DETROIT – Quill Pettway, labor organizer, civil rights pioneer, veteran, educator and father ended his long and fruitful life on January 16, two months short of his 95th birthday. He was part of that great generation of Communists and radicals who were witness to and a makers of Detroit’s rich labor and civil rights history.
In 1940 he was hired at Ford Motor Company, the world’s most powerful, and then non-union, corporation. It was there he met future Detroit mayor Coleman Young, Dave Moore, and Bill McKie (a lead union and Communist Party organizer), and became one of the organizers for UAW Local 600. He was one of the first African Americans to work in the skilled trades.
He was modest to a fault saying his contribution at Ford began because he “happened to be in the right place at the right time.” Not true, according to other witnesses. Like Rosa Parks, Quill was “chosen” to integrate and then help organize skilled workers into the union.
During World War II Quill was drafted into the Navy and his skilled trades background enabled him to make record breaking grades at Great Lakes Naval, training for aviation maintenance. However, he said the discrimination and prejudice in the Navy “was almost unbearable.”
In 1950 Quill, along with Moore, Young, notable Detroit activists Lebron Simmons and Rev. Charles Hill was a proud founding member of the National Negro Labor Council. The NNLC had the goal of working through unions to advance the cause of all Black people and all workers.
Though McCarthyism and HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) hearings targeted NNLC leaders and caused the demise of the organization, it won important victories against discrimination both inside and outside the labor movement and is considered the forerunner of today’s Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.
In the late sixties Quill left the plant, earned his college degree and started what would become a remarkable near 40-year career as an educator.
Seeing the need for low income youth to gain access to a higher education degree, Quill, Coleman Young, and three others met with then Gov. William Milliken to win his support for the creation of Wayne County Community College (WCCC). Quill became Dean of the vocational school. He continued teaching math at WCCC into his nineties.
Dr. Todd Duncan, senior lecturer in English and Africana Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit said Quill’s sense of social justice was “very strong and deep, part of who he was.” Like Paul Robeson, Duncan said Quill wanted to develop himself and the society he lived in. “It was very interesting to me he could be both steadfast, believe in something deeply, and still have consideration for other people and an open mind.”
Duncan remembers Quill worked hard and was very conscientious about helping young students. “Citizen Pettway” is how he thinks of him.
At the age of 93 Quill completed Detroit’s 50th anniversary two mile march to commemorate Dr. King’s 1963 Detroit march, held a few months before the historic March on Washington.
Quill often spoke about the necessity to build unity between all races and nationalities. He recently said “the unity needed to organize Ford was the same unity that elected Barack Obama. This is what is necessary to move forward.”
Quill is survived by daughters Sharon and Sylvia and son Quill Jr.
Funeral services will be at 11a.m., Saturday Jan. 24h at Greater Christ Baptist Church in Detroit.
Photo: Quill Pettway, on the left, with his friend and fellow activist, the late General Baker. John Rummel/PW