Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 478

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 478


This is the grave of Sylvia Woods.

Sylvia Woods was born in 1909 and became a long-time radical, working within the United Auto Workers. It is difficult to piece together much of her day to day biography. But in the 1960s and 1970s, radical historians and journalists began chronicling the nation’s radical past, doing a lot of oral histories with aging radicals who had organized the nation between the 1910s and 1940s, before McCarthyism and the anti-communist backlash attempted to silence these voices. One was Woods. Alice and Staughton Lynd interviewed Woods for their collection Voices of a People’s History of the United States. Here’s a long excerpt:

I was born March 15, 1909. My father was a roofer. In those days they put slates on the roofs and he was a slater. It was a very skilled job. You had to nail the slate. They used to make a fancy diamond with different colors….

And he was a union man. There was a dual union—one for whites and one for blacks. He said we should have one big union but a white and a black is better than none. He was making big money—eight dollars a day. I used to brag that “My father makes eight dollars a day.” But he taught me that “You got to belong to the union, even if it’s a black union. If I wasn’t in the union I wouldn’t make eight dollars a day.” …

When i was maybe ten years old, i changed schools. On the way to school, i had to go through a park that was for white people only. We could walk through the park but we couldn’t stop at all, just pass through it. There were swings in this park and, oh, I so much wanted sometimes to just stop and swing a little while, but we couldn’t because we were black. I would walk through this park to my school where there weren’t any swings.

Every morning all the kids would line up according to classrooms and we would have prayers and sing the Star Spangled Banner and then we’d march to our respective groups after this business.

I decided I wasn’t going to sing the Star Spangled Banner. I just stood there every morning and I didn’t sing it. One morning, one of the teachers noticed that I wasn’t doing it. So she very quietly called me over and asked me why didn’t I sing the Star Spangled Banner. I said I just didn’t feel like singing it. So she said, “Well then you have to go in to the principal and explain that to him. All of the children in the school take part and you’ve got to do it too.” OK, I went in to the principal and he asked me why I wasn’t singing the Star Spangled Banner….

Finally I told him. “Because it says ‘The land of the free and the home of the brave’ and this is not the land of the free. I don’t know who’s brave but I’m not going to sing it any more.” Then he said, “Why you’ve been singing it all the time haven’t you? How come you want to stop now?” And I told him about coming through the park and if I could not swing in those swings in the park, and I couldn’t sit in the park, and I could only walk in Shakespeare Park, then it couldn’t be the land of the free. “Who’s free?” He didn’t say anything.

Then he said, “Well, you could pledge allegiance to your flag.” I said, “It’s not my flag. The flag is with freedom. If the land is free and the flag is mine, then how come I can’t do like the white kids?”….

[Later on] I [moved to Chicago and] got this job in a laundry. The first morning I went there, this guy asked me, “Did you ever work in a laundry before?” I said, “No.” He said, “Well there’s no point in your coming here because we only I hire people who know how to work in a laundry.” I said “OK” and I left. The next morning I went back because I didn’t know any place else to go. “Weren’t you here yesterday?” “Yes.” He said, “Well, I told you that we don’t hire people who don’t know how to work in a laundry.” I said, “Well, maybe you’ll need somebody one day. I’ll come back tomorrow.” So the next day I came back. When I walked in the door he said, “Come with me.” He took me upstairs and he said to the foreman, “Teach her how to shake out.”

You had to shake these clothes out and put them on long poles. You know how things look when they come out of a wringer. You had to shake them out so that they could run them through the mangle. Two girls put the things through the mangle. One girl did the sheets and the other did the small things like towels and pillow slips. I worked really hard. I kept those poles full. The women would say, “You mean you never worked before?” I’d say, “I never had a job before.” …

One day [a friend]… called me up at home. “Hurry up and come on over here. There’s a man here says he’ll hire you.” We always thought that this guy had some connection with the Communist Party. He hired everything black that came in. Martina went to him and she said, “I have a friend who wants to work in the factory and she’s been coming and coming and they never will hire her.” He said, “Tell her to come. I’ll hire her.” So he hired me. When I walked in the door of the plant I said, “I’m going to make you sorry for every day that I walked around to this shop hoping to get hired!”

I worked on the carburetors. I was on an assembly line that had two sides and a belt ran down the center and I was burring—taking all of the burrs off the carburetor. Right across from me was a young Polish woman named Eva. She was going to show me how to do it. We did about ten of them. Then I said, “You don’t have to help me any more.” She said, “Do you think that you can keep up with the line?” “I can keep up with the line.” So I did. Eva and I became real good friends because when she got stuck I would reach over and help her.

One night she said, “There’s a union meeting tonight. Will you go with me to the union meeting?” And I said, “Ahh, I’m tired.” She said, “Aw, come on and go.” She said, “I want to buy you a drink anyway,” because I had helped her. I said, “OK, you can buy me a drink but I don’t want to go to a union meeting.”

So we went to this tavern and then we started talking union. I got kind of high, you know, and “OK, we’ll go to the union meeting.”

This was United Automobile Workers. I was the only black there. All the stewards were coming in and saying how they couldn’t organize the workers: “I can’t get anybody to join”; “So-and-So said the union is no good….”

I said, “You know why you can’t get anybody to join? Because you don’t have anything to sell them. You aren’t selling them union. You’re letting them sell you non-union from what I hear you saying here. You’ll never get the workers to join the union if you let them tell you the union isn’t any good. I wouldn’t join a union that’s no good either.” A steward must sell the union, telling the workers how much strength they have when they are organized.

I looked at this guy who was the organizer and his face was just lighting up. “Union! What do you mean? I’ll bet you if I was the steward I could sign them up.” The next day I was elected steward of my department. Two nights later everybody in that department was signed up.
I only joined the union for what it could do for black people. I didn’t care anything about whites. I didn’t care if they lined them all up and shot them down— I wished they would! I had no knowledge of the unity of white and black. I had no knowledge that you can’t go any place alone. The only thing that I was interested in was what happened to black people….

Every night I would have departmental meetings. The women were coming off the night shirt at three o’clock in the morning. They didn’t have to go home, so this was some recreation for them. We’d have beer and sandwiches and coffee and cake or whatever. We’d sit there and eat and talk. People would voice their grievances about the shop, home, family or whatever. They’d love to come. Every night we met, department by department. This kept us organized.

We had good union meetings too. We would have speakers. Either I would speak or Mamie [Harris] would speak or we would invite a speaker to come in. We would talk about trade unionism. How were trade unions organized? What was the very beginning? How come they were organized? We would talk about the structure of the international union, how it was set up and how it worked and why it worked like it did, how the CIO was bom. We would have a question period where the workers could ask questions. We would discuss current events…. Two years after the plant closed up, we still had union meetings. We would have full crowds. We were fighting for [unemployment] compensation. We made ninety cents an hour and some, of course, made more. You would go to get your compensation and they’d offer you a job. You weren’t supposed to take a job that was less than the rate you had been getting. We would fight these cases. They would throw them out and we would go down to the arbitration board and fight the cases and win them. We could call a union meeting and bring in maybe 75 percent of our plant two years after it closed down. We had representation in the international because we still had the workers together.

The main thing that I would say is that you have to have faith in people. You know, I had very little faith in white people. I think that I had faith in black people. But you have to have faith in people, period. The whites, probably a lot of them feel towards blacks like I felt. But people, as a rule, come through.

You have to tell people things that they can see. Then they’ll say, “Oh, I never thought of that,” or “I have never seen it like that.” I have seen it done. Like Tennessee. He hated black people, A poor sharecropper who only came up here to earn enough money to go back and buy the land he had been raiting. After the plant closed he went back there with a different outlook on life. He danced with a black woman. He was elected steward and you just couldn’t say anything to a black person. So, I have seen people change. This is the faith you’ve got to have in people.
The big job is teaching them. And I was not patient. That is another thing, you must be patient. I just didn’t have any patience. If a worker did something, “To hell with you. You didn’t come to the last union meeting, so don’t tell me when you have a grievance. You just handle it the best way you can by yourself.” But you can’t do that. “You better go talk to Mamie Harris because I don’t talk to non-union people and folks who don’t come to .the union meeting. Don’t talk to me.” This I learned was wrong. You have to be patient with people. People have to learn and they can’t learn unless we give them a chance.

At some point, Woods became a member of the Communist Party and remained in that for the rest of her life. She got a job at Bendix Aviation in World War II, was a longtime local United Auto Workers activist there, holding many positions in her local. She headed the Chicago Committee to Free Angela Davis during the latter’s imprisonment in 1970. She also co-founded the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. Woods was never a big time office holder in the party, but was often a delegate to conventions and at the big events. More broadly, Woods was part of a long history of black women political radicals at the forefront of anti-racist organizing, for which this Kim Kelly article provides some useful context and mentions Woods briefly as well. Woods died in 1987.

Sylvia Woods is buried in Forest Home Cemetery, Forest Park, Illinois.

If you would like this series to visit other American radicals, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Saul Alinsky is in Chicago and Ella Baker is in Queens. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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