Two Black workers who made history

BALTIMORE — Helen Evans was turning the pages of an album of photos of her father, Joseph P. Henderson, when her eye fell on a picture of him as a Laborers union organizer in Washington, D.C., during the 1940s.

Henderson had been a chauffeur for “Underwear King” P.H. Hanes in Winston-Salem, N.C., she told a visiting reporter. “Daddy kept asking him for a raise and Hanes refused,” she said. “My father had a friend who got him a construction job in Washington, D.C. Daddy jumped at the opportunity.”

When Hanes learned that he was losing the handsome driver of his Cadillac limousine he was furious. “Hanes told him, ‘What do you want? I’ll pay anything,’” Helen said, laughing at the memory. “Daddy told him, ‘It’s too late. I’ve got another job.’”

So Henderson moved with his family to the nation’s capital. He was smart and energetic and soon the Laborers union recruited him as an organizer. He was signing up so many of his fellow workers that he became a target for revenge. Returning home from a meeting, one night, shots rang out, barely missing Henderson.

“They were trying to kill or intimidate my father. But they couldn’t scare him. He just went right on organizing,” Evans recalled.

Coming full circle

It wasn’t all terrorism. The labor movement was surging at that time. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was organizing millions in the steel, auto, and other basic industries. Labor gave crucial mass support for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and helped elect and reelect Roosevelt. Henderson’s talents were not overlooked by people in high places.

The phone rang one day and it was the White House inviting Henderson to come for a visit. “Eleanor Roosevelt was requesting his presence,” Helen Evans said. “They told my father Mary McLeod Bethune was going to be at the White House that evening. They wanted him to come over.”

Helen Evans smiled at that bright memory and its special meaning today. President Barack Obama had just invited labor leaders to come to the White House to see him sign several executive orders to “level the playing field” between labor and management. “Daddy must be smiling. We have come full circle,” she said.

Organizing at Bethlehem Steel

By 1945, the CIO had signed Joe Henderson up as an organizer. They sent him to Baltimore where he got a job at ARMCO Steel and later at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point mill. Henderson recruited 1,300 workers to the United Steelworkers of America, mostly African American workers segregated in the coke oven department of the giant mill.

Henderson was a determined and resourceful foe of Beth Steel’s racist job practices. During a memorial for Joe Henderson at USWA Local 2609 in Dundalk, May 5, 1996, steel union leader Bernard Parish, spoke movingly of Henderson’s leadership in that fight.

For many years, Parish told the crowd, his father, Charlie Parish, had struggled to win promotion to millwright at Sparrows Point. Repeatedly, the company rejected him. One excuse was that Charlie Parish lacked the skills and knowledge to become a millwright.

“Joe and a white worker, Bill Wood, taught my father how to read blueprints so he could pass the exam and become a millwright,” Parish said. Charlie Parish would go to the Henderson home where the three steelworkers pored over blueprints until Parish could quickly decipher them. Parish went on to make history as the first Black millwright at Sparrows Point.

Both Henderson and Wood were members of the Communist Party of Maryland, an organization then waging a determined struggle to win job equality.

Of witchhunts and black lists

Henderson, his close friend, George A. Meyers, who had been president of the Maryland-D.C. CIO were hauled before witchhunt hearings and blacklisted from the steel and other basic industries during the 1950s. Meyers spent four years in federal prison under the infamous Smith Act. Bill Wood’s brother, Roy Wood, also went to prison on the same trumped-up charges.

Blacklisted, Joe Henderson and George Meyers became partners in installing awnings on houses in and around Maryland. For as long as they lived, both were deeply engaged in the struggles of organized labor, against racism and for world peace. Both continued as leaders of the Communist Party USA until they died.

The witchhunt had nothing to do with “violent overthrow of the government.” It had everything to do with corporate America’s vicious drive to decapitate organized labor. Helen scoffed at the Cold War caricature of her father. “If a family in Turner Station was about to be evicted, Daddy would go over and pay their rent,” she said. “If they were hungry, he would buy food for them,” she said. “He was not a violent man. He was full of love for people.”

Another unsung hero

Ben Careathers (pronounced CaRUTHers) was another “unsung hero” of steel labor, also an African American and like Joe Henderson a lifelong member of the Communist Party USA. Careathers moved to Pittsburgh from his birthplace near Chattanooga, Tennessee in the 1920s. In 1937, he got a job as a laborer at the Jones & Laughlin steel mill in Pittsburgh. He joined the Communist Party, impressed with their consistent fight against racism and their stand in support of industrial unionism in which all workers in a given industry belong to the same union.

Battle of Little Steel

This was the period of the battle to unionize J & L, Republic Steel, Youngstown Sheet & Tube, and other steel companies misleadingly called “Little Steel.” United States Steel had agreed to sign a contract with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. But Republic Steel boss, Tom Girdler, had announced that his mills would be unionized over his dead body. On Memorial Day 1937, Chicago police opened fire on striking Republic Steelworkers at a peaceful picnic. Ten people were killed in this massacre.

This was the atmosphere when Philip Murray, chairman of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, recruited Careathers to organize Jones & Laughlin steelworkers in Aliquippa, Pa. The town was patrolled night and day by Andrew Mellon’s private army of gun thugs. SWOC organizers had been arrested, beaten, and driven out of town.

Art Shields, the great labor reporter, tells Careathers’ story in his autobiography, “On the Battle Lines.” Said Careathers, “I didn’t register at a hotel like the organizers before me. I dressed like a steelworker and went in while the plant was changing shifts and the streets were crowded. I boarded with a Black family that knew me. I met with small groups of workers quietly. And I soon had a high stack of signed membership application cards.”

Careathers took the union cards, hundreds signed by African American workers, to CIO headquarters.

“I gave them to Clinton Golden, the regional director,” Careathers said. “He rushed into Murray’s office. I can still hear him yelling: ‘Look at what I’ve got Phil!’” Careathers had signed up more than 2,000 J&L workers into SWOC later renamed United Steelworkers of America. It was part of the immense struggle that ended with complete victory for the USWA.

Frame up

But again corporate America struck back. Careathers tells the story in his own words in a powerful pamphlet, “The Frame-up of Benjamin Lowells Careathers.” It consists of his opening statement at his Smith Act trial on May 18, 1953. Again, the phony charges were that he and his fellow defendant, Steve Nelson, a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade who was wounded while fighting fascism in Spain, were conspiring to teach and advocate the violent overthrow of the government by force and violence. A higher court threw out the charges against Careathers but Nelson spent over two years in prison.

“This charge we deny,” Careathers told the jury. “Force and violence is a weapon of reaction, of fascism….The Southern plantation owners use force and violence against the Negro people to keep them and their political machines in power. Communists advocate the bringing about of social change by peaceful means.”

Communists on SWOC staff in 1936 and 1937 gave “everything that we had to organize the powerful United Steelworkers of America,” Careathers continued. The real conspiracy, he charged, was the drive by the witch hunters to smash the USWA using anti-communism as a cover.

Careathers conviction was later overturned by the higher courts. But he and other Communist union organizers were driven from the labor movement and some were jailed. The labor movement went into a long downward slide. Only in recent years has it made a dramatic comeback although still, it has far, far, to go.

Honoring Black workers

In this new, hopeful atmosphere, Black workers like Joe Henderson and Ben Careathers can be honored during African American history month for the major contribution they made to the freedom struggles of Black people, indeed, all working people.


Tim Wheeler
Tim Wheeler

Tim Wheeler has written over 10,000 news reports, exposés, op-eds, and commentaries in his half-century as a journalist for the Worker, Daily World, and People’s World. Tim also served as editor of the People’s Weekly World newspaper.  His book News for the 99% is a selection of his writings over the last 50 years representing a history of the nation and the world from a working-class point of view. After residing in Baltimore for many years, Tim now lives in Sequim, Wash.