Maida Springer Kemp Championed Workers’ Rights on a Global Scale

Maida Springer Kemp Championed Workers’ Rights on a Global Scale

Maida Springer Kemp Championed Workers’ Rights on a Global Scale

The Panamanian garment worker turned labor organizer, Pan-Africanist, and anti-colonial activist advocated for US and African workers amid a Cold War freeze.


The American labor movement was built by Black workers, organizers, and activists, from the Rev. Addie L. Wyatt to Lucy Parsons to the washerwomen of Jackson, Miss., who formed the state’s first labor union in 1866 to the warehouse workers in Bessemer, Ala., fighting to unionize Amazon. Maida Springer Kemp, a union organizer who worked to connect the US and African trade movements, is just one of the incredible Black women whose determination and vision has shaped the history of labor in this country. During the height of Jim Crow, this daughter of Caribbean immigrants and former garment worker strode onto the world stage and took the struggle global.

Kemp was born Maida Stewart in 1910 in Panama, emigrated at 7, and was raised in Harlem by a single mother who embraced Black nationalist Marcus Garvey and was a member in his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). She held political gatherings in their home, took little Maida along to UNIA meetings, and sent her next door to help fold leaflets for a friend’s father, who was in the all-Black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union. A. Philip Randolph, the union’s charismatic leader, later became a close friend, and Kemp remained fiercely loyal to him even when their interests clashed. At 22, she went to see him speak when she was still distrustful of organized labor, which had earned its reputation for anti-Blackness and racial discrimination. Randolph’s speech connected the dots between how racist employers tried to divide workers and depress Black economic advancement, and she came away dazzled by the potential of union power. “He excited my interest and challenged my mind to think about something besides the prejudice against the Black community,” she later recalled. “I got a PhD education in survival from Randolph and an awareness of a struggle and of Black and white relationships.”

Kemp’s life, work, and politics were shaped by her experiences at the intersection of labor, race, gender, class, and colonialism. Her early years in Panama, her childhood in Harlem, her school days at a vocational boarding school in Bordentown, N.J., sometimes called “The Tuskegee of the North,” and her later international travels all informed her perspective on the world, her place within it, and what kinds of changes were needed. Kemp’s determination to confront those inseparable systems of oppression set her apart from many of her peers in labor, and made her a target for those who would rather ignore the ugly truths she lived through as a working-class Black woman in the United States, Europe, and Africa. Her career should be an example to the current and next generation of labor activists, and remind those of us in the West—and particularly in the US—that the cause of labor is a global struggle.

For example, as Luis Feliz Leon and Dan DiMaggio recently reported for Labor Notes, there is an extremely important union election underway in Mexico right now, where workers at a General Motors plant in Silao are trying to break free of their corrupt local of the Confederation of Mexican Labor (CMT). After voting to invalidate their last CMT contract, the workers are choosing between four options—two CMT-connected unions, a “ghost” union about which suspiciously little is known, and the independent National Auto Workers Union (SINTTIA). On February 3, the results came in, and the workers voted overwhelmingly for SINTTIA. “We can have better salary conditions, and more importantly, labor conditions, and good union representation,” SINTTIA leader Morales told Labor Notes. “That’s the starting point for other workers to be encouraged to raise their voices and not be subjected to the company.”

Kemp would have approved. She married Owen Springer, a Barbadian like her father, when she was 17, and initially stayed home to tend their children. When the Great Depression hit, he lost his job as a repairman, and she went out to work in the garment industry in 1932. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) had, as she told it, fallen “flat on its face” at the time, but she joined its Local 22 anyway—just in time for a 60,000-strong dressmakers’ strike to roil the city and recharge the union. “It was an electrifying occasion,” she told biographer Yevette Richards Jordan, an associate professor of history at George Mason University who published her wonderfully thorough book Maida Springer: Pan-Africanist and International Labor Leader in 2000. “As a result of this exhilarating experience, I proudly accepted more assignments and enrolled in more classes than was reasonable. My youth, enthusiasm, and the daily evidence of changes that the Union had wrought in our lives lessened the normal tedium of tasks.”

Kemp rose quickly through the union ranks. She joined numerous committees and immersed herself in the union’s robust educational offerings, joining its executive board in 1938 and signing on as Local 22’s educational director in 1943. Her husband did not trust unions and was less than enthused about her career path, but she held firm, and continued to climb. Kemp held various staff positions at the ILGWU, including a 13-year stint as the union’s first Black business agent to lead an entire district, until 1959. Jordan’s book lays out an exhaustive list of her travels, appointments, honors, and committees throughout that period; suffice it to say, Kemp stayed busy, even when political turmoil threatened to slow her down or halt her progress altogether.

Unlike most of the other labor leaders I’ve profiled in this column, Kemp wasn’t a political radical. She never joined any leftist groups, and could generally have been described as a social democrat. But her actions as an organizer were radical for the Jim Crow era; so was her refusal to be bullied into changing her mind or altering her behavior to comfort racists, sexists, or colonizers. Her interests lay firmly in achieving racial and economic justice for Black workers, and she wasn’t interested in arguing. While she appreciated the US Communist Party’s anti-racist stance, she didn’t trust its motives. Throughout her early career with the ILGWU, the union was riven by internecine squabbles between Communists and anti-communists in the ranks and leadership. Kemp resisted repeated overtures from Communist organizers. As a political pragmatist with little interest in sectarian dogfights, she preferred to avoid alienating any potential allies, even as she held onto her own suspicions about the authenticity of the solidarity on offer. “The thing that offended me was that I always felt that I was being patronized,” she told Richards. “I think they loved me too much.”

That wasn’t the last time that anti-communist sentiment would complicate her work, and it would become an especially troublesome burden during one of the most important chapters of her life as an organizer and labor advocate. After spending 10 years rising through the ILWU’s ranks, in 1945 Kemp was tapped to join a CIO- and AFL-sponsored delegation to England to meet with British and European labor leaders, visit factories, and observe wartime conditions. That trip marked the beginning of her international career as the first Black woman to represent US labor overseas. She may have left Jim Crow back in the States, but she was still expected to sleep in a separate room from her white fellow delegates, and got a firsthand view of British racism. Kemp also met with African and Caribbean soldiers, who told her stories from the front lines of the fight for colonial independence, and connected with Trinidadian pan-Africanist socialist George Padmore, who would become her lifelong friend and mentor. Her path also crossed with Jomo Kenyatta, an anti-colonial activist who would become the first president of an independent Kenya. When they met, he asked Kemp, “Young girl, what does the working class in America know of the struggle for liberation from colonialism?” That question changed the course of her life. From that moment on, she became determined to convince US labor leaders to support the African struggle for independence and a strong democratic labor movement.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Kemp formed deep and extensive connections with labor leaders and anti-colonial activists in multiple African countries while navigating complicated and often frustrating Cold War dynamics exacerbated by US interventionism. Her first trip to Africa in 1955 took her to Accra, Ghana, where she served as an AFL observer and delegate to an International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) conference. The ICFTU had been established in 1949 after US and non-communist European unions left the World Federation of Trade Unions to form their own explicitly anti-communist federation, and both groups were vying for a stake in the African labor movement. Anti-colonial African labor leaders had looked to their US counterparts for support, and were instead greeted with racism, paternalism, and knee-jerk anti-communism. The tension made Kemp feel as though she was “dancing on the end of a needle” as she tried to focus on organizing work in newly independent African nations like Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania (formerly Tanganyika), Uganda, and Ghana.

Her experiences in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where she was treated with racist hostility by the white minority elite, contrasted sharply with the respect she received in other African nations, where she was known warmly as “Mama Maida.” While she had no problem connecting with workers, Kemp’s relationships with colonial government officials and her European colleagues tended to be strained. She was often searched at the border of colonial states, and noticed how those in power would parry any criticism of their own actions by bringing up the US’s own dreadful track record with race relations, which they seemed to view as an absolving “gotcha.” “Our allies in democracy, to ease the burden of criticism of their colonial policies, never let us lose sight of our own color dilemma,” she noted in a 1959 speech. “Under such circumstances it comes with poor grace to tell Africans communism is worse.”

Though she was sidelined by health problems during much of that year, she made up for it during the next, when she joined the AFL-CIO’s International Affairs Department as its representative to Africa. Though the work never got easier, over the next five years, she witnessed independence celebrations in Nigeria, Tanzania, Gambia, and Kenya, and even found time to marry her second husband, James Horace Kemp, a well-respected Chicago labor organizer and activist who would later be elected president of the NAACP. (She had divorced Owen, who had never supported her labor work, in 1955).

During Kemp’s tenure at the AFL-CIO, she devoted herself to organizing and funding educational opportunities for members of the African poor and working class in Tanzania, where she established a scholarship for girls’ continuing education; in Kenya, where she worked with the Kenya Tailors and Textile Workers Union to found a trade school for women; and in Nigeria, where she partnered with the Nigerian Motor Drivers’ Union and secured AFL-CIO funding to establish a Motor Drivers’ Driving School. At the urging of her friends in African labor, she and A. Philip Randolph founded an exchange program that enabled African centers to send their members to the Harvard Labor-Management Industrial Relations Center (after which the AFL-CIO would pay them a stipend to organize workers back home). The Cold War and the AFL-CIO’s own anti-communist conservatism kept getting in her way, but Kemp refused to be deterred in her vision of international labor solidarity.

She would continue to work, organize, advise, and advocate for African workers and her allies in the African labor movement for the rest of her life, but Kemp was also kept busy on the home front. In 1966, she returned to the ILGWU and began working as a general organizer for the union in the South, and in 1970, was asked to serve as the Midwest director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, an organization dedicated to strengthening ties between the labor and civil rights movements. During that same period, she began working with the African American Labor Center to organize relief programs for drought-stricken Western and Central Africa nations, and in 1973, joined its staff full-time. She also became a consultant for the Asian-American Free Labor Institute, and helped organize women workers in Turkey and Indonesia. Throughout this time, she was traveling to Africa and Europe for seminars and conferences, working on events with the NAACP’s Task Force in Africa, and was active in numerous women’s and civil rights organizations like the National Organization of Women, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the National Council of Negro Women, and the Urban League.

By the time she retired in 1981, Kemp had received countless awards and recognitions, including an honorary doctorate from Brooklyn College, and, most fittingly of all, she lived to see the establishment of the Maida Springer Kemp Fund, which combats child labor in East Africa by creating economic and educational opportunity. Maida died in 2005 at the age of 84, and will forever be known for her dedication to a better future for those who had been denied justice for centuries. “I have an unending love affair with the American labor movement,” she once said. “To the degree that a government can be challenged and workers can have the right to help to determine their hours of work, conditions of employment, redress of their grievances, it’s the labor movement that made this contribution on behalf of the working class. I remain a member of that class without apology.”

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