By Cheryl Ross
There was still that dull pain in his right foot, but as Frank Lumpkin overhauled machinery back on March 28, 1980, he was feeling good. He'd just reached 30 years and one week at the Wisconsin Steel mill at 106th and Torrence, and now it owed him his pension and full medical benefits for life. Massaging his machines, oil and grime pushing under the nails of his eight remaining fingers, he imagined retirement and, finally, a trip to Africa.
After his shift he dropped by the mill's union office to ask about a medical compensation claim--several months earlier a half-ton bar of steel had slammed into his foot when a cable broke. Someone in the office passed on a rumor, something about the steel mill closing, and a funny feeling rose in Lumpkin's gut. At home that night he got the call. It was the foreman telling him not to come back in--the plant was history. He'd earned his pension, so Lumpkin was one of the lucky ones. Or so it seemed.
What he and some 3,000 other workers discovered was that their last paychecks were no good, their benefits were gone, their pensions would not be honored. To top it off, their in-house union did not intend to fight these wrongs. So Lumpkin, an ardent communist and former professional boxer of 63, called a meeting in his basement, and there a group of laid-off steelworkers organized the Save Our Jobs Committee to fight the company.
The fight lasted nearly 17 years. Two years into it, Beatrice Lumpkin recognized that her husband and his cause were becoming an epic chapter of American labor history. Beatrice, a history major back in the 1930s, decided to keep track of the twists and turns. She began recording interviews with workers, collecting newspaper articles, taking notes. She kept up her notebook through 1996--through marches, court showdowns, broken marriages, suicides, early deaths, and deep despair, as the steelworkers slowly got their hands on some $19 million that was due them.
The trouble is, the plant had shorted them millions more.
Beatrice Lumpkin intended to turn her materials over to a professional writer. The book she hoped to commission would flesh out the one-dimensional picture of Frank Lumpkin that so many people held. One reporter, the Tribune's R.C. Longworth, had anointed her husband "close to a saint." But he was no saint to her. He was "a pretty good man"--a man prepared by his life to be equal to the occasion. She wanted to tell the story of that life, following it all the way back to his birth and even before.
The rape of a teenage slave by a Washington, Georgia, plantation owner early in the Civil War produced the first Frank Lumpkin. Callaway--the plantation owner--forced the young woman to marry another slave named Si. When the war ended and slavery was abolished, Si refused to take Callaway's last name as his own. He chose Lumpkin, the name of another Georgia town.
Coming of age, Frank Lumpkin told Callaway, his biological father, that he fancied a Cherokee named Betty who worked on the plantation. She already had a husband, not to mention four children, but, as the story goes, he soon died mysteriously. Lumpkin married the grieving widow and Callaway gave him 400 acres. Frank and Betty would have four children of their own, one of whom they'd name Elmo.
During these years, there was a girl in Georgia named Hattie Martin whose father and mother worked as chauffeur and cook for a white woman. Martin's mother, Ma Bess, was a firebrand and refused to live in the woman's house. The woman asked why, and Ma Bess said, "Because I don't believe that black people should live in white people's houses. That's like slavery."
Hattie Martin caught the eye of Elmo Lumpkin, and by 1911 they were married and living as sharecroppers on his father's land. Their little shack quickly filled with children; one of them, a son born in 1916, became the second Frank Lumpkin. There was always food on the table, though not always enough to go around. But misfortune is relative. Around this time, Elmo Lumpkin's half brother Will was demanding that the white plantation owner he worked for pay him his fair share of the cotton crop. Elmo discovered Will's body dangling from a tree.
The Lumpkins' finances collapsed in 1922. Their dog caught rabies and infected the family's few farm animals, which were then destroyed. The boll weevil decimated their cotton crop. Hattie Martin Lumpkin and her six children moved in with Ma Bess, while Elmo Lumpkin hitched up a mule and wagon and headed to Florida. For several months he picked oranges and slept in a cardboard box, saving money. When he finally sent for his family, the Lumpkins moved into a shack provided by the owner of an orange grove.
Hattie Lumpkin helped support the family by running a laundry service, relying on her children to fetch and deliver the clothes of her white customers. She also cooked for a wealthy white family. In off-hours she showed her children, who would eventually number ten, something of the world beyond the orange groves. She led trips to rivers and bridges and into town.
The children's segregated school kept hours that accommodated the picking. Frank and his brothers left class to pick alongside their father. Even with all these hands helping out, there wasn't enough money for clothes. Each son had one set of overalls; Frank and one of his brothers shared a shirt.
When Frank was 13, a friend dared him to grab a power line. He'd seen birds sit on the line then fly away, but the jolt seared off two fingers. Fortunately, he could go on picking with eight. When he was 15, Frank quit school to pick full-time. He spent the extra money on clothes for himself, but wound up sharing them with his brothers anyway.
As a teenager, Frank got his first taste of labor activism. One of the pickers told the owner of the grove that they expected to make six cents for every box of oranges. The owner held the line at five cents and the pickers walked off the job. An hour later, far up the road, they heard the owner's voice ring out from a truck. He'd agreed to pay six cents.
When he wasn't picking, Frank was boxing. He became good enough to fight professionally, earning the moniker "KO Lumpkin" and beating one boxer, Johnny Paycheck, who lasted two rounds against Joe Louis. But boxing didn't pay Frank enough to get him out of the groves, or allow him to pass up jobs as a chauffeur and butler. It made him no less black. When he fought in Atlanta he slept in the car while his white manager stayed in a motel. The manager brought a blanket out during the night and the motel charged him for it, claiming that it would have to be burned.
But much worse was happening around him. Family history has it that Frank's brother-in-law Taft Rollins, returning from leave during World War II, stepped off a bus at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and was set upon by white soldiers. When they'd finished, there was a gaping hole in the top of his head. His body was shipped in a coffin back to his wife, Bay, in Orlando. Bay asked the army authorities what had happened to her husband, and was told that it was none of her business.
"They said, 'We're sending the body to Mrs. Rollins with instructions to tell her she cannot open the casket,'" recalls Bay's sister Jonnie. "I said, 'Why not?' I opened the casket. When I went around to see the other side of the casket you could see there was no crown in his head. They said he was too outspoken or something." Stunned, Jonnie made sure the casket stayed open during the funeral, army orders be damned.
A brother of Frank's found higher wages in Buffalo, New York, in the early 1940s, and the other Lumpkins followed. Frank, by now married to a drugstore clerk from Orlando, settled for a job paying $9 a week at a five-and-dime; places requiring skilled workers balked at his missing fingers. When he located construction work at $30 a week he had to go to Niagara Falls for a union card because the Buffalo local wouldn't give him one. Frank helped build an aircraft plant, then got a job there as a janitor. Soon he was working for Bethlehem Steel as a chipper, someone who chips the defects from the metal. Meanwhile, his sister Jonnie hired on as a janitor at the same aircraft plant. The only jobs open to African-Americans there were janitorial.
Jonnie had kept house and baby-sat for a couple who opened her eyes to communism, and by now she was a leader of Buffalo's Young Communist League. Detesting the plant's hiring practices, she helped create a coalition of organizations that forced it to open its production jobs to all its workers. Jonnie was a proselytizer, and she began at home. She converted most of her immediate family, Frank included, to communism. He accepted what she was preaching--that wealth should be shared by all people, not hoarded by a few.
In 1943 he joined the merchant marines and, soon after, the racially integrated National Maritime Union (NMU), which the communists had a big hand in running. The NMU joined with seven other maritime unions in striking for more pay and a shorter workweek. Throughout the strike, Frank heard Jonnie's credo--wealth for all, not for the few--ringing in his ears. As the years went by, this credo shaped his life.
All this, and much, much more, was the story Frank Lumpkin's wife wanted to tell.
In 1996 Beatrice Lumpkin pitched her book proposal to several writers, but no one would commit to it. She didn't have forever to find an author; her husband and his family and the veterans of Wisconsin Steel weren't getting any younger, and at 77 neither was she. Though Beatrice was a former technical writer (she'd also created multicultural lesson plans for Chicago's public schools and written two Afrocentric children's math books), she didn't feel qualified to do the book she envisioned. Finally she decided that if she didn't, no one would.
The book became the focus of her life. In 1998, after two years on the project, she had a manuscript of almost 300 pages in what she believed was close to publishable form. She sent it to a journalist who was a family friend and asked him to recommend publishers. Instead, he returned the text with edits and a suggested reorganization. Six months later Beatrice sent a revised manuscript to university presses in the states where her husband had lived--Georgia, Florida, New York, Indiana, and Illinois. They all rejected it. It required more work; it was unsuited to the publishers' needs; it was not "objective."
In July 1998 she sent the manuscript to International Publishers, a prominent Marxist press in New York. The company soon responded, telling Beatrice Lumpkin that her book was being edited but making no promise of publication. Months went by and Beatrice teetered; she was tempted to wash her hands of publishing houses and try to raise enough money to print the book herself. Fewer people would read a self-published book, but at least it would exist as a reference. Then last summer International Publishers announced that the book was on its way to the printer. Always Bring a Crowd! The Story of Frank Lumpkin, Steelworker finally came out last October.
The 241 pages of Always Bring a Crowd! weave together narratives of the American labor movement, the Wisconsin Steel struggle, and the Lumpkins' family history; but something important was left out of the book--the story of Beatrice Lumpkin. She says she simply wasn't skilled enough to handle another story line, but she had a second reason to stay on the sidelines. "There are some people who said to me that I was really masterminding the Save Our Jobs Committee movement, not Frank," recalls Beatrice, who's white. She says this idea was ridiculous but unsurprising. "Whenever I mention this, I always get knowing nods from other African-American leaders."
In the 19th century the Jews of the Russian empire were restricted by government decree to an area known as the Pale of Settlement. In this world, specifically in the Jewish ghetto of the city of Bobruysk in Belorussia, lived young Avrom Hirschenhorn. He belonged to the revolutionary wing of the Jewish Labor Bund, a socialist organization fighting for Russian democracy and an end to discrimination against the Jews. In 1905 the Bund joined in a general uprising. Avrom and his comrades were meeting at a local synagogue when the tsar's cavalry stormed the building. Shots rang through the air. Avrom reached for his weapon and fired at the men on horseback until a hoof smashed into his mouth.
The authorities might have executed Avrom, but instead they beat him for information. When he wasn't being beaten he was allowed visitors. One was Ruhde Chernin, a Bund comrade who had carried ammunition in the struggle. They talked about Avrom's trips to the dentist--the authorities were marching him there under guard while the village watched. One day Ruhde showed up with a cake she'd baked. Inside he discovered a note with instructions. On his next trip to the dentist he should ask to use the outhouse in back. He would find that the wooden slats on the far side of the outhouse had been loosened and that slats on the fence abutting it were also movable. On the other side of the fence his comrades would be waiting. And so they were. They gave him a passport bearing a new name, Morris Shapiro, and a steerage ticket to America.
Avrom's first stop was Ellis Island. Then like so many other Russian Jews, he moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He found garment-factory work for long hours and low pay and a room in a crowded cold-water flat. The bonds of culture sustained him, but what really kept him going was the thought of Ruhde. When she arrived in 1906 they quickly married. Ruhde also found work in the garment industry; she operated a high-speed sewing machine at Greenwich Village's Triangle Shirtwaist factory, where hundreds of women worked, most of them young Jewish immigrants like herself. In March of 1911, when she was pregnant and on leave, a fire broke out on the factory's eighth floor. A locked door to the stairs could not be forced open, a fire escape collapsed, and firemen's ladders reached only to the sixth floor. In less than 15 minutes 146 were dead, many of them having leaped from upper-story windows. The families of 23 victims sued, and the owners of the factory eventually paid them damages of $75 apiece.
After their son Max was born, the Shapiros opened a laundry in the Bronx. Ruhde washed and ironed clothes and stretched curtains; Avrom delivered the laundered goods. In 1918 they had a second child, Beatrice, and she was followed by another son in 1922. The parents slept in the bedroom of their tenement apartment, the children in the living room. Mice and roaches scurried along the floor, and to escape the bedbugs in her mattress little Beatrice often slept on kitchen chairs placed end to end. The Shapiros took their children to New York's free museums and the zoo. Though they weren't activists, they kept a stack of communist newspapers around, and once Beatrice learned to read she enjoyed thumbing through them.
The Great Depression wiped out the laundry and forced the Shapiros on relief. One winter Beatrice went without a coat; she dealt with the cold by running to wherever she needed to go. By 1933 her father had suffered a stroke and her mother had been diagnosed with cancer; both were being treated without charge at a city hospital, but their oldest children had no choice but to find work. The temp jobs that Beatrice's brother Max was able to find didn't earn enough money to make a difference to the family, and when a good job driving a truck came along it just as quickly disappeared. "We don't hire any Hebrews," said the boss.
In the summer of 1933, when Beatrice was 14, she lied about her age and got a job assembling radio tube sockets. She made 15 cents an hour, enough to help her family a little and still buy herself a pair of shoes. She attended James Monroe High School. Most of its students were Eastern European Jews, but some were African-American or Irish. She made friends in these other ethnic groups when she joined the National Student and Young Communist leagues, which were dedicated to supporting the unions and fighting war, fascism, and racism. At 16 she entered Hunter College, a free city school for women. Each day she arrived in the same shirt and skirt.
Beatrice majored in history and her passion was politics. In the spring of 1935 she helped lead a student strike to protest American militarism. Hunter officials suspended her from school. Two years later they sent her home again, this time for helping organize an antifascist student conference. Throughout these years she was also working. She restocked books in the college library and one summer bused trays at a cafeteria. She recalls being a "pretty good student" but doesn't like to discuss grades, which she believes pit students against each other.
Ruhde died in 1937, at the age of 49, and Avrom moved into a furnished room. Beatrice, whose brothers had already left home, took an apartment with two other college students near Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan, the first home in her life outside the Bronx. In tribute to her mother, she took off a semester to help the Committee for Industrial Organizations (CIO) unionize Bronx laundry workers.
After graduating she headed for Brooklyn in 1939 and found work for 35 cents an hour sorting clothes, working a mangle, and folding shirts at a laundry. "Many Hunter graduates went to work at Macy's, but I didn't have the clothes for that," she says. There was another reason. "When I did the organizing I got to like the people who worked in the laundries, and I was interested in the success of the laundry workers union." She became a leader of Local 328. She lived in a family's rented room and casually dated an African-American communist, enduring the hard looks of strangers. When her boyfriend joined the army they lost touch.
In the early 40s, other jobs followed the laundry in quick succession. She operated a drill press and a milling machine in Queens. She made a dollar an hour at Emerson Radio in Manhattan. In 1942, itching to see more of the world, she moved to Buffalo and a dollar-an-hour job checking electronics test equipment for Sylvania Radio. Her first week in the city, Beatrice headed for the Communist Party headquarters. What she found out was that the real heart of the party wasn't the downtown office but the 11-room home of the Lumpkins, an African-American family from the south.
"There was an excitement there about the political work they were doing, and the fight for equality and labor issues and to win the war against fascism," Beatrice says. "It wasn't as though this was something people took for granted. It was exciting, important, urgent." She struck up a friendship with Hattie Lumpkin, who at the time was chairman of a local branch of the Communist Party, and her daughter Jonnie. She joined them in knocking on doors to campaign against fascism and racism.
She'd begun dating a coworker, and six months after they met she agreed to marry him. "He was a very nice person and we were both lonely," she recalls. She and Rod Mohrherr, her new German-American husband, moved into a one-bedroom apartment above a grocery store in an Italian neighborhood. In 1944 she had her first child, Carl, and resigned from the Sylvania plant. A couple of years later she had a second child, Jeanleah. Tending to her children, she participated less in Communist Party activities, and she discovered that children alone weren't enough either to consume her energies or to sustain her marriage. She wanted to be out fighting for political causes; her husband preferred listening to music and fiddling with electronics. In 1946 she asked him for a divorce.
She found a job at Western Electric insulating wire for $30 a week and one of the few remaining day care centers of the many set up during the war to accommodate a nation of Rosie the Riveters. Nights the Communist party was active she got a baby-sitter. Some nights party members knocked on doors and preached to neighbors on issues like rent control and the atom bomb. Other times they joined picket lines. In 1948 they campaigned for Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party candidate for president. At a Buffalo fund-raiser for Wallace, Beatrice Mohrherr met Hattie Lumpkin's son Frank, who'd been sailing the seas with the merchant marines but had finally come home.
At 31, Frank Lumpkin returned to Buffalo alone. While he was at sea, his wife, Loraine, had moved to New York City and intended to stay there. Frank began meeting the activists who gathered at his family's home, and Beatrice Mohrherr was one of the regulars, but neither can remember running into the other under the Lumpkin roof. "It was a large house," she says. "I will have to admit that the 1948 campaign is my first clear, or definite, encounter with Frank."
He was tall and dark. Not particularly handsome, thought Beatrice, but she enjoyed their conversation at the fund-raiser. She told him that she believed all people needed to work together for human rights. Frank liked what she was saying. He also thought she was pretty.
Days later, Frank was still thinking about her. But his interest in Beatrice warred in his mind with the legacy of his upbringing. "When I was in Florida and Georgia, we stayed on our own side of the fence," he says. "There was no way I could say hello to anyone like Bea. On the groves all of you worked together, black and white, but when you got through work you went home and they went home." Lumpkin surprised himself when he called her for a date. She surprised him by accepting.
Why not? she figured. He picked her up in his old Plymouth and they crossed the Niagara River to Grand Island and took a long walk under the stars. He regaled her with stories of the merchant marines. She talked about her political philosophy. He realized that the more he saw of her fighting spirit the better he liked it. He caressed her cheek and said, "There are so many beautiful faces." She heard this as his poetic way of saying she was beautiful inside and out.
She had never thought she looked pretty. She was smitten.
They dated mostly in the African-American part of town, where they were less likely to be stared at or viewed as asking for a fight. They went to restaurants and took long walks. They went downtown to foreign films and Frank didn't let on how much they bored him--he liked westerns. Even in his neighborhood they got funny looks and racial slurs. Beatrice couldn't have cared less, but they made Frank uncomfortable.
By the summer of 1949 he knew that he was going to marry her. This hadn't been an easy decision. "You don't just grow up in one thing and jump to the other," he says. Religion didn't stand in the way--they both considered themselves humanists. "Jonnie always used to say God is love, and that's a good enough definition for me," Beatrice says today. And neither did family. Beatrice's father and brothers liked Frank, though she had to assure them she was strong enough to stand up to racism. His family welcomed the marriage; Jonnie was excited to have her friend become a sister-in-law.
Frank's indecision wasn't the only thing standing in the way of marriage. Several Communist Party members--among them Beatrice, Frank, and Jonnie--showed up on the waterfront one August day to protest a policy that prevented African-American men without dates from boarding the cruise boat Canadiana. Police manhandled a demonstrator, Lumpkin stepped in, and for his troubles he was cracked on the head with a billy club and arrested. His father put up the deed to the house to raise money for bond.
Support poured in. The Buffalo American Labor Party condemned the police, and 50 clergymen called on the prosecutor to drop the charges. A civil rights lawyer took the case pro bono. Though an African-American was assigned to prosecute Lumpkin, an all-white jury acquitted him.
With the trial behind them, Beatrice and Frank decided to move to Chicago and marry once they were settled. They'd heard that Chicago offered more work at better pay than Buffalo. They had no idea how much more intolerant Chicago would turn out to be.
Frank waited in Buffalo, where he had a job in a steel mill, while Beatrice searched Chicago for an apartment. Her children were vacationing with their father's relatives in Montana. She visited friends living in a block of white, African-American, and Japanese-American families on South Lake Park Avenue in Oakland. The friends' own building didn't rent to African-Americans; but they were leaving, and they suggested Beatrice and Frank move in as guests and then take over the apartment. They figured the landlord would let Frank stay if he was already there.
Beatrice set up residence and began typing for a local sales catalog. Frank drove his Plymouth to Chicago. He had never actually divorced Loraine, but within the past year she'd died--all he will say about her is "She was a beautiful woman." Frank married Beatrice in the County Building on October 22, 1949. As active members of Chicago's Communist Party, they had front-row seats to the city's racial turmoil. Beatrice remembers a mob lighting fires outside the Englewood home of a union organizer. His crime? He'd allowed African-American as well as white union members to meet at his house. Another time the Lumpkins and other activists bought tickets to a Bridgeport movie theater. As they watched the show, a white mob numbering about 500 formed outside the theater. Police escorted the group out the back and into a police car. These experiences shocked the Lumpkins. "I didn't expect Chicago to be different from Buffalo or New York in that respect," Beatrice recalls. "Buffalo had plenty of discrimination, but it wasn't as extensive."
The employment market turned out to be tight and discriminatory--a far cry from what Frank had been led to expect. As he searched for work, his wife was fired from the catalog job, hired onto an electronics assembly line, and fired from that job because she was pregnant. When Paul Lumpkin was born in 1950 they were both jobless.
But in March Frank finally found work. He began as a chipper at Wisconsin Steel, and soon after joined a campaign to bring a "real" union to the mill. It failed, and he wound up in the mill's own Progressive Steelworkers Union, which had no connection to the United Steelworkers of America, or the AFL-CIO.
Beatrice's oldest child, Carl, was struggling at Doolittle Elementary. When Beatrice went in for a conference, the teacher said with tears in her eyes that she was swamped; she had too many students in an overcrowded classroom with too few resources. Beatrice complained to school administrators about these conditions, and they told her she could transfer her children--Jeanleah also attended Doolittle--to another school. But Beatrice and her children were white--African-Americans protesting at the school weren't getting the same offer. In solidarity with them, Beatrice kept her children in Doolittle and tutored Carl in reading herself.
But for all Chicago dished out, in their corner of Oakland the Lumpkins got nothing worse than stares. They made friends with all their neighbors, some of whom mistook Beatrice for a light-skinned African-American. That wasn't an effect she set out to achieve, though in the 1960s she got a tan and wore a scarf for a car trip through the south with her husband.
The neighborhood had its problems. Landlords were cutting up apartments and jacking up rents, and they weren't maintaining the buildings. After five children died in a flash fire, the neighbors organized a committee to demand enforcement of the housing code. In 1953 the Lumpkins and two other families in their building convinced tenants to withhold rent until the landlord supplied adequate heat. They got the heat; the organizers got eviction notices. "They're communists," said the landlord in housing court, and the evictions stood.
The Lumpkins moved to a two-flat in Woodlawn, another changing neighborhood, and in 1954 to a semirural African-American community in Gary, Indiana, where their kids would have more room to play. They say that days after their arrival, the FBI began calling neighbors and asking about the interracial family that had just moved in. "The FBI is harassing progressive people to stop them from organizing," Beatrice told her new neighbors, and she and Frank decided the way to respond was to organize.
Their first issue was the neighborhood water supply. After a neighbor came down with typhoid fever, they organized the residents to test their wells (each house had its own), and they say 30 percent of the wells turned out to be contaminated by septic tanks. The neighborhood demanded sewers. They finally were installed, says Beatrice, but not until ten years later.
Frank Lumpkin created a political action group composed primarily of African-American steelworkers, and he was elected a Democratic committeeman on a promise to fight to improve the lives of the "common worker." Beatrice put out a community newsletter. When Frank's constituents told him he shouldn't be married to a white woman, he replied that race wasn't the issue; workers' rights were the issue. Beatrice would put it another way: "Racism may be the single greatest factor that weakens the unity of labor."
Despite living in Gary, Beatrice had kept her job writing technical copy for an electronics company in Chicago. In 1959 the firm moved west into a suburb 50 miles from the Lumpkins' home. To avoid so much travel, the Lumpkins moved too. They found a five-room brick house in an integrated section of Broadview, a primarily white suburb that, like every other place, was struggling with race. The Lumpkins joined other families in appealing to the school board for an integrated middle school and in fighting racist real estate practices. They say they lost both fights.
The electronics company fired Beatrice in 1965. She says it was because she was a woman making a "man's wage." She used her severance to take her husband and their young sons John and Paul on a camping trip through Europe. They went behind the iron curtain to Czechoslovakia and even into the Soviet Union. "It was my first opportunity to see socialist societies at work, and I found that the rumors of food shortages were completely untrue," Beatrice recalls. "I was very impressed with the productive role in society that was allowed senior citizens who wanted to remain active. Those who worked received wages plus their pensions. The lack of unemployment was a huge plus, and the freedom for a woman to walk in the streets late at night without fear, plus the civic concern of citizens. They are each other's keepers and protectors."
John and Paul both attended Maywood's Proviso East High School. That was the alma mater of Fred Hampton, who would go on to lead Chicago's Black Panthers until he was murdered in a 1969 police raid. John Lumpkin was never a Panther, but while attending MIT he helped prepare meals for the Panthers' breakfast-for-children program in Boston.
In 1967 Beatrice became a math instructor at Crane Junior College--the future Malcolm X College. When she heard students demanding an African-American-studies program, she did some research and concluded that they had a point. "Mathematics began in Africa and Asia and is misrepresented as beginning in Greece," she says. "The Greeks built on what people had done before them, but our curriculum does not acknowledge this. Everything in math is named after Europeans, but many of these things were done in China, Africa, Iraq, or India." She began creating multicultural teaching materials, and in the late 1970s wrote a children's book, Senefer, A Young Genius in Old Egypt, about mathematics in the lives of an ancient Egyptian family. The book was published by the DuSable Museum Press and later reprinted by Africa World Press.
Over at Wisconsin Steel, Lumpkin had become an assistant foreman, but discovered he missed dirtying his hands in the grime and grease and voluntarily returned to the rank-and-file duties of a millwright. By now it was 1980. The Lumpkins, empty nesters, had moved into a brick bungalow in Chicago's South Shore. One of their children had become a biologist, another was a physician, and two were computer scientists. The year before, John, the doctor, had even run as an independent for alderman of the Seventh Ward. With the baton of community service passed to their children, and with Frank's pension now almost near enough to touch, it was time to begin planning that trip to Africa.
International Harvester owned Wisconsin Steel until 1977. A lot of steelworkers believe the only reason Harvester didn't close the plant is that the company would then have been liable for $65 million in pensions and another $20 million in severance and other benefits. Instead, Harvester got out from under by selling the mill. According to labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan, the new owner, tiny Envirodyne Industries, Inc., was a "dummy corporation," and Harvester, as its principal creditor, retained control of the plant while freeing itself of its financial obligations to the workers. Here's how Geoghegan--who spent most of the 80s representing Save Our Jobs in court--described the arrangement in his 1991 book, Which Side Are You On?
"Envirodyne was not much of a company, just two yuppies in a garage. But Envirodyne did not want to have to pay the pensions either. So Envirodyne transferred title to a subsidiary it created, EDC Holding Company. Then EDC transferred title to a subsidiary it created, WSC Corporation. One corporate shell came after another. It was like a game of Chinese boxes, and when you got to the last box, nothing was in it. Nobody would be paying the pensions."
Neither would anyone be paying the laid-off steelworkers their final wages. When Chase Manhattan froze Wisconsin Steel's account and Envirodyne filed for bankruptcy, the Progressive Steelworkers Union didn't raise a ruckus; it didn't even whimper. In fact, the union's president had signed away the company's obligation to pay off its workers. The union's lawyer, Edward Vrdolyak, wasn't heard from.
The Save Our Jobs Committee, organized in the Lumpkins' home, was led by a carefully balanced slate of African-Americans, whites, and Latinos. In April 1980 they picketed outside bankruptcy court, Lumpkin leading the way on his lame right foot. In May he led scores of former steelworkers to Springfield and Washington, D.C., and then he and Beatrice took their dream trip to Africa anyway. They visited their son Carl, who was teaching biology at a university in Mozambique.
In July Wisconsin Steel asked in bankruptcy court for permission to scrap the plant, though the company had borrowed $55 million from the federal government to revamp it. "They put new cranes in there, new grinding machines instead of chipping hammers," Lumpkin recalls. "Everything was modernized." He and Congressman Gus Savage led 500 laid-off steelworkers in a march through the Loop to warn the public of this impending waste of the taxpayers' money. The next month brought more distressing news. The Tribune reported that Chase Manhattan Bank planned to seize at least $16 million in inventory. In exchange, it would honor bounced paychecks, but workers would get only 30 percent of their last check.
The following January Save Our Jobs, supported by Savage, asked the bankruptcy court to allow the federal Economic Development Administration to take over the plant. The court agreed, saving the mill for the moment from the scrap pile. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), which had insured Wisconsin's pensions, announced it would pay former steelworkers with 30 or more years at the mill 100 percent of their insured pension, but workers with less seniority were on their own. Borrowing from local businesses and banks to cover expenses, and dipping into their own pockets as well, Lumpkin and another Save Our Jobs officer packed the steelworkers into buses headed for Washington, where they petitioned Congress to reopen the mill. Congress refused, but their pleas at least got them an audience before the PBGC, which agreed to pay the insured amount of the pension--40 percent--to "Rule 65" workers, those at least 45 years old with 20 years at the plant.
Beatrice Lumpkin helped her husband produce a Save Our Jobs newsletter, and she created and chaired a Save Our Jobs Women's Committee, which held fund-
raising dinners. In the summer of 1982, she retired from teaching and began recording her interviews with laid-off workers. She discovered that her own husband was a hard one to talk to. "If I wanted to discuss strategy with him, he didn't want to do that," she recalls. "He got up with it and went to bed with it. When he got a chance to relax, he didn't want me second-guessing 'Why don't you do this? and 'Why don't you do that?'"
Lumpkin had anger and idealism enough for more than one crusade. Aspiring to make Save Our Jobs a beacon of hope for all struggling workers, he led it onto picket lines for other causes. He joined the United Neighborhood Organization, the Illinois Public Action Council, the Center for Urban Economic Development. In 1983 the Public Action Council spearheaded a march from Chicago to Springfield to spotlight the need for jobs. Hundreds of people walked portions of the 200-mile route, but the 66-year-old Lumpkin was one of about 20 who walked it all. Chicago's new mayor, Harold Washington, appointed Lumpkin to task forces on hunger and dislocated workers.
In 1987 Beatrice began substitute teaching math, a job that quickly became a full-time position at Bowen High on the southeast side. That same year, a federal judge ruled that despite the union's waiver of Harvester's responsibility, Geoghegan had found an argument for compensation strong enough that it deserved to be heard at trial. During hearings in 1988, lawyers for Navistar--Harvester's new name--offered $11 million to settle. The figure struck Geoghegan as low, and he asked Frank Lumpkin to weigh in. Lumpkin also wanted more. Navistar eventually agreed to pay $14.8 million. For years Lumpkin had told workers they would vote on any settlement, and now he kept his promise. He put the offer on the table at a meeting of nearly 700 steelworkers, and they voted 583-75 to accept it. It was a victory that more than 500 of the laid-off steelworkers had not lived to see.
The Rule 65 workers gained most from the settlement, about $17,000 apiece. Workers who had their 30 years in and were already collecting the bulk of their pensions got less. Lumpkin's share was just $4,000.
In 1989 Save Our Jobs went to court against Envirodyne, claiming the company owed the employees it had laid off somewhere between $25 million and $40 million. The judge ruled that in the Navistar settlement those employees had surrendered their right to collect from Envirodyne too, and soon after that ruling was overturned on appeal in 1991, Envirodyne declared bankruptcy. But Save Our Jobs pursued the suit, and in December 1995 the steelworkers were awarded $4 million in Envirodyne stock.
For the 2,500 people represented in the lawsuit, the $19 million they'd been collectively awarded was peanuts. "It was a heck of a struggle," says Lumpkin. "I can't pinpoint the worst part of it. It was so bad for me because I know we was entitled to more than what we got."
Adjusting for inflation, he received about $1,200 for that foot injury he'd suffered on the job. He was supposed to have gotten $12,000. But it was never just about money.
"When we got ready to go downtown, we would go downtown with a crowd," says Lumpkin. "When we went to Harold Washington's office, we had at least 50 or 100 people. When you got that many people to march with you, to walk with you like we did all over, then you've got something that takes the place of a beautiful speech. Busloads and busloads of Wisconsin Steel workers was going up and down this country in order to get things done. We was in Washington talking with Savage, with the congressman, and we got a write-up about what the Wisconsin Steel workers was doing and what they was down there for. It was the support of masses of people who agreed more or less in the same way that it was necessary for us to do something, and when we did it the response was great."
Folks kept saying Frank Lumpkin, a rank-and-file steelworker who'd never held a union office, "came from nowhere." His wife knew better. She knew the family he came from, and she remembered the earlier battles they'd fought side by side. "If I had been in his situation in leading something like that, I could never have lasted," she says. "He had a feeling of confidence in the people he worked with and in himself, in their potential of power. That's the main lesson--people have so much strength if they will put it together and organize."
That was the message she wanted to get across in Always Bring a Crowd!
This January the Lumpkins sat side by side in their dining room, a copy of Mrs. Lumpkin's paperback between them. They were recalling 50 years of marriage. Her hair was gray and her face lined, but Beatrice's 81-year-old eyes still sparkled. "We were in love, and we're still in love," she said, smiling at her husband. She wore a brown, decades-old polyester pantsuit she had bought at a resale shop for 75 cents. The silver pin in her shirt collar was something she'd bought in Russia on that 1965 camping trip. She also wore an expensive pair of orthopedic shoes. "Don't ask me what they cost," she said. "I hate to even think of it. But they last a very long time and I have no choice."
She had arrived back in Chicago just the day before, after a week in Kerala, India, where she attended a tribute to a renowned Indian mathematics teacher and collected information for the multicultural classroom materials she still writes. "In Kerala," she said, "it's possible with relatively little resources to guarantee education, health services, and a minimum standard of living. Whereas in a neighboring state in Bombay, I saw vast slums in the heart of a modern city with fine-looking modern buildings rising wherever there was an open area. People crowded together into shacks. Well, they're not even shacks, some sort of a lean-to, not much more than that, made up of whatever scrap pieces, branches, whatever. No running water. No sanitation. Children not in school and people looking very hungry. And Bombay has a higher income. The difference is the social system. Now in Kerala, it's still a capitalist system, but it's one where they have redistributed the land and they have improved the distribution of income."
Frank Lumpkin had just come back from the United Steelworkers union hall on South Chicago, where in the mornings he counsels old Wisconsin Steel workers and anyone else who wants labor advice. He still heads the Save Our Jobs Committee, but now it's an informal group that shows up to add its numbers to the rallies and picket lines of steelworkers and other unionists. The committee doesn't limit its operations to Chicago either--minus Frank, who was recovering from cataract surgery, the group recently trekked to Ohio for a protest.
All these years later, he and Beatrice are as committed to communism as ever. "I am going to coin a phrase here," she says. "We are a 21st-century extension of Marxism-Leninism." She and Frank believe they have unfinished work in America. "This is our country and we're going to make it right," says Beatrice. "I don't have generations of people who worked here, but I sure have given a whole lifetime trying to contribute to the welfare of people. It isn't the country I have a problem with--it's a handful of sinfully rich people who are destroying the people and, of course, the natural resources."
Beatrice concluded her book with the voice of her husband talking about struggle and unity. "The first thing workers have to do is unite," Frank is saying. "We can't let racism or sexism divide us. We learned that at Wisconsin Steel...
"We are fighting for socialism, a system that the workers control. Then we can use high tech to help people instead of laying them off. With high tech we can cut the hours and raise the pay. There are many workers seeking a program for action. They are ready to fight back. Every time they win they learn their strength. When you go on strike everything stops. Nothing can run without the workers. Once we unite, we can get rid of capitalism."
"There has been a lot of discussion over the years about family values and personal values," the Lumpkins' son John reflects. "But I think the highest value is to treasure your fellow man, and that really is at the heart of every movement that they've been involved with." Raised by communists to be proud of being African-American--and Jewish, Russian, and Cherokee--John is today director of the Illinois Department of Public Health in a Republican administration and supposes that politically he would call himself a Democrat. "They have been quite amazing as parents," he continues, "in the sense of being accepting of what their children have decided to do--really saying, your decisions are yours to make."
Night falls and Beatrice is heading out to a meeting of the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Frank has a meeting with a local group of communists. The Lumpkins do not draw lines between their marriage and their politics. Ask Frank what has bound him to his wife and he tells you, "The main thing was, we was fighting for the same cause, and we had reason to be together."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.