Steel's invisible blacks

Len Shindel

October 22, 1993|By Len Shindel

A FEW weeks ago a group of film-makers and producers came to Baltimore to make a movie, but the visit went unheralded and almost unnoticed.

They weren't from Hollywood. They were from blue-collar Pittsburgh. And their subjects weren't privileged folk in Roland Park, but black steelworkers and their families in East Baltimore and Turner Station in Baltimore County.

"Struggles in Steel: A Visual History of African-American Steel Workers" is a documentary that will be aired on PBS in early 1994. It is the brainchild of ex-steelworker and social activist Raymond Henderson, who is the project's co-producer.

The documentary was born out of Mr. Henderson's anger over the mainstream media's ignorance of African-American working men and women.

For 18 years he labored in U.S. Steel's Duquesne, Pa., works. Then the plant shut down. He was watching television one day when a program came on about the plight of unemployed steelworkers. No blacks were interviewed.

Mr. Henderson called Tony Buba, a steelworker's son who had won awards for film-making. Together, they tried to convince the local media to focus some attention on black steelworkers. They got nowhere. Mr. Henderson suggested that they produce their own film. "He stayed on me for three years until I finally got moving," says Mr. Buba. The two taped 60 hours of interviews in Pennsylvania before heading for Baltimore and Birmingham, Ala.

Their host in Baltimore was Francis Brown, a Bethlehem steelworker who retired last year after 37 years in the mills. Mr. Brown was an officer of Steel and Shipyard Workers for Equality and a union representative in Local 2610 of the United Steelworkers of America. He played a leading role in the picketing and legal actions that confronted discrimination at Bethlehem and brought an end to a seniority system that relegated blacks to the dirtiest, most dangerous mill jobs at Sparrows Point and other steel mills.

Mr. Brown coordinated interviews and allowed the film crew to use the Pharaoh's Social Club on North Collington Avenue as a staging area. Pharaoh's, founded by steelworkers, was a center of planning and strategy during the struggle.

The heart of the documentary is the interviews with steelworkers. Mr. Henderson probes until their stories spill out.

Some cry on camera as they recount the indignities they suffered and the strength they had to summon to endure.

Mr. Henderson's style combines humility and perseverance. The humility was gained on the job. "When I first went to work in the mills, I was just back from Vietnam. I thought I had more fight than the older men. But I found out soon that there were a lot of strong brothers in there!" His perseverance led him to election as a grievance committeeman and appointment to the civil rights committee of his union.

Mr. Henderson isn't limiting the film to male steelworkers. He says: "It was the women who kept the families together, while the men worked around the clock and suffered injuries. When the men die, the women are denied a decent pension."

"Struggles in Steel" will begin with the story of skilled ex-slaves who worked in the steel mills of the South. Originally recruited by employers to break the strikes of Northern steelworkers, they faced second-class conditions and the hostility of white workers and their unions.

The documentary will use archival footage to show the mass migration of black workers from the South, their participation in the CIO organizing drives and their struggle against apartheid-like conditions in the steel mills and communities surrounding them. It will end with the decline of the American steel industry and the sad irony: "Black steelworkers in Pittsburgh, Gary, Buffalo, Baltimore and Birmingham finally attained equality with whites as they stepped together in unemployment lines."

Baltimore participants in "Struggles in Steel" are planning a local oral history project. Courtney Speed, a Turner Station resident, says: "We need to preserve this history for two lost generations. Our children need to know about our forefathers' spiritual and moral values, their intense pride in self-development, using common sense, educational commitment and their ability to survive through extreme economic depression."

Len Shindel is a Bethlehem steelworker.

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