Black Women Workers
By Tim Wheeler, in People's Weekly World,
11 February 1995
CHICAGO -- A neglected chapter in Black history is the leading
role played by Black workers in organizing the unorganized and
at the same time advancing the cause of African American
freedom. Pat Ellis, a Communist trade union organizer, is a case
Ellis lives with her husband, Al, on Chicago's south side. Ellis'
brother is Frank Lumpkin, a retired steelworker and leader of
the Wisconsin Steel Save Our Jobs Committee who is also the
chair of the Communist Party of Illinois.
Pat Ellis was born Jonnie Lumpkin, one of 10 children, in
Washington, Ga. in the second decade of this century. Her parents
were Elmo and Hattie Lumpkin. They were determined to escape the
brutal exploitation of sharecropping and moved to Orlando,
"My father thought that with such a large family working in the
citrus groves, we could make a fair living," Ellis told me.
Nevertheless, it was a life of hard toil. Hattie was employed as
a household worker by the famous violinist, Jascha Heifetz, who
had a winter home in Orlando. Ellis remembers he put on a free
concert for the family every year.
But it was boxing that opened the way for the family's migration
north. Her older brother, Wade, worked for a white man with
ambitions of making a fortune as a fight promoter. He turned his
garage into a boxing arena and recruited the powerful young
Lumpkin men. "One night they had six bouts and a Lumpkin was
fighting in every one of them," Ellis said with a chuckle.
Wade Lumpkin's fighting career led ultimately to Buffalo, N.Y.
where he invited Hattie for a visit. "When my mother got there,
it was like heaven. It was what she always wanted," Ellis said.
When a younger son, Ozzie, working as a farmworker in the apple
orchards of upstate New York, arrived for a visit, Hattie told
him to stay in Buffalo. It was part of her plan to move the
entire family to the city on the shores of Lake Erie.
Within a few months, the family, including Jonnie, had settled in
Buffalo, just months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
They found a huge old house with four bedrooms downstairs and
more bedrooms upstairs -- large enough to accommodate the
It was here that Pat Ellis came of age politically. She went to a
private employment agency looking for a job. They sent her for
an interview as a domestic worker in the home of a young white
couple. The wife had just given birth to a baby. The husband was
an organizer for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
"They paid me $10 in advance and paid the employment agency the
$4 finder's fee," she said. "I came to the conclusion that these
people were nuts. They were paying me before I had done any work
and also paid the fee I was supposed to pay the employment
A few weeks later, she went to work for another young couple.
They, too, were part of the CIO organizing effort in Buffalo.
They started working on Ellis right away to recruit her to the
movement. They first suggested that she visit the headquarters
of the International Workers Order, a big three-story building
in Buffalo that had a bowling ally, meeting hall and other social
Within weeks, Ellis had been recruited into the newly-formed
Young Communist League (YCL) in Buffalo. The big issue was
mobilizing to demand the opening of the second front in Europe
to help the Soviet Union fight the Hitlerite invasion. Ellis
became the YCL press director responsible for getting out 50
copies each week of the YCL's newspaper, edited by Claudia Jones.
Ellis and a young Italian worker named Jimmy Passalia were
assigned to recruit new members with a prize for the most new
recruits -- a trip to New York City to attend a rally at Madison
Square Garden demanding the opening of the second front. "I
think I recruited 130 and he recruited 135 so both of us went to
New York," she said.
"To me, New York was the promised land. We went to Harlem. The
music came out of the walls and people swayed to the music as
they walked! I never saw anything like that. And when we got to
Madison Square Garden, thousands of people were there."
Not long after that, Ellis joined the Communist Party USA. She
went on to recruit nearly her entire family into the Party,
including her mother. "The only one I didn't recruit was Roy. He
was 10 years old. And William Z. Foster recruited him when he
visited us in Buffalo."
Within months of the outbreak of World War II, blue and white
posters sprouted up around Buffalo saying, "30,000 Women Needed
For the War Industry." In 1942, Ellis applied together with
eight white women at Bell Aircraft in Niagara. All of them were
"But the white women went to work on the production line and they
put me to work as a sweeper," Ellis recalled. The pretext was
that she was not qualified for production work. "But those white
women weren't any more qualified than I was. It was
discrimination plain and simple."
Soon, the United Auto Workers decided to organize the 7,000
workers in the huge plant. "They had classes set up to teach
people how to organize inside the plant. I joined the UAW-CIO
and right away they made me a shop steward," Ellis said.
"There were 123 Black workers in the plant. There were Italians
and Poles. My job was to sign up the Black workers and I did it.
I signed up all of them. I recruited 17 of them into the Party."
Ellis, who at that time was still called Jonnie Lumpkin, filed a
lawsuit against Bell Aircraft charging discrimination. The case
was referred to the newly established Fair Employment Practices
Commission headed by Leatha Clore.
"We had two segregated cafeterias in the plant, each of them big
enough to seat thousands of workers. The white workers were
crowded into theirs and the Blacks had so much room it was
ridiculous," Ellis said.
"I asked the white workers why they waited in line for most of
their lunch break just to avoid sitting down to lunch with their
Black brothers and sisters. We started the fight for equal
rights in jobs and job upgrading. We got the Urban League, the
YMCA, every group we could to send complaints to the Fair
Employment Practices Commission."
One day, Leatha Clore arrived at the plant for a four-day
inspection. There was a mass rally in Buffalo jointly addressed
by Leatha Clore and Claudia Jones. There was also a meeting at
"The owners denied there was any discrimination but Leatha Clore
asked them, 'Who is Jonnie Lumpkin? I want to hear what she has
to say." They called Ellis off the shop floor.
"I told them I had five brothers in the army and they never asked
them if they were qualified to shoot a gun so why were they
barring Black workers from production jobs? Clore told them she
agreed with me. She said they might not recognize it because she
was so light-skinned but she herself was Black! That very day
they upgraded 233 African Americans to production work. They
found jobs for us. They put me in the gun room."
Two white workers from Marietta, Ga. were assigned to train her
to open crates containing machine guns for the Bell Air Cobra, a
high speed fighter plane hundreds of which were shipped to the
Soviets for use on the eastern front. "My job was to de-grease,
disassemble and then reassemble these machine guns to be mounted
in the nose of the plane," she said.
The two white workers taunted her for weeks that in Marietta,
where Bell was planning to open another plant, a Black woman
would never get such a job. "I asked them why and one of them
said, 'Because since I was that high, I was taught people like
you ain't as good as me.' So I picked up a hammer and told him,
'Well, since I was that high, I was taught that ain't so!'"
A few weeks later, the two southerners were ordered back to
Georgia to help train workers at the Marietta plant. "One of
them came into the lunchroom where I was sitting and walked up
to me and put down two dozen roses. 'Jonnie,' he told me, 'You
are right. If we don't work together then we're going to starve,
Within months of the war's end, the women who flooded into the
war industry were terminated from their jobs. "it opened the way
for Taft-Hartley and all that other unionbusting," Ellis said.
In 1946, she married Al Ellis, a decorated war veteran who had
stormed the beaches of Normandy, fought in the Battle of the
Bulge and marched all the way to Berlin. He had been an Alabama
steelworker and a Westinghouse worker in Buffalo when she met
him. As the years of Cold War repression deepened, they went
underground. Jonnie Lumpkin became Pat Ellis.
They moved to New York where Pat became organizational secretary
of the Communist Party of Harlem. She remembers how staunch the
Harlem branch of the Party was in battling to save the CPUSA
when then-General Secretary Earl Browder attempted to dissolve
"At one big meeting in New York, I was giving a strong speech
against Browder and the crowd just went wild, applauding. I
thought I had really given a great speech." She chuckled. "Then
I turned around and there was William Z. Foster coming up behind
me and the crowd was cheering him!"
In 1955, Pat and Al Ellis moved to Chicago where they have lived
ever since, still immersed in the struggles of the people,
Black, Brown and white. "Pat and Al are the backbone of the
Communist Party in Illinois today," said Scott Marshall, CPUSA
Illinois State Organizer. "Pat's organizing skills in the Party
and her leadership in the Jobs and Equality campaign are critical
to our work. She has a great working class style -- and for a
Communist that's one of the best things you can say about them."
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