This Week in History

As I did last year this time, I’ll focus this installment of my on- and off-again This Week in History series on the history of work and workers, in honor of today being Labor Day. (And I might recycle two or three anniversaries from last year, since the best part of Labor Day is not laboring…)

September 3, 1838 – Frederick Douglass escapes from slavery

Not being a specialist in either field, I wonder if labor historians do much with the history of slavery. After all, there haven’t been too many worse cases of the wealthy exploiting the labor of others than the chattel slavery that afflicted Africans brought to the Western Hemisphere against their will. So it seems fitting that we’ve got occasion to remember the escape of one of the 19th century’s greatest abolitionists. When he published his first autobiography seven years later, Douglass withheld most details of that escape rather than risk endangering those who helped him (and because a more specific “statement would most undoubtedly induce greater vigilance on the part of slaveholders than has existed heretofore among them”), but below is the beginning of that chapter. The way he described coming to resent paying what he had earned as a hired hand to his master certainly seems appropriate to a Labor Day remembrance:

Frederick Douglass, 1845In the early part of the year 1838, I became quite restless. I could see no reason why I should, at the end of each week, pour the reward of my toil into the purse of my master. When I carried to him my weekly wages, he would, after counting the money, look me in the face with a robber-like fierceness, and ask, “Is this all?” He was satisfied with nothing less than the last cent. He would, however, when I made him six dollars, sometimes give me six cents, to encourage me. It had the opposite effect. I regarded it as a sort of admission of my right to the whole. The fact that he gave me any part of my wages was proof, to my mind, that he believed me entitled to the whole of them. I always felt worse for having received any thing; for I feared that the giving me a few cents would ease his conscience, and make him feel himself to be a pretty honorable sort of robber. My discontent grew upon me. I was ever on the look-out for means of escape; and, finding no direct means, I determined to try to hire my time, with a view of getting money with which to make my escape. In the spring of 1838, when Master Thomas came to Baltimore to purchase his spring goods, I got an opportunity, and applied to him to allow me to hire my time. He unhesitatingly refused my request, and told me this was another stratagem by which to escape. He told me I could go nowhere but that he could get me; and that, in the event of my running away, he should spare no pains in his efforts to catch me. He exhorted me to content myself, and be obedient. He told me, if I would be happy, I must lay out no plans for the future. He said, if I behaved myself properly, he would take care of me. Indeed, he advised me to complete thoughtlessness of the future, and taught me to depend solely upon him for happiness. He seemed to see fully the pressing necessity of setting aside my intellectual nature, in order to contentment in slavery. But in spite of him, and even in spite of myself, I continued to think, and to think about the injustice of my enslavement, and the means of escape.

September 4, 1917 – Henry Ford II is born

Walter Reuther and Richard Frankensteen, 1937
Walter Reuther (l.) and fellow UAW organizer Richard Frankensteen following the Battle of the Overpass in May 1937 – Reuther Library, Wayne State University

The grandson of Ford Motor Company’s founder presided over a time of relative labor peace (1945-1960), as he fired his grandfather’s anti-union enforcer, Harry Bennett, and brought in a new management team willing to negotiate with the United Auto Workers (UAW), whose newly elected leader, Walter Reuther, a former Ford die maker himself who had been violently assaulted by Bennett’s agents in 1937’s “Battle of the Overpass.”

All that’s really just an excuse to repeat a famous mid-Fifties exchange between a Ford executive (probably not HF2 himself, but often quoted as such) and Reuther during a tour of the company’s automated engine plant in Cleveland: (as related by Time magazine)

As they strode past huge self-operating tools… the Ford executive wisecracked: “You know, not one of these machines pays dues to the U.A.W.” Retorted Reuther: “And not one of them buys new Ford cars, either.”

September 5, 1882 – New York City hosts America’s first Labor Day parade

Here’s how the New York Times began its report on the proceedings:

The parade of the working men yesterday, although not so large as its organizers had predicted, was conducted in an orderly and pleasant manner. Those who rode or marched in the procession were cheerful, and evidently highly gratified with the display. Nearly all were well clothed, and some wore attire of fashionable cut. The great majority smoked cigars, and all seemed bent upon having a good time at the picnic grounds.

1882 Labor Day ParadeIt’s interesting what reporters choose to highlight. You might suspect that this one was on loan from the Style section of the day, though he (I’m assuming he) immediately went on to include this tidbit: “The originators of the labor demonstration… frankly admitted that the working men were determined to show their numerical strength in order to satisfy the politicians of this City that they must not be trifled with.” And if the non-trifle message wasn’t adequately communicated by sheer numbers, one cigarmaker’s banner put the powers that be on notice: “Smoke No Republican Jawbreakers and Democratic Stinkers.” (As true in the early 21st century as the late 19th.)

September 6, 1995 – Cal Ripken, Jr. breaks Lou Gehrig’s record

Not this one, this one, or the other twelve Gehrig still holds (most being specific to first basemen, a position Ripken never played in the majors or minors). This one.

Playing in 2,131 consecutive games of major league baseball is both extraordinary and mundane, which makes it a good fit with this week’s labor history theme. This was, after all, a union member (a very, very well-compensated member of the most powerful labor union in U.S. history) being recognized for, well, showing up to work. Here’s how Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle described the celebration that ensued when that game became official and Ripken moved past Gehrig:

As the cheering thundered on, young Cal made his sixth and seventh curtain calls. He wasn’t crying. That’s not the family way. Maybe he’ll cry later, but not in public. He looked like he was ready to play ball again. But then [Rafael] Palmeiro and Bobby Bonilla literally pushed him out of the dugout, sending him on his way for a victory lap. Ripken warmed to the occasion, touching many hands as he circled the warning track, and in those moments he looked at once teenage-young and 2,131-old. He looked a lot like his dad at times, and some even said he looked a little like Gehrig: The strong, humble, smiling face, always there, incredibly consistent.

These were a working-man’s 22 minutes in a working-man’s town, the place Ripken has spent his entire career.

And for the record (literally), Ripken stayed on the job for 501 more games before taking a break.

September 7, 1953 – Benmont Tench is born

Benmont Tench
Benmont Tench – Creative Commons (Brian R. Grubb)

“Benmont, who?” (Or, more likely, “Ben-what?, who?”)

Let us now praise session musicians, the working stiffs of the music industry. If you do know the name, it’s probably from one of the many Tom Petty albums on which Tench has played piano and keyboards (as a Heartbreaker or not). But he has lent his talents to an astonishing number of non-TP albums. I tried counting them on his AllMusic.com “Credits” page and was only two screens into seven total when I reached 100 and gave up. Just sticking to artists in my own CD/iTunes collection, Tench has worked for (“collaborated with” doesn’t quite fit our labor theme) Bob Dylan, U2, Elvis Costello, the Replacements (and later a solo Paul Westerberg), Kelly Willis, the Ramones (!), Lucinda Williams, Bruce Cockburn, the Rolling Stones, Aimee Mann, Steve Earle, Johnny Cash, Sheryl Crow, Kathleen Edwards, Ryan Adams, Shelby Lynne, the Dixie Chicks, Dan Wilson, and the Avett Brothers.


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