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Black Freedom Fighters in Steel: Black Workers Commemorated on Broadway

By Ruth Needleman

Graffiti art alternates with the Jackson 5 and Mayor Richard Hatcher on the decaying walls along Gary’s main streets. Through art Gary has been celebrating the famous, the young, and the strange. Just a week ago, however, a new mural went up on Broadway between 10th and 11th avenues, celebrating the unsung heroes of Gary’s working class, the people who built the steelworkers’ union and then fought for fairness and representation in that union.

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The artist Gaia

Somewhat like WWII Black soldiers, they fought on two fronts: in the union and the civil rights movements.

Thousands of African Americans traveled north into Gary during and after WWI and throughout the Great Migration, hoping to escape lynching and Klan terror. They came mainly from Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, hoping to find a job in the steel industry. As Walter Mackerl, an activist in USW 1066, explained, “Twenty-five miles of steel mills! There had to be a job for me.”

The mural borrows its images from photos in a book by the same name: Black Freedom Fighters in Steel: the struggle for democratic unionism. I had the honor of writing up their stories, based on dozens of interviews over 15 years. No college education could match what I learned from them. The book focuses on 5 men; the mural on three of them: Curtis Strong, Johnny Howard and Jonathan Comer. All three became leaders in the union, following distinctly different paths but battling always corporate power and institutionalized racism.

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The Mural weaves beautiful flowers across the wall, beginning and ending with tropical, lush greenery. The artist, Gaia, aka Andrew, discovered the book, read it and contacted me to see if it was ok to steal some images. As Gaia painted, Gary people stopped, stared, expressed delight and wondered “who are those men?” You can imagine how wonderful it was for me to be able to tell them exactly who those men were.

John Howard grew up in Gary in the 1920s alongside immigrant families. His father had come North from Alabama in 1919, to work in the mill. Johnnie joined the Civilian Conservation Corps after high school and then got a job in the big mill, Gary Works, with the help of his father. His father was a company man but Johnny was union from the beginning. He became vice president of his local and then a staff rep in the district.

Curtis Strong was born in Mississippi in 1915, described by friends and foes alike “as a firestorm.” He grew up in Dixon, IL and then hired into the tin mill in 1937. His father was the son of the slave owner who had owned his mother’s family. Staying in Mississippi was never an option. Curtis grew up confident, conscious and militant and never got over the racism that kept him out of the air force. He wanted to fly planes.

He became the first Black griever at Gary Works in the Coke plant, founded the first Black caucus in steel, the Sentinel League and then the Eureka Club, was vice president of his local, and then later went on staff. Strong believed that Black workers had to build independent organization in order to gain power in the union. John Howard opposed him and the idea.

Jonathan Comer was the youngest, born in 1921 in Alabama, Comer fought in WWII and then hired into Youngstown Sheet and Tube in the Harbor. He had fought segregation and discrimination in the military and discovered he had to continue fighting it in the north. As vice-president of his local, he led a protest in front of the United Steelworkers’ Union’s convention in 1968, demanding Black staff, and Black leadership of the Civil Rights Committee as part of the Ad Hoc Committee of Black Steelworkers. Curtis Strong was one of its founders and top leaders.

At the center of the mural is John Howard with his arm raised up in support of his union. Gaia combined three separate photos in designing the mural, but it is his artistic depiction that grabs your attention. How refreshing to see the faces of Black workers on the walls of Gary, people who gave their lives to build the union that raised living standards for so many of Gary’s residents and, in so doing, built the city.

Organizers are seeking the public’s assistance in locating family members and friends of John L. Howard, Curtis Strong and Jonathan Comer. They hope to hold an event commemorating their contributions. If you have contact information for either of these men, contact Needleman by email at: [email protected].

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