Thursday, September 4, 2014

Happy Birthday - Elaine Black Yoneda

Elaine Black Yoneda (September 4, 1906 - May 26, 1988)

Elaine Black Yoneda was a Communist labor organizer with the International Longshoreman's Union who led labor revolts in the 1930s and was referred to as "The Red Angel" by those angered by her political leanings.

She was born in New York to immigrant parents who had worked as child laborers in a match factory in Mozyr, Russia. It was said that when the factory owners decided to replace adult workers with children, a strike broke out. Her parents, Nathan Buchman (13) and Mollie Kvetnay (11) went on strike as well. For that, they were blacklisted. This incident certainly influenced their future family's legacy. The two went on to join the Jewish Workers Alliance, a group of young revolutionaries. To escape being conscripted into the Czar's army, her father, now 20, fled to the United States, and worked for two years to bring his future wife, Mollie, as well. A year after her arrival, their daughter Rose Elaine was born.

When Elaine was only five years old, her mother took her and her younger brother back to visit family in Mozyr. During their visit, on a high holy day, the countryside around the family farm was attacked by antisemitic terrorists -- a Pogrom. Many other Jewish farms were destroyed, but theirs was spared.

Her parents were active in the Socialist movement, and fought to improve conditions for workers in the business they operated. Increasing crackdowns on unionists as a result of the "Bolshevik" scare, Elaine's parents eventually decided to move to Southern California, where they operated a dry good store.

In her youth, Elaine was not particularly politically active, but it is clear that her parents' experiences played a role in her later development. Always a rebellious youth, she was more interested in fashion than politics. Against her parents' wishes, she dropped out of high school and took a non-union job working at a local hotel. She attended a Young Workers League meeting on the urging of her parents, and there she met Edward Russell, Jr., a young machinist whose parents also had long been involved in the labor movement. The two hit it off and married in 1925. Together they became increasingly more active in the movement, and eventually took on the assumed surname "Black" in their dealings in order to protect Ed's job. Eventually, the name stuck for Elaine, and after their final separation, became the name she used.

In 1931 she took a job as secretary of International Labor Defense, an organization that provided legal aid to members of the trade unions. After working in the Los Angeles office for several years, she was called upon to post bail for fellow activist Karl Yoneda. This first meeting of the two was purely union business, though there had been sparks of interest between them. When the opportunity to transfer to San Francisco came up, Elaine took it, hoping for a change of scenery. As though it were fate, within a month she ran into Karl again, who had also moved there. That very day, the two moved in together, in open defiance of anti-miscegenation laws.

The two of them remained active in the labor movement. Elaine served as the only female member of the steering committee of San Francisco's general strike, which had begun as a strike focused mainly on waterfront and maritime issues, but escalated into a citywide general strike after two demonstrators were killed by police. Elaine continued to advocate for workers, and especially for women workers, demanding equal pay for equal work and free childcare.

During World War II, Karl was sent to a Japanese internment camp, and Elaine insisted that she and their son join him to keep the family together. After the war, they moved to Cotati, north of San Francisco, where they operated a farm. Karl traveled and lectured on U.S. Japanese Labor History, and Elaine continued as a clerical worker for the International Longshoremen's & Warehousemen's Union-Pacific Maritime Association pension fund until her retirement in 1973. Both remained active in the labor movement, civil rights and other activities. She died in 1988.

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More Reading:

The Red Angel: The Life and Times of Elaine Black Yoneda, by Vivian McGuckin Raineri

Associated Press Obituaries : Elaine Black Yoneda, 81; 'The Red Angel' of the 1930s

New York Times: Elaine Black Yoneda, 81, Radical Labor Activist

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