.

The marginalization of African Americans in Baltimore’s vibrant postwar economy had far-reaching and also gendered implications. For men, their concentration in laboring positions made them particularly vulnerable to efforts by manufacturers to mechanize production. Technological changes meant that new machines rather than men increasingly did the grunt work on the city’s job sites, which saved on labor costs but increased the Black male unemployment rate. What is more, by the postwar years, Baltimore was no longer the magnet for industrial employers that it once was. New firms often located in the city’s suburbs, and manufacturers with aging plants in the city increasingly found it cost-effective to move elsewhere. Mechanization and early deindustrialization threatened to erode the city’s manufacturing base before Black men had won full inclusion. Meanwhile, for many Black women like Butler, economic hardship meant juggling the demands of paid employment with family obligations—obligations that the nation’s welfare state was easing for white women but that substandard housing, inadequate sanitation services, separate and unequal access to health care, and other vestiges of Jim Crow made all the more challenging. To be sure, the momentum achieved by Baltimore’s civil rights leaders during the 1950s paved the way for important changes to come. Nevertheless, during an exceptional era in the history of American capitalism during which many workers shared to an unprecedented level in the profits of their employers, Baltimore’s boom times did not extend far into Black communities.

“A Ready Supply of Common Labor”: Civil Rights Leaders and Black Employment

As postwar civil rights leaders attempted to dismantle the Jim Crow-dominated system in Baltimore, they encountered considerable resistance. Local white power brokers, as well as much of the white population more generally, shared a deep commitment to maintaining the city’s rigid racial hierarchy. During the 1940s, Baltimore became the nation’s sixth largest city, and by the war’s end, the Black population had reached about two hundred thousand. Although African Americans accounted for approximately 20 percent of the city’s residents, which was a larger fraction than found in most other industrial cities, they wielded little political or economic power. The trappings of white supremacy were everywhere. African Americans held no elected offices; Jim Crow segregation dictated where people could and could not go; residential segregation prevailed; and most Black workers had menial jobs.5 Civil rights activists had a lot to tackle.

The key to improving the economic fortunes of African Americans lay in moving Black men into and upward in the city’s industrial sector, many activists believed. Despite its location below the Mason-Dixon line, Baltimore resembled economically cities in the Northeast and the Midwest rather than cities in the South. Although Baltimore’s economic roots were in commerce, by the start of the twentieth century an extensive rail system had attracted manufacturers to the city. The Baltimore port, which became one of the largest and most important on the U.S. Atlantic coast, fueled the industrial development. A wave of mergers early in the twentieth century consumed many locally owned firms and added nationally recognizable names to the city’s business directories, and so Baltimore became known as a city of branch plants. Western Electric and Glenn Martin Aircrafts opened facilities in the area during the 1920s, as did Procter and Gamble, Coca-Cola, Montgomery Ward, McCormick Spice, and American Sugar. By the 1930s, Bethlehem Steel, which had purchased mills in Sparrows Point just outside the city in 1916, was Baltimore’s largest employer, and it remained so after the war. Bethlehem Steel also ran shipyards at “the Point” and in South Baltimore. General Motors began operations during the 1930s just outside the city, and by the start of World War II, General Electric and Westinghouse also had Baltimore branches. As in most northeastern cities, Baltimore’s economy was diversified. Commerce remained important, and the city had a small but significant banking and financial sector; the contemporary firms Legg Mason and T. Rowe Price were products of the city. In 1940, 40 percent of Baltimore’s workforce labored in trade and service jobs. The city’s economic diversity persisted through the postwar years, making Baltimore representative of similarly sized cities in the industrial belt. Nevertheless, the industrial sector powered the city’s economy.6

The exploitation of Black labor long had been critical to the city’s economic growth. At the start of the Civil War, Baltimore had been home to the largest population of free African Americans in the nation, and the city had been known as the Black capital of the United States. But Baltimore’s tradition of free Black labor had hardly prevented whites from excluding most African American men from skilled jobs and the lucrative trades after the Civil War. And white employers used racism to justify low wages for Black workers. In fact, during the Great Depression, business boosters made the availability of inexpensive African American labor a selling point in a campaign to attract investors to the city. “The percentage of Negroes is 17.7 affording a ready supply of common labor,” the Baltimore Industrial Bureau touted in an advertisement.7 White employers confined Black men to low-wage positions to reduce labor costs and also to prevent unionization. In some cases, employers intentionally denied Black workers regular jobs so as to hire them as scabs during strikes. Employers’ manipulation of race limited most Black men to poverty-level wages. It also impeded labor organizing. By World War II, Baltimore’s labor movement was notoriously weak.8

Wartime labor demands had opened opportunities for Black workers, and civil rights leaders pursued them assertively. The percentage of Black men employed in the industrial sector rose from 7 percent to 17 percent. Black women made gains as well. Although still largely confined to low-wage service positions, the percentage engaged in domestic service dropped from 70 to less than 45.9 While important, the changes did not go far enough. Discrimination continued to confine most African American workers to the least secure and most unprotected jobs in the city. As the white director of Baltimore’s Department of Public Welfare, T. J. S. Waxter, explained in 1944, “Perhaps the greatest handicap under which Negroes live in Baltimore is in the restriction of job opportunities in many areas. Numerous concerns in the city will not employ Negroes for semi-skilled, skilled and professional work.” Despite wartime improvements, he noted, “It is still true … that the overwhelming number of Negroes find employment in unskilled work and domestic service.”10 In the midst of the city’s modern industrial economy, most African Americans struggled to get by in low-wage jobs.

“The Constitution Meant Just What It Said”

Postwar civil rights activists knew well the challenges they faced. Many who engaged in postwar campaigns for jobs began their activist careers during the 1930s. The people and organizations behind Baltimore’s Depression-era and wartime civil rights efforts were numerous. Black neighborhoods housed an extensive network of institutions, some of which had roots in antebellum America. Black churches had an especially long and important history in the city. In Sunday-morning sermons, clergy across the city—some lecturing in the stern tone of patriarchs, others fired by the passion of revelation—blended spiritual guidance and political advocacy. Although church members differed in their assessments of the responses required to pernicious racism in the city, from their ranks emerged many of the leaders and foot soldiers of the city’s civil rights movement. Meanwhile, clergy members played important roles in interracial relations.11

Baltimore also boasted a critically important Black-owned press. The Afro-American, a newspaper purchased by John Murphy in 1890 and edited from the 1920s through 1967 by his son, Carl, was the most important Black business in the city. The paper covered events of interest to its national African American readership in editions published in cities across the country. Its Baltimore edition included stories on local politics. The paper’s editorial page provided readers with perspectives on both international and domestic events. It also included trenchant insights into Baltimore’s ongoing civil rights struggles, battles in which Murphy and his paper were often intimately involved. The editor, who held degrees from Howard and Harvard Universities as well as Friedrich Schiller University Jena in Germany, was a member of the national board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). During the 1930s, he helped to revive the city’s branch of the organization, which had become dormant during the 1920s. No resident in Baltimore had the ear of as many of the city’s Black citizens as Carl Murphy.12

Murphy’s paper was hardly limited to political content. Articles in the Afro-American kept readers updated on the goings-on within the city’s many civic and social organizations, including numerous fraternal groups, sororities, lodges, and other private clubs. Readers could also look to the paper for news of the latest events at Morgan State and Coppin State, two historically Black colleges that had graduated many of the city’s African American professionals. In addition, the Afro-American covered the cotillion dances, elaborate weddings, overseas escapades, and other exploits of the small but notoriously class-conscious who’s who of Black Baltimore. The paper included articles on the city’s vibrant cultural scene as well, reporting on the hottest acts appearing in clubs on Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore, the heart of the city’s African American arts scene. And the paper kept readers current on all forms of sporting events, providing scores and analyses of high school, college, amateur, and professional matchups. In other words, the sources of the energy and perseverance that sustained the city’s civil rights activists through difficult battles was described in the paper’s articles that were not related to civil rights.

From the mid-1930s onward, many issues of the paper did include news of local civil rights activism. The Baltimore chapter of the NAACP led many of the battles. The organization, the second NAACP branch in the nation, received its charter in 1913. During its early years, members spearheaded fights against lynching in Maryland and campaigned against housing segregation laws that the Baltimore City Council repeatedly but unsuccessfully attempted to enact. Concerned about African Americans’ access to jobs and public services, local NAACP leaders also protested rampant employment discrimination in the municipal government.13

Lillie May Jackson was a primary force behind the resurgence of the Baltimore NAACP during the mid-1930s, and she remained at the organization’s helm until 1970. Born in Baltimore in 1889, Jackson graduated from Coppin Teachers College. She worked in the city’s public schools, and then married Kieffer A. Jackson, an exhibitor of religious films. Together the couple had four children. Lillie May Jackson was devoutly religious and not a little righteous. She understood her efforts in the NAACP to be God’s work, and she grew the Baltimore branch of the organization into one of the nation’s biggest primarily by working within the city’s Black religious communities. In keeping with the ideology that motivated many African American activists of her generation and class, Jackson asserted that it was her “job to help [her] people and lift them up.” Yet she also believed strongly that it was her responsibility to “prove that the Constitution meant just what it said.”14 She valued action, and upon assuming the leadership of the Baltimore NAACP, she replaced some on the organization’s “polite preacher-teacher” board with representatives from organized labor.15 Her reputation as a leader who produced results—and also the membership dues needed to finance the local and national organizations—eventually extended beyond Maryland, and during the late 1940s, she won a spot on the board of directors of the national NAACP. Many knew Jackson not only for her activism but also for her sharp tongue and domineering leadership style. Baltimore NAACP board members who disagreed with her dictates sometimes opted to skip meetings rather than battle with, in the words of one member, their “sort of autocratic” leader.16 Yet as her son-in-law later noted, “She made [Maryland] a lot closer to what it ought to be than anybody ever imagined it would be, and I think she did it by the sheer force of her determination with very little resources to work with.”17

Working side by side with Jackson at the helm of the NAACP was her daughter, Juanita Jackson Mitchell. Mitchell was born in 1913 and attended Baltimore City schools. She received both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Returning home during the Depression, she cofounded and became president of the Citywide Young People’s Forum, a progressive, Popular Front–type organization with a membership that included Thurgood Marshall, who later argued the Brown v. Board of Education case that outlawed segregation in public schools and who in 1967 became the nation’s first African American Supreme Court justice. With the NAACP’s blessing, the Young People’s Forum launched a “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign. The willingness of activists in Baltimore to use the picket line in addition to the legal strategies typically associated with the NAACP won them a reputation for militancy, and Mitchell’s influence was critical. After beginning her activist career in Baltimore, Mitchell served as a special assistant to national NAACP leader Walter White and as the national youth director of the NAACP.18

In 1938, then Juanita Jackson married Clarence Mitchell, who was also an early leader of the Young People’s Forum. The union joined two of the city’s most powerful African American families and soon further strengthened the link between the Baltimore branch and the national NAACP. Following World War II, Clarence Mitchell became the labor secretary of the national NAACP and then the director of its Washington, DC, bureau and its chief lobbyist in the nation’s capital. In the latter position, he played a major role in shaping all of the federal civil rights legislation passed during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, work that earned him a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980. Juanita Mitchell’s reputation as a civil rights activist and leader was well established before her marriage, however, and remained distinct from her husband’s. During the late 1940s, she embraced a challenge put to her by NAACP legal giant Charles Houston. In 1950, she became the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Maryland Law School, which the NAACP had earlier compelled to integrate, and to practice law in the state. She used her legal training to combat Jim Crow segregation and discrimination in Baltimore. Her reputation as an advocate extended beyond Baltimore. Three presidents, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, appointed her to federal commissions or conferences.19

Under the powerful mother-daughter team of Jackson and Mitchell, the Baltimore NAACP became one of the most active branches in the country. Although few women held top positions nationally in civil rights organizations, Jackson’s and Mitchell’s decades at the helm of the organization indicate that African Americans in Baltimore adjusted to female leadership. “God opened my mouth and no man can shut it,” Jackson once declared.20 For that, many Black residents were grateful. The fight for jobs and employment equity consistently appeared on the NAACP’s agenda. In addition to its endorsement of the pickets of the Young People’s Forum, during the 1930s Jackson worked with Marshall on a county-by-county effort in Maryland to equalize the salaries of Black and white teachers. The NAACP also fought for government posts for African Americans in segregated public institutions, on the police force, and in the fire department. Then during the war years, the NAACP played a critical role in the campaign to win industrial jobs for Black workers. By the postwar era, the organization already had amassed an impressive record of civil rights activism.21

Critical in NAACP efforts to improve the job prospects of Black workers was F. Troy Brailey, who served as labor secretary. Born in South Carolina in 1916, Brailey hitchhiked his way to Baltimore as a teenager during the Depression and then eked out an existence shining shoes. He later became a railroad porter and an associate of African American labor leader and civil rights legend A. Philip Randolph. Brailey served as the president of the Baltimore division of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union founded by Randolph. He also worked with Randolph on the proposed March on Washington in 1941 to protest discrimination in the war industries. After the war, Brailey became the president of the Baltimore chapter of the Negro American Labor Council, an organization founded by Randolph to fight discrimination in labor unions. In 1966, Brailey won a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates, where he was a founder of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus. He later served in the state’s Senate. Somewhat exceptional among Baltimore’s postwar civil rights luminaries because of his deep and personal connection to organized labor, Brailey was fiercely committed to keeping the civil rights movement focused on labor issues.22

Joining the NAACP at the forefront of Baltimore’s civil rights movement was the Baltimore Urban League (BUL). Members of an interracial coalition founded the organization in 1924. In keeping with the mission of its parent organization, the BUL focused on advocating for employment opportunities and access to public services for the city’s African Americans. Initially committed to the almost exclusive use of moral suasion to achieve its goals, BUL leaders generally eschewed the picket lines and lawsuits that were the hallmarks of the NAACP. The BUL favored instead the research study that documented the ill effects of discrimination. During the 1930s, the organization conducted a survey of New Deal relief recipients and exposed bias in the distribution of services. They used the results to push for improved services for Black residents and to win African Americans positions as caseworkers with the Baltimore Emergency Relief Commission. The BUL also worked to open low-cost housing options to African Americans and to win better health and recreation services for Black city residents. During the war, the BUL probably outpaced the NAACP in efforts to convince white employers to hire Black workers. As a result, by the conclusion of the war, the BUL like the NAACP had quite a significant civil rights track record.23

By the postwar period, the BUL had a reputation for moderation and was dominated by a largely white leadership. The organization’s board was entirely male, and many members had affiliations with important businesses or labor organizations. The BUL’s leadership also included some prominent African Americans, including those often found on the Baltimore NAACP’s masthead. Juanita Mitchell served for a time as a member of the BUL’s Ladies Auxiliary, and her husband was an early board member, where he served alongside the Afro-American’s Murphy. The BUL’s most influential Black leader during the war years and again during the 1950s and 1960s was Furman Templeton. An alumnus of Lincoln University, Templeton joined the BUL as the United States was preparing to enter World War II. In 1941, as the BUL’s industrial secretary, Templeton’s advocacy on behalf of prospective Black war workers won him a place on the Afro-American’s “Honor Roll.” He left the league for a federal job during the war and then worked for Murphy’s paper. In 1950, he returned to the BUL as the organization’s executive secretary, and from that position he played a leading role in the fight to improve access for African Americans to jobs and social services.24

In addition to African American activists, a small but important number of white liberals also fought for civil rights. Although relations between African Americans and Jews were sometimes tense in Baltimore, Jewish leaders frequently participated in fights against segregation and discrimination. Leon Sachs, of the Baltimore Jewish Council, played a tremendously important role in postwar activism, especially on behalf of equal employment. Some white Protestant and Catholic leaders were also active in civil rights battles, as were the leaders of several labor unions. And Baltimore was home to a chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which had a predominantly white membership. In addition, the Citizen’s Housing and Planning Association and several other groups attracted an interracial membership that worked to improve race relations in the city.25

“Sweep and Scrub, Push and Haul, Tote and Carry”: The Fight for Postwar Jobs

Although battles against Jim Crow segregation in Baltimore often attracted headlines during the postwar era, civil rights leaders also remained focused on fighting employment discrimination. The campaign was critical. Postwar prosperity in Baltimore stemmed largely from the city’s privileged position within the global capitalist economy. The United States emerged from World War II an undisputed superpower and with its physical infrastructure worn but unscathed. Meanwhile, much of Europe and Japan lay in ruins. U.S. manufacturers and other business leaders were more than happy to supply the industrial needs of their war-torn competitors, and U.S. policy makers brokered the international agreements that provided them with advantageous means to do so. Meanwhile, although some lamented the reliance of much U.S. prosperity on militarism, defense spending on a global war against communism precluded a return to economic depression and powered economic growth.26

But the midcentury was not only a bonanza for elites. Workers had spent more than the last half-century battling the labor conditions that had prevailed under the system of laissez-faire capitalism. They won incomplete but important concessions. The New Deal produced legislation that protected many workers’ right to join labor unions. Union membership surged, and collectively bargained contracts won wage increases and better working conditions for many. Meanwhile, federal welfare measures eased some of the economic hardship often associated with old age and unemployment; enforced baseline labor standards; maintained tax incentives to induce employers to provide fringe benefits, such as health insurance and pension plans; and provided mortgage assistance that enabled families to realize the dream of homeownership. To be sure, the labor legislation and welfare measures that protected workers were the product of compromises that conservative politicians and business interests tried to renegotiate throughout the postwar years. Nevertheless, for many, the system worked admirably well. The problem for African Americans, however, is that much New Deal legislation did not extend to many of the jobs in which they were concentrated. The racial discrepancies meant that while many white families could start to get ahead, many African Americans continued to struggle just to get by.27

Civil rights advocates in Baltimore had launched battles for postwar jobs even before the war came to an end. Some efforts involved securing federal legislation. Thousands in Baltimore actively participated in national campaigns to make the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) permanent. Created during the war, the FEPC combated employment discrimination in the war industries. African Americans wanted to see federal prohibitions against discrimination extended. Clarence Mitchell commuted from his home in Baltimore to champion the issue in D.C. on behalf of the national NAACP. Meanwhile, the Baltimore NAACP helped to coordinate efforts by more than a hundred local organizations that were engaged in lobbying and letter- and telegram-writing campaigns intended to sway Maryland’s congressional officials to the cause.28 Baltimore activists also supported efforts to secure full-employment legislation, which would require the federal government to guarantee a job to all Americans in search of work. In Baltimore, the issue did not garner the level of activism fair employment received, but it had staunch advocates. The editors of the Afro-American called on readers to “stand solidly behind the Full Employment Bill by urging our representatives in Congress to back it to the hilt. We clamored for war jobs. Let us clamor with equal vigor for jobs in peacetime.”29 Ultimately, however, neither fair nor meaningful full employment legislation made it through the Congresses of the late 1940s.

Civil rights leaders led by Mitchell did meet with success in efforts to ban employment discrimination in the federal workforce. In Baltimore, the issue garnered considerable support. The Social Security Administration (SSA) was headquartered in the city and served as a critical local employer. Moreover, the U.S. Post Office, known in Black communities as the Negro graveyard because it often employed Black men in positions well below their skill level, had long been an important source of stable African American male jobs.30 In response to a pressure campaign, in 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9980, which banned discrimination, although not segregation, in the federal workforce.

Under the watchful eyes of such leaders as Jackson and Juanita Mitchell, Executive Order 9980 had immediate ramifications in Baltimore. Following an internal investigation into discrimination at the agency, SSA officials agreed to fully desegregate its facilities, hire African American personnel officials, make employment decisions without consideration of race, and make promotion decisions based on merit regardless of the racial composition of the employees a prospective supervisor would oversee. Completely out of step with the Jim Crow culture of Baltimore, Social Security became an imperfect but pathbreaking employer. The change was particularly consequential for Black women as the SSA’s workforce was predominantly female. Overall, as a result of the executive order and its actual if incomplete implementation, in 1949 the BUL noted with enthusiasm “a marked increase in the colored employment in Federal agencies.”31 African Americans, by that time constituting nearly a fourth of the city’s population, made up 16 percent of local Social Security employees and more than a quarter of Baltimore’s U.S. postal workers. In the one realm in which civil rights activists had won a nondiscrimination provision, the measure seemed to be helping.32

Unfortunately, changes in federal agencies were among the very few positive developments for Black workers in Baltimore. The situation at Bethlehem Steel, the most important employer in the city, was a disappointing best-case scenario for African Americans in the private sector. Historically, about a third of the company’s workforce had been Black. But as McCall White, who started working for the company during the 1940s, recalled, “Wages [for African Americans] were much lower, much lower than for white workers. Job classes ran from 1 to 32. Black workers usually stayed around job class 1 and no higher than job class 4.”33 During a successful unionization drive during the war years, an effort in which Black workers played an important role, union officials promised they would combat discrimination. Postwar contracts, however, failed to effectively challenge the segregation of Black workers into the lowest grades. Company officials divided the workforce into departments, and African Americans generally worked in departments with limited opportunities for advancement regardless of accrued seniority. Black workers fought the discrimination and, with eventual union support, won modest changes. Token numbers of Black workers started to make inroads into skilled and supervisory positions during the 1950s. Greater numbers moved into semiskilled or operative jobs. Nevertheless, the concentration of African Americans in unskilled positions persisted. The problems at Bethlehem Steel were far from unique. Despite slow but important changes in the city’s industrial sector, discrimination remained rampant.34

Civil rights leaders were ever vigilant. During the 1950s, BUL officials worked directly with Maryland Department of Employment Security officials as well as with private employment agencies in an effort to open new jobs to Black workers. In addition, they held vocational fairs, monitored African American access to and participation in vocational education, worked with government officials to open public-sector employment, mediated strikes, helped job candidates prepare for trade-specific examinations, and negotiated with business leaders and union officials.35 Meanwhile, the NAACP, often led by Brailey, monitored the distribution of federal contracts in Baltimore and worked to ensure the enforcement of the equal-opportunity provisions such contracts mandated. The organization also pressed the city council unsuccessfully for legislation prohibiting employment discrimination in publicly funded construction projects and worked with employers and unions to win positions for Black workers. By the mid-1950s, the NAACP had helped to secure limited numbers of African Americans jobs as plumbers, electricians, and telephone workers, as well as bus, streetcar, and taxi drivers. The organization also opened paths for African Americans to some professional jobs by winning the integration of some graduate schools. Victories by both the NAACP and BUL, however, were largely piecemeal. Without the muscle of a permanent FEPC, the pace of change was painfully slow.36

Aware that efforts to persuade employers and unions to abandon discriminatory practices met with only minimal results, during the mid-1950s Black leaders began to pressure elected officials for a local fair-employment practices ordinance. And they had a powerful weapon to mobilize on behalf of the cause: Black voters. During the early twentieth century, efforts by whites in Maryland’s State House to disenfranchise African Americans had failed repeatedly (largely because Baltimore’s sizable population of immigrants suspected the proposed legislation would eventually be used against them). Since the 1930s, however, white officials had gerrymandered Black residents out of political representation. During World War II, as African American migration swelled the city’s Black population and local Black leaders yearned for increased political influence, civil rights activists successfully mobilized voting power to affect the outcome of a citywide election. In 1943, Black voters helped moderate Republican Theodore McKeldin beat the city’s aging Democratic machine and win the mayor’s office. In exchange for their support, African Americans expected and received appointments and municipal jobs. The gains were far from substantial, but the achievement was important.37 During the war, the city’s Black population was finally able to flex its political muscle. And aided by white flight from the city and continuing Black in-migration, those proposing a local fair employment measure decided it was time to try to flex that muscle again.

By the mid-1950s, twelve states and twenty-nine cities had passed what activists called “Baby FEPCs.” Baltimore’s civil rights leaders hoped to make their city the first below the Mason-Dixon line with such a provision. In 1954, a large coalition of labor, civic, religious, and welfare organizations came together to support the local fair employment law. The BUL played a leading role in the campaign, as did Sachs of the Baltimore Jewish Council. The NAACP also sponsored the measure, which the Afro-American strongly endorsed.38 Supporters faced a daunting task as they tried to convince a majority of the all-white city council to support the FEPC, however. Unlike the city’s mayors and city council presidents, who had to prevail in citywide elections, council members typically owed allegiance only to those in their districts.39 In March 1954, four members introduced the bill, which would ban discrimination in employment based on race, color, creed, or religion. Hundreds of African Americans wrote to the city council to urge passage of the measure, and at a hearing on behalf of the bill, more than two hundred supporters crowded into the council chambers as thirty speakers presented their case. Jackson spoke in favor of the measure, as did William Passano, then president of the BUL.40 But despite the tremendous effort on behalf of the FEPC, the measure did not pass.41

A year later, Black Baltimore finally had succeeded in electing an African American city council member. Demographic changes and voter registration drives overwhelmed white efforts to exclude Black politicians from municipal office. “Our goal was not just political representation, but the power to make changes in a society that excluded and victimized us,” recalls city resident Verda Welcome, who later became the first Black woman to serve in a state Senate.42 In late 1955, Walter Dixon won a seat on the council, and the following spring, he reintroduced the FEPC ordinance. This time the bill did pass—or at least a watered-down version of it did. A new ordinance created an Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC). The law, however, denied the EEOC the power to pursue legal action against employers it found guilty of discrimination. The EEOC, in other words, had no enforcement power. In an effort to be upbeat, the Afro-American’s editorial board described the new FEPC as “another step forward.” The paper’s editors could not fully contain their skepticism, however. “If discrimination in employment can be cured by persuading employers and unions then it should be done that way. This is an effort to see if this method can be successful,” the editors, mindful of the past failures of just such an approach, reflected doubtfully.43

And it quickly became apparent that most city officials, including Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., who succeeded McKeldin, had no intention of even letting the EEOC put the persuasion method to the test. D’Alesandro’s appointments to the EEOC evinced inconsistent interest in battling employment discrimination. A year later, aware of multiple instances in which Black workers had been unfairly denied jobs, the editors of the Afro-American noted with obvious disappointment, “IT WAS hoped” that the EEOC would do something to improve employment opportunities for Black workers (emphasis in the original).44 But it had not.

Despite obstacles and an impotent EEOC, African Americans did make some important employment gains during the 1950s. Black men’s representation in the industrial sector rose from its wartime peak of 17 percent to 20 percent. And Black men in semiskilled work reached wage parity with their white counterparts. Black women made some significant gains as well. A fortunate few won clerical jobs or spots in federal agencies. And the percentage who worked in domestic service continued to decline. Yet the movement of Black women out of domestic and into other types of low-wage service work largely accounted for the postwar changes. Certainly some Black families did win a share of the city’s boom times. As Pete Wallace, an employee of Bethlehem Steel, recalled, “If the man worked [in the steel mills] … and his wife worked for Social Security, we thought we had it made.”45 Such families were the aristocracy of the Black working class, and it showed. “The purses matched the shoes and the gloves matched the coats, and you could easily pick those people out,” recalled Juanita Cole about the wives of some Black employees of Bethlehem Steel.46

But most Black men did not work in unionized factories, and only a small minority of Black women held government posts. The 20 percent of African American men in industrial positions compared to well over 30 percent for white men. And the whites generally had better-paying jobs. By 1960, African Americans made up nearly 70 percent of the city’s unskilled workers while whites accounted for 92 percent of skilled workers.47 Domestic service remained the occupational category that included the largest number of Black women. In fact, the concentration of African American women in menial positions led researchers studying Baltimore’s labor scene to identify “the Negro woman” as “the least utilized pool of potential urban industrial labor power” in the city.48

Ongoing employment discrimination created a tremendous income gap between Black and white families. During the mid-1950s, the median African American income in the city was a mere 56 percent of the white median income. Worse, the gap between Black and white earnings had actually increased since 1949. By the end of the 1950s, nearly a third of Black families earned incomes less than the $3,000 the federal government soon identified as the poverty line, and almost two-thirds of families earned less than the $5,180 the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculated was needed to sustain a family at a “moderate but adequate” level. Despite important changes, “when all the advances are ticked off, the employment picture remains a gloomy one,” concluded researchers studying Baltimore’s “progress towards equity.” “There are a few secretaries, a few foremen, a few engineers and telephone operators, but the great majority of colored Baltimoreans continue to sweep and scrub, push and haul, tote and carry in menial, unskilled occupations.”49 Many Black workers remained trapped in low-wage, insecure jobs, where they typically lacked access to many of the supposedly universal welfare programs of the New Deal as well as fringe benefits the federal government subsidized. The city’s boom times were passing by Black Baltimore, and despite their best efforts, civil rights activists had not been able to do enough about it.50

Making matters worse, the bottom literally began falling out of the city’s industrial economy. The number of jobs for unskilled laborers, the positions on which so many Black families depended, was in decline. During the postwar years, manufacturers throughout the United States built on wartime innovations in an effort to automate production. They aimed both to lower labor costs and to increase productivity. The trend toward automation became increasingly evident in Baltimore during the 1950s. Machines replaced laborers on many of the city’s construction sites as well as in Baltimore’s factories. The changes reduced the need for unskilled labor and also stalled growth citywide in the number of semiskilled positions. Automation took a particularly hard toll on African Americans. As the Baltimore Sun reported, “Negro unemployment, locally as nationally, is being magnified by automation and other technological advances which are steadily reducing the need for unskilled and blue-collar workers.”51 During Baltimore’s boom times, Black men were even losing their niche at the bottom of the industrial sector.

Moreover, deindustrialization promised to make Black men’s employment prospects even bleaker. As a consulting firm studying Baltimore’s regional economy explained, continuous wartime use had “worn out” industrial machinery in many older urban factories. Then, after the war, “lack of space, increasing congestion, unfavorable cost-price movements, and inflation accompanying the increased wage demands acted as tremendous disruptive forces for older areas of the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states.”52 In some instances, firms responded by relocating outside of aging cities. In the Baltimore region, the military contracts that helped to produce the city’s boom times often went to suburban-based firms. The shift had serious consequences for the city. During the Depression, manufacturing employment in Baltimore had dropped by 10 percent, but it had mushroomed by more than 250 percent in nearby suburbs. During the 1950s, the city lost 338 manufacturing firms. Manufacturing remained the city’s largest employment category into the 1960s. Nevertheless, as mechanization eroded the lowest tiers of the industrial economy, deindustrialization made uncertain the future of the entire manufacturing sector. The change imperiled a critical job base for men in Baltimore—both Black and white. White men had the option of relocation, but fiercely policed residential segregation largely precluded African Americans from moving to the city’s suburbs where job prospects were better. Baltimore’s economy was in the midst of fundamental structural change that was devastating the job prospects of Black men, and there was very little Jackson, the Mitchells, Brailey, Templeton, and the city’s other civil rights leaders could do about that.53

“We Are the Mothers Whose Children Suffer This Damage”: Gender and the Security Gap

While Black men bore the brunt of the employment costs associated with technological and structural economic changes, Black women paid a gendered price for economic insecurity. Not only did they participate in the paid labor force in larger numbers than white women—and usually in lower-paid positions—but they also often attempted to compensate for poverty and low incomes by working extra hard at home. As one city native recalls, “Throughout most of my childhood, my mother seemed to be working constantly. If she wasn’t putting in hours at the factory, or cleaning the houses of the white people on the weekends, she was busy at home cooking, tidying up, and keeping an eye on us.”54 Feminist economists have long argued that women often respond to tough times not only by working for wages but also by doing extra tasks around the house to stretch family budgets. They repair rather than replace broken items; provide rather than purchase health, child, and elder care; and make from scratch or by hand items available ready-made on the market. Such practices were stock-in-trade for many Black and also white women in Baltimore prior to World War II. Boom times, however, alleviated some of the pressures on the white women while Black women saw fewer changes. Ongoing employment discrimination and the lack of access African Americans had to many of the nation’s most generous welfare provisions had gendered consequences that Black women bore. And segregation made Black women’s gendered caretaking roles all the more challenging.

As the social safety net began to ease the conditions of working-class life during the postwar era, a security gap emerged between Black and white families that had implications for women. During the 1930s, as New Dealers were building the nation’s social security system, NAACP lawyer Charles Houston commented that “from the Negro’s point of view,” the new system looked like “a sieve with the holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through.”55 Large numbers of Black workers were excluded from such programs as old age and unemployment insurance because of their concentration in agricultural labor and domestic work. And they secured only inconsistent protection from subsequent welfare-state provisions as well. The consequences of the exclusion became increasingly stark after the war. Elderly parents, even if they qualified for means-tested old age assistance, could still need financial support, which created added strain on already tight family budgets and pressure on women to adopt labor-intensive, cost-cutting strategies. Visits to doctors were expensive, compelling adult daughters to provide needed care and other support themselves. Moreover, the family of a brother who did not receive unemployment insurance during a bout of joblessness because he worked outside of the system might need an extra few meals that took time and resources to prepare. Meanwhile, the lack of employer-provided health insurance might mean trying to substitute a mother’s touch for a costly hospital visit. In countless ways, Black women provided for their families’ security with labor that white women could increasingly abandon as their families received welfare protections from the government.

And as in the past, Jim Crow practices exacerbated the caretaking demands borne by Black women. As one city resident recalls, “The city government didn’t really care how we lived, and their neglect could be seen in our communities.”56 Substandard housing, separate and unequal public and private facilities, and the inferior quality of services the city provided to African American residents meant that Black women had to “sweep and scrub, push and haul, tote and carry” far more than white women in their homes and neighborhoods.57 During the 1950s, the number of neighborhoods into which Black families could safely move without fear of retaliatory violence by whites increased. Often aided by federal mortgage assistance to which Black families had less access, many whites left the city to realize the dream of suburban homeownership. The whites thus acquired an asset they could later use to help put a child through college or pass down an inheritance, wealth-generating practices that could lead to upward mobility and that were less available to African Americans.58 Although housing options increased for Black Baltimoreans, by the mid-1950s, the city classified over 40 percent of the housing occupied by African Americans as substandard, meaning either the units were dilapidated or lacked a private toilet, bath, or hot running water. In addition, almost 40 percent of dwellings occupied by African Americans lacked central heating.59 In their homes, Black women scrubbed and cleaned and tried to combat the symptoms of housing decay. As one low-income African American woman explained, mothers who “lived in the slums” knew only too well the fear and sadness of “stay[ing] up nights chasing rats … [and] listen[ing] to the wind whistling through the walls.”60 Thus they devised strategies for keeping out vermin and the cold. Black women also worked collectively as they paid a gendered price for white supremacy. For generations, African American women in Baltimore had relied on kin and other social networks as well as religious communities to meet the needs of their families and communities. Grassroots and voluntary organizations also helped women navigate the segregated landscape. African American women were consistently prominent among those participating in the Afro-American’s Clean Block campaigns, community projects intended to improve neighborhood sanitation. Like the progressive reformers of the late nineteenth century, Black women in 1950s Baltimore often used their own muscle and resources to combat neglect by the city as they also pressed elected officials for change.61

Unmet sanitation needs in many Black neighborhoods and the concentration of African American families in the city’s most dilapidated housing made it a challenge to find places where children could safely play. In addition, the segregation of the city’s libraries, parks, and recreation services denied Black children access to Baltimore’s best-resourced public facilities. “We are the mothers whose children suffer this damage,” Juanita Mitchell of the NAACP later argued in response to the slow pace the city took toward integration.62 More immediately, she used her legal talents and attempted to build on the momentum achieved by the Brown decision that declared school segregation unconstitutional. She prevailed upon the courts to ban segregation in public parks and places of recreation, a case that was ultimately won.63

Overcrowding in substandard housing also contributed to alarming health statistics for the city’s African American communities that women tried to combat. Baltimore’s Department of Health reported that between 1940 and 1950, tuberculosis struck five times as many Black residents as white. In 1950, African Americans also had higher rates of typhoid fever, measles, whooping cough, influenza, and several other major diseases. African Americans suffered 90 percent of the city’s cases of accidental lead poisoning. In addition, the Jim Crow system caused Black women to pay with the lives of their children and their own lives as well. In 1950, when African Americans made up almost a quarter of Baltimore’s population, Black mothers bore more than 40 percent of the stillbirths in the city, and Black babies made up almost half of the infants who died at an age younger than one. The same year, Black women accounted for more than 55 percent of maternal deaths.64 As the tragic health statistics indicate, Black women could not fully compensate for the health implications of poverty, segregation, the lack of health insurance, and the inferior quality of public and private services African Americans could access in Baltimore.65 The reality fueled unsuccessful but ongoing campaigns by civil rights activists and Black politicians on the local and state levels on behalf of desegregation.66

During the fifteen years following World War II, the concentration of Black workers—both women and men—at the bottom or on the periphery of the industrial sector and Black men’s growing vulnerability to automation kept economic insecurity high in many African American neighborhoods. As they had for generations, Black women responded to hardship and segregation in a myriad of ways, both paid and unpaid, to support and sustain their families and communities.67 Welfare-state protections eased conditions for some—even a growing number—but the holes of the sieve that was the nation’s safety net remained sized in a manner that continued to allow many African Americans to fall through. And segregation and the city’s provision of Jim Crow services continued to compel compensatory efforts by Black women to keep their families safe. For far too many African Americans in Baltimore, the city’s boom times had not amounted to very much.

Yet civil rights leaders had scored some critical victories in their pursuit of improved job prospects during the postwar era that merited dividends that had yet to be paid and that activists were determined to collect. Significantly, they had persuaded Truman to ban discrimination in the federal workforce, and they had wrangled from the overwhelmingly white and socially conservative Baltimore City Council a fair employment-practices law. Meanwhile, the number of African American residents was continuing to grow in the city as the number of whites remained in decline. Black leaders began the 1960s determined to use the power of the ballot box to influence the outcome of the upcoming national election, win more locally elected offices for African Americans, and pressure white elected officials to make good on their promise of equal employment opportunities.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!