Jim Crow at US Engraving: 1947-50
The United Public Workers of America Local 3 (Bureau of Engraving branch) led a three-year campaign against discrimination at the agency resulting in a resounding victory when the government opened the ranks of skilled plate printers to African Americans.

Margaret Gilmore, chair of the Bureau’s branch, led a broad coalition against Jim Crow at agency that included the Federation of Civil Associations, the Cafeteria Workers Union, the DC Coordinating Committee to End Discrimination, the NAACP, the civil liberties committee of the Elks, and luminaries such as Howard University President Mordecai Johnson, long time civil rights activist Rev. William H. Jernagin and civil rights attorney Charles Hamilton Houston.

The plate printer positions had traditionally been filled by the American Federation of Labor all-white printers union. The UPW, a Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO) organization railed against the fact that not a single African American was employed as a plate printer anywhere in the United States.

Charles Hamilton Houston wrote in February 1949:

“The Bureau maintains Jim Crow locker and rest rooms. Colored women can be printers’ helpers and colored men can be printers’ assistants but that is their limit regardless of education, aptitude, intelligence and experience.

“During World War II the labor demands on the Bureau were so heavy the Bureau hired hundreds and hundreds of workers (including printers, printers assistants and printers helpers) without competitive civil service examinations.

“The printers were all white; the printers assistants, in large number, colored males; and the printers helpers, predominantly colored women.

“After the War, the printers were “blanketed in” as permanent employees merely by fill out out forms showing they met the civil service requirements. They did not have to take any competitive examinations.

“But to thin out the predominantly colored printers helpers, the women were notified that before they could be made permanent they would have to take a competitive examination open not only to Bureau employees but to the women in the whole United States.

“On the other hand, colored men have never been promoted to the journeyman class either as printer, electrician or any other mechanic or tradesman. The Bureau has always conducted apprentice training programs especially for its printers.

“Before World War II colored people had never been admitted to the apprentice training programs. Then under UPW pressure the Bureau opened the plate printers apprentice training program to us [African Americans]; and, July 11, 1948 announced an examination for apprentice plate printers would be held.

“About 30 colored, including many World War II veterans, applied and qualified to take the examination For a moment it looked as if at last we [African Americans] would get our chance to start on the long road to become journeyman printers.

“Then suddenly the Bureau announced the examination was indefinitely postponed.

“This did not mean that the Bureau does not need printers. It is still recruiting white printers through the AFL white printers union which has a strangle hold on the Bureau.

“These new white printers have to be trained in the specialized Bureau work, and the colored printers assistants in many cases do most of the practical training.

“But the white printers get the money and the grade and the white AFL printers union keeps a closed shop against colored on U.S. government property.

“The UPW has now carried the fight director to the White House to see whether Executive Order 9080 establishing Fair Employment Practice policies in government service is the law, or whether the AFL white printers union is a force stronger than the Executive order as far as the Bureau of Engraving and Printing is concerned.

“The next time you handle a dollar bill take a good look at it. It was printed by “white only.”

In February 1950 after three years of internal organizing and public pickets, rallies and speeches, the Bureau of Engraving opened the ranks of plate printers to African Americans.

The UPW was effectively destroyed during the second Red Scare. Its leaders first resisted signing affidavits that they were not members of the Communist Party and the Congress of Industrial Organizations later expelled the union along with nine others in February 1950. It quickly lost affiliates and dissolved in 1953.
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