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50 Years/50 Collections: The World Travels of Labor Activist Maida Springer-Kemp

ILGWU Committee on Education, 1947. Springer-Kemp is in back row, third from right.

Maida Springer-Kemp’s traveling record rivaled and exceeded that of many Americans living during her time. Her eight passports were evidence of her journeys across the globe. Springer-Kemp’s legacy is one that includes her participation in labor movements on four continents that spanned almost four decades. The Maida Springer-Kemp papers at the Amistad Research Center displays the life of an African American woman labor leader and activist during the first and second half of the 20th century.

The first group of Springer-Kemp’s papers was donated to the Center by her in 1989. The Center would receive two more addenda to the collection, one donated by Yvette Richards, Springer-Kemp’s biographer, in 1999, and another donated by her son Eric Springer in 2016. Her papers consists of photographs, correspondence, speeches, ephemera, publications and trade and union files that covers her involvement in the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) from 1944 to 1981.

Yvette Richards provides insight into Springer-Kemp’s early life in her study, My Passionate Feeling About Africa: Maida Springer-Kemp and the American Labor Movement. Springer-Kemp was born on May 10, 1910 in Panama, a country located in Central America. Her father, Harold Stewart, a black migrant from Barbados, and her mother, Adina Stewart, a Spanish speaking Panamanian, migrated to New York in 1917. They divorced shortly afterwards and Adina struggled to raise Springer-Kemp as a single parent in Harlem. Springer-Kemp graduated from Bordentown Manual and Industrial School in 1926. She held jobs in the garment industry as a young girl, but her work life came to an end when she married Owen Springer.

Springer-Kemp returned to the garment industry in 1932 because the devastating economic consequences of the Great Depression necessitated that the household have two earners. While working, Springer-Kemp soon realized just how exploitative the garment industry was. Many of trade’s unjust practices included non-payment for overtime work and the withholding of workers’ wages. It was this gross mistreatment that led Springer-Kemp to seek out and join the Dressmaker’s Union, Local 22 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) in 1933.Her hard work and increased devotion led to her rising status within the ILGWU, resulting in her serving on the executive board by 1938, and becoming the chair of its education committee in 1940.

Springer-Kemp speaking to a crowd in Nigeria, circa 1964-1965.

After the end of World War II, Springer Kemp’s activism turned towards the international arena, particularly in the new labor unions emerging in Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Ghana, Uganda, and other African nations. In 1957, she assisted the AFL-CIO in their African projects, where she helped coordinate a scholarship program for African trade unionists. She served as the International Representative for Africa for the AFL-CIO Department of International Affairs (1959-1965), and continued her activism as a general organizer for the ILGWU (1966-1969). As Springer-Kemp traveled throughout Africa she came into contact with African leaders who were involved in various independence movements across the continent. She maintained a lengthy correspondence with Julius Nyerere, president of the Tanganyika Africa National Union (TANU), who would become the first prime minister for the African state of Tanganyika, and the first president of present day Tanzania. Before he found himself in either position, he was on the frontlines of the anti-colonial movement in Tanganyika. In a 1958 letter to Springer-Kemp, Nyerere detailed the political climate of Tanganyika stating:

“In the meantime Government has used tear gas and all that to disperse the crowd at Mwanza and we have information that several people are in [the] hospital. Twenty five people from Musoma are also reported to have gone to Mwanza to see the Provincial Commissioner to demand the return of their chief, Makongoro Matutu, who was deposed and deported by Government. They are reported to have said that they will leave the chiefdom in their thousands and trek to Mwanza unless their Chief is returned.”

Springer-Kemp was continuously involved with AFL-CIO and labor affiliated projects on the African continent for the rest of her life. In addition to her work in Africa, Springer Kemp became a consultant with the Asian-American Free Labor Institute, another AFL-CIO-affiliated organization. Her work at the institute focused on the development of women’s labor activities in Turkey and Indonesia, including special seminars held in those countries in 1980. Her extensive traveling, whether it was in Africa, Asia or the United States, no doubt affected her home life. Springer-Kemp was married twice, and her work overseas caused her to be absent from home for large amounts of time. These absences caused friction with her second husband, James Kemp, whom she married in 1965. In a letter dated March 29, 1965, James expressed his disappointment regarding Springer-Kemp’s absenteeism saying:

“In the light of my needs, I am completely unimpressed with the contribution, that I am sure you are making. I frankly don’t give a you-know-what, about the plight of the recipients of your efforts, when it interferes with my own selfish purposes and designs……bring it home where it belongs! P.S. Either come on the 9th, and take care of this project, or stay there and take care of that one. Hoping that this threat chases you to the airline office.”

Maida and James Kemp’s wedding reception, 1965. Left to right: James Kemp, Cecile Springer, Eric Springer, Maida, and Adina Carrington.

Springer-Kemp was undeterred by her husband’s warnings. In a May 1965 letter to her from James, two months after he wrote the March 1965 letter, it was clear that she still had not returned home. Throughout her life, Springer-Kemp remained impassioned about her work. When she retired in 1981, she became involved in the American women’s labor movement. Her papers reflect an extraordinary career, and also her extensive relationships with other African American labor leaders such as A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Pauli Murray. Springer-Kemp died in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on March 29, 2005.

The finding aid for the Maida Springer-Kemp papers are located here.

Images from the Maida Springer-Kemp papers. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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