3 min read
Posted on 08.25.14
  • 3 min read
  • Posted on 08.25.14

September 1, 2014, will mark the first celebration of the Labor Day holiday since the death, in May, of St. Louis-born poet, novelist, political activist, memoirist, lyricist, actress, singer, and professor of American Studies, Maya Angelou.

There's a connection between the impending celebration and this celebrated Renaissance woman. It may be worth an extra moment of reflection as we collectively contemplate the future of the labor movement:

Labor Day was a product of local struggles for workers' rights. It quickly found official acceptance in the form of Federal legislation that created, starting in 1894, a "day celebrated and known as Labor's Holiday" on "the first Monday of September in each year."

The House Committee on Labor made plain Labor Day's purpose: Honoring labor with a national holiday would serve to celebrate both the "nobility of labor" and the working person's "honorable as well as ... useful place in the body politic" and as a "loyal and faithful citizen."

Labor Day, since its inception, in other words, has been about exalting the value of hard work and active citizenship.These values were part of Maya Angelou's formal education.

As a young teenager, Ms. Angelou attended the California Labor School in San Francisco. The school was organized by 72 trade unions. In addition to classes in basic literacy, the school "offered courses in labor organization, journalism, music, drama, history, women's studies, economics and industrial arts" and "hosted prominent guest speakers such as W.E.B. DuBois, Frank Lloyd Wright, Eric Sevareid and Orson Wells", according to a brief history accompanying the school's archive maintained at the University of Michigan.

This was a short-lived heyday of a small group of progressive schools sponsored by Organized Labor mainly situated in large cities. By the 1950s most schools had failed, after being aggressively targeted as subversive Communists by various Cold War bodies investigating "un-American" activities.

Ms. Angelou had been admitted to the California Labor School on a scholarship to study dance and drama. It was there, according to a brief biographical sketch, "she was exposed to the progressive ideals that animated her later political activism." She dropped out to become San Francisco's first female African American streetcar conductor, and then one of the nation's leading women of letters.

As St. Louis has struggled to find ways to provide quality education to each of its children, Organized Labor has weighed various options. The Construction Trades run a small charter school that prepares young men and women for careers in the construction industry . In some cities, teachers' unions run charter schools, although not in St. Louis.

Perhaps the memory and experience of Maya Angelou point to another option for education in her home town: There is precedent for Labor-supported schools that are devoted to education excellence and, like the legacy of Ms. Angelou and the Labor Holiday, have as a central part of their core curriculum the cultivation and celebration of hard work and active citizenship.

Photo: 'Instruments of Power' (1930) from 10 panel mural cycle "America Today' by Thomas Hart Benton (Americam, 1889-1975)(Metropolitan Museum of Art)