Maida Springer Kemp

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Maida Springer Kemp
Maida Springer Kemp.jpg
Maida Stewart

(1910-05-12)May 12, 1910
DiedMarch 29, 2005(2005-03-29) (aged 94)
Other namesMaida Springer
EducationRuskin Labor College
OccupationLabor organizer
  • Owen Springer
    (m. 1927; div. 1955)
  • James Kemp
    (m. 1965; died 1983)

Maida Springer Kemp (1910–2005) was an American labor organizer who worked extensively in the garment industry for a lot of labor standards at the time for men and women in America through the Local Union 22. Also, her extensive work in Africa for the AFL–CIO. Nicknamed "Mama Maida", she advised fledgling labor unions, set up education and training programs, and liaised between American and African labor leaders. In 1945, traveling to England on a labor-exchange trip, as well as observing the conditions of war-torn Britain she would become one of the first African-American woman to represent US labor abroad. She was also active in the civil rights movement, and advocated for women's rights around the world. She was very active in these movements for most of her life.

Early life and career[edit]

She was born in Panama on May 12, 1910, to Harold and Adina Stewart. Her father, a Barbadian immigrant, worked on the Panama Canal project. [1]At the age of 7, she moved with her family to Harlem, where she attended St. Mark's Catholic School. Her parents divorced soon after the move, and she was raised by her politically active mother. The Stewarts' home was a gathering place for activists and members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), whose accounts of personal experiences with racism had a lasting influence on Maida. Henrietta Vinton Davis, a founding member of the UNIA, was an inspiration to Maida and a role model as a female activist.[2]

Maida and Owen Springer felt the hardships of the Great Depression. They had their son Eric Springer in 1929. Owen Springer's work as a dental tools technician was increasingly slow and his pay declined. Maida Springer then decided to start working and went to work in the garment factories.[3] In 1933, she met A. Philip Randolph, who became a lifelong friend and mentor. That same year she joined the Dressmakers' Union Local 22 of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU). Local 22's connections included Jay Lovestone. [4] Chris Zimmerman saw the importance of gaining favor with other groups of people. As the manager of Local 22, he helped Maida Springer rise within the organization.[5] The joint efforts of Maida Springer and newly elected union president David Dubinsky started a change that would shape the American work force into what it is today. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the National Industrial Recovery Act gave union sympathizers more room to grow and spread their message. The ILGWU struck in 1933 to demand better conditions and pay. David Dubinksy and company fought for a minimum wage as well as fixed hour work weeks. Union membership skyrocketed to almost 200,000 members by the end of 1934.[6]

Maida Springer through out her time since 1934-1942 was a tireless worker for the Local 22. She was involved not only in the executive and educational boards. Maida Springer was a shop representative and would meet with the factory bosses and settle on prices to make work fair among workers.[7] She took courses offered by the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the Wellesley College Institute for Social Progress, and the Hudson Shore Labor School.[8] In time she became an ILGWU shop representative, and eventually rose to the executive board and education committee.[9] In addition to labor issues, Local 22 took an active part in civil rights activities in the Harlem community.[10]

Over the next few years she became increasingly active in union activities in New York. She served as Education Director of Local 132 of the Plastic Button and Novelty Workers' Union from 1942 to 1945. In 1942 it was Maida Springer's first official assignment as the education director for Local 132. During World War II since most of the men had gone off to Europe to fight, positions in the shops had to be filled. Maida's task as education head had her create lesson plans informing new union members about what a union can offer as well as the goals set out for them as well. Maida Springer would run for the New York State Assembly on the American Labor Party ticket in 1942. From there she was appointed to the War Price and Rationing Board of the Office of Price Administration in 1944.

In 1945, she took on becoming a business agent for Local 22. Her work comprised of overseeing complaints as well as implementation.Also in that year Maida Springer would become the first African-American woman to represent US labor abroad when she traveled to England as an AFL delegate, on a trip sponsored by the United States Office of War Information, to study wartime working conditions in Great Britain.[11][12] Maida Springer would go on to experience first hand the actions and sacrifices made by Britain and Europe as a whole. From subway tunnels in London being refashioned into air-raid bunkers for the masses. Also, Maida Springer had met Anna Freud and her psychological work with children dealing with the shock from the constant bombing and worry.From 1948 to 1951 she served as business agent for Dressmakers' Union Local 22 of the ILGWU;[8] she was the first African-American business agent to represent a district.[11]

International work[edit]

In the 1950s she began working for the AFL as an advisor to newly founded labor unions in Tanzania, Kenya, and Ghana, where she came to be known as "Mama Maida".[9] In 1951, sponsored by the American Labor Education Service, she traveled to Sweden and Denmark to observe workers' education programs. She then took an eight-month hiatus from ILGWU to study at Ruskin Labor College, Oxford University, on an Urban League Fellowship. In 1955 she attended the first International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) conference in Accra, Ghana, as one of five observers, of which she was the only woman. In 1957 she played a key role in the founding of Solidarity House in Nairobi.Through her efforts she had brought together African traders and continued their education on understanding the inner workings of a union, as well as implementation. [8][13]

In 1959 she went to work for the AFL–CIO's Department of International Affairs as its representative to Africa. For the next several years she made her home alternately in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Nairobi (Kenya), and Brooklyn, New York. She started an exchange program for Africans to study at Harvard University, founded a trade school in Kenya whose mission included expanding opportunities for women, established a post-secondary scholarship for Tanzanian girls, and started the Maida Fund to enable farm workers in East Africa to return to school.[11] In the course of her work she befriended many of Africa's emerging leaders, including Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. Between 1957 and 1963, she attended the national independence ceremonies of Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Kenya.[8]

In 1964 she represented the US at the 48th session of the International Labour Organization conference in Geneva. In 1966 she resumed working as a general organizer for ILGWU. Later she worked for the A. Philip Randolph Institute.[8]

In the 1970s, as a consultant for the Asian-American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI), she worked with trade unions in Turkey, where she helped introduce women into the labor movement by establishing the Women's Bureau of TÜRK-İŞ. Initially her efforts were met with resistance by male union leaders who wanted women to participate in the organizing work, but had little interest in the concerns of women workers, such as equal pay, equal opportunity, and child care. She also worked in Indonesia to get more women involved in the labor movement.[14] She attended International Women's Year conferences in Mexico and Nairobi in 1975, and the Pan African Conference on the Role of Trade Union Women in 1977.[8]

Personal life[edit]

She married Owen Springer in the late 1920s, and had a son, Eric. The marriage ended in divorce. In 1965 she married James Kemp. Maida Springer was a persistent worker, as well as very involved in the labor movement. By the nature of her work she was rarely home and would put strains on her marriage with James Kemp. Both were committed individuals to civil rights and labor equality. [15] In the late 1970s she moved to Pittsburgh, where she lived the rest of her life. She died after a long illness on March 29, 2005, aged 94.[11]

Honors and awards[edit]

Kemp received many awards over the course of her 50-year career, including the National Council of Negro Women's Woman of the Year Award, a Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, the Bessie Abramowitz Hillman Award from the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the first annual Rosina Tucker Award from the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the Women's Rights Award from the American Federation of Teachers, and an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Brooklyn College, City University of New York.[16] The Maida Springer Kemp Fund, created in her honor by UNITE and the AFL–CIO, combats child labor in East Africa by sending children to school for technical training,[17] providing financial aid to women to start small businesses, and supporting needlework schools.[9]

She was a member of the National Council of Negro Women, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the African-American Free Labor Institute, the Asian-American Free Labor Institute, the National Organization for Women, and the Coalition of Labor Union Women.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ O’Farrell, Brigid (2006-01-07). "A Stitch in Time. The New Deal, The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, and Mrs. Roosevelt". Transatlantica. Revue d'études américaines. American Studies Journal (in French) (1). ISSN 1765-2766.
  2. ^ Richards, Yevette (2004). Maida Springer: Pan-Africanist and International Labor Leader. University of Pittsburgh. pp. 14–22. ISBN 9780822972631.
  3. ^ Johnson, Tawanda (1996-11-03). "College honors women pioneers of labor" (PDF). Post-Gazette. Retrieved 2019-10-22.
  4. ^ "Frontmatter", The Black Women Oral History Project, DE GRUYTER SAUR, 1991, doi:10.1515/, ISBN 9783110973914
  5. ^ Richards, Yevette. (2004). Conversations with Maida Springer : a personal history of labor, race, and international relations. University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 0822942313. OCLC 54460315.
  6. ^ "International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union", Wikipedia, 2019-08-13, retrieved 2019-10-22
  7. ^ "Collection: Papers of Maida Springer Kemp, 1942-1981 | HOLLIS for Archival Discovery". Retrieved 2019-10-22.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g "Kemp, Maida Springer. Papers of Maida Springer Kemp, 1942-1981: A Finding Aid". Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America.
  9. ^ a b c "Maida Springer-Kemp". The Pittsburgh Chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute.
  10. ^ Richards (2004), p. 50.
  11. ^ a b c d "Obituary: Maida Springer Kemp / Labor activist traveled worldwide". The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. March 31, 2005.
  12. ^ Richards (2004), p. 77.
  13. ^ "Springer Kemp, Maida (1910-2005) | Amistad Research Center". Retrieved 2019-10-04.
  14. ^ Richards (2004), p. 277.
  15. ^ Hill, Ruth Edmonds (2013-06-21). The Black Women Oral History Project. Cplt. Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 9783110973914.
  16. ^ Richards (2004), p. xvi.
  17. ^ Richards (2004), p. 284.

Further reading[edit]