Commentary Magazine


They Did It in St. Louis:
One Man Against Folklore

The city of St. Louis lies at the geographical center of the United States. It has a strain of French blood from the Louisiana adventurers who went north in search of river plantations. Many New Englanders abandoned their covered wagons there on the good hunch that the place had a future. The Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers keep the town refreshed with travelers and trade. It is the metropolis for Ozark Mountain people and prairie farmers. Every eighth person in St. Louis is a Negro. More than a million inhabitants are proud of the Cardinals. St. Louis is about as American as they come.

In more than a local sense the St. Louis area is a proving ground for race relations. On the border between North and South, it contains conflicting viewpoints on the status of its 125,000 Negroes as citizens and as workers. From the South it had adopted many customs toward Negroes. Unlike the Deep South, segregation here is challenged and, what is more, is considered debatable.

Important industrialists sit on the St. Louis Interracial Committee. One cogent reason is the fact that St. Louis industry is organized and the Negro is a factor in local trade unions. This impact of big industry on the race issue, coming at the crossroads of America, gives St. Louis country-wide significance.

Ten years ago the city’s industrialists fought to defeat the Wagner Act and remain open shop. The local Brown Shoe Company case was one of those in which the Supreme Court in April 1937 decreed that labor’s right to organize should be protected by government. St. Louis bucked and reared, then settled down to discover a way of life under organized industry. Today the “capitalist stooges” and the “red agitators” know each other and deal their cards on the top of the table. Not always amicably, yet the open skirmishes are accepted as preferable to the old back alley battles.

The agrarian Deep South was not much affected by the Supreme Court’s upholding of the right to bargain collectively. But the new industrialized South is bound to be, and the shadow of things to come lies athwart St. Louis.

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World War II greatly speeded up the processes of inevitable change. The government’s aim was to place all available workers in war plants at their highest skills, Negroes included. St. Louis did rather better than the national average. At peak employment more than 10 per cent of the city’s war workers were Negroes. There were, however, crucial and unresolved problems. One was the introduction of skilled Negroes on white worker production lines. The other was the employment in war plants of Negro women.

A 1944 incident at the St. Louis plant of the General Cable Company involved both of these delicate points. The unexpected climax of a racial crisis at that plant may have been a wartime phenomenon, or perhaps it was a forerunner of the future. To understand it either way some preliminary stages must be traveled.

At the St. Louis railway station one day in 1944 an elderly citizen offered to share a taxi with me. On our way through a slum district my companion volunteered: “This is where we keep our niggers.”

That was one St. Louis viewpoint.

My destination was dinner with a score of war contractors whose hard-headed dealings with Negro workers had advanced them beyond the point of supposing that any group can be kept herded or coralled. These men were making shells, small arms ammunition, gun mounts. They feared disturbances at their plants if Negroes were placed alongside white workers. At the same time they were obligated by their contracts not to turn away needed and available Negro applicants. They had invited two members of the Fair Employment Practice Committee, Miss Sara Southall and myself, to spend the evening talking it out with them.

This was a realistic problem of war production. Here were its elements: The drive to turn out the weapons was at top urgency. Manpower was short. The largest untapped reservoir of workers was among the Negroes, particularly Negro women. The Negroes could be usefully placed in plants, this group admitted, were it not for the fear that the white workers would lay down their tools. Ozark country girls would never work side by side with Negro girls. You can’t change folklore. The government, under the circumstances, should not press the point.

Miss Southall and I stated the FEPC position: Experience had shown the white threat to strike to be an easily called bluff. War necessity demanded that it be called. In earlier cases, the introduction of a first few skilled Negroes, with the ground carefully prepared for it, had torn away that veil of strangeness behind which prejudice breeds. Once they came to know each other, tension between the races relaxed. There were at this time 3,000 Negroes helping turn out planes for Lockheed, whereas there would have been none had the company not overcome its original fears and taken the first step.

Three parties were involved, we said—the employer, the workers, the government. Granted, there was a serious risk if government alone was in favor of taking the step. But if two stuck together—the employer and government, or the union and government—the third reluctant party invariably went along. The more such willingness was bold, the less the risk.

Our hosts remained unconvinced. Top union officials, they admitted, were generally in favor of admitting Negroes, but it was doubtful if they could control their rank and file.

Race problems are not settled over hotel fried chicken and peas. Some of the industrialists at that dinner subsequently worked out their problems, including in one important plant the peaceful introduction of Negro workers into an all-white building. But none that I know of seriously tackled the toughest question of all—the employment of white and Negro girls at the same benches. This remained for a man who thought it out for himself. He was Dwight R. G. Palmer, President of the General Cable Company. On his own initiative and single-handed, he took an ugly racial situation by the back of the neck and shook some sense into it.

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General Cable during the war employed 20,000 workers in eight plants, all in the North except the borderline one at St. Louis. Palmer was born in St. Louis and is well known there as a local boy who made good in the hierarchy of American industry. He is a personable, well-dressed man in his late 50′s, member of many clubs and bearing no visible marks of whatever moved him to shock St. Louis by a forthright insistence on the right of Negro women to work side by side with white women.

I never heard of Dwight Palmer until his name was mentioned in my office by a couple of generals who had come to discuss the problem at his St. Louis plant. I do not mean to toss in lightly the fact that two generals of the United States Army considered it worth while to call on FEPC in this matter. One general at a time, or even one admiral and convoy of gold braid, was not unprecedented. But a two-general call meant a first-class crisis.

They were there to suggest that all parties move with extreme caution in the General Cable case. Already one work-stoppage had occurred when the company attempted to place Negro women on the line with white women. The communications wire being turned out by the company was in critical demand. Soldiers in advanced positions depended on these thin metal life lines to headquarters. Wire was as essential as bullets. Production at General Cable must not be interrupted by a racial strike. One would surely happen if another attempt were made to up-grade Negro girls. . . .

FEPC had its own information on the case. Reports from St. Louis said this: Negro men were on the company’s production lines without causing any racial tension. The company was willing, even eager, to tap the reservoir of unemployed Negro women in St. Louis. This was the period when personnel officers were told to “hire ‘em if the body is still warm.” The union, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, AFL, was agreeable that Negro women be hired. The only holdouts were the white women machine-workers, supported by a few of the men.

Some departments of the plant were almost exclusively in women’s hands. It was they who had balked when the company had tried to fill vacancies on the benches with Negro women workers. They won that round. After a half-hour stoppage the plant manager gave in. A new tack was agreed upon. An educational program would be launched to make these Arkansas and Missouri farm girls, most of them in a city for the first time, learn to cope with the problem of working with people outside their own group. Presumably, the girls in time would make confession of their intolerance and would welcome colored co-workers in the name of democracy and the war effort.

The Army assigned an officer to effect this miracle of education.

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Education is a slow process. No transformation of the Ozark Mountains girls was apparent. Meanwhile, the war need for workers could not wait.

The Army liaison officer in the plant threw up the sponge. When pressed, he had stated that Washington headquarters felt no obligation to compel enforcement of the executive order against discrimination, and that it would observe a hands-off policy rather than risk a production stoppage.

Whether or not he had correctly quoted his superiors in Washington, those gentlemen—now arrived under their own steam in the Washington FEPC office—were on a spot. They could not renounce the obligation to uphold the executive order. It was the President’s order. The Secretary of War respected it. At the same time they intended that nothing should stop the reels of wire rolling off the General Cable loading platforms.

There was one loophole. One could respect the executive order and at the same time be cautious in the manner of upholding it. And that was what they wanted to see me about. . . .

It appeared that the president of General Cable, one Dwight Palmer, had recently been at the Pentagon Building discussing with them the race trouble at his St. Louis plant. What worried the generals was this—the impetuous Palmer had threatened to take matters into his own hands and personally see to it that Negro girls were put on the machinery, white girl opposition or not. Just as sure as shootin’, the moment he tried that, all hell would break loose. The education of the girls had not gone far enough. Something must be done to dissuade Palmer.

The generals, however, were too late. The day before, Palmer had flown to St. Louis and was even now talking to the white girls of the first shift.

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From here on the story is Palmer’s. Neither the Army nor FEPC took the risk at General Cable. He did. When he arrived at the plant he found a colonel, a major, and a captain gathered there with long faces. Don’t go in there, this GHQ of the local race problem advised Palmer. The girls had sassed the plant manager in language no lady ought to know. Physical violence might be done the company’s president. . . .

In order to show how he had handled it, for better or for worse, Palmer took a public stenographer in with him. To her notes, and to Palmer’s kindness in letting me have them, I am indebted for a verbatim report of his talk to the rebellious white girls on the first shift he tackled.

Anyone who has had an impromptu speech taken down knows the horrors of grammar and syntax that show up in the transcript. The following excerpts from Palmer’s remarks are without any benefit of editorial polishing.

“I left New York yesterday afternoon in the middle of church service [it was Easter] in order to get a plane,” he began. .“I am going to address my remarks mostly to you girls. . . .

“When the General and I were here, two or three months ago, the General spoke of his ambitions to get out more wire. Since that time, the total has gone up wonderfully and the job you’ve done is just swell. This month is the best we have had. . . .The way I look on this wire situation is this: Wire is not made up of just copper and steel and Buna S Cotton, waxes and so forth, but it is made up of ourselves. You can read all you want about blood plasma and see the job that it does keeping people alive and bringing them back to life. I think that wire is the ‘blood plasma’ of the Army. . . . We in the Company have worked on this wire, on these ‘arteries’ of communication where men’s lives are either lost or saved by the accuracy of the messages and the instructions that reach them, so I say that in producing this wire all of you are doing something that is of equal importance and necessity with blood plasma and the Red Cross activities. There isn’t any need for us to take a back seat in that respect at all.

“Now, what we are here for is to talk a little about you getting management’s idea of what this colored situation is all about. Whether you are an Italian, or whether you are Irish, or whether you are English, or whether you are Lithuanian, or Chinese, or whether you are colored, or brown or yellow, pink or blue, means nothing to me. . . .We have got people overseas as nurses and as soldiers who are all shades and all colors. We have got the African tribes; we have got the Chinese; everybody, everybody that is a human being that believes in the right things is battling on our side of the street. . . . Now, as you look down through the years you not only see, as in this war, Negro soldiers and nurses giving of themselves to humanity, but many Negroes that have contributed to the elevation, the advancement not just of the Negro race, but of the human race. . . .

“I have known many white people that in the language of men we would call a so-and-so. In the language of girls we would call them something else. But nevertheless, we have known people who have fallen down hopelessly on character and ability, and you end up by judging people by what they are, not by what shade they are, what color. . . .

“I was born here in St. Louis. My father practiced law here for fifty years. . . .Now I cannot tell you myself, offhand, how many different strains of blood or races or something may be mixed up in me, or in our manager here. Our forefathers moved away from the old countries of Europe to get away from class restrictions and class hatreds and class antagonisms. . . .This movement of the so-called Negro situation is only the first step on the frontier of general race discrimination-the thing that gets nations at each other’s throats, the thing that causes us to go into battle. . . .It is brought about through little things, through the sharp edges, through the things that rub you and me the wrong way. The feelings of the people get aroused and they rebel or fight or permit themselves to be led into a fight. People may be Lithuanian or Slav or Russian or American or English or Jew or Gentile or Italian or Irish or Protestant or Episcopalian or Catholic or something else, they progress if they stand together; but a country divided amongst itself is bound to fall. . . .My belief is that the wars of the future will come closer to being prevented by a better understanding and a better knowledge of what people think, of what they stand for, and by better and closer contact and a spirit of live and let live. . . .It’s what is inside of us—how we feel-how we think.

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“I am no better than anybody else. I don’t know any creed or any color that I feel superior to. . . .We don’t need to say we are better. We can kid other people, but we cannot kid ourselves. Accomplishments in this life are what you are. . . .All of you here have much to be proud of. . . .You have done much in the war effort. . . .Our conscience and our character is strong enough so that we don’t have to point the finger of scorn at somebody, and my feeling is that if this Easter period and this war mean anything, then let’s realize that what we are fighting for is the very thing that is right up under our nose at the present time-tolerance. And so I say, what this country needs is more black faces on the production front and fewer white crosses on the battle fronts.

“An inferiority complex is usually built of something that people are not proud of. You and I are in a different position. . . .There isn’t a plant in the company that has done any better. Your figure of last month is bigger than any other plant in the country, and the Signal Corps has patted all of us on the back. . . .You and I don’t need any petty things, any little things to elevate us. . . .

“Our ancestors left the countries overseas to come here and practice equality and live on merit, and live in democracy and in freedom and to get away from all of the crotchety stuff that they had over there, social classes and everything else. . . .

“I am so constituted that I must understand a problem and believe in it to make it work. Maybe you are that way. My belief is, that whatever there is to this Easter spirit and whatever there is to the spirit that is American. . . . that the big job we have got on our hands, you and I, is to be able to get along with people.

“I have a boy over in Italy, my only son. . . . [Here Palmer told of an occasion when his son brought home a group of soldier friends of mixed races.] They meant America to me, and the situation here of the colored is on a par with that experience.”

Girl In Audience: “I have a letter which is a soldier’s version of just what happened here the other day.”

palmer: “Give it to me.”

Girl: “There are quite a few cuss words in it.”

Palmer: “I drove an ox team in a lumber camp; if there is anything new, I would be glad to get in on it. . . .How old is this fellow?”

Girl: “He is twenty-four.” Palmer: “Well, we will now hear from this young man: ‘I think about the Negro deal at the company while in the Army. We have to mix with a lot of different races and people, even live with them. Yet they raise hell back there if they have to work with a Negro, but yet they will work right beside a damn German POW. If they are as short of help as they say they are back there, I don’t think anybody back there is too goddamn good to work beside a Negro. Them boys don’t like to get blowed all to hell with a machine gun, a hand grenade, or some other damn thing, but they have got to and no damn questions asked. . . .’

“That is the general version of what they think. They think that any such discrimination is letting them down. . . .These boys are coming home. . . .We want to feel that no private itch of ours, no crackpot idea of ours, is going to be imposed upon the future of these men overseas. . . .Anything that we can do to contribute to an improvement of human relations is going to go a long way towards breaking up all this war spirit. . . .We asked you to come in here before you went on your shift. I just ask you to give new weight to what I have had to say.

“This afternoon we will get a few of these nice colored girls and infiltrate them into the department and you all will show by your spirit and your character if you have something on the ball, that you can work with them. Ours is a policy of live and let live, and, totally aside from that, my job is to see that the company lives up to all the regulations, presidential orders and all the other things. I am a good enough American, and I know all of you are, to get behind this thing to the extent that it won’t be an issue in the future. . . .I just wanted to tell you what our plan is and have a chance to visit with you. Thank you very much.”

This speech did it. Dwight Palmer repeated it with variations for the next two shifts. Negro girls were at hand each time to fill vacant benches. The white girls accepted them, and not only for the time when the words of their persuasive chief were still ringing in their ears. A bridge had been thrown across an ancient gulf from whose opposite sides the isolated groups had jeered at each other. Once acquainted, it was impossible to be violently antagonistic. In time it became possible to be friendly.

The generals in the Pentagon Building sighed with relief. So did FEPC.

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FEPC closed down for lack of funds on May 3, 1946. The agency’s last few months were spent in trying to discover what was happening to minority group workers during the change-over from war to peacetime production. Reports from all parts of the country indicated that Negro and Mexican-American war workers were being discharged and down-graded at a much faster rate than other workers.

This was to be expected from the normal application of seniority rules to employment cutbacks. Negro women had entered war service last of all the groups and, having acquired the least seniority, were the first to be dropped. There was nothing obviously wrong with that process. The seniority rules were merely protecting the older workers as intended. If there was an unfairness, it sprang from the original refusal to hire Negro women until the bottom of the war man power barrel had been scraped for all other workers.

It was difficult for FEPC to get statistics from the country at large on the fate of minorities during reconversion. The cutbacks were happening too quickly. The Bureau of the Census, however, agreed to make a survey of one industrial section, and St. Louis was selected as a border city between North and South and hence as typical as one city can be.

The survey showed that Negro war workers were indeed losing jobs and skilled ratings at a pace which would soon put most of them back to the menial jobs and low wages from which they had risen. Seniority explained some of the down-grading, but far from all of it.

One bright spot in FEPC’s final glance at the job it was relinquishing was the fact that those employers who had accepted and up-graded Negroes freely during the War were generally inclined to continue the policy.

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A month ago—two years after Dwight Palmer had persuaded the white girls from the Ozark hills to work side by side with Negro girls—I asked him to check on the St. Louis plant of General Cable to discover whether the plant’s war record had been a flash in the pan or whether the employment of Negroes at various skills had carried over into peacetime. He did this at once. I have the plant report before me.

The cord assembly department, where women’s deft fingers were so useful during the War, has been shut down. The women workers were laid off according to the plant-wide seniority clause in the union agreement. Only those women with some years of seniority survived in the other departments. No Negro woman worker had sufficient seniority to remain.

Among male workers in the plant, the number of Negroes is today 16 per cent of the total, whereas during the war Negro workers, both men and women, comprised only 11 per cent at their peak employment. The detailed breakdown by departments shows Negro men working at every job classification along with white men. One Negro foreman has ten white people in his crew. Says the plant report:

There is absolutely no segregation of Negroes and whites. All share alike locker and washroom facilities. . . .In one particular department employing both Negro and white, the two highest paying jobs are held by Negro men. In another department, where a high degree of skill is required to operate a machine, Negro men have proved to be very successful. In no manner are Negroes relegated to only menial jobs in this plant; many have proved their ability and have advanced through the ranks to top jobs. We find that their attendance records are excellent. They are willing and steady workers and have never asked for special privileges or special consideration because of their color. We find that white and colored workers are very congenial; in fact, no thought is ever given towards a Negro being a Negro.

In addition to requesting this report on the racial situation at the St. Louis plant, I asked Dwight Palmer how he himself felt about continuing peacetime efforts to give Negroes equal job opportunities. His reply was not unlike his speech to the Ozark girls, a dash of philosophy, a searching for a pat simile, a lot of common sense. I think it appropriate for him to wind up this story, and I trust he won’t mind my disclosure of views expressed privately which he has illustrated so clearly in public action. . . .

“. . . .A problem such as this exists all the time, and therefore all the time is the right time to take action. It is more a question of the type of action. . . . action that is concerted, slow, sure, intelligent, reasonable, unemotional, and courageous from the standpoint of being willing to wait for results; if you will, action that is unfiery and persistent. . . .

“A peacetime FEPC, which would provide a central point through which America’s hope of democracy might be upheld, is of course extremely desirable. . . .

“Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the human mind is such a fragile and hungry thing that in the majority of cases, like the Venus’-flytrap plant, it clutches to itself whatever food it feels necessary to nurture its delicate state, and, having once grasped an idea, it is also very lazily reluctant to let it go, regardless of its real value. Changes are difficult to make and are slow in taking hold. Regardless of how wrong a man may be or how well he may understand his shortcomings, the force of habit, the difficulty of forming new associations and new ideas, the tendency to keep one’s mind comfortable—all these are the obstacles which must be surmounted before a change can be made. Multiplying one man’s difficulties by the number of people in the United States makes it seem that change is impossible, but to recognize the necessary slowness of progress and to be willing to view the matter optimistically—provided, of course, that optimism is backed up by persistent burrowing—is really more than half the battle. . . .”

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The Federal Government no longer is officially concerned with urging labor and industry to permit the workers of minority groups to fill jobs by merit and not according to color or religion. The responsibility—until we get a new FEPC, and after—now falls on the two other parties to wartime racial disputes, industry and the trade unions. In their hands lies the choice whether the inevitable attempt to organize Negro as well as white workers, both North and South, will be a source of racial friction or a quiet job of recognizing worker ability no matter in what color skin it is wrapped.

The war, at least, taught us that it can be done.

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