Myra Page: Daughter of the South, Worker for Change

Myra Page: Daughter of the South, Worker for Change

By Mary Frederickson

Vol. 5, No. 1, 1983, pp. 10-12, 14-15

On a summer evening this past August, Myra Page sat surrounded by books, papers and manuscripts in her home of thirty-nine years in Yonkers, New York, telling the tale of her most recent demonstration. Her lively eyes belied the eighty-two years that her face and hands proclaimed. A week before, she had joined a group of thirty peace activists, mostly women, as they faced fifty uniformed American Legionnaires in front of Yonker’s World War I memorial.

The men insisted it was “sacriligious” for the demonstrators to gather at the memorial that steamy Sunday morning on the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. Tension mounted as members of both groups exchanged comments about nuclear weapons. Several legionnaires proudly recalled where they had been when the bombs exploded in 1946; some argued that their lives had been saved, others that it hastened the end of the war.

As Page stood near the commander of the group, he whispered that he didn’t want another war either, that he didn’t want his grandson to have to fight.

The legionnaires moved into formation three deep around the war memorial. The protesters took positions across the street. As Page crossed over with her comrades, the Commander spoke to her again. This time loudly. “Don’t worry lady, there’ll never be another war!”

In reporting this event, as she had the many demonstrations and protests in which she participated during six decades of work for labor, civil rights and human

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rights causes, Myra Page focused on the personal, highlighting the irony of a Legion commander disclosing private feelings about war to a peace activist. This personal perspective has been at the core of Page’s work, as a reformer and labor organizer in the 1920’s, as a reporter for the labor press in the 1930’s, and then as a writer of fiction. Her dual objectives have been to relate social conditions on a human scale and to place personal struggle within a framework of broader issues.

Sustained throughout a lifetime, Myra Page’s belief in the priority of human rights developed during her childhood in Virginia. Myra, born Dorothy Page Gary, and her younger brother learned their first lesson in Southern racial mores one summer on their grandfather’s farm in the Shenandoah Valley. Abruptly, they were forbidden to play together with a black friend. Told that the child would lose his job on the farm if they disobeyed, Myra and her brother wept with a “great unnamed misery.” She wrote later that “something big and ugly had descended upon us. Something which awoke in me a vast incoherent questioning and hate.”

Page’s father, the town physician in Newport News, Virginia, was a humanitarian who served as a volunteer on the staff of the local black hospital, and treated black and white, rich and poor in an era when a family doctor was “almost like a preacher.” Although opposed to his eldest daughter becoming a doctor, Page’s father took for granted that his four children, male and female, would go to college. He had seen enough destitute widows to want his three daughters to have the means to make their own living.

Page’s mother did not openly oppose the status quo. Regarding race, she “accepted the traditional pattern in the South,” while confiding to her children that she “thought it was a big mistake.” Page saw her mother and three aunts as leading limited lives marked by ignored talents and suppressed sadness. She felt that she “couldn’t follow the path that any one of them was following.” For her, “the woman question, without being very concrete, developed very early.” Pressured by her mother to conform to a preconceived pattern of “the way life should be,” Page rebelled against the traditional belief that daughters “owed everything to the family.”

Page lived in a home filled with “endless books” and with parents who argued about George Bernard Shawl As a child accompanying her father on rounds to see his patients, Page saw “both sides of town, and all that went on.” Like Mick Kelley in Carson McCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Page roamed the town, went to the waterfront piers, met children from the nearby Irish shantytown, and watched the dockers load ships. In the years before World War I, Newport News was a bustling town dominated by the noise of a shipyard filled with crews which built ships twenty-four hours a day. As Page grew older she heard news stories of lynchings and rumors about the Klan. But she also attended the meetings of an integrated community group, the Newport News Joint Committee, established to deal with public works and educational facilities. Sitting separately, on opposite sides of the aisle, the black and white group worked to obtain sewers and a high school for the black section of town. In addition, black longshoremen in Newport News formed a union during this period, and then helped organize their white counterparts. Although in separate locals, the two groups worked together-and added a different chapter to the long history of craft unionism in the shipyard. Page’s father supported organized labor, many of his patients were union members, and with them he viewed labor’s platform as one antidote to the high rate of industrial accidents that plagued workers in Newport News.

Page grew close to Belle Franklin, the black woman who worked in her parent’s home; they sang hymns and folk songs in the kitchen and shared Myra’s school lessons. Myra was repeatedly told, by Belle, to be glad she wasn’t “born colored.” Their bond deepened when Myra discovered that her ambition to become a doctor was thwarted because she was born female. The black woman understood, when other adults did not, about “the injustices and the yearning for things you could not have.” Myra began to rebel against “this bad Southern tradition of women.”

When Page left home to attend Westhampton College in Richmond, she carried with her a complex legacy inherited from a society permeated by racial segregation, divided by fixed class lines, and steeped in a tradition of inflexible gender roles. At Westhampton, in the supportive atmosphere of a woman’s college, she found allies in her search for new ideas and ways to change Southern society. On Friday afternoons at tea in a liberal professor’s apartment, Page and a few close friends read The Nation and The New Republic, periodicals not allowed in the college library. “We were pacifists,” Page recalled over sixty years later, “and very much against the idea of going into the First World War.”

A small group of students, including Page, became active in the YWCA in order to give substance to New Testament concepts of brotherhood and peace. Page remembers:

It was in college that we first got a chance to know black students, girls mainly, at the summer YWCA conferences. Up there in the beautiful rarefied air of Blue Ridge, North Carolina, you know, so many things seemed possible. At Blue Ridge we were able to be friends, to ignore color lines and to have discussions.

Following one of the YWCA conferences, Page and a close friend decided to invite a black YWCA secretary they had met at Blue Ridge to speak at Westhampton. Over the opposition of “ill-prepared” classmates who “went by us in the hall as if we had some disease that was catching,” Page and her small group of friends organized and attended the first integrated meeting on their campus in 1917.

Through interracial work in the YWCA, by teaching music to young industrial workers in a Richmond settlement house, and by working with women at the state reform school, Page met people from many backgrounds during her years in Richmond. Gradually, she began to evaluate the regional effects of racism and industrialization, and to question her own place and function in the society which surrounded her. A dozen years went by, however, before Page wrote about the chaingangs she had

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seen as a student in Richmond (The Nation, 1931) and about her experiences with the forbidden black playmate, with Belle Franklin, and in the YWCA (The Crisis, 1931).

* * *

Page began to write about the South only after she left the region, a process which occurred in stages, over a period of several years. Her first step out of Virginia was to attend graduate school at Columbia University in New York City. Page studied sociology with Franklin Henry Giddings and anthropology with Franz Boas, sat in on John Dewey’s classes and attended lectures by Harry F. Ward and Harry Emerson Fosdick: “it was like a whole world opening up.”

In the North, Page continued to be plagued by questions about race. In her university dormitory the young black woman who cleaned the rooms talked with the students about literature, and offered to loan one of Page’s roommates her set of Victor Hugo’s writings. The students discovered that the woman had graduated from college with honors, but could not get a job, except cleaning floors.

A year later, convinced that “the future of the country would lie with the workers getting organized and making good sensible reform,” Page joined the YWCA Industrial Department. As part of what she viewed as “a real movement of women for democracy,” Page agreed to return home to work with women factory operatives. Still close to her family, Page wanted to return South, and the YWCA’s goals of interracial harmony and industrial reform meshed with her own agenda for social change in the region. Page came back to Virginia in 1920, “with a little sociology theory and Christian philosophy,” to a job as YWCA Industrial Secretary in Norfolk.

In this non-union town, Page began to organize groups of women workers and to plan educational programs designed to prepare them for union membership. There were problems from the beginning. Page had to seek permission from management to meet with workers during their lunch hour, and then enter factories to face women who were convinced that she represented the company. In addition, several YWCA board members from the business community accused Page of “talking unionism” and stressed that they would not continue to finance that kind of socialism through the YWCA. Progressives within the YWCA counseled Page to proceed gradually, to have patience and look ahead, but to Page, “suddenly the whole thing was a farce.” She wrote later:

We had been trained to believe that social relations would right themselves through Peace and Persuasion, through changing hearts one by one. Finally, for me there was no going on. The theory simply did not work. The system was stronger than individuals, and the solution depended on changing the system itself.

Page resigned from the YWCA in 1921. Feeling that little social change could be accomplished in the South, she decided to leave. Despite close family ties and over her parents’ objections, Page was determined “to break away” from a region totally dominated by a rigid system of caste and class.

Page left Norfolk for Philadelphia and St. Louis and~ worked as a wage-earner in department stores and factories. In Philadelphia she clerked at Wannamaker’s until the management discovered she had a college degree and suspected she might be an organizer. A stint in the hat trade, where organized male workers opposed the entry of women into the union, taught Page about occupational segregation by gender and demonstrated the consequences for the labor movement.

After several attempts to get work in the clothing trade, Page went to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America’s Philadelphia office. There she met Hilda Shapiro, a staunchly feminist clothing worker from the New York’s East Side. Page and Shapiro worked together for the next four years as rank and file organizers for the Amalgamated. The two women organized picket lines and entered open shop factories to get the workers to come out. In one shop Page remembered being “scared to death” when the boss came at them with a hot iron. Page found the whole set-up “like a jungle.”

But the “vicious” experiences she had in unorganized shops contrasted sharply with her work-life in union factories. For Page, the union shops were havens in which men and women of different nationalities and races could work together. She saw herself participating in “one great movement” of workers, and the answers she had been seeking in Norfolk began to appear. Through the labor movement, Page saw the goal of interracial industrial unionism, what she described later as “a freedom to be fought for and won, black and white alike,” as an attainable end.

After four years in Philadelphia and St. Louis, Page left the shops to return to school and train as a teacher in workers’ education. At the University of Minnesota, Page obtained a doctorate in sociology, taught a course in social movements, joined the teacher’s union, and became active in the Twin Cities labor movement. Appointed head of the Education Committee of the Minnesota State Federation of Labor, Page organized speakers and classes for union locals throughout the state.

As she taught the history of women in the trade union movement to women in St. Paul, spoke at cooperatives, and interviewed miners in the Iron Range, Page thought about her first organizing experiences in Norfolk. Soon, she formulated a plan to write about textile workers in the South. To document the “traditional Southern attitudes” she saw as hampering union organization, Page lived for several months in a mill community outside Columbia, South Carolina.

Two books resulted from Page’s PhD research on Southern Textiles. The first, Southern Cotton Mills and Labor (1929) appeared immediately after a wave of textile strikes had spread across the Piedmont. The second work, Page’s first novel, entitled Gathering Storm (1932) was a fictional account of the Gastonia Strike of 1929. In both manuscripts, she provided an analysis of textile workers which transcended traditional

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accounts. Page argued that although the culture of Southern textile workers (unlike that of miners) did not foster collective organization, neither did it preclude intense class consciousness and overt expressions of discontent. Taking the long view of textile unionism, she wrote:

Ever since the textile industry has been well established in the south, there have been intermittent union campaigns there. Usually these organizing efforts have been initiated by spontaneous strike movements among southern textile workers, with a national union then coming into’ the field. In consequence, union efforts have often been rather sporadic and poorly organized. Also company opposition has been ruthless. Nevertheless, in nearly one half of a century of struggles, this section of the American working class has shown itself capable of courage, sacrifice, leadership and endurance that speaks well for the determination of southern mill hands to conquer all difficulties and build their union movement.

Page held two basic criteria as crucial for the labor movement in the South: First, it was essential to “organize black and white workers on an equal footing in industrial unions and unite them in struggles for full economic, political and social rights.” Second, Page contended that only a “system of collective ownership and operation of mills” would provide the fundamental reorganization required to provide workers with a decent standard of living.

Page criticized AFL organizing efforts in Southern textiles, arguing that the United Textile Workers (UTW) repeatedly entered local strike situations too late and then withdrew active support prematurely. Moreover, Page continued, the UTW either ignored black workers entirely or segregated them into separate locals.

In 1929 Page felt that the momentum for major change had begun and that “nothing can stop the revolt of Dixie mill hands. now under way.” But the early 1930’s proved to be difficult years for organizing and for the realization of interracial unionism. Nonetheless, as she met with interracial groups of union men and women she argued that as Southerners “learned through their industrial struggles the common economic lot of white and black wage-earners, and the necessity of common action,” they would be freed of racial prejudices.

During the 1930’s Page’s work as a reporter for the labor press took her into Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas. But it was in Alabama that she began to see the promise of what the union organization of agricultural workers, miners and industrial workers could mean.

Page came to Alabama several times in the early 1930’s at the request of union men and women in “this land of steel, coal and cotton.” She traveled by train into a rural Alabama county to meet with members of the sharecropper’s union and there found “brave people who were taking so much into their stride.” Page had great confidence in this predominantly black group of men and women who were fighting to obtain basic control of their worklives in a county where they comprised eighty-five percent of the population. In Birmingham, Page met with miners, one-third of whom were out of work, who had “downed tools” and demanded the right to bargain collectively and to obtain equal rights for black and white miners on the job and in the union.

In 1932, Page wrote phrases which echo fifty years later:

The big steel mills of Morgan’s T.C.I. and Mellon’s Republic Steel Corporations which belch their crimson tongues of smoke and flame against the night, today are running around forty percent capacity. Nearly one-third of Alabama’s coal miners are without work. In Birmingham, unemployed are estimated at forty-five to fifty thousand, affecting one out of every three households.

As Page left Birmingham to return to her home in the Northeast, she predicted that “the outbreaks and struggles against Morgan and banking and landlord rule will become increasingly more violent and sweeping in character.” Threatened strikes among miners and steelworkers meant to Page that “the working masses in this steel and coal stronghold of the South are in motion, and as Birmingham goes, so goes the South.” The organizing activity of workers in Birmingham confirmed Page’s belief in interracial industrial unionism, and offered the promise of a time when the South “will be freed of its shadows; when its toiling people will march shoulder to shoulder, beyond the color line.”

The optimism of Page’s rhetoric in the early 1930’s reflected her belief that out of the ferment of the Great Depression “big changes were going to take place . . . that the working people were really going to get more control of their lives, and there would be much more democracy in the country.” Page recalls that in the 1930’s, “I could see that change was coming,” and in Birmingham and other parts of the South that vision was palpable. But there were also unrealized, perhaps unrealistic, dreams: the belief that black Southerners would demand and be given distinct regions, or a separate nation; that the violence against Morgan in Southern steel areas like Birmingham would spread to workers in other Southern industries, and that the Southern working-class would oust the economic imperialists who controlled the region’s natural and industrial resources; also unrealized was her firm hope that the organization of Southern workers was inevitable, and once accomplished would be the key to labor’s strength nationwide.

“We were young, enthusiastic, and thought things were going to happen faster,” Page remembers. Today Page remains hopeful–“that one of these days we will get a working-class party” in the United States; that racism

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will diminish as the South and the nation become thoroughly integrated; that the United States has learned and will never forget the hard lesson of Vietnam; that the “creativity and determination of the American people” will allow us to solve our problems.

During the late 1930’s Page took up her pen more frequently and struggled with questions about the South in her writing. As a member of the League of American Writers she was asked to come to Highlander Folk School in 1938 and 1939 to teach classes and workshops. While at Highlander, Page visited miners’ families in the Tennessee mountains. Later she met Dolly Hawkins Cooper, the woman whose story she tells in Daughter of the Hills (1978, first published in 1950 by Citadel Press as With Sun In Their Blood). Page’s friendship with Hawkins grew out of an intense admiration for the strength of the women whose fathers, husband’ end sons mined coal, and an appreciation of “a woman’s part in the coal miner’s struggle.”

During these years Page continued to report for the labor press and to write radio play scripts and short stories to supplement her income. She had married John Markey, a fellow graduate student from Minnesota and then college professor, and they had had a daughter and a son. Page still felt “a certain pull, a certain allegiance to the South.” But family visits to Virginia in the 1930’s were “painful,” and Page’s rejection of the social and political status quo was manifest in her unwillingness to rear her children in the South.

In the post-war period, Page traveled South each summer and, again at Highlander Folk School, shared in the expansion and development of the civil rights movement. “We had crucial sessions at Highlander,” Page recalls. “The Southern people working in the field were leading . . . I took a little part, but not very much, because I wasn’t living and working then in the South.” But it was the movement for which Page had worked since before World War I.

As Page participated in civil rights work in the 1950’s and 1960’s, she noticed many Southern white women who “connected with the movement.” To her, “it was noticeable that so many came north and worked.” Page argues that these were Southern women who saw parallels between their own limitations and lack of freedom and that of black people. She believes that many of these white women, as she had done in 1920, felt a special kinship to the black quest for civil rights and as a result either “they got out from down there, or if they did stay in the South, they worked with the movement.”

As the progressive gains of the 1960’s became apparent within the South, Page shifted her attention to include an even wider range of issues: expanding civil rights efforts, anti-war work against Vietnam, a growing woman’s movement, environmental concerns, and support for the United Mine Workers of America (to Page “the enduring backbone of the American labor movement”).

In June of 1980, Page returned to Newport News, Virginia, the town she had left sixty years earlier. Three months before her visit, the community’s 16,500 shipyard workers had won their first United Steel Workers of America (USWA) contract with Tenneco. Members of the union had invited Page to come South. She met with many of the shipyard workers (black and white, male and female) who had fought for three years and endured an eleven week strike to win company recognition of Local 8888 (see Southern Changes, June 1979). The union’s contract with substantial wage increases, a grievance procedure, a health and safety committee and better medical benefits and pensions, signaled to Page that “In Tidewater and the South, a new day has begun” (see Mountain Life and Work, November 1980). The union’s victory affirmed many of the principles that Page had believed in and fought for since she left Virginia to join the labor movement in 1920 (see Southern Exposure, Winter 1981).

Over the years Page had seen many of her political dreams and social ideals flounder; early textile organizing efforts in the South faltered, the dream of a worker controlled society has not been fulfilled, a classless social system has yet to be established. On the other hand, the civil rights movement transformed American society, and the women’s movement has realized many changes for which Page worked. The union victory in Newport News was both a substantive and symbolic triumph. Organization of the shipyard workers was a goal that Page had sought for years, and it validated her theory, considered too radical in the 1920’s and 1930’s, that Southern workers could organize effectively only when black and white joined forces. Symbolically, the victory held a special personal significance for Myra Page–Dorothy Markey–because it meant that in a sense she had been able to come full circle, and to come home.

Formerly a research fellow at the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, Mary Frederickson is now assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. This article copyright, 1988, by Mary Frederickson.