Grace Cummings died April 29 in Waterbury, Connecticut. She was 65 years old.

For nearly 20 years Grace was a member of the Executive Board of New England’s District 1199 of the Service Employees union and a delegate to the Waterbury Central Labor Council. At the time of her death she was chair of the State Committee of the Connecticut Communist Party and a member of the National Committee of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA).

Grace was born on May 20, 1937, in Chester, S.C. The Depression years brought the family north. Her father got a job at Waterbury Tool Co. foundry where he became an active member of the Progressive Party. Her mother was one of the first Black women hired at the Scovill Brass Mill.

Recalling those years, Grace said, “I never heard any good stories about it. It was always a thumb lost, two finger ends lost. … My mother used to say, ‘Don’t ever go to work at Scovill’s.’ So I never worked in a brass plant.” (Quotations taken from Brass Valley, ed. by J. Brecher, et al.)

For 22 years Grace worked at U.S. Rubber where, as a union activist, she helped organize a wildcat strike. “The workers got along good,” she later recalled. “They didn’t have the Black and white friction … They helped each other out. We’re in here, one common cause – unionwise.”

Grace was one of thousands left without a job in the 1970s, as hundreds of manufacturing plants closed their doors. She got a job with the State of Connecticut as a mental retardation worker at Southbury Training School, where she helped to organize the workers into Local 1199. Her tireless efforts resulted in one of the union’s strongest units.

Grace worked as hard for the union as she did on her paid job at the Training School. She could be found talking to her co-workers after hours, filing grievances, negotiating contracts, lobbying at the State Capitol, speaking at public hearings, marching in demonstrations on any given day. Her son Samuel Cummings and daughter Joy Jones are both members of Local 1199.

In the late 1980s, Grace was appointed Waterbury’s first Human Rights Commissioner. In 1987, she visited the Soviet Union with a trade union delegation and was extremely inspired and impressed. She shared stories, gifts and photos with her family and co-workers, emphasizing the rights and benefits working people achieve with socialism, and the need for world peace.

Grace retired in 1999 when her health began to give way, but she remained an active member of the Western Connecticut Labor Council where she made hundreds of phone calls from her living room during the 2000 elections.

She was determined to make her best contribution toward a better world, and gave of herself tirelessly as a leader of the Connecticut Communist Party. She loved the slogan “People before Profits,” and participated in developing policy, teaching classes, and fundraising for the People’s Weekly World.

Grace’s gentle strength touched many people deeply. In the words of one new state committee member, “Amazing Grace. What a comrade, what a woman, what a lady. She extended her modest hospitality to us without hesitation.”

Many friends and workers from Southbury Training School attended her funeral. Speaking on behalf of the 20,000 Local 1199 members in Connecticut, President Jerry Brown gave high praise to the humanity and commitment that Grace brought to the union: “It takes a special kind of person to be a mental retardation worker, to give that love all the time. Gracie was that special kind of person and that’s what she brought to the union.”

Her daughter speaks of Grace as someone with “a great personality. She was loved, respected and admired by a lot of people. She was just a wonderful person. She did all that she could for anybody who needed her. That was her thing. She worked hard and gave us the best she could.”

At their May meeting, the Western Connecticut Central Labor Council voted to establish the Grace Cummings Tireless Worker Award as an annual award to an individual trade unionist that exemplifies the kind of dedication that Grace Cummings had for the labor movement.

A memorial hosted by the Connecticut CPUSA will be held at the New Haven People’s Center later this year. Contributions in honor of Grace Cummings can be made to the People’s Weekly World.

Joelle Fishman is the district organizer of the Communist Party of Connecticut and can be reached at joellefishman@pobox.com

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