Work, Race, and Identity: Self-Representation in the Narratives of Black Packinghouse Workers

By Horowitz, Roger; Halpern, Rick | The Oral History Review, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Work, Race, and Identity: Self-Representation in the Narratives of Black Packinghouse Workers


Horowitz, Roger, Halpern, Rick, The Oral History Review


For much of the twentieth century, meatpacking was a crucial part of urban black life. In dozens of Midwestern cities, the packinghouses and stockyards offered thousands of African Americans precious industrial employment. The relatively high wages they earned provided a foundation for the communities in which they lived, underwriting vital structures, including businesses, churches, fraternal orders, and cultural institutions.

Black packinghouse workers were central to the formation of industrial unions in meatpacking, and this allowed them to do more than simply play a central role in their neighborhoods. Through the CIO's United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), they transformed the working conditions and living standards of all workers in the industry. The upward mobility imparted by the union's material successes in collective bargaining made black packinghouse workers part of America's blue-collar middle class. The UPWA also served as a vehicle for the advancement of the racial concerns of black packinghouse workers. To an extent unparalleled elsewhere, black packinghouse workers were able to use their union to combat racial discrimination as well as economic exploitation. In the postwar period, UPWA local unions forged dynamic alliances with the black community and spearheaded efforts to attack discrimination in housing and schools, protest police brutality, open up new avenues of black employment, and mobilize the black vote.

If the general contours of this history are now well-established, the subjective dimension of black packinghouse workers' experience remains an area ripe for exploration.(1) How has the generation of packinghouse workers that cut their teeth on the struggles of the 1930s and 1940s and came to maturity in the postwar period made sense of their lives? What can the narratives of these men and women tell us about the construction of identity and the vagaries of memory? The paper explores not only their experiences in the meatpacking industry and midwestern black communities in the mid-20th century but, more importantly, their understanding of their own lives and the meaning of their activism within the context of the black experience in America.

In this regard, the observations of Luisa Passerini with regard to memory, self-understanding, and representation are especially pertinent. Employing the term "composure" to describe the process of memory making, she draws attention to its two complementary meanings: "In one sense we compose or construct our memories using the public languages and meanings of our culture. In another sense we compose memories that help us to feel relatively comfortable with our lives and identities, that give us a feeling of composure."(2) By examining the life stories of two packinghouse workers--William Raspberry of Kansas City and Rowena Moore of Omaha--we want to suggest the ways in which important empirical information in the interviews is ordered within a highly subjective framework to produce meaning and to make sense of their lives.

But why William Raspberry and Rowena Moore? On one level, Raspberry and Moore are representative of a cohort of black men and women who, in the mid-20th century, saw packinghouse employment as central to the economic advancement of black America. Raspberry was one of many who were able to ride working-class jobs to middle-class status, individuals who were "the strength of the black community," to quote civil rights leader C.T. Vivian, people whose jobs provided both the income and the status to be leaders and role models in their communities.(3) One of the first of a sizeable cohort of black women hired during World War II, Moore likewise recognized the crucial importance of the meatpacking industry to African American opportunity, struggling to open up positions for women and improve their pay in the 1950s, even if the rewards she personally derived were fewer.

On a deeper level, the narratives of Raspberry and Moore speak to a complex mixture of identities as a man and a woman, respectively, as industrial workers, as unionists, and as black Americans. …

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