Tag Archives: strikes

Collection Spotlight: Geraldine DeFant Papers

This week we thought that we would highlight the Geraldine DeFant papers, a small but fascinating and important collection. Geri DeFant grew up in Chicago, where poor conditions during the Depression caused her to become interested in politics and especially the labor movement. After graduating from high school in 1933, she spent several years volunteering and then working as a union organizer. She came to Marquette County in 1948 to organize the strike at the Gossard factory in Ishpeming. She stayed in Marquette after the strike and married attorney Michael DeFant (who had been the lawyer for the union) in 1950. After Michael DeFant became county probate judge, Geri had to stop working as a labor organizer.

She remained active in politics, however, serving as the Chairwoman of the Democratic Party for the 11th Congressional District and an aide to Senators Philip Hart and Donald Riegle. She also earned a bachelor’s in political science from Northern Michigan University, was a director of the Manpower Training Program in the Upper Peninsula, served as a Marquette County Commissioner from 1982 to 1991, and served on the Marquette Women’s Center Board of Directors, the Michigan Women’s Commission, the Michigan Civil Service Commission, the Friend of the Court and Childcare Taskforces, the Alger/Marquette Community Mental Health Board, and many more organizations and boards. Geri died in 1996 at the age of 79.

Our collection contains an oral history interview (which is online!), documents relating to the 1949 Gossard Strike, a scrapbook, photographs, newspaper articles, and her resume. The oral history interview documents her early life and the 1949 strike in great detail, but does not give much information on her later political activities. At the interview in 1990, contemplating the vast scope of her life’s work, Geri DeFant commented,

…My basic value system has not changed from…when I was 17, 18. It still is pretty much the same. It’s taken different routes. I was a feminist then I believe, and I am certainly feminist now, and have been active. I believed in participatory democracy and I do now, and I have been active in the political arena. I’ve been a county commissioner for ten years and I’ve looked for ways in which I could make a change in terms of benefits and the ease of living and support of those groups in our community that need support. So I feel I’ve been a fairly consistent woman in what I’ve tried to do.

Geri DeFant

While our materials from Geri DeFant are limited, many other collections at the archives shed light on the 1949 strike and other elements of her life’s work. We have an article on the Gossard strike, photographs from the strike, and a legal file about the strike in the John D. Voelker collection. Newspapers from the time would also provide much information. A copy of Bruce K. Cox’s book Gossard: The Great Bra Factory Strike of 1949 is also available at the archives. Our collection of County Commission minutes include both paper and audio records for the period in which DeFant was a commissioner, and the official minutes can be found online. We also have a collection of oral history interviews from the Marquette Women’s Center which are also available online. Many of the interviewees mention DeFant’s role in the Women’s Center and note that she was a mentor to many of the younger women involved in the Center’s founding.

Other Sources on Geri DeFant:

Tribute to Geraldine DeFant from the Congressional Record

geri defant 2

Interested in viewing any of these collections? You can look at them at any time at the archives! Our hours for this semester are Monday/Wednesday/Friday 10 AM-5 PM and Tuesday/Thursday 10 AM-7PM.

Written by Annika Peterson

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The 1946 Marquette Iron Range Strike and Paul Robeson

At 12:01 a.m. on February 8, 1946, nearly 3,000 iron miners on the Marquette Iron Range in Michigan’s central Upper Peninsula walked off their jobs.  It was the first major labor action in the region since 1895.  Three thousand inexperienced union miners on the Marquette Iron Range joined 750,000 steelworkers nation-wide in a strike of the steel industry led by the recently formed United Steel Workers of America (USWA).   The nation-wide strike against the steel industry lasted just nine days, but the strike on the Marquette Iron Range against the iron mining companies lasted 104 long and frustrating days and finally ended on May 22 when the companies capitulated to the union’s demands for recognition, dues write-off, and 18.5 cents per hour more in wages. Towards the tail-end of this bitter strife stepped an extremely unlikely hero, but one that would reinvigorate community support and give the strike a lifesaving morale boost.

Negaunee strike parade

Strike parade through downtown Negaunee (Central UP and NMU Archives)

Today, very few people remember the famous Broadway star and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Rutgers University, All-American football star, and accomplished lawyer, Robeson by 1946 was best known for his stellar Broadway performances of Othello and Showboat, where his rendition of Ol’ Man River became a sensation and is still considered a standard. However, Robeson was also an ardent and tireless supporter of organized labor, making numerous appearances at labor rallies throughout his career. Historians also suspect that he was a member of the Communist Party USA, although no direct evidence exists.

othello robeson

Robeson in The Theatre Guild performance of Othello, 1943 (Wikipedia)

Oddly enough, Robeson’s arrival in Ishpeming, Michigan, on April 25 had nothing initially to do with the iron miners’ strike. In the fall of 1945, Robeson had embarked on a national concert tour that took him to all the far-flung regions of the country. George Quaal, part of a wealthy Ishpeming mercantile family, had engaged Robeson for a performance as part of a concert series that he sponsored and held in the Ishpeming public auditorium. Soon after his arrival at the train station, leaders of the strike, including District Director Jack Powell, besieged the famous singer in his Mather Inn room. Although it is likely USWA officials had reached out to Robeson prior to his arrival, they had little difficulty encouraging him to publicly lend his support to the strike effort.

paul robeson in mather inn

Paul Robeson and the USWA’s press officer in the Mather Inn (Central UP and NMU Archives)

On the afternoon of April 26, Robeson and strike leaders drove out to the Mather Mine (at present day Negaunee High School) and joined the picket line.  Surprised and excited miners and their families crowded around the famous singer as he shook hands and offered words of support.  Robeson then stepped up to a sound car and gave a Broadway worthy performance.   Along with his standard repertoire, he serenaded his audience with a number of radical working class songs, such as “Joe Hill.”   Home on leave from the Army shortly after Robeson’s visit, retired labor activist Ernie Ronn was struck by the effect the singer had on the strikers.  “I don’t know of anyone,” he remembered, “who was on that picket line that day who ever forgot.  Robeson built-up their spirit and morale.”  In fact, one observer described Robeson as a “heroic physical type of man” possessed of “innate dignity and emotional sincerity.”    For many of the miners and their families, Robeson’s appearance was their only chance to see the famous performer, since few could afford the $5.00 ticket price for the concert.

robeson picket line

Robeson on the picket line with striking miners and their families. Standing to his left is Jack Powell, the local USWA district director and strike leader. Powell is a member of the Upper Peninsula Labor Hall of Fame located in the Superior Dome. (Central UP and NMU Archives)

On the following day, Jack Powell interviewed Robeson on WDMJ radio.   The activist recounted the poverty of his early childhood and expressed support for the struggle of the working class.  Because of the country’s great wealth and productive capacity, Robeson told his listeners, the sight of the miners and their families huddled on the picket line was a travesty of justice.  “It should be plain to all,” he declared, “that these people have a right to share more equally in the wealth they create.”  For their part, the iron mining companies denounced Robeson and decried the USWA’s use of a known communist agitator.

radio

USWA strike radio program on WDMJ. Labor Hall of Fame member, the late Ernie Ronn is second from the right. He was home on leave from the Army. (Central UP and NMU Archives)

Ten years after his appearance on the Marquette Iron Range, Robeson’s radical support for labor, civil rights, and his alleged connection to the Communist Party caused him to be dragged before the House of Representatives’ “Un-American Activities Committee” (HUAC). Black-listed and his career ruined, Robeson fled into self-imposed exile eventually returning to the United States in 1963. He died in relative obscurity and poverty in New York in 1976.

But to the iron miners and their families on the picket line that cold April afternoon, Paul Robeson made their struggle something more than a demand for an additional 18.5 cents per hour.  He crossed race and class boundaries to remind them that economic and social justice is a universal and moral goal and that music and courage can create “a real meeting place of hearts and minds.”

To learn more about the 1946 Iron Miners Strike, please visit the Central UP and NMU Archives. Our new fall hours are Monday/Wednesday/Friday 10 AM-5 PM and Tuesday/Thursday 10 AM-7 PM.

Written by Marcus Robyns

Happy Archives Month!

October 1st was Ask an Archivist day on Twitter (#AskAnArchivist). We had multiple people and groups that tweeted questions and comments to us. People asked about alumni at NMU, current projects the Archives is working on, and our favorite photographs of previous strikes in Marquette County. Here are a few of the pictures that we posted on Ask an Archivist day:

blog pic 1In December of 1968, the Black Student Union sat in at an NMU basketball game to protest unfair treatment of African American students by NMU security police among other concerns.

blog pic 2USWA strike April 25, 1946 at the Mather Mine in Ishpeming. Singer Paul Robeson happened to be in Marquette for a performance and came to support the strikers.

blog pic 31949 Gossard Factory strike picket line. The Gossard was a factory in Ishpeming, MI which made bras and underwear. Other than the mines, it was the main employer in Ishpeming in the first half of the twentieth century.

We have multiple events coming up later in October to celebrate Archives month.

October 15th at 6:30/7 PM: Archives Open House and Evening at the Archives: The Embezzling Bishop: The renovations at the Archives are finally complete! To celebrate, we will be holding an open house before our Evening at the Archives event. Come get a tour of the Archives, including our processing area and stacks which are normally closed to the public.

The presentation will begin at 7 PM. Elizabeth Oliver, one of our Magnaghi visiting scholars over the summer, will present on Hayward Ablewhite, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan in the 1930s who went to jail for embezzlement. In a bizarre twist of events, he worked at the Ford Foundation after his release from jail. Refreshments will be provided.

Embezzling Bishop PosterPoster for the upcoming Evening at the Archives event.

October 29th at 7 PM: Dr. Chet Defonso will speak on the role of Archives in documenting LGBT history. He will also discuss materials related to LGBT history here at the NMU Archives. Refreshments will be provided. We’ll keep you posted with more details about the event as we have them.

Edit: Please note: this posting previously contained an announcement for a screening of the movie Anatomy of a Murder on November 1. Due to complications, we have cancelled the event for this semester but do plan on hosting a screening next semester. Check our blog and Facebook for upcoming announcements regarding this event!

Happy Archives Month everyone!