BLACK SOCIAL HISTORY
Youngstown Steel Industry
By: Amanda Richey
One of the most interesting aspects of Youngstown's history is that of the life of a steel worker. Unfortunately, often when people think of steel workers, an image of
a white man comes to mind. In fact, the symbol of a typical steel worker in the United States was most often a well built, white man, in overalls. This is an unfair portrayal, as there were steel workers of all different races, not only in Youngstown, but throughout the United States. I believe that African Americans deserve recognition in for the work that they did in the steel industry. People have a right to see and hear their stories just as they have seen and heard stories of the white steel worker.
African Americans were hired only as a last resort. Sometimes they were hired to replace white workers who had gone to war. Other times they were recruited to work as strike breakers (12.) According to a web site, Birmingham-Pittsburgh Traveler, "Newspaper ads and personal visits by labor agents, steel companies enticed African Americans with the promise of higher wages, opportunities for travel, and the excitement of change." But, what they found when they became steel workers was often not what was promised.
Most of these companies paid them a decent salary and offered them protection. Still, when the strikes were over or white workers returned from war, they had to deal with white union members who were dissatisfied with them and called them scabs.
Because of the distrust and skepticism of the white workers, conditions in the steel mills were sometimes less than perfect for the African American workers. However, to get revenge on the steel companies, some, although the numbers were very few, African Americans were asked to join the unions. Even though they had union membership, they still found themselves holding some of the most undesirable jobs. Most often they were never allowed to join at all, and even if they did, they were never able to advance out of their mediocre, at best, jobs. For this reason, many quit the union and were in essence back where they started, and now even more distrusted than before by their white co-workers.
Some of the difficulties with union segregation was alleviated during the Kennedy years. In Robert Bruno's book, Steelworker Alley: How Class Works in Youngstown, John Barbero, a Steel worker from Youngstown Sheet and Tube said, "In the open hearth, we didn't work successfully to end discrimination until the Kennedy years.... somehow, the same people who harassed blacks in the Truman and Eisenhower years, under Kennedy, their sense was to do the decent thing, accept it, and not struggle at all. I didn't hear any complaints at all" (72.)
Life was hard for African Americans outside the mill as well as inside. They faced discrimination in several different aspects. One of the biggest problems facing African Americans was that of racist bank lending policies. This made it much harder for African Americans to move into the suburbs as their white coworkers easily did. According to Bruno, residential redlining was rampant in Youngstown and helped turn integrated neighborhoods into racially segregated sections of town (35).
It is important to remember that these men worked every bit as hard as their white coworkers. Still they faced discrimination in many different ways, in the mill, in the unions, and even in their daily lives.
On the right is a picture of Walter Black taken from The African American Experience in Ohio, 1850-1920, who held several positions including: common laborer, cinder sharper, scrap man, stove tender, assistant blower, and blast furnace foreman, at Youngstown Sheet and Tube. He was one the first African Americans to be promoted to foreman in the Youngstown area. He even saved the life of one of his coworkers who was overcome by poisonous gas.
Hopefully, as more people become aware of the great African Americans, like Walter Black, who helped to impact the steel industry in Youngstown, their preset image of steel workers being all white will change. It is my hope that by viewing this web page, more people will realize and come forward with their own stories of the importance and impact of African Americans in the Youngstown Steel Industry.