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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 in point.

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, Florida.

"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 Lumpkin clan.

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 agency."

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 facilities.

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 hired.

"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 plant.

"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, too.'"

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 it.

"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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