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Miamis Longshoremens Association: Blazing trails since 1936

admin | 2/8/2012, 11:52 a.m.

Fighters for equal rights, better pay and a political voice

Unions have thrived in places like Chicago, Detroit and Pittsburgh, but here in Miami they were highly unpopular. Said another way, establishing a union and maintaining it was not an easy task. But that didnt stop 10 Black men armed with foresight, drive and courage to invest $1.75 each to apply for a charter in the International Longshoremens Association [ILA] in 1936. Their names may have been forgotten but the legacy they left continues to shape the lives of Blacks for the better in the City of Miami. Judge Henderson a leader determined to improve Blacks quality of life Judge Henderson would serve as the first president for ILA # 1416 a position he would hold with distinction until 1965. Those who joined Henderson on that first day in 1936 included: Luther Gibson, Ed Davis, Jessie Thomas, James Purcey, John Thomas, Rhoddy Johnson, Alonso Allen, Arthur Small and Solomon Murray. The significance of their investment cannot be ignored as it was equivalent to five hours of work on the part of each man. In the 30s, dock workers in then Dade County were the lowest paid longshoremen in the U.S., receiving 35 cents an hour and nothing for overtime. From effective collective bargaining, Henderson and his men branched out into other areas, most notably civic and social engagement. This would be a first for Blacks in Miami. They fought the Ku Klux Klan who wanted to keep Blacks from registering to vote. By 1942, the Black community had begun to develop political interests and with the financial support of the Longshoremen, L.E. Thomas, a Black attorney and Stanley Sweeting, ran for Justice of the Peace and Constable, respectively. Thomas would later be appointed as a municipal judge something that was unheard of in the South. Henderson also worked to get more Blacks to the ballot box and was instrumental in adding more voters to the Democratic Party and away from the Republicans. In 1954, the ILA decided they wanted their own building for a meeting place. They dedicated their home office on May 8, 1955 without the financial assistance of any outside organization at a cost of $175,000.

Members reflect on the early days

Moses Hillman, 92, first began working on the docks in 1935 and was initially reluctant to really talk about his life as a longshoreman. His brother-in-law was the first president, Judge Henderson. But he did say, those were some really bad times for Black people. We were still living in a world where segregation was a way of life from the bathrooms to the drinking fountains. Jonas Turner, 85, was more outspoken about his experiences. I started on the docks in 1948 and I remember that even the drinking water itself was black and white, he said. There were a lot of us that went down to the docks looking for work. And let me tell you it was not easy work. Some brothers wouldnt even go down there to try. The loads we had to put on and off the ships were very heavy and that was before any real machines were being used. It was all about manpower. Some guys today, even with the new automation, dont want to do it. Its a dirty, strenuous job. And its dangerous work too. I came close a few times to being seriously injured. Some men were killed while working on the docks. But I had 10 kids to feed. I worked two jobs to make ends meet. As for me, I often went to work with a bowl of oatmeal that had to last me for the entire day. Willie James Adams, 67, first began his tenure on the docks in 1964. I was one of the first gantry crane drivers and I used to unload cargo off of the ships, he said. Was it dangerous? Yes! You had to always pay attention because you could easily lose a finger, a foot or your life. Fletcher C. Young, 65, says he first started working on the docks in 1966. The pay wasnt good at all but it would have been much worse without the union, he said. And then back in those days there was no such thing as a shift or regulations by OSHA. Sometimes I worked several days at at time we worked until the job was done. When I started the bathrooms and the drinking fountains were segregated. That wouldnt change until 1970! We often went to eat at the Royal Castle across from the docks on 11th and Biscayne. Blacks had to order their food on the side of the restaurant the whites got to go inside and sit down. Mosie Maddox, 80, started on the docks in 1962. The Longshoremen really helped to make life better for Black men who worked on those docks, he said. We got our pay raises because they were able to negotiate better contracts. Willie Hunter, 77, began working on the docks in 1959. It was a very different time for Blacks back then, he said. I had just gotten out of the Army and gotten married. I started at the very bottom and rose all the way to vice-president. As machinery started to be used we had to make sure we received adequate work and pay. That was the job of our officers. And they did a fine job too. Sometimes the owners tried to break the contracts, but at least we had something legal that was in writing for us to fall back on. James Finklin, 61, began on the docks in 1968. The men that assumed the lead in the Longshoremen were true leaders, he said. It was a beautiful thing to see them work on our behalf. And thats been the history of the Longshoremen since we were started in the 1930s. Young men today still know about us. Many come down to the docks looking for work. We have fed families and helped people find work.