Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

"I Had Gone in There Thinking I Was Going to Be a Cultural Worker": Richard Durham, Oscar Brown, Jr. and the United Packinghouse Workers Association in Chicago

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

"I Had Gone in There Thinking I Was Going to Be a Cultural Worker": Richard Durham, Oscar Brown, Jr. and the United Packinghouse Workers Association in Chicago

Article excerpt

JAZZ MUSICIAN, ENTERTAINER AND RADICAL POLITICAL ACTIVIST, Oscar Brown, Jr. fondly recalled his work with the United Packinghouse Workers Association (UPWA) during the 1950s. "I had been very excited about these activities," said Brown in a 1975 interview. "I had gone in there thinking I was going to be a cultural worker, I was going to go in there and write plays and put on shows, and take the labor movement into my path and, of course, I just got absorbed into the labor movements path and learned a lot."1 From the beginning of 1953 through 1957, and only four years before he starred in "Kicks & Co" on Broadway, Brown worked as a program coordinator for the unions Chicago-based District 1.2 Brown's work with the UPWA symbolically marked the apex of a significantly longer period of educational, cultural, and community growth among UPWA locals in the city of Chicago and its surrounding metropolitan areas. The UPWA's District 1 had long been recognized as a leader within a wider union that was considered among the most activist-oriented in the country on issues of civil rights and anti-discrimination and in fostering democratic structures among its rank-and-file workers.3 But as Brown's narrative indicates, there were limits to the reach of these policies as the 1950s proceeded.4 In a more recent recollection that appears in an autobiographical film about his life Brown reflected positively on his brief UPWA experiences.5

Such reflections were complex. On the one hand, Brown had to think about the fact that the UPWA ultimately fired him along with former Chicago Defender writer and "transplanted Mississippian" Richard Durham who he worked closely with in their brief tenure with the union over the mid-1950s. Durham got his start writing for radio with the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s, was mentored by editor Metz Lochard with The Chicago Defender during the 1940s, and even worked for a couple years as a local NBC radio show producer writing innovative radio dramas for a local affiliate. He later recruited Brown to the union in the early 1950s. Together, Brown and Durham became pivotal figures in the union's program department and anti-discrimination (A/D) campaigns operated out of Chicago through the mid-1950s and helped form a black caucus movement within the union-that eventually helped get African American UPWA Wilson Plant leader (and future U.S. congressman) Charles Hayes elected director of the local District 1 of the union.6 Brown recalled how through his UPWA work, he "learned the politics of organization." Indeed, his experiences with the UPWA "helped" him "to grow" as a person and "formed the basis" for what he did later on in his life as an activist and cultural worker.7

Brown's focus on culture, organizational, and educational experiences as the basis for his later work with the African American liberation struggles of the 1960s is revealing. It shows how expansive left-leaning AfricanAmerican engagements within the industrial union movement continued through the repressive Cold War moments of the mid-twentieth century just as struggles for civil rights reemerged nationally. For a brief period through the late 1940s and early to mid-1950s, cultural workers such as Brown, the son of a Southside lawyer and civic leader (Oscar S. Brown, Sr.) co-existed with a multiracial cohort of rank-and-file unionists in the UPWA's District 1 who were committed to localized forms of both civil rights and cultural activism. Collectively, these visions of union activism aspired for progressive social changes in the broader community and nation.

As this article will demonstrate, Brown and Richard Durham sought openings and opportunities to advance their cultural and political work through the union in ways that did not always sit well with lifelong staffers in the union or its rank-and-file. These staffers were mostly white, especially outside of Chicago. As black Communists in the 1950s whose views veered towards a left-wing black nationalism, Brown's and Durham's work increasingly ran against the grain of a broader U. …

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