Elsie Dickerson, longtime chairperson of the Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware district of the Communist Party USA, passed away Feb. 21 after a long illness. She was 88.

Her extraordinary life as a communist leader and trade unionist was celebrated at a memorial service at Philadelphia’s Mount Carmel Baptist Church Feb. 28.

Jarvis Tyner, CPUSA executive vice chair, spoke about Dickerson’s caring manner, brilliant mind and understanding of Marxism-Leninism. Tyner met her in 1960, when he was a young worker. “I wanted to know how to end racism and poverty and Elsie was willing to spend time with young people and answer their questions. She was a teacher and a mentor. Yet when it came to the class struggle, she was a fierce and determined fighter,” Tyner said.

Rita Perna, district secretary, who knew Dickerson since she was a teenager, described Dickerson’s guidance. “Elsie’s most valuable contribution was her understanding of the need for unity,” Perna said.

“Elsie J. Dickerson has left us a lasting, loving, living legacy,” the Rev. Dr. Albert Campbell said. Dickerson was a deeply religious woman who loved her church and saw a strong connection between her religious and political beliefs.

Born in Virginia on Dec. 12, 1917, Dickerson moved to Philadelphia with her family in 1936. She got a job in a celluloid gasket factory that produced parts for Campbell Soup and Swift. Most of the workers were young African American women from the South, just like her. The hours were long and the pay low. Like her father, Dickerson liked sports, especially baseball. She also enjoyed playing softball. During the 1940s she began reading the Daily Worker, distributed in her neighborhood. She saw a petition inside against the “Whites only” clause in Major League Baseball. She became a part of that struggle and joined the CPUSA.

During World War II, Dickerson began organizing the workers in her factory. Local 186 of the Food, Tobacco and Allied Workers of America was born. Dickerson even won over her boss to unionism and organized a second factory he owned. She was elected president of her union and continued to be re-elected during the McCarthy period. She often said that it was because she was a communist, not despite it, that the workers kept electing her.

Dickerson retired in 1967 to chair the CPUSA’s Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware district. In the 1960s she also chaired the Independent Citizens Committee, which organized a massive voter registration campaign to defeat ultra-conservative presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Dickerson was a leader in mobilizing 40,000 Philadelphians to attend the 1963 March on Washington, the largest delegation in the country. She was involved in the struggles against apartheid, police brutality and all forms of racial oppression. Dickerson served on the CPUSA national board and national committee.

Dickerson was part of a close-knit family. She had four sisters and one brother. When her parents became disabled, she cared for them. She helped raise and educate her nephews and nieces. Niece Robyn Oliver said, “She was a loving mother and teacher to me. I hope I made her proud. I will miss her.”

Soon after her 80th birthday, Dickerson suffered a stroke. “Our district sorely missed Elsie since she became ill. We pledge to carry on her legacy,” Perna said.