In a USA Today article, “Unions owe debt to black women,” Assistant Professor of History Janette Gayle reflects on the roles black women had in fighting for union and workplace reforms in the 1930s and 1940s.
Gayle spent three summers at Cornell University’s archives researching her current book project, Sewing Change: Black Dressmakers and Garment Workers and the Struggle for Rights in Early Twentieth Century New York City. The book explores the unsung impacts of women of color, like Eldica Riley, Lillian Gaskin and Maida Springer-Kemp, who fought against exploitation in the garment industry and racial discrimination in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.
Despite the integral roles these women played in organizing black workers and despite having laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights movement, the “stories of black women have been overshadowed,” Gayle notes in the article.
Gayle, who joined the HWS faculty in 2016, has authored a number of journal articles on labor, race and civil rights, and is the lead researcher on the Mapping Harlem Digital Project, which developed from her doctoral dissertation. The project uses U.S. census and other data to map black migrant settlement patterns and neighborhood formation in Harlem during the first half of the 20th century.
In Sewing Change, Gayle charts the early 20th century migration of black dressmakers from the American South and the British Caribbean to New York City, and examines their role in three important developments in black political consciousness: the crafting of a middle class black identity, the emergence of the black industrial working class, and the struggle for civil rights.