History Professor Brings to Life the Struggle for Economic Justice
Keona K. Ervin can easily connect the dots from the fight for racial equality and justice on college campuses across the country today to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, which in turn were an outgrowth of social movement activism of the 1930s and ’40s. Ervin, an assistant professor of history, recently submitted to her publisher a draft for her latest book, The Labor of Dignity: Black Women, Urban Politics, and the Struggle for Economic Justice in the Gateway City, 1931–1969.
Ervin’s interest in black Americans’ struggle for equality began during her undergraduate studies at Duke University, when she wrote her senior thesis on African-Americans in North Carolina in the years immediately following emancipation. As she thought about a project to focus on during graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis, Ervin says she wanted to explore the history of the civil rights movement. She took a course on oral history, which required her to conduct her own interview of a local leader and write an analysis that situated the individual’s life within its proper historical context. Ervin says she chose Ora Lee Malone, an African-American woman who moved to St. Louis in the 1950s and became a labor activist.
“I had to conduct just one interview with her for my project, but we really developed a relationship,” Ervin says. “I met with her often, and we talked quite a bit. I initially thought my dissertation would be a biography of Ora Lee Malone, but in the course of our conversations, she continually pointed back to the ’30s and ’40s as a pivotal moment in the history of social movement activism. So my dissertation became a history of African-American women’s labor activism in St. Louis from 1930 to 1945.”
Ervin says her project has expanded conceptually and chronologically. She puts poor and working-class black women including domestics, factory workers, and the unemployed at the center of the struggle for economic justice. The project also includes the working-class activism of public housing tenants and welfare recipients. Since her dissertation ended in the year 1945, she wanted to bring the story up to 1969, focusing on a famous rent strike among public housing tenants in St. Louis. Ervin says the common view of the civil rights movement focuses on achieving goals such as being able to sit anywhere on a bus or being able to exercise the right to vote, but the rent strike, along with boycotts, organizing through community institutions, unionization, resistance, and other methods, brought the issues of economic equality, dignity, and economic justice to center stage.
“The rent strike was kind of a response to years and years of conflict between tenants and the St. Louis Housing Authority, and it erupted in this moment when the housing authority decided to raise rents,” Ervin says. The tenants refused to pay rent until their demands were met—demands such as capping the amount of rent and responding to maintenance requests in a timely manner. The rent strike lasted several months and the tenants eventually won a number of concessions, including the ability to control certain aspects of public housing management. In fact, Ervin says one tenant, Bertha Gilkey, later led the effort to transform a public housing project called Cochran Gardens and became a national leader in the tenant management model. “The rent strike put St. Louis on the map in terms of national debates about race and housing, segregation, everything.”
Ervin says her upcoming book will contribute to scholarship on the history of black working-class women’s activism, particularly the ways that it shaped struggles for black freedom, gender equality, and economic justice. Black working-class women were instrumental, she says.
“That is their contribution—making economic equality and economic justice a part of the platform of the civil rights movement and trying to make it a central aspect of the platform, especially for working class and working poor African-American women,” Ervin says.
Ervin expects her book to be published by the University Press of Kentucky in late 2016 or early 2017.