Mary Ellen Pleasant, the mother of California civil rights, is associated with the pagan holiday Beltane because she once owned and lived at Beltane Ranch, here in Sonoma County. It is now recognized as a Black historic site by the National Park Service. Once the richest Black woman in America, her wealth was stolen and she died a pauper in 1904. She is buried in the Tulocay cemetery in Napa.
I wrote about Pleasant last year on Beltane, but I wasn’t finished thinking about her. She is a supremely important person in California history, but one who has been largely forgotten. I’m all about resurrecting her memory.
I refer to her as MEP because that is how she signed the note found in the pocket of John Brown before he was hanged for treason and inciting a slave rebellion in 1859. The note read, “The ax is laid at the foot of the tree. When the first blow is struck, there will be more money to help.” MEP had financed Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry with a donation of what today would be a million dollars. Because her initials were read as WEP, she was never caught by Virginia authorities.
MEP was born in the East where she worked to bring slaves up north on the underground railroad until slavers threatened her. Along with a number of fellow abolitionists, she migrated to California in 1850. She sailed first to New Orleans where she continued to help people to flee slavery. During her short time there she connected with the legendary voodoo queen Marie Laveau. She left the city just as she was about to be captured for helping runaway slaves.
The party landed in San Francisco where abolitionists found plenty of work to do. In California of the 1850s the law allowed any Black person who did not have proper papers to be sold into slavery. Slave catchers and slave owners came west looking for runaways. Slave owners who arrived in California before September, 1850 were allowed to keep their slaves as indentured servants.
My wife’s family traces their ancestry to Peter Burnett, the first elected governor of California, but of this they are not proud. Burnett, a Missouri immigrant, slave owner and white supremacist, promoted some of California’s most racist laws including enabling the enslavement and genocide of American Indians, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and a push for the total exclusion of Blacks from the state. Earlier, as a judge in Oregon territory, he signed the first exclusion laws which required all Blacks to leave the territory or be flogged.
Burnett and MEP were destined to tangle. At the time Blacks were not allowed to testify in court. MEP helped get this law changed, but in the meantime she defended and hid Blacks unfairly captured. She paid the legal bills of young Archy Lee, brought as a slave from Mississippi, a slave state, to California, a free state, in 1857.
In the first case, Lee was declared free, as California allowed only “transient” slave owners to retain their slaves. Then, in an appeal to the state supreme court, Peter Burnett (by this time he was a member of the court) authored and signed the court’s decision to allow the slaveholder to leave the state with Lee as his slave.
From the court ruling: “It must be concluded that, where slavery exists, the right of property of the master in the slave must follow as a necessary incident. This right of property is recognized by the Constitution of the United States.”
Californians were outraged, and abolitionists boarded the ship to rescue Lee as it was leaving the state. A federal court overturned the Burnett decision, but then the slaveholder charged that Lee was in violation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. A final trial declared Lee to be a free man. Archy Lee joined an expedition of African Americans who resettled in Canada.
Burnett was only governor for a year, then on the supreme court for less than a year, but he and other Southern whites impressed racist ideology on California in that short time. Reading the history, I’m truly amazed that a failed shop owner who had fled Missouri in debt could leave such a smear on the new state. California citizens have since learned the history and taken Burnett’s name off public buildings.
I wanted to see MEP’s grave so my friend Joan and I made the pilgrimage to Napa this spring. When we visited, the cherry trees surrounding it were in full bloom. Tucolay is a beautiful big cemetery and MEP’s grave is situated in a lovely corner.
When my friend Bill had visited last year, the gravestone was covered with voodoo icons like skulls with a vase of black roses. Icons had been glued right onto the stone, obscuring the inscription. Was it the work of a modern voodoo cult that surrounds her because of her association with Madame Leveau? At my visit the skulls had been removed, but traces of glue remained.
MEP said, “Before I pass away, I wish to clear the identity of the party who furnished John Brown with most of his money to start the fight at Harpers Ferry and who signed the letter found on him when he was arrested.”
She said it was the most important and significant act of her life, a life spent working to end human slavery.
On Beltane we celebrate the life and work of MEP and we also devise our own rituals to acknowledge the changing of the seasons. Our winter was cold and wet—about twice as rainy as normal. There was no spring; we graduated into summer on easter weekend. The sun came out with a vengeance and all the buds and flowers that had been patiently waiting for it burst forth in profusion. Grass of every variety grew tall. Lawn mowers revved. Fence lizards emerged. Ants vacated the kitchen. Bees and pollinators are waking up.
On Easter, instead of hunting for eggs, we concocted a ritual with friends who periodically drink Prosecco with us. It’s Linda’s job to pop the corks, and they can travel far into the garden. We hunted for corks instead of eggs. This, we expect, will become an annual custom.
I’ve just picked the last of the oranges and am about to start harvesting artichokes. We planted flowers and vegetables. I put away my warm slippers and took out my flip flops. I kissed the gloves I’d worn all winter, thanked them for warming my hands on many chilly hikes and tucked them into a drawer.
This letter from a friend helps explain why I’m angry
With all due respect, with incidents like Proud Boy types storming the San Lorenzo library because a trans lady storyteller was holding story hour, to the latest murder of a Black man, Jason Walker, by the police with no consequences (what a surprise, not) the continuous denial from white people about the disgusting racism that has this country in its grip, mostly due to white people afraid to face the truth about America and content with it, as they talk a good game, but that’s as far as it goes. They fail to act every time. It’s with pain and disgust that I look at this country and its racism. Evil flourishes when good people do nothing. Evil is flourishing because white people have no real desire to fight against racism. Before you offer me weak words of platitude, don’t. Actions speak louder than words. If folks are not part of the solution, they are part of the problem. It is evident by the racists parked in our federal govt., yet another murder of a Black man by the racist police with no consequences that most whites are ok with how things are because it doesn’t personally affect them. As a Black woman with a Black son, I am filled with anxiety and fear every time I have to go outside. I shouldn’t have to live this way, but I do. So, that’s all I got but it is enough to keep me angry.
When my friend Carol sent me this letter, I didn’t know how to respond except to tell her I heard her anger and that she was right. Later, she called me to say it was hurting her own health to hold on to so much anger. She told me that she’s been working with a couple community organizations to reach out to neighbors to discuss the issue of racism, but her white neighbors just don’t want to hear it. They are avoiding her now because she suggested getting together to watch a video about racism.
I invited my white “friends” to take the time to watch small 15 minute videos that anyone can access on you tube. It was not so much them not being willing to watch a short film, but the total lack of compassion or empathy of the ordeals black people have suffered since being brought to this country involuntarily and still continue today.
I am trying so hard not to stay pissed off, but every time I hear about another shooting of an unarmed Black man by the police, I just want to scream. Nothing is changing because most white people (I know, a sweeping generalization) don’t see a need for it…I can’t rest knowing that this country is not yet ready to face its past and make America a better place. It seems I am always in the “minority” when expressing my viewpoint and or perspective.
So, thank you for all you do, but we need way more people who think like you before we can move forward.
Carol lives near the San Lorenzo library, which was attacked by Proud Boys during a drag queen story hour. She walked right up to them and asked them what they were doing. They told her they were there to protect children and suggested she join them. Didn’t she want children to be protected?
I watched the PBS series, The U.S. and the Holocaust, and I’m seeing undeniable parallels to Hitler’s Nazis. They demonized a population–the Jews–just as our own right wing demonizes trans people, gay people, immigrants, Blacks, people of color and Jews. They produced reams of propaganda spouting lies that the general population was oh-so-quick to believe. Then they started restricting their rights and destroying their property, humiliating and beating them and sending them to concentration camps along with other targeted groups — homosexuals, gypsies, communists.
Many of us wonder if the Proud Boys and their ilk are turning into the new SS, Hitler’s paramilitary, responsible for terrorizing and killing millions. It happened recently at the First Christian Church in Katy, Texas.
Votes are still being counted but it’s clear now that the regressive forces of the police and sheriff unions and right wing organizations who have rallied against police oversight have won the June 7 sheriff election. The killing of 13-year-old And Lopez by a sheriff deputy in 2013 and the subsequent promotion of the killer caused people to rise up and demand an end to the militarization of local police. In Santa Rosa we saw large protests demanding change after the killing of George Floyd. This election is a setback but we won’t stop working for police oversight in Sonoma County. Here’s my letter to the editor that the local newspaper, which endorsed the apparent winner, declined to print.
Just as the killing of George Floyd is the symbol of police department disfunction in Minneapolis, the murder of Andy Lopez symbolizes disfunction in Santa Rosa’s sheriff department. The candidates for sheriff Eddie Engram and Dave Edmonds both represent the sickness in the department’s culture that supports the killing of civilians and the promotion of the killers as necessary to protect us. These insiders, crusading against badly needed police oversight, have made the Santa Rosa sheriff department an embarrassment. Our only hope of changing the culture is to elect Carl Tennenbaum, derided as the “outsider.”
Here’s another story from Tradeswomen Magazine, published in 1997. Like all my fictional stories, it’s autobiographical. I was working as a maintenance electrician out of the San Francisco Water Department corporation yard. The photos are of women building a house in Florida.
Sitting in my favorite chair in the living room of my newly remodeled condo, I heard the violent breaking of glass. It sounded like someone was throwing bottles on the sidewalk with great force. I couldn’t see anything out the front window so I put on shoes and went out there. That’s when I saw […]
Sitting in my favorite chair in the living room of my newly remodeled condo, I heard the violent breaking of glass. It sounded like someone was throwing bottles on the sidewalk with great force. I couldn’t see anything out the front window so I put on shoes and went out there. That’s when I saw flames shooting from the next-door neighbor’s window, broken by the intense heat.
The year was was 2009. After nearly a decade of work restoring and remodeling the three-unit building where I lived for 38 years in San Francisco, it nearly burned down that day.
I had brought my cell phone and immediately called 911. Someone had already called and the fire department said a truck was on the way. It seemed like it took forever but later I learned it had taken two minutes to come from our neighborhood firehouse at Holly Park.
A woman in a bathrobe emerged at a run from the ground level of the house next door. She had been in the shower when she smelled smoke. We knew that many people lived in the house. The owners of the single-family dwelling had divided it up into plywood cells with doors and locks, which they rented to Chinese immigrants, most of whom spoke no English. We had no idea how many people might be in the building.
After rehab, my house on the left
I should add at this point that I hate firemen. Not firewomen, only the men. And not the firemen of color. Only the white men.
Whenever we have occasion to honor firefighters, which is lately often as the West has been burning up every year, I stand back and think to myself, I hate these mofos.
When I tell anyone I hate firemen, the reaction is always shock. “But there are some good men.” And to this I say yes I know but they’ve gotta prove it to me, just as I had to constantly prove to my male coworkers over and over at work in construction that all women are not stupid and weak. In the meantime I’m sticking with my prejudice, formed by years of interaction with woman-hating racists in the San Francisco Fire Department. I may never get over it.
My hatred has roots in the decades-long fight to integrate women and people of color into the department, formed by listening to the stories of female firefighters who had to live in the firehouses where they were hated, denigrated, physically attacked and whose lives were in danger from the men they worked with.
The idea that firefighters are heroes to be worshipped not only had an unfortunate effect on the culture at the firehouses, inflating already overinflated egos. It also made opposing the white men more difficult. They used the positive stereotype to their advantage, calling on the testimony of citizens whose lives and property had been saved.
Before women fought their way in to the SFFD, men of color experienced a racist culture and lack of safety in the department. The first black firefighter entered the department in 1955 as the result of a lawsuit. The San Francisco fire fighters union, local 798, and its international affiliate, possibly the most racist union in the country, waged a campaign to keep minorities and women out of the department. Once they got in, the union and the white men did whatever they could to make their lives miserable. Swastikas, confederate flags, death threats, excrement in boots, tampering with safety equipment, discriminatory entrance exams were some of the tactics. Robert Demmons, a black firefighter, sued the department for discrimination and the lawsuit later included women and other men of color as plaintiffs.
Although agitation to include women in these well-paid jobs began in the 1970s, the first women did not enter the department until 1987. In the lawsuit, women were lucky to draw a judge who saw that breaking the gender barrier required strong measures. In 1986 US District Court Judge Marilyn Patel issued a consent decree requiring the department to hire ten percent women. The SFFD resisted the decree but they had to comply. The ten percent goal for women was met in 1997 and the decree lifted.
The person who files the lawsuit, whether in the trades or other professions, usually ends up dead or blacklisted, a martyr to the cause. Bob Demmons, who became president of the Black Firefighters Association, went to work every day thinking he might be killed. Several attempts were made on his life. We affirmative action activists thought Bob would end up as our martyr, but instead he was appointed chief of the department in 1996 by Mayor Willie Brown. The department was still a mess and Bob worked closely with women and other men of color to change the culture. He knew he would have only a short time before the union and racists got him removed and he moved as quickly as he could to bring in and promote more women and minorities. I think Bob did more than any other individual to make firefighter jobs available to women. He’s my hero.
We women did have a martyr, Anne Young, one of the first four women to be hired as firefighters, the first lesbian and also the first female lieutenant. Anne became the public face of women and so she endured the worst harassment.
I first met Anne at the Women’s Training Center gym in San Francisco where we both worked out. An electrician, I was involved in the fight for affirmative action, agitating to get women into the construction trades and other male-dominated jobs. She was 18 and already clear about her life goal. She was training to be a firefighter. Anne took entry exams at fire departments all around California and she landed a job at the Daly City fire department where she did well. But Daly City is small, with very few fires and emergencies. She set her sights on the big city of San Francisco.
Anne was smart and strong and she already had experience working as a firefighter. She easily passed the entrance exam and became one of the first women to enter fire college. Harassment started immediately. The day that the first women graduated, before they even started working as firefighters, white men were picketing out in the street, saying that women had taken jobs from them.
Bob Demmons and Anne Young began to collaborate. They both wanted a department that reflects the percentages of population that it serves, that could speak all its languages, that would have women helping women. By that time most of the calls were medical emergencies, not fires.
At the time women first got in, San Francisco’s 41 firehouses operated like a fraternity house row. Pornography was everywhere. Men watched porn on TV in the firehouses, which were scenes of hours-long cocktail parties and drinking contests. Bob showed Anne the granite wall with all the names of the firefighters killed in the line of duty. He pointed out names: “He was drunk, he was drunk, he was drunk.” They were dead because they were drunk at a fire.
Female firefighters constantly had to choose. Did you go along with the culture and drink with the boys, or follow the rules which disallowed drinking, and risk isolation? One woman drank with the boys and passed out at dinner. She was terminated, and the female firefighters support group failed to offer any support. They didn’t want to be associated with her.
Many women took the entrance tests and failed to pass. Many were terminated while on probation. One woman who made it in later committed suicide. The ones who stayed tried to be invisible, to not buck the culture. The other women in the SFFD did not necessarily support Anne.
As in construction, I don’t fault women for how they choose to survive. We’ve developed many survival strategies. You have a choice of joining the culture or objecting. The women who tried to be invisible and didn’t stick their necks out, who put up with the harassment or tried to be one of the guys, generally survived. Anne felt she couldn’t go along to get along. She felt pressure to make a choice every single day at work to represent every woman, represent every queer.
In the 1990s, before public shaming on the internet took hold, white male firefighters and retirees attacked females and minorities in a publication called the Smoke Eaters Gazette. They actually put in writing their horrible lies and distributed the paper to everyone in the department. We never learned who wrote and published it.
Anne was a union member, but when she found out the union was using her dues money to oppose affirmative action, she resigned from local 798 and joined the Black Firefighters Association, a slap in the face to the union and the white men.
A watershed moment came in 1988 when the women in the SFFD and Black Firefighters Association drove a fire truck in the gay parade, a first for the department, known for its homophobic culture. Anne Young was driving the truck. Cheers went up from the crowd. The black firefighters stood with the gay community politically in that moment. It took some courage for the straight black men to march in the parade. I was watching from the street and I cried. People on the sidelines were yelling, “Hey-hey, ho-ho, racism has got to go.” The guys were crying. Everyone was crying. It was an historic event.
Anne did well on tests. She had taken and passed many. When the lieutenants’ test came up she was urged to take it by the lawyers and the BFA (the consent decree was still in force). The chief of the department called her in to his office and told her she could have anything she wanted if she didn’t take the test.
In retrospect, she said, taking the lieutenants test and promoting was a mistake, the beginning of the end of her career. As a new lieutenant she worked a different firehouse every day. Some days the entire crew would call in sick, sending a clear message they didn’t want to work for her. Death threats were common. But when men on her crew tried to throw her off a roof, that was her breaking point. They could have gotten away with her murder. Firefighters fall off roofs. No one would have known she was pushed.
After that, Anne kept going to work, but she felt she could no longer do her job competently.
I’ve seen this happen to other women in male-dominated jobs when the everyday level of stress becomes too much for the body to bear. Your mind tells you to go to work but at some point your body rebels. You get sick or injured and you can no longer go to work. After she was nearly killed, Anne had what she called a nervous breakdown. One day she just couldn’t get out of bed. I think this was her body protecting her from harm.
Anne filed a lawsuit and there was a trial where she was called upon to paint the SFFD with a broad brush of discriminatory treatment. She didn’t get to talk about how much she loved the job, working with a team, saving lives. It had been her dream and she was really good at her job. She wasn’t able to focus on the good men who helped her. But, on the whole, even the good guys had refused to stand up for her and risk retaliation from the bad actors. They enabled the harassers.
Three years after filing suit, in 1995, Anne won the lawsuit and was awarded $300,000. But her career as a firefighter was finished. She lost her income, she lost her house. Trauma had infected her like a disease.
I thought of this history as I stood on the sidewalk and watched the house next door to mine burn. When the first fire truck arrived at the scene, the first firefighter who jumped off was a woman I recognized, Nicol Juratavac. She was working as a lieutenant that day. Among the firefighters were several women and men of color. One, a Chinese man, was the only person able to communicate with the next door building’s residents. Then a car pulled up with another woman I recognized, Denise Newman. She was working that day as a battalion chief. Of course, by that time in 2009 the chief of the department was a female, Joanne Hayes-White, appointed by Mayor Newsom in 2004.
Along with a congregation of feminist activists, I had shown up at city hall the day her appointment was announced. Newsom appointed a female police chief as well, which gave us all high hopes that the asshole culture could be turned around. And I do think some progress was made. Hayes-White stayed on the job for 15 years, long after Newsom had moved on up the political ladder. The SFFD women often clashed with her, but in general her policies and promotions were female friendly. Heather Fong, the police chief, hung in for ten years before the white men and the police union were finally able to run her out.
Wringing my hands and worrying that my newly remodeled building was about to go up in flames, I was grateful for the SFFD. And I had an epiphany: decades of fighting to make the department reflect San Francisco’s diverse population had paid off. The fire department had been integrated.
Now, a decade later, many of those first women have retired from the department with generous pensions. Some of them struggle with PTSD from years of harassment. Yes, the culture in the firehouses has changed for the better, but discrimination and harassment are still present. Anti-affirmative action laws passed in the 1990s make targeted recruitment illegal and make it difficult for California public safety entities to maintain the minimum number of women and minority employees that had been required by SFFD’s consent decree. There’s no guarantee that the department will not revert back to its old white male culture.
However, the new chief of the department, appointed in 2019, Jeanine Nicholson, a lesbian cancer survivor and also burn survivor, gives me hope that the department has changed for good. Still, I haven’t forgiven those white men.
I thank Bob Demmons, and especially Anne Young who sacrificed her career so other women could become firefighters. They were truly change makers.
Mom was no communist. There’s no evidence that she even flirted with the idea like so many did during the volatile period between the world wars. It was hard to find a communist in Yakima, Washington to flirt with. Unless you count William O. Douglas, the US Supreme Court justice, whom John Birchers dubbed “the only known communist in Yakima County.”
No, during my mother’s early life, the county was run by racist xenophobes whose mission was to Make America White Again.
In such a reactionary environment, how did my mother turn into a liberal? Trying to understand her politics, I’ve been investigating the history of her hometown, which is also my hometown. Yakima, on the dry eastern side of the state with a population of about 20,000, was a conservative place when my mother, Florence Wick, was growing up in the 1920s and 30s. Today, with about 91,000 people, it remains a red blot in a blue state whose population is concentrated on the west coast.
Catholic missionaries had settled in the valley and white settlers followed in the 1850s as the US Army drove the indigenous population onto a nearby reservation. The Indians had fiercely resisted in what were known as the Indian Wars of the 1850s. The Yakama (the tribe changed to this spelling) Indian reservation is home to several different groups that were forced to settle there in what we call the Lower Valley, a few miles south of the town of Yakima. The sagebrush country with fertile volcanic soil was partly developed and irrigated by Japanese immigrant farmers who began arriving before the turn of the 20th century.
Researching what life was like in my hometown in this period, I found a book written by Thomas Heuterman, who was my journalism professor at Washington State U. The Burning Horse: The Japanese Experience in the Yakima Valley 1920-1942, documents discrimination against the Japanese community in Wapato, a town on the Yakama reservation where the farmers leased land. In emails Prof. Heuterman told me he had been surprised to find what his research showed: a long history of racism and exclusion in the Yakima Valley.
He wrote: “I went into the project predicting that the Valley Japanese were an exception among all the prejudice of the era. That’s what I remembered as a child from my folks’ attitudes. But, as you know, I found just the opposite. Most of the Nisei (second generation) who have read the book also didn’t know that racism was going on; their folks had protected them from that too.”
Japanese farmers were persecuted relentlessly. Their houses, barns and crops were bombed and burned. Newspapers stoked the fires of racism. Prof. Heuterman’s research focused on stories in the local and state newspapers. Here is some of what he found. These were headlines in the Seattle Star during hearings to determine the fate of Japanese immigrants in Washington State in 1920.
WILL YOU HELP TO KEEP THIS A WHITE MAN’S COUNTRY?
JAPS PLANS MENACE WHITE CIVILIZATION
Japanese plans for expansion at the expense of the white race are a deeper menace to Caucasian civilization than were ever the dreams of Pan-German imperialists
In the 1920 version of fake news, testifiers at the hearings repeated lies about the Japanese and weird ideas about racial purity that were then amplified by newspapers across the state. A well-organized American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Anti-Japanese League perpetuated the apocryphal threat of the Yellow Peril. Then the Grange took up the cause. Anti-alien laws passed in Washington were modeled on those of California, which in turn had been promoted by influential Southern whites. The goal in Yakima was to drive all Japanese out of the valley.
Anti-immigrant sentiment reached a peak in the 1920s and 30s in the Yakima Valley and in the entire West. As a child and young adult, my mother must have been aware of it. I was shocked to learn that the KKK held a rally in 1924, which drew 40,000 people to a field outside the town after the state refused to grant them access to the state fairgrounds in Yakima. A thousand robed KKK members marched in the parade.
Farmers welcomed migrant laborers when labor was scarce. But when the economic cycle moved from boom to bust, these workers were targets of violence, forced removal and alien restriction laws. American workers who saw their jobs being taken by immigrants who would work for less were some of the worst perpetrators of racist violence. Racist organizations gained influence after World War I. In the Red Scare of 1917-20 nativism swept the whole country. During that time Alien and Sedition laws were used to deport hundreds of immigrants deemed by the government to be radicals, the anarchist Emma Goldman among them.
In Yakima, terrorism was directed at other groups as well as the Japanese. In 1933, the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) led a strike for higher wages of white migrant farmworkers that was put down by orchardists with pipes, clubs and bats. Then the strikers were marched five miles to a stockade that had been constructed in the middle of downtown Yakima. Some of those arrested were jailed for six months, and the stockade stayed up as a deterrent for a decade. In 1938, 200 men set upon blacks in Wapato, beating them and setting fire to one of their houses. Filipinos also became targets of harassment.
I grew up near the Congdon orchard where the 1933 strike took place. The owner’s summerhouse mansion was called Congdon Castle and as kids we thought it was haunted. No one really lived there except caretakers. The wealthy owners had always lived in another state. I have a vague memory of Flo telling us about the “battle of Congdon Castle.” She surely knew about it. The primary industry in Yakima, then and now, was agriculture and agriculture was always big news.
Probably my mother already knew which side she was on by the time these events occurred. Her parents, immigrants themselves from Sweden and Norway, can’t have felt completely safe. Family lore has her father enduring taunts for his foreign accent from students at Yakima High School where he taught commercial arts. Her father’s thinking surely influenced young Flo. She told me she remembered his troubled reaction to the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian immigrants whose incarceration lasted from 1920 to 1927. She was 14 years old when they were executed by the US government. Flo’s Norwegian father took the side of the immigrants, who most agreed had been falsely accused.
This was the Yakima of my mother’s youth, a place where, if you read the newspapers, you could not escape the dominant paradigm. But by the time I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, this history escaped us. Our family often visited Fort Simcoe, the restored Army fort on the Yakama reservation, but I never learned about the Indian Wars as a child. Indians and revolution were scrubbed from our textbooks and xenophobia persisted.
My brother Don remembers as a freshman in high school in 1967 defending the rights of Native Americans in history class. The popular teacher launched into a diatribe against him in front of the whole class. She said Indians had an inferior culture and deserved to be conquered. She said they were dirty, barbaric and uncivilized. She believed it was right of a superior culture to war against them and subjugate them. This was the inevitable march of history, she said. When Don told Flo about it she was outraged. She and the teacher had been friends but that killed their friendship.
The xenophobes in Yakima and elsewhere were able to successfully construct a racial identity, the “white race,” made from hundreds of diverse cultures, people who spoke different languages and dialects, people who had themselves been the victims of oppression, as a way to successfully divide the population. In his book, Irish on the Inside, Tom Hayden posits that Irish immigrants had more in common with blacks and slaves than the white rulers who starved and oppressed them. Before epigenetics became a thing, Hayden made the case that we have all been affected by the plight of our ancestors. “That the Irish are white and European cannot erase the experience of our having been invaded, occupied, starved, colonized and forced out of our homeland,” he wrote.
Hayden wanted to break the assimilationist mold among Irish Americans.“If Irish Americans identify with the 10 percent of the world which is white, Anglo American and consumes half the global resources, we have chosen the wrong side of history and justice. We will become the inhabitants of the Big House ourselves, looking down on the natives we used to be. We will become our nightmare without a chance of awakening from its grip.”
My grandparents had a strong immigrant identity, but the advantage they had is that they were, in the language of the American Legion, of the “white race.” The Legion, the KKK and others demanded to make America white again. I’ve no clue how the xenophobes felt about Southern Italians, but it seems that if you came from Europe you were ok with them. In Yakima, they reserved deepest hatred for Japanese. But they also scorned anyone not of the “white race.” The irony was that these invading whites had themselves displaced indigenous people and it’s difficult to understand how they failed to see this giant contradiction. The trick, of course, was to make them subhuman.
That Flo’s parents identified as immigrants rather than white informed her understanding of the world. Flo was also a voracious reader and certainly was influenced by what she read. She spent hours at the Yakima public library, receiving her first library card at a young age and migrating to the adult section before children were allowed. She was one of those kids who took a flashlight to bed and often read under the covers at night.
She was also active in the YWCA, quite a progressive organization during that period just as it is today. Besides championing racial integration, the YW also lent support to Japanese families who were incarcerated during the war. Her involvement in the YW got Flo out of Yakima to meetings across Washington State and in the big cities of Chicago and Columbus, widening her worldview.
Flo’s father, Ben Wick, overlapped with William O. Douglas for a year in 1921-22 when they both taught at Yakima High School. Flo may have known Douglas as a child. She would have been nine years old when he got fed up with teaching school in Yakima and and left to make his fortune in the East. In any case, Flo admired Douglas greatly and I believe she shared his politics, which were shaped by class. He grew up fatherless and poor. When discussing how his personal experiences influenced his view of the law, Douglas said, “I worked among the very, very poor, the migrant laborers, the Chicanos and the IWWs who I saw being shot at by the police. I saw cruelty and hardness, and my impulse was to be a force in other developments in the law.”
He was no communist either but he did defend the concept of revolution in a 1969 screed. He is famously quoted in Points of Rebellion: “We must realize that today’s Establishment is the new George III. Whether it will continue to adhere to his tactics, we do not know. If it does, the redress, honored in tradition, is also revolution.” He survived two impeachment attempts.
When I asked my lawyer friend Judy about Douglas she said, “Legal standing for trees!” He was famous for defending nature and the environment, often in dissenting opinions. She added, “I wish he was still on the court. God help us now.”
Douglas returned to our hometown later in his life and Flo and I ran into him and his wife Cathy in the 1970s. We had decided to splurge on lunch at the Larson Building, the town’s only high-rise, an elegant Art Deco architectural gem built in 1931. We spotted them as we walked into the lobby. “Justice Douglas, Justice Douglas,” my mother entreated as she ran up to him. He graciously remembered her father.
The wartime internment of Japanese did not happen in a vacuum. Finally, after decades of domestic terrorism, the American Legion and its ilk got their way. In June 1942, 1061 Japanese were evacuated from the valley, sent by rail to a processing center at the Portland livestock grounds, and then incarcerated at Heart Mountain, Wyoming for the remainder of the war—800 miles from home. Only a few resettled in the Yakima valley.
One of my heroes, the labor organizer Sister Addie Wyatt said, “If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you’re going.”
This is where we come from. I fervently hope it is not where we’re going. I’m so glad people like immigrants and Americans of color, the Wobblies, my mother, my grandfather and William O. Douglas found the will to resist.
The culture of the construction site was manmade. No women had been involved in its creation and so we had to negotiate the best we could. I said to myself I had a father and three brothers, I should be able to fit in. I’d been a tomboy as a kid and thought I knew how to hang with males of the species. Every new job, each with a new group of guys, held new challenges.
I quickly learned that my coworkers thought women were incapable of doing the physically challenging work of construction. They brought to work a stereotype of women as whiny, useless, money-grubbing weaklings who needed a man to give them worth in the world. (Most of these guys were divorced and still angry at ex-wives). They repeated to me an old saying: If this work was easy, women and children could do it. Something told me that when they repeated it to each other, the word they used was not women.
“Cunt,” whispered the ironworker tying rebar next to me as I tied pipe to it. Then he quickly moved on. After I got over the shock, here’s what I thought: “Ironworkers are a bunch of cowardly sexist dickheads.”
My coworkers told me women weren’t good partners on the job because we couldn’t be trusted to hold up our end of a 300 pound piece of floor duct. We were all afraid of heights, we didn’t know how to swing a hammer and hit anything. We were just there to get a man. Our presence on the job would cost the contractor money since it took us twice as long to complete a task. When criticized we would cry, so they had to be careful what they said to us. (Too bad that didn’t translate to not insulting us.) Their worth was predicated on our worthlessness, our lack of merit. You are only as tall as the person you are stepping on.
I went to work each day with the objective of overturning the old stereotype. I was usually the only female on the job, and very conscious that I would embody a new improved stereotype. I worked hard, but was careful not to work so hard that I’d be accused of breaking down conditions and brown-nosing the employer. I tried to work just as fast as they did, but not faster. I picked up my end of the floor duct and used lifting skills to save my back, while thinking to myself that nobody should have to lift 300 pounds of anything. I was not afraid of heights, but if I had been, I never would have admitted it. I never cried, even when I felt like it.
A worker was welcomed into the construction culture in a backhanded manner. You didn’t know whether you were being dissed or included. Race and ethnicity as well as gender were called out with jokes and put-downs. How one responded was noted. You were supposed to go along to get along.
The men could be empathetic while at the same time expressing homophobia, sexism and racism. I tried to come out as a lesbian whenever the opportunity arose because I was convinced this honesty made the job easier for me. On one job I worked with a traveler* from Arizona. We were assigned to tape connectors and boxes in the trailer while we waited for the deck to be readied for the electrical crew, so we had time to chat. He told me his wife worked as a nurse in a hospital in Oakland and the place was overrun with faggots. She was disgusted. Here was my opportunity! I admitted to being a dyke and probably noted that fags were a lot more fun to work with than his sorry ass. At that he did an about-face. He needed to make a confession too. He acknowledged that he was an alcoholic, that he was in recovery and that he was letting me in on the secret. That made us even, and we were friends from then on.
Ethnic slurs were thrown at people with what seemed like a try at love. Wetback, Chink, Dago were used inclusively, like welcome to our club, this is your identity. If I didn’t object in the beginning, my nickname would be Girl. I objected, but not to every slight. You had to pick your battles. I let them know I wasn’t keen on sexist or racist remarks. No one ever said the N word in racially-mixed company, maybe because they didn’t want to risk getting the shit beat out of them. The exception was travelers who came from sister union locals in the South, but they only used the word when conversing with whites. Talking about football, one remarked, “I never understood why anyone would want to watch a bunch of n*****s running around a field.” The Northern white guys on the crew were silent after that. Maybe they were seriously considering that football was no longer a white game. Or maybe they were silent on my account and would have agreed with the cracker if I hadn’t been there. I hope it was because they were so appalled they were speechless.
The Southern travelers were a different breed—bigots who bragged about killing cops and evading taxes. All white. The story was told about one guy that he kept a length of 000 wire under the seat of his truck and had once used it on a cop’s head. One day he drug up** and asked for his check. He was on the run, they said. White trash and dangerous.
That’s the way it was, and few of us minorities were exempt. On one job I had a Jewish foreman. I knew he was Jewish when others on the job started making gas chamber and oven jokes. Jewish men—at least out Jewish men—were rare on the construction site, although I knew many Jewish women who worked in construction. This guy had been a carpenter and later got into the electrician apprenticeship. He was a skilled mechanic and a competent foreman with an upbeat attitude. He let the jokes slide off.
The job was an interior remodel of the Hyatt Regency hotel in San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center. Cozy and insulated, we worked on an upper floor of the high-rise, piping in the ceiling, running up and down ladders. The construction crew would assemble in the basement in the mornings and ride the service elevator up to our floor together. The hotel pastry chef, a stern Austrian, came to work at the same time and rode the elevator with us. He never spoke to us, we figured, because he thought himself better than a bunch of construction workers. An unflattering stereotype of Austrians immediately took root in my mind. Austrians equal Nazis. Our crew began to refer to him as Herr Pastry. My foreman always spoke to him. Good morning or how are you this morning. The pastry chef may have nodded but he never spoke or smiled. It became a game. The Jew would force the Nazi to acknowledge us lower class plebes (the irony was that we union workers probably made way more money than he did).
Our IBEW contract gave us a half-hour lunch break 12 to 12:30 and one ten-minute coffee break, which we took at 10 am. I usually brought a bagel with cream cheese for break. I’d be starving by 10 even after eating a huge breakfast at 7. On jobs where the ten minutes was taken literally, I found I barely had time to down the bagel, which required some chewing, and to wash it down with my thermos of tea. This job was a bit looser. Coffee break might last 15 minutes.
“It’s too short,” I whined to no one in particular while standing on a ladder with my head in the ceiling. The piece of EMT*** I’d just cut didn’t fit and I’d have to start over. “What a thing to tell a man!” came back to me from the Irish carpenter foreman whose head was the only one I could see up there. That made me smile. Irish guys—full of blarney.
“Break time,” someone yelled, and I looked down to see coffee being served in a fancy silver service with a huge plate of pastries beside it. The gift had come from the pastry chef, and for the rest of that job we had complimentary coffee and pastries at 10 am, thanks to the persistent civility of our foreman. My stereotype of Austrians crumbled. I’m still waiting for help with my prejudice against ironworkers and white Southern men.
*Travelers follow the work around the country when work at home is slow.
**To drag up is to quit the job.
***Electrical Metallic Tubing, a kind of pipe used in the electrical industry.