Monday, September 21, 2015

Frances Mary Albrier - union organizer & civil rights activist

Frances Mary Albrier (September 21, 1898 – August 21, 1987)

Frances Mary Albrier is someone whose story took me completely by surprise. In my Women to Write About spreadsheet I had her name listed with "civil rights activist, union organizer" next to it. See, I've been on a kick about including the names and a short note for all the women I encounter in my other research, as a kind of reminder to look into them when I have the time. Or when I'm stumped on what to blog about for a specific date.

So, armed with the barest of notes, I went looking for info about her online. I found a couple of decent, if short, biographies, and only a couple of photos. I also pulled out my copy of Notable American Women: Completing the Twentieth Century and that's when things got really interesting. As it turns out, the note to myself was from her entry there, and while it's true that she was both of those things, that doesn't even begin to cover what this truly amazing and inspirational woman accomplished in her life.
"It was just automatic for me to stand up and tell a person, 'You're wrong. You're mistreating me. You're discriminatory. Why don't you give us a chance?'"
Frances Albrier leading the store picket, 1939. (photo source: Berkeley Historical Plaque Project)

Early Life
Frances Mary was a girl child born into a family of amazing women. Her mother, Laura Redgrey, was a chef for a prominent white family in Tuskeegee, Alabama, responsible for their catering business as well as formal dining. Her father's mother, a midwife who had been born a slave, was a prominent woman in the bustling African American community.

Frances and her twin were delivered under the watchful eye of a doctor in Mount Vernon, New York, who was recommended by Laura Redgrey's employers. And with good reason. During her delivery, Frances' twin died, and Laura nearly died. When she became pregnant again, Laura was fearful that this second delivery might kill her, and while she traveled back to Mount Vernon in the hope that the doctor there could help, she left detailed instructions for Frances to be cared for by her father's mother, Johanna Bowen Redgrey, in case she did not survive. Tragically, she died. But her daughter, Frances' sister, Laura Ann, survived, and came to live with Frances and Johanna as well.

Johanna was well connected in Tuskeegee, and Frances was brought up surrounded by a wealth of support and inspiration. She attended church sponsored educational programs with her grandmother, where she met Margaret Murray Washington, the wife of Booker T. Washington, and likely where she was first introduced to her life-long love of learning and her determination to work for justice.
Soon organizers set up classes that taught youngsters... about cleanliness, housekeeping duties, farming and gardening techniques, and the rewards of educational achievement. Most importantly, the classes and the towering example of her grandmother exposed the young woman to the organizing tradition that characterized many African American communities in the early twentieth century.
(text source: Notable American Women: Completing the Twentieth Century)

Tuskeegee Normal and Industrial Institute, 1916. (photo source: Wikipedia)

Frances attended school at the Tuskeegee Normal and Industrial Institute, which eventually became the Tuskeegee Institute, and is now Tuskeegee University, from 1904 to 1916. What a remarkable time for her to be there! Many of the best and brightest African American scholars and leaders were there, and while life for African Americas in the South (and, frankly, elsewhere in the US) was one of discrimination and struggle for basic rights, Tuskeegee was a hotbed of empowerment and education. There is little doubt in my mind that these were formative experiences that played an important role in her later life.

After graduating from Tuskeegee, she attended Howard University, where she studied Nursing and Social Work. It was here where she met Mary Church Terrell and was inspired to join the National Association of Colored Women -- the organization dedicated to "economic, moral, religious and social welfare of women and youth."

Move to California
During her childhood her father remarried and eventually moved to Berkeley, California. Frances and her sister visited them often. So it's no real surprise that Frances decided to move there permanently after she graduated from Howard, in 1920. Sadly, it's also not terribly surprising to learn that she was unable to find work as a nurse in any of the hospitals because of discriminatory hiring practices. She was even turned away from the Red Cross. Fortunately, she was hired as an assistant to a obstetrician who made home visits.

In the early 1920s, the African American community in Berkeley and the surrounding area was still relatively small. Still, Frances was able to find other ways to work toward equality. In 1921 she was inspired by a speech by Marcus Garvey extolling the importance of empowering African Americans, and joined his organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association. It was through this organization that she was able to meet other women who had also been denied membership in the Red Cross, and together they formed the Black Cross Nurses Association. She used her college training to teach other young women how to serve as nurses.

After marrying William Albert Jackson, an engineer, and having three children, she continued to work as a maid for the Pullman Company, while she also served as an organizer for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. It was here where she began to shine as a leader in her community. She fought for the workers and their rights, even serving as the president of Local 456 Auxiliary of Dining Car Cooks and Waiters. (Even union membership was segregated at this time. "Auxiliary" means it was the black portion of the union.)

Fight for Equality
Her husband died in 1930, she struggled as a single mother of three until she remarried in 1934, this time to William Albrier, a bartender and union organizer. With his support and the backing of both white and black club women in the area, she was elected to the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee. She was the first woman of any race to serve in that post, and she used her position well, working to improve the working conditions and job opportunities for African Americans and women.

Seeing a need for more women, and especially African American women, in local politics, she formed the East Bay Women's Welfare Club, an interracial group of women who shared her ideals. It was through this group that she began to affect real change in her community. The group took on the Berkeley Board of Education, arguing that black taxpayers were not fairly represented, and eventually forcing them to hire the first African American teacher in the district, Ruth Acty.

She was also instrumental in changing hiring practices in local stores. Most stores actually refused to hire black workers, and her "Don't Shop Where You Can't Work" protest drew attention to that fact. through their persistent picketing, these store owners finally realized the need to integrate their staff.

As impressive as all this is, it was her work during World War II that really struck a chord with me. When the call went out for more workers at the Kaiser Shipyards, she responded along with many other women from all over the country. She took the required welding course, and made sure she doubled the number of required hours, because she was certain she would be held to a higher standard simply because of her race. She passed the welder's test easily, but when she applied to join the Boilermakers Union she was denied entry solely because they hadn't set up an Auxiliary union for African American workers in Richmond.

Welder-trainee Josie Lucille Owens plies her trade on the SS George Washington Carver, c.1943. (photo source: Skylighers)

She didn't take "no" for an answer, though. She threatened to sue, and the community rallied behind her. Finally, the Richmond union agreed to accept her dues and then transfer them to the Oakland shipyard's Auxiliary union (a practice that was eventually ended after James v. Marinship, a suit she supported and rallied the community to back). With that matter handled, she was officially hired on, and became the first black woman hired at Shipyard Number Two, opening the door for more African American women in the shipyard. It's no surprise, then, that in 1942 she also became the state superintendent for the Department of Women in Industry, where she worked to expand employment opportunities for women in traditionally all-male workplaces. After she busted down the door into the shipyard, she wanted to make sure the doors to these important and well-paying jobs stayed open for other women.

But even prior to that, she was already working to ensure black women were given roles in the war effort. She knew that there would be a need for Red Cross drivers, so she made sure she took and passed the course for auto mechanics for women drivers at the Berkeley Evening Trade School. After her previous experience of being denied a position as a nurse in 1920, and all the experience she'd had fighting racism in her community, she was more than ready to take on the Red Cross.
I decided then to break down that discrimination because we were going into war, and so many of our young black people—men—were going into war. Of course, we had President Roosevelt and the others, fostering the war. We were fighting for these different things we were supposed to be fighting for, social equality and all of that. At the beginning of the war, there were some people who went to the Red Cross—black people—who wanted to give their blood. They said that they didn't take black peoples' blood.

I made up my mind that I was going to break through this Red Cross issue, because I knew they would need women drivers. So I took this course. That was one of the requirements that you take this course because the men would be in other fields and you should know something about a car when it broke down. The little things about the car—whether it was the battery or the cable, or any of those things. To change a tire, you must know how to do that. Because women had to take these things and learn how to do it. I decided to take that course. After I decided to take that course, I applied to go into the Red Cross motor corps, for which I was accepted. But they never called. Even to the uniform. I was given a certificate for getting the uniform.
(text source: Online Archive of California)
After the war she continued to fight for the rights of African Americans and women. She served as president of the San Francisco chapter of the National Council of Negro Women in 1956, where she continued to encourage workers to become involved in local politics. In the 1960s, she became even more radicalized, joining both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Congress of Racial Equality, along with many other local organizations. She continued to advocate for the rights of all, expanding to include the elderly.

I think the thing that really resonates with me about her story is how it seems to combine so many of the stories of other women of her era and before. She was active in women's clubs like Mary McLeod Bethune and Nannie Helen Burroughs. She used education and organization to fight for equality in all walks of life like Charlotta Bass, María Rebecca Latigo de Hernández, and Septima Poinsette Clark. I have to wonder if she ever had a conversation about labor and civil rights issues with Elaine Black Yoneda, who was active in San Francisco around the same time.
Extending the legacy of her grandmother and other black women of earlier generations, she had committed herself to the type of grassroots women's advocacy that combined the fight for racial justice with the fight for gender equality and assumed that through education and persistent lobbying, the structures of racism could eventually be dismantled.
(text source: Notable American Women: Completing the Twentieth Century)
Plus, she was a Rosie the Riveter! How cool is that?

Yes. I'm so thankful I decided to look at my spreadsheet entry for today. What an inspirational woman. I'm so pleased I have been able to read about her life and share the highlights with you.

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