Interview with Olin Wilson: Charter Member, Steelworkers Organizing Committee, Bethlehem Steel Corp., Buffalo, New York

By McDonnell, James R. | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 31, 1997 | Go to article overview

Interview with Olin Wilson: Charter Member, Steelworkers Organizing Committee, Bethlehem Steel Corp., Buffalo, New York


McDonnell, James R., Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Interview With Olin Wilson: Charter Member, Steelworkers Organizing Committee,(1) Bethlehem Steel Corp., Buffalo, New York

I first saw Olin Wilson many years ago. I was probably about twelve years old. My father, like Mr. Wilson, was a charter member of the steelworkers local at Bethlehem Steel Corp., and had taken me one evening to a local union meeting. I saw Mr. Wilson sitting at the head table with the officers of the local. He was tall, very tall with a full head of white hair, and he spoke in a quiet but firm voice.

Later, I heard more about Olin Wilson. I learned that he was the chairman of the first public meeting held in Buffalo by the fledgling steelworkers union. This, of course, was a dangerous act; the back of the room where they held the meeting was filled with company spies and goons. The steel companies in Buffalo did not take kindly to the notion of their workers joining labor unions. Scores of firings, threats and beatings followed these public meetings. Olin Wilson knew the risks involved; he took them anyway.

Thirty years later while working on my doctoral dissertation, I contacted Olin Wilson and asked him for an interview. He consented. He insisted that our meeting should take place at the Steelworkers Union Hall in Lackawanna, New York. He said it would be done in tribute to all the men, including my father, who had worked to establish the United Steelworkers of America.

When the interview began I realized that Olin Wilson was much more than an excellent source about the Steelworkers Union at the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. When he told me where and when he had been born, I knew I was on to something significant. The son of a slave, raised in the reconstruction South, educated at a Booker T. Washington, mechanical/technical school, he migrated to the North during World War I, to stay, raise a family and become part of the postwar boom and the bust of the great Depression. I knew instantly that this man had a story to tell.

Later, I visited the Wilson home on Buffalo's east side. It was an upsetting experience. Mr. and Mrs. Wilson were in their eighties and in poor health. The house had no basement foundation, it reminded me of a summer cottage. It was winter time and the small rooms were heated by a kerosene space heater. Mr. Wilson told me that their doctors had recommended that each of them have more proteins. Mrs. Wilson told me that the doctors were correct, but proteins cost money and carbohydrates were cheat. I left that last meeting with Olin Wilson both sad and angry.

This man had spent his life struggling to overcome impossible odds. Along the way he raised a family, worked hard at his job, took leadership roles in his church, and the local Boy Scouts (he received the Scout's highest honor, the Silver Beaver), served on the Mayor's (Lackawanna, NY) Council for public housing, and, of course, his pioneering work with the United Steelworkers of America.

And now, at the end of his life, he and his wife lived in near poverty, sustained only by the support from the Social Security checks which came each month.

I was both angry and sad for this man whose life began in poverty and ended in poverty. He did more than anyone could ask of one man; his life was a series of brilliant accomplishments. The following transcribed interview with Olin Wilson speaks for itself. It is offered for its own value, but as well it is my attempt to honor a good man.

The following is an interview with Mr. Olin Wilson. The interviewer is James R. McDonnell.

INTERVIEWER: First of all, I'd like you to tell me about you as Olin Wilson. Start with your birth place and year.

MR. WILSON: I was born in Marlboro County in South Carolina just about one mile south of the North Carolina line along Route # 1 which is the number one highway. It was a little log cabin down in a marshy spot looking from the highway. My mother and father were tenants and, of course, they moved around quite a bit, to the extent that father wanted to go to his home birth place. …

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