The Crusader Newspaper Group

Steelworkers set standard for Black fathers as providers

Growing up in Gary, Indiana, we saw countless Black fathers in every neighborhood, doing their diligence on a daily basis. Most fathers migrated from states like Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, and other former members of the Confederacy. They came with the hope of escaping Jim Crow for a better life.

The single greatest lure was the bustling steel industry that dominated Northwest Indiana shorelines of Lake Michigan in the mid-20th century. That opportunity is what drew my father – Willie Marion Williams – from shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

Looking back, children of the 60s and 70s saw these dedicated family men put on their hardhats and work jackets, pick up their metal lunchboxes, and either drive or head to a bus stop for at least eight hours of grinding work under some of the most unsavory conditions in American workplace history. And they did it for wages way insufficient even for the time. In 1960, the minimum wage was one dollar an hour. By 1970, it was only $1.60 an hour.

Seldom were high risks and low benefits of steelworkers articulated. The financial reward for dedication to a life of service as a steelworker was anything but impressive. Throughout the 60s, the minimum wage failed to reach two dollars an hour in Indiana. That meant family men were constantly faced with taking all the overtime and double shift assignments they could receive in order to meet the needs of their families. Constantly working was a necessity, not an option.

There were few luxuries, but these hard-working Black fathers made certain that their children had a roof overhead, food in the refrigerator, shoes on their feet, and a sense of provision that made them feel safe, secure and loved.

Sadly, wages for Indiana workers are still lagging today, and mill work is still dangerous. The minimum wage in Indiana today is only $7.25 an hour and hasn’t been increased since 2008, in spite of spiraling costs of everything necessary for breadwinners to provide for their families.

And despite federal regulations that greatly improve working conditions in the mills, it will be misleading to think that dangers no longer exist in that workplace. Decades later in 2022 the dangers of working in the mills persist. They include machinery, specialized for use and steel production with multiple moving parts that invite injury. Using this machinery, as well as being involved in their repair or maintenance, presents significant danger.

Another significant risk to steelworkers is falling from heights. There are substantial levels required for working on scaffolds, platforms, or cranes in the typical mill. Fall accidents can be fatal or cause catastrophic injuries. Another threat is falling objects. If work sites are not constantly monitored and maintained, things, like tools, loose equipment, materials, or debris, can accumulate; and if not properly secured, there is a high risk of items falling from above and causing injury to those working below.

Motor vehicles are used throughout the mill, including industrial trucks transporting items at various speeds at all times. The likelihood of a steelworker being seriously or fatally injured in a vehicle or crash is shockingly real. Finally, the production process itself is replete with dangers for workers, even with all the required precautions.

Hazardous chemicals and toxins present a constant threat. Explosions may occur at any moment, and the threat of fire is ever present. Let me reiterate, these are the dangers of the present-day mill, and not just those of our fathers and grandfathers that pre-date the OSHA era.

Not all Black fathers worked in steel mills during the 1960s and 1970s. Many were able to receive the education necessary to enter the corporate world or myriad professions. Some were successfully skilled craftsmen or entrepreneurs providing key services to the community.

Their dedication was no less significant to their families than those of steelworkers. But because there are so seldom loving tributes to the men who wore the hardhats of the steel industry, this Father’s Day just seemed appropriate to express appreciation. They were the backbone of the workforce in Northwest Indiana and, in large measure, the nation for a time. We salute the dedication of these steel industry front-line workers and honor their sacrifices… then and now..

Vernon A. Williams
Vernon A. Williams

CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: [email protected].

Recent News

Scroll to Top