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The Forgotten Story of the Radium Girls

A perfect storm of capitalism and sexism led to unbelievably painful deaths for countless women and I had never even heard of this story.

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Did you know OSHA and workplace regulations are a direct result of women being poisoned by radium while working in clock factories during World War I? The radium basically destroyed them from the inside out to the point where some women walked around with handkerchiefs to soak up the constant seeping of pus and blood from their mouths while they picked out pieces of bone from their own jaw.

And of course the companies responsible hushed up the results of investigations into radium poisoning, stole dead bodies before they could be autopsied, and repeatedly published false reports that working with radium was completely safe. Things didn’t begin to change until a man died, because obviously the women didn’t matter.

With the report hushed up, the women’s biggest challenge was proving the link between their mysterious illnesses and the radium that they’d been ingesting hundreds of times a day. Though they themselves discussed the fact that their work must be to blame, they were fighting against the widespread belief that radium was safe. In fact, it was only when the first male employee of the radium firm died that experts finally took up the charge. In 1925, a brilliant doctor named Harrison Martland devised tests that proved once and for all that radium had poisoned the women.

(cont. Buzzfeed)

A perfect storm of capitalism and sexism led to unbelievably painful deaths for countless women and I had never even heard of this story. Somebody is going to snap up the movie rights soon I’m sure, but meanwhile, I’m bout to find this book it and put it on my reading list.

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History

Today I Learned: Gloria Richardson is still alive.

President John F. Kennedy told protestors in Dorchester County to stand down. Gloria Richardson told JFK he could go to hell.

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It goes viral anytime the country is protesting police brutality or having a conversation about political upheaval or urging people to use their voice at the polls because so many of our ancestors never had the opportunity. It’s a picture of a woman pushing her way past a law enforcement officer blocking her way with a bayonetted rife.

Today I learned that her name is Gloria Richardson and she is 98-years-old.

I have a job interview in a minute, but I wanted to dig around real quick and find out what I could about how this picture came to be, and now I’m annoyed that the woman Ebony magazine dubbed The Lady General of Civil Rights was never once mentioned in school.

In 1922, Gloria Richardson was born into a family of Black people that had been free since before the Civil War. They’d been able to amass property and assets (without having them stolen by whites), and by the early 20th century, they were a prominent, educated Black family in Cambridge (Dorchester County) Maryland who owned multiple businesses and rental properties. Gloria earned a BA in Sociology at Howard University and participated in a few pickets and sit-ins, but when she returned home to Cambridge, she mostly concerned herself with raising a family and local civic work.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was formed in 1960 and Gloria was initially resistant to the organization because she wasn’t onboard with their policy of peaceful and nonviolent protest. When SNCC came to Cambridge in 1961, Gloria’s daughter Donna went out to support the demonstrations and Gloria became involved. The first adult branch of SNCC was set up in Cambridge with Gloria as its head and she kept the pressure on Maryland officials for the next three years. Gloria and CNAC (Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee) organized freedom walks, protests, voter drives, and Gloria, as a woman from a prominent local family, was at the forefront in negotiations with local government. Typically the women on the front lines of the movement were less educated, less well-off, and had less to lose. Gloria used her visibility as a prominent Black woman to make inroads with politicians — and she was an uncompromising leader.

“We can’t deal with her; we can’t deal without her,” bemoaned a white Citizens’ Council spokesman during the height of protests in the Eastern Shore city. Ebony magazine dubbed her “The lady general of civil rights.”

(cont. SNCC Digital)

As protest continued to grow in 1963, local whites demanded assistance from elected officials, the governor imposed martial law, and the national guard was requested. President John F. Kennedy told protestors in Dorchester County to stand down. Gloria Richardson told JFK he could go to hell. (x)

Protesting continued and whites attacked demonstrators during sit-ins and freedom walks. Police and the national guard used guns and teargas to break up protests, including a freedom walk in July 1963 where Gloria urged protestors to keep moving through guards with bayonetted rifles as they made their way across the city.

That same month, Attorney General Robert Kennedy worked out a Treaty of Cambridge with local and state officials that would give equal access to public facilities. Gloria Richardson and CNAC boycotted the vote because, “A first-class citizen does not beg for freedom. A first-class citizen does not plead to the white power-structure to give him something that the whites have no power to give or take away. Human rights are human rights, not white rights.” (x)

A few weeks later in August at the March on Washington, Gloria and five other women were honored on stage, but no women were allowed to speak. Gloria took the mic and said “hello–” before it was taken away from her. Here’s an interview for the 50th anniversary of the March back in 2013 where Gloria talks about that day and how women were silenced.

(skip to 18:44 – transcript at Democracy Now)

Protesting continued through Autumn and Winter until LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act in July 1964, a little less than a year after Gloria stared down a bayonet in one of the most widely circulated photos of the movement featuring a hero we rarely speak of by name. She moved to Harlem the next month, largely retired from public life, and focused on local civic works in the community since then.

Let’s take this energy with us to the polls though. They can try to intimidate us, but they don’t have bayonets anymore, and, for what it’s worth, we do have the law on our side this time. Do it for Gloria Richardson. Tell this administration to go to hell.

 

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The 19th Amendment gave white women the right to vote.

It was another 40 years and change before Black women could vote.

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Need to see less “today is the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote” and more “today is the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment giving WHITE women the right to vote.”

It was another 40 years and change before Black women could vote.

Also want to point out that Black women worked right alongside white women for equal suffrage, but they were working for women AND Black people. When Black men got the right to vote in 1870, Susan B Anthony was upset white women didn’t come first. The American Equal Rights Association was working for equal suffrage for all — including Black people — so Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton left because Black men got the right to vote before white women, and they started the National Woman Suffrage Association.

1694

So let’s recognize the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment but keep in context that the white women who benefited from it did so with the groundwork of Black women working alongside them that they subsequently abandoned in favor of whiteness.

(Oh and in case anyone needs clarity, the 15th Amendment gave Black men the right to vote, but the end of Reconstruction made it effectively null and void because states just threw up barriers to voting anyway. We had voting rights on paper, but not in practice.)

 

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Happy White Independence Day

Where do Black people fit into Independence Day history?

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The British were the first to promise freedom after the war to any slaves who fought with them instead of the colonists, and freedom is quite the motivator to take up arms…as noted by the white colonists who were taking up arms to “free” themselves from British rule.

Throughout the colonies there were slaves fighting alongside the British because they’d rather be free and heavily taxed (assuming they were even aware of the political landscape and why their white masters were going off to war) than continue to live as property in a “free” country with the same ol masters.  One lasting record of the Brits’ promise to free slaves is The Book of Negroes, a list of slaves who signed up to fight for Britain and were then shipped off to freedom in Nova Scotia and England by Lord Dunmore after they lost the war.

How’s that for making good on a promise?

Britain wasn’t the first to have the idea to free slaves in exchange for participating in the war.  It was also discussed in the colonies.  Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers, was in favor of allowing slaves to form their own troops to fight alongside the colonists, and those who fought would be freed after the war.  The legislature was obviously against that because arming slaves – after what they’d been through – was a frightening prospect.  Plus, the South needed its economic engine to keep chugging along (Northern colonies were more receptive to the idea).  By the end of the war when manpower was running low, some colonies would allow free Blacks to serve and some would offer freedom to slaves who fought, but most plantation owners went back on that promise after the war was over.

In the end, more Blacks (free and slave) actually fought alongside the American rebels in the hopes that they’d receive freedom or a bounty or a pat on the head or even a thank you after it was over if the Americans prevailed.  The Americans did win…and the majority of those slaves went right back to the fields for another eighty years unless they managed to escape in the confusion of the war.  The revolution did turn some individual slave owners into abolitionists, especially in communities of Quakers where slaves were freed after the war because they recognized the hypocrisy of fighting a war for freedom from another country while you kept humans as property in your “new” country.

So when some uber Patriotic white guy you went to high school with (who is still your Facebook friend for some reason) posts a status update at the fireworks show tonight about his ancestors fighting for freedom, remember that ours did too.  And most of them didn’t even get a thank you.

 

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