Black Longshoreman: The Frank Jenkins Story

by Megan Elston                     

            The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) has a long history of progressive racial policies, as did its predecessor, the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA). In 1918, the ILA opened its ranks to men of any race. The gesture did not put an end to discrimination, and the union remained mostly white, but at a time when most unions explicitly excluded nonwhites, it was a significant step. When the ILWU broke away from the ILA and joined the CIO in 1937, it took further steps to include workers of color. But the ILWU was not always as color-blind as it was supposed to be.  Racism can’t be written away in a contract, but requires cultural work and visionary leadership.  One man who mixed union leadership with civil rights activism in the ILWU was Frank Jenkins. A second-generation longshoreman, Jenkins became one of first African Americans to hold a leadership position in that important union.

            As late as the 1940s, blacks were explicitly barred from most unions. On the West Coast, the major ship-building union, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers,  Iron Ship Builders had a constitution that allowed only whites to be union members.[1]  In December, 1943, the Fair Employment Practices Commission ordered the Boilermakers to abolish their white-only clause.[2]  At the same time, black ship builders filed suit in the federal court of California against the Boilermakers union and other discriminatory companies.  The California Supreme Court ruled in favor of the black workers arguing that a union’s “asserted rights to choose its own members does not merely relate to social relations; it affects the fundamental right to work for a living.”[3]  This was something the ILA had understood decades before the Boilermakers and other white-only unions were forced to open their unions to everyone. 

            When The Dispatcher – the ILWU’s newspaper – ran an obituary of prominent African-American union member Frank Jenkins in April, 1973, it honored Jenkins’s four decades of activist leadership.  The paper cited Jenkins’s longtime commitment to racial equality in a way that made him not just a civil rights activist, but a true “labor veteran.”[4]  Although many details of Jenkins’s life are uncertain, this biography seeks to use what records are available to the public preserve our memory of Frank Jenkins as an important Pacific Northwest civil rights activist as well as union leader. 

               Researching Frank Jenkins was a complicated, yet rewarding task.  Information is incomplete and sometimes very difficult to locate.  The main point of reference for Jenkins’s life came from a tape recorded interview by Richard C. Berner in 1972.  Invented vocabulary was part of Jenkins’s charm.  In his interview, he used the term “whitelisted” instead of blacklisted when describing what often happened to unwanted workers.[5]  When questioned by the interviewer,  Jenkins is quick to respond that the two are the same and continues telling his story.  Listening to the interview with Jenkins was mesmerizing.  He had a very deep and booming voice that grabs your attention and keeps it.  His attention to detail in the account of his life is very impressive, especially when recalling the addresses of present and past hiring halls in Seattle. 

While the interview was helpful in getting to know Jenkins’s personality, it left many holes in both his personal life and his career on the waterfront.  Additional help came from historian Ronald Magden, author of two books about Puget Sound longshore workers, who knew Jenkins and helped fill in the details about his role in the union.  An interview with Frank’s younger brother Andy also contributed to Frank’s lesser known years.  In our conversation about Jenkins, Magden and I decided that Jenkins would have been a very difficult man to interview.  He was so humble that he was unlikely to want to talk about himself for an extended period of time.[6]  But over thirty years after his death, the ideals that Frank Jenkins stood for, and a glimpse at why he stood for them, deserve attention that he may not have brought to them himself.  

Jenkins’s Early Years as an Army Brat

Frank Jenkins was born in 1902 in Monterey, California at what is now Fort Ord.  His three siblings were born on Army bases all over the United States and Philippines.  In 1909, Jenkins, his mother, his older sister Frances, and his younger brothers Edward and Andrew settled at Fort Lawton in Seattle while his father completed his last six months as a commissioned soldier in Honolulu, Hawaii.  Although there is little information on Frank’s earlier years, it seems that his military upbringing set a tone for how he would live his life.  He was persistent, hardworking, and willing to fight for his country, even though that would later cause him much grief.

Frank’s father joined the United States Army at a young age and served in both the 9th and 10th Cavalries during the Spanish American War in Cuba.  He was in the unit that took Teddy Roosevelt off San Juan Hill.  Frank grew up hearing that “Colonel Roosevelt,” as his father called him, had a soft spot for black people and especially the black soldier.[7]  His father would become a role model to Frank as an example of an African-American man leading a successful and rewarding life.  Frank’s mother, who was a military child herself and a native of the Philippines, also set an impressive standard for her children.  In the years approaching the Civil Rights Movement, Mrs. Jenkins involved herself in every social justice cause in Seattle and was quite a forward thinker for her time.[8]  Both Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins would have an influence on Frank’s life.  Despite the proximity to and the honor they attached to the military, Frank’s parents had a different type of life in mind for him.

Jenkins’s parents never completed high school and were adamant that he graduate and continue with higher education.  His mother had her heart set on the field of law for her eldest son but Jenkins had his own thoughts on the matter.  In his early teens though, his parents had the final say in his education and so he and his sister progressed to Queen Anne High School after graduating from Fort Lawton Grammar School.[9]  In his 1972 interview, Frank noted that while attending Queen Anne High School, although he and his sister were “discriminated against quite sharply,” they acquired “extensive fistic ability” which spread the word that the Jenkins kids were not to be fooled with.[10]  “Fistic ability” is a term that Jenkins himself invented. 

Jenkins began work on the waterfront beginning roughly in 1918.  Jenkins dropped out of Queen Anne High School after his sophomore year even after his parents discouraged him from it.  In his interview, he insists that racism had nothing to do with his decision – it was simply because he thought he knew everything he had to learn from school.  The decision would be life-altering, to the point where his familiarity with the waterfront—its business, its people, and its politics—became almost second nature.  Years later, Jenkins recalled with ease the locations of present and past hiring halls in Seattle, including old pier numbers, which have changed several times over the course of the waterfront’s history. 

Jenkins Joins the Waterfront Workforce

Jenkins’s decision to drop out of school may have been informed by previous work experience he found through his father’s assistance.  After retiring from the Army, Frank’s father became a foreman for an oil importer named Griffiths and Sprague Stevedoring Company, which gave him some authority over the workers on the dock.  During the 1910’s, trade from China and Japan made Seattle a major Pacific Coast port.[11]  While Asian shipping companies exported oils, teas, and silk to the United States, goods such as cotton, lumber, grains, and machinery crossed the Pacific from Seattle to major Asian ports.[12] 

The summer before Jenkins dropped out of school, his father gave him a job on the company dock.  Jenkins recalled working with Mexicans, African-Americans, and Scandinavians as well as other white ethnics that summer.  Following a bitter strike in 1916 during which employers brought in 3-400 African American strikebreakers (out of a total of 1400) mainly from Kansas City, St. Louis, and New Orleans, the International Longshoremen’s Association had grudgingly accepted people of color into its ranks.  One scholar noted that

efforts to discriminate against Negroes were frequent during the early years of their participation in [Seattle] longshore activities.  Many white workers who had never worked with Negro longshoremen previous to this time refused to do so and left their jobs… During the wartime boom, Negroes took an active part in formulate the policies of the union. Mainly through the cooperation of members of the I.W.W., Negroes were elected to many of the important committees.  As work on the waterfront slackend many Negroes were unemployed. Their membership in the ILA gradually decreased due to this lack of work and the inability to pay dues.[13]  

Jenkins experienced both the positive and negative aspects of this period of intense labor conflict on Seattle’s waterfront.  His first exposure to racial discrimination in the labor force was during World War I.  Local shipyards in Seattle frequently offered young men positions as riveters and bolter-uppers at very respectable wages.  Jenkins claims that racial discrimination made the task of getting such a job difficult but he triumphed in the end, sometimes resorting to “subterfuge” to overcome the barriers against him.[14]  He treated being turned down as only a minor set back and not a permanent defeat.

In 1921, local African American real estate dealer James H. Roston worked with the Pacific Steamship company to find African Americans employment as strike breaking stewards on the company’s Alaska line.  It’s unclear whether Jenkins worked as a steward in this dispute, but he did work in Alaska that summer.[15]

            Regardless, the Seattle Jenkins returned to 1921 was a much different place than the one he first began working in in 1918.  The power of Seattle’s longshore union had been dramatically reduced by cuts in shipbuilding employment and intense anti-radical campaigns following the General Strike in 1919.  Consequently, the union lost its control of waterfront hiring halls, which meant disaster for the union but also “opened the books” to workers regardless of race, religious creed, or political views  If the union workers could successfully bring these men into the union, the employers would have a difficult time of finding scabs to work during a strike.  Frank’s father urged all of the men working under him to join the ILA, which they did, including young Jenkins.  The ILA’s new “open book” policy theoretically gave all men equal opportunity in the union, but in practice, the system remained biased—abused by union members and employers alike.  Local hiring halls engaged in favoritism:  Some workers got more work than others, and company control of some hiring halls made it difficult to guarantee steady employment, especially for blacks.  Frank Jenkins recalled that “some people would sit on the bench [in a hiring hall] from four days to a week or more without a job.  Other people who were favored would come in from one job and go right back out to another.”[16]  In addition, Jenkins noted, several hiring halls were “lily white,” that is, you would never find any blacks working out of them.  The only halls that hired blacks were the non-union “Fink Halls”, bit they too often engaged in favoritism.

            Both black and white worker frustration over this system peaked February 1934, when selected delegates from the different unions on the Pacific Coast demanded a “single, coast wide contract, creation of a union-controlled hiring hall, $1.00 per hour straight time, the six hour day, and the thirty hour week.”[17]  They decided to strike if their employers did not meet the terms.  After negotiations between the ILA and the Waterfront Employers Association (WEA) failed to reach a solution, all of the ILA locals on the Pacific Coast struck against their employers on May 9, 1934.  Twelve thousand men did not go to work and only about 100 men crossed the picket lines to their jobs.  In Seattle, only three men continued to work.  Many other unions in Seattle offered their support by joining the strike including the Seamen, Marine Firemen, Masters, Mates, and Pilots, and the Marine Cooks and Stewards. 

Jenkins’s participation in the 1934 strike is not well documented and although it is certain that he was not a major leader among the strikers, his experience on the waterfront made him a high profile worker and many men followed his example.  His younger brother Andrew was one of these men.  In a 1987 interview, Andy recalled several incidents during the strike in which he was following his brother and suddenly they found themselves in the thick of the fight at the picket lines.  Both Frank (age 32 at the time) and Andy (age 27) were in the union and it seems that Frank was often looking out for him.  Frank Jenkins’s reputation on the waterfront, and his concern for his younger brother, are evident in the following scenario:

[There was] a gauntlet at Pier 2 Alaska Steam.  Some of the scabs [strike breakers] jumped overboard, but the rest of the scabs had to walk through a longshoremen’s gauntlet up to Western Avenue.  I was standing there.  Just a kid.  A nobody.  This guy that I was standing behind […] was a longshoreman.  All of a sudden he jumped up and ran among the scabs, grabbed one guy and started beating the hell out of him.  He grabbed these knucks [brass knuckles] from the hand of the scab and turned to me.  “You’re Frank’s brother aren’t you?  Beat it!”[18] 

In the violence that erupted that day, Frank’s reputation and popularity kept Andrew out of harm and Andy’s appreciation shows in his interview where he is always quick to describe his brother as a “star” or throw him another complement.[19]  Being caught by the police with a weapon such as brass knuckles usually led to arrest.  Small pockets of violence, such as this one, broke out daily on the waterfront during the 1934 strike.  

In June of 1934, the consequences of the strike were beginning to have major implications on the welfare of residents in Alaska, although it was never the intent of the strikers to harm the general public.  The closure of Pacific ports meant that Alaska was short on imported food.  Seattle’s newly appointed mayor, Charles L. Smith, realized the seriousness of the situation and promised to stop supporting non-Alaska shippers once the Longshoremen released the cargoes to Alaska.  The “Alaska Agreement” allowed union longshoremen to work on ships containing goods for Alaska.  The Alaska Steamship Operators vowed only to hire ILA members as a show of gratitude.

            One month later, the Waterfront Employers Association  notified the union that it would arbitrate all issues on a coast wide basis. On July 31, 1934, the Pacific longshoremen returned to work.  The union eventually won increased wages from eighty-five cents per hour to ninety-five cents per hour and the thirty-hour workweek.  Although the hiring halls were still open to non-union men, everyone would have to pay the same fee to utilize the halls and all of the dispatchers would be required to be union members and would be appointed by the ILA. 

The victory for the ILA in 1934 came in no small part through racial solidarity between white and black workers, and gave African-American activists important institutional resources from which to promote racial justice as a labor and class issue and not just a civil rights issue.  Frank Jenkins recalled that following the strike, the waterfront employers treated everybody “fair and square” regardless of race.  He also noted that the union had become much more democratic: finally, everyone had an equal voice and could vote.[20]

This experience helped Frank see labor unions as important civil rights advocates, with ILWU founder and president Harry Bridges standing out to him as a “civil rights man” with an impressive record worth mentioning in the same breath as Martin Luther King Jr.[21]  With the shift of waterfront workers from the ILA to the ILWU, the election of Bridges as President, and the improved wages and hours in the union, Frank said waterfront work “went from darkness to sunshine.”[22]  Even the applications to join the union did not include race: “all it [had was] your name and address and your experience.”[23]  

Jenkins’s Role in the ILWU     

Jenkins seized the opportunities provided by the new racial attitudes within the union by becoming involved with the ILWU Local 19 Executive Board.  He held positions of “official capacity” in the union from 1936 to 1940 and from 1943 until his retirement in 1967.[24]  The Dispatcher recorded that he was on the Labor Relations committee in 1947.[25]   

Frank’s work on the Labor Relations Committee included gathering port working rules from the various local unions and coordinating them with the Coast Labor Relations Committee in San Francisco.  This committee was extremely important to the union because each port along the Pacific Coast had different operating rules, based on what type of cargo they dealt with.  While ports such as Seattle and San Francisco dealt mainly with large container ships, smaller ports like Anacortes and Port Angeles handled lumber and other natural products.  Keeping all of the ports in good review with the Coast Labor Relations Committee was a very important.  Frank supposedly had an encyclopedic knowledge of the agreements between the union and other associations such as the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) and the Labor Relations Committee (LRC).[26]  When the Jenkins estate donated Frank’s papers to the University of Washington Libraries, various labor law handbooks and the ILWU constitution were all well worn and some had coffee stains on them, suggesting that Jenkins not only read them but perhaps even regularly carried them around.[27] 

As a Local 19 leader, Frank worked alongside Martin Jugum, a longtime Executive Board member, on all negotiations that concerned the ILWU.  This included making sure that the men of Local 19 had the best health benefits available to them, and that they were working in the most efficient methods possible.  It also required deciding how to reshape the workforce once machinery was introduced and required changing safety regulations to fit the newer technology.  Jugum and Jenkins attended caucuses together in San Francisco and helped to prevent disturbances on the waterfront that could possibly lead to a strike or detriment the workers in anyway.  Frank Jenkins and Martin Jugum worked as a team.  Jenkins knew the facts and issues, Jugum did the negotiating.  According to Ron Magden,

[Frank’s] greatness on [the Labor Relations Committee] was the continuity he had.  He’d been on that committee since he began on the waterfront and so he knew the contract backwards and forwards.  Jugum was a better speaker, but Jenkins had the knowledge.  Jugum was sort of a smooth it over type of guy, Frank was more of a straight forward ‘here’s what we want, now you tell us how far you can go to meeting that.’  That would be the Frank Jenkins approach.[28] 

The two worked together very successfully for many years.  One of the duo’s most remarkable victories was instituting a rotation system.  The system allowed for all men to avoid playing into a self-defeating favoritism and instead each receive an equal amount of work.  Jenkins was especially adamant that this system replace the old system of steady men.  With the old system, racism often played a part in whether a worker could get a job or not.  It was especially hard for minorities to find work when companies kept hiring the “steady men.”  Jenkins believed that if the old system was kept, blacks would always be left out and would certainly suffer the most. 

            Jenkins worked to promote anti-racist practices in his union, but found his experience and leadership were not always acknowledged by the broader society. When World War II began, the Army used longshoremen along the entire Pacific Coast to load their vessels.  At this time, Frank had a 1-A classification, which granted him access to most of the waterfront, including high-security areas.  He was asked by a second lieutenant in the Army if he would be a hatch tender or a winch driver on one of the ships but Jenkins wanted to do more for his country – he wanted to be in the Army and experience the things that he grew up hearing his father talk about.  Frank remembered that at the recruiting office, an Army official told him that

[the Army] wanted people who had experience in loading vessels and handling ship’s gear and so forth.  The sergeant at the desk had to go back into the inner office to talk to a lieutenant and when he came [back] he said he wanted people experienced as winch drivers, riggers, hatch tenders and so forth.  I said, ‘That’s me.”  You go back and see the lieutenant.  He [the sergeant] came by and said we want them with quite a bit of experience.  I told him that I had over twenty years.  He went back to the lieutenant again, but the lieutenant would not come out of the office.  When he came back, I told him, ‘hold it.  Let’s quit fencing.’  He said, ‘Ok, you know what the problem is?’  I said, ‘Yes, my color is against me.’  He said, That’s right.’  I said, ‘Why doesn’t that guy come out and tell me?’  He said because he has got me to come out and tell you and it’s embarrassing the hell out of me.  I said, ‘Forget about it.  Don’t feel embarrassed.’  The sergeant said to watch the papers and maybe a position would open up later.[29]   

Frank told the sergeant as he walked out the door to watch the papers himself. 

            Jenkins did not give up, however.  If the Army would not let him in, maybe the Navy would.  Thus, he attended a Navy recruiting drive where he personally knew one of the warrant officers doing special recruiting from within the union.  As Frank approached him, the warrant officer threw up his hands and said, “There’s no place for you.  Don’t ask me any questions.  Those are my orders.  No place for you here because you haven’t got the right ethnic background.”[30]  Frank’s patriotism hit rock bottom at this point.  The Army and Navy had turned him down.  He had grown up on Army bases all over the country, his father and grandfather had been soldiers, and he had more experience than most of the other men being recruited.  Rejection from the armed forces would long remain a part of how Frank understood the country he lived in.  Thirty years after being rejected, Frank offered bitter descriptions of his several attempts to join the military. 

In 1955, a similar event would again raise Frank’s ire.  This time however, he would appeal to the courts and win.  On July 15, 1955, Jenkins’s Coast Guard pass was taken from him immediately after he testified at the Harry Bridges trial.[31]  The Red Scare was in full force and many union men were accused of being communist.  Without evidence, authorities could revoke any type of security or clearance pass from a union man accused of communism.  Coast Guard representatives claimed they had been looking for Jenkins since 1953, which Jenkins found hard to believe: he had been living in Seattle and working  steady rotations on the waterfront during those two years.[32]  While the Coast Guard attempted to make Jenkins seem harmful to his country, Jenkins fought back with an official appeal to the Coast Guard.  On September 13, 1955, an ILWU attorney along with nine white union officers testified as character witnesses at the appeal hearing.[33]  When asked if communists should be permitted access to “strategic” areas, Jenkins responded that “because he was black he would not practice discrimination against any other person.”[34]  Jenkins’s pass was returned to him in November, 1955.[35]  When recalling this incident in his interview, Jenkins claims that he was not surprised at all of the controversy surrounding his pass because of the panic that swept through the country over communism.  It is also understandable that he was labeled as such because of his open attitude towards communism and its ideologies.  According to Magden however, although Jenkins was in favor of Communist party concepts, he never joined the party.[36]

            In this struggle Jenkins felt a connection with ILWU president Harry Bridges, who also fought false accusations that he had been a communist—accusations that were meant to weaken the union.  Although Jenkins admits in the interview that there were some extreme communists in the ILWU, he adamantly defended their right to be whatever they wanted to be and that they coexisted peacefully with Democrats, Republicans, and other political parties.         

Jenkins’ Final Years in Seattle

Jenkins’s life after his retirement in 1967 is not well documented.  He died in April 1973.  From his late teens to all but the last six of his life, he was a Longshoreman, and quite proud of it.  He called the longshoremen a “different breed of animal,” which he meant in the most complementary way.[37]  As a group of men who “will not accept what they think is not fair,” the Longshoremen live on the premise that the union is controlled from the bottom to the top. [38]  No contract passed without the support of the workers, which is why Jenkins’ position on the executive board meant more than making decisions with fellow board members.  Frank had to keep a delicate balance between the workers and the employers.  The fact that he was elected nearly every year during his time in the union shows that he was successful. 

Despite his setback during the war, Jenkins lead a remarkable life, one that would make his parents proud, even if he did not become a lawyer.  He put his heart and soul into a union that dramatically changed social norms by placing men of all different ethnicities and races side by side in the workforce.  Magden recalled that “I never heard of one disparaging remark of Frank Jenkins.  Every person I ever talked to thought the world of him.”[39]  In reality, there were probably people who thought otherwise of Frank but while interviewing over one-hundred Seattle Longshoremen, Ron Magden heard “nothing but praise.”[40] 

 (c)Copyright Megan Elston 2005
HSTAA 498 Fall 2004 


[1] William H. Harris. The Harder We Run: Black workers since the Civil War.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1982.  119

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 121

[4] “Local 19 Mourns Labor Veteran Frank Jenkins,” The Dispatcher April 27, 1973, pg. 3.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Megan Elston, Tape Recorded Interview of Ronald Magden, May 6, 2005.

[7] Richard C. Berner, Tape Recorded Interview of Frank Jenkins, June 6 and 28, 1972.

[8] Elston interview of Ron Magden.

[9] Berner interview of Frank Jenkins.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Quintard Taylor, The Forging of a Black Community (Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 1994), 49.  

[12] Ibid.

[13] Robert Bedford Pitts.  “Organized Labor and the Negro in Seattle.”  Unpublished MA Thesis, University of Washington, 1941. pp. 40-2

[14] Berner interview of Frank Jenkins

[15] Joseph Sylvester Jackson.  “The Colored Marine Benevolent Association of the Pacific, or, Implications of Vertical Mobility for Negro Stewards in Seattle.”  Unpublished MA Thesis, University of Washington, 1939. p. 21

[16] Berner interview of Frank Jenkins

[17] Jonathan Dembo, “A History of the Washington State Labor Movement, 1885-1935” (Unpublished PhD diss., University of Washington, 1978), 628-639.

[18] Ronald Magden, Tape Recorded Interview of Andrew and Renee Jenkins, July 7, 1987.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Berner interview of Frank Jenkins

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

[25] The Dispatcher April 27, 1973, pg. 3.

[26] Elston interview of Ron Magden.

[27] Frank Jenkins Collection, Special Collections.

[28] Elston interview of Ron Magden.

[29] Berner interview of Frank Jenkins

[30] Ibid

[31] “Testifies for Bridges;  Has Dock Pass Lifted,” The Dispatcher July 22, 1955, pg. 1.

[32] Ibid.

[33] “Frank Jenkins Appeals to CG on Revoked Dock-Pass,” The Dispatcher September 30, 1955, pg. 5.

[34] Ibid.

[35] “Union Veteran,” The Dispatcher November 11, 1955, pg. 6.

[36] Elston interview of Ron Magden.

[37] Berner interview of Frank Jenkins

[38] Ibid

[39] Elston interview of Ron Magden.

[40] Ibid.

from The Dispatcher April 27, 1973


Jenkins was a member of ILWU Local 19 and served on its Executive Committee and in other leadership capacities from 1936 until his retirement in 1967.


1934 strike

In 1934 longshoremen up and down the West Coast struck, demanding union hiring halls and a coast wide contract. Lasting three months, the strike shut the port of Seattle. In the photo above, strikers and mounted police clash near Pier 40 on June 21. Below, Seattle policemen armed with submachine guns take up position on Magnolia Bridge at Smith Cove, July 19. Photos courtesy: Museum of History and Industry 

 

Strikers usher a scab off the docks at the conclusion of the 1934 strike. This episode appears to be less violent than the incident described by Andy Jenkins.  Courtesy: Ron Magden


Red Scare

In July 1955, the Coast Guard lifted Frank Jenkins' dock pass, preventing him from working. He was accused of being a Communist after testifying at the deportation trial of ILWU President Harry Bridges. Defended by his union, he won his appeal five months later. These articles are from The Dispatcher  (7-22-55; 9-30-55; 11-11-55)

[click to enlarge]

 

 

 

 


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