Black Women and the Struggle for Economic Justice in St. Louis

Spring 2018 Colloquium Series

The story of MU Assistant Professor of African-American History Keona K. Ervin’s recent book, Gateway to Equality, begins with Ora Lee Malone, a civil rights stalwart who had come to St. Louis from Mississippi in 1951 and about whom Prof. Ervin had set out to write a biography. During the course of her research, however, histories began to entwine with one another—the biographical and the political, broadly, but also the histories of the labor and Black Freedom movements in the mid-20th century Gateway City. From these connections, a new book was born, one which charted not only the overlapping pursuit of racial and economic justice but also black women’s central, leadership role in politicizing the needs of the city’s black working class and in making dignity casually and contractually tangible.

But why St. Louis? As Prof. Ervin outlined in her February 2 book talk at the Kinder Institute, because of St. Louis’ particular industrial landscape—high on light industry work but lacking the historically gendered-male spaces of production seen in urban peers like Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Detroit—black women effectively engineered the Great Migration to the city. On top of this, Prof. Ervin explained, there was a distinctly racial component to marginalization within the female workforce, with black women consistently denied access to higher-paying factory work, as well as a concerted effort among St. Louis media members and government officials to conceal black dissidence in the city. The result, on the one hand, was an environment that fomented political experimentation via liberal coalition building between workers, women’s, and civil rights activists. On the other hand, the relatively diffuse civil rights leadership structure that existed because of these conditions provided avenues for black women to emerge as power brokers and agenda shapers within the Black Freedom Movement and to advance a re-conceptualized, egalitarian notion of unionism that prioritized the voice of female leaders and that framed calls for civil rights as inextricable from calls for workers’ rights.

And so we have labor militants Carrie Smith and Cora Lewis, architects of the 1933 shellers strike against R.E. Funsten Nut Co. that, in addition to refusing red-baiting and critiquing liberal reformism, broadened the scope of civil rights activism by raising the “bread and butter” concerns of working people to a newfound level of political import. As Prof. Ervin noted in closing her talk, the work of pioneers like Smith and Lewis, and the politically actualized young women of grassroots organizations like the Colored Clerks Circle, make later events such as the 1969 rent strike legible not only as instances of labor struggle but also as women-led efforts to make economic dignity foundational to how justice is understood and to wrest control over resource allocation and decision making away from oppressive institutional forces.


St. Louis native Keona K. Ervin is Assistant Professor of African-American History at the University of Missouri-Columbia. A Center for Missouri Studies Faculty Fellow at the State Historical Society of Missouri, Ervin is the author of Gateway to Equality: Black Women and the Struggle for Economic Justice in St. Louis (University of Kentucky Press, 2017), and she has published articles in International Labor and Working-Class History, Journal of Civil and Human Rights, and Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society. She is a recipient of the Career Enhancement Fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, the Arts and Sciences Faculty Fellowship from the University of Missouri-Columbia, and the Huggins-Quarles Dissertation Award from the Organization of American Historians.