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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Howard Kester, August 25, 1974. Interview B-0007-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The YWCA Industrial Department and the challenges of organizing women and African American workers

Kester explains the work of the YWCA Industrial Department in Nashville, Tennessee, during the 1930s. Earlier in the interview, Kester discussed how the Industrial Department differed from other branches of the YWCA in that it sought to work with working women and girls directly. Here, he focuses on how although the YWCA was more progressive in its approach to race and labor than was the YMCA, they still had difficulty getting labor organizations to organize women and African American workers.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Howard Kester, August 25, 1974. Interview B-0007-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

ARY FREDERICKSON:
Do you remember what the attitude of the YWCA Industrial Department was toward trade unions?
HOWARD KESTER:
Well we pushed to try to get the girls organized but the AF of L, that was before the CIO. The AF of L, it was as stubborn as it could be about us, you know.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
About accepting the women?
HOWARD KESTER:
Yes, accepting anybody. I tried to get Negroes for example, who were brick masons, but they were the last ones to be put on the job, and I worked with the AF of L people, held meetings in the Labor Temple and all that sort of thing, but they just weren't concerned about giving work to Negroes. You see the trouble with organized labor was it was interested in higher wages and shorter hours, and they weren't interested in the general organization of labor, particularly Negroes.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
I see. Well, was there a fear on the part of the people in the Industrial Department about unions, or . . .
HOWARD KESTER:
I think the . . . so far as I can recall, there was not . . . it was not fear, it was simply lack of cooperation on the part of organized labor and the top leadership in the YW.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
What about the YMCA or YWCA generally?
HOWARD KESTER:
The YMCA didn't amount to a hill of beans, excuse me. The YMCA maintained a "hands off" policy toward industrial problems. The YWCA, on a whole, was far ahead of the YMCA.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
In Nashville and everywhere else in the South as far as you know? Was the YWCA elite leaders, were they opposed to unions, were they opposed to .
HOWARD KESTER:
I don't think so, because they let me speak or pray.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
What do you think was your wife's motivation, main motivation in working with the Industrial Department?
HOWARD KESTER:
Because she knew the conditions that these girls faced, and she thought that the best service that she could render was in working with this group.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Did she view it . . . you spoke a few minutes ago about your feelings about working with the miners was that it was a class struggle that everyone was involved in. Did that extend into her work, did she see it as a class struggle? It wasn't a feeling . . . a mothering feeling toward the group, you know, "You've had a hard life, and I want to help you as much as I can." Which was it? Was it more . . .
HOWARD KESTER:
It was both, I think.