Benefit dinner Sunday for ailing black union leader
Organizers say James Davis' life is a true example of blacks' struggle in the union.
By JOHN W. GOODWIN JR.
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
GIRARD -- A man whose life has been filled with hard work, dedication and activism, but now is battling health problems, will be the focus of a benefit dinner 2 p.m. Sunday at the Holiday Inn MetroPlex in Liberty.
The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists is sponsoring the banquet for James Davis of Girard -- a man who they say has been a warrior for blacks in the union.
Proceeds will go to defray some of the costs associated with Davis' fight against health problems associated with inhaling asbestos while working in a steel mill.
Davis, according to his daughter Irene Alexander, no longer participates in speaking engagements, but can still get around and has not missed a Coalition of Black Trade Unionists meeting. It is primarily with Alexander that Davis shares his memories of more than 36 years working in the black labor movement.
History: Born into a family where there would eventually be 13 children, Davis learned the meaning of hard work at an early age. His father, James, owned a transport company and worked at U.S. Steel's McDonald Works. Davis would watch his father's work, becoming increasingly interested in black labor as he observed various injustices to blacks in the workplace.
"When you grow up in that type of environment and you come from a very strong family that is not afraid to speak out, those feelings and desire to step up will be transferred," said Alexander of her father's childhood.
Davis, a bricklayer by trade, eventually left high school early to work in the steel mill. He later went into the Army, passed his high school diploma equivalency test, and attended the New Castle School of Trades before completing an apprenticeship to become a bricklayer at Youngstown Sheet and Tube in 1956.
Becoming a journeyman bricklayer, Davis once told Alexander, was not easy for any black man at that time. He said blacks were relegated to the most undesirable jobs in the mill.
"Blacks were only allowed to work the most dirty, dangerous and unskilled jobs; the labor gang, coke plant labor and a mason helper. The other departments in the mill were lily white," Davis said. "Like the melting pot that hadn't melted."
According to Alexander, blacks in previous years had begun to challenge unfair testing tactics used to prevent black advancement to skilled trades. She said an executive order from President Roosevelt and agitation from black steel workers made Sheet and Tube integrate the bricklayers trade, leading to Davis' position as a bricklayer. Initially there were only five black bricklayers for every 80 white.
Davis recalls that most whites simply refused to train and work alongside blacks.
Activism: It was this type of discrimination, economic racism, unfair or no representation by the union and the lack of blacks in union offices that fed Davis' interest in the labor movement. During his 36 years in the mill, he served his fellow workers in a number of capacities such as shop steward, civil rights committee, safety committee, grievance committeeman and credit union president.
Davis is still an active member of numerous organizations, serving in various capacities. He is president of the Oliver Montgomery Chapter of Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees, Coalition of Black Trade unionists national board member, parliamentarian of CBTU Youngstown/Warren Chapter, a member of the A. Philip Randolph Institute Warren Chapter, Minority Contract Organization, Urban League and the NAACP.