Unsung Black women heroes of the labor movement

By & Camryn Cobb
Sylvia Woods gives a speech at the 35 anniversary of the Feast of the Dutch Women's Movement in 1981.
Sylvia Woods gives a speech at the 35 anniversary of the Feast of the Dutch Women's Movement in 1981. Photo: Nationaal Archief

Celebrating historical and present-day leaders of labor movements and civic networks

In the summer of 2023, Oxfam launched an initiative called A New Era for Black Women to spotlight the voices and priorities of low-wage earners. We are working with Black women’s advocacy groups in the Southeastern U.S. to surface issues that low-wage workers face and come up with policies addressing racial, gender, social justice, and economic inequality. Oxfam has a history of supporting labor organizers in Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana, to promote policies for higher paying jobs, job protections, more resources for job training, and other ways to break down barriers to upward mobility. 

This Black History Month, we are shining a light on some of the lesser-known leaders of labor movements in America as well as shouting out Black women who are currently leading the way to address root causes of inequality.

Sylvia Woods

1909-1987

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Sandy Stowe/Oxfam America

Sylvia Woods, a Chicago-based union organizer and community activist, helped organize the Laundry Workers Union. She helped establish the Bendix Local 330 of the United Auto Workers (UAW) and even though only 25 percent of the membership was Black, she was elected financial secretary-treasurer of the UAW in.

Through her organizing efforts, Woods realized that racism is a tool used to divide the working class. She believed that Black and white workers had to unite to defend their collective rights, and that ideology guided much of her organizing work.

Hattie Canty

1933–2012

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Sandy Stowe/Oxfam America

Hattie Canty was one of the greatest strike leaders in U.S. history. She worked several jobs in Las Vegas, from housekeeper to school janitor, and room attendant. She was active in the Culinary Workers Union (CWU) and eventually served as union president, becoming the first Black woman and room attendant in this position. As union president, Canty pushed for racial justice within the hospitality industry and union. She fought for workers to receive living wages and organized a successful 75-day walkout against Las Vegas casinos that won better health insurance benefits for culinary workers. In 1991, she led workers at the Frontier Hotel through a strike that ended up lasting six and a half year to negotiate better labor standards at the casinos.

Maida Springer Kemp 

1910 – 2005

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Sandy Stowe/Oxfam America

Maida Springer Kemp worked as a labor organizer in the garment industry and became the first Black woman to represent the U.S. labor movement overseas in 1945 when she visited Great Britain on a labor exchange trip. Kemp went on to spend many years liaising between American and African labor leaders as a member of the AFL-CIO and was affectionately known as “Mama Maida” for her work. Throughout her life she advocated for civil rights and women’s rights in America and internationally.

Rukia Lumumba

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Sandy Stowe/Oxfam America

Rukia Lumumba is a transformative justice strategist and human rights advocate. While clerking for the Juvenile Rights Division of the Washington, DC, Public Defender Service, she helped collect data on human rights violations at the Oak Hill Youth Detention Center that contributed to the closing of the facility. She co-founded Katrina on the Ground, an initiative that organized over 700 college students to participate in post-Katrina relief efforts in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama.

Lumumba is the executive director of the People’s Advocacy Institute and co-coordinator of the Electoral Justice Project. She currently co-chairs the People’s Assembly process in Jackson, Miss, which works to increase community access to city government and institutionalize People’s Assemblies as community governing models that enable deep democratic participation of people in their own governance.

Danyelle Holmes

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Sandy Stowe/Oxfam America

Danyelle Holmes works across political lines to fight for people living in poverty and low-income wage earners in the United States. She has been on the front lines of many political battles in the state of Mississippi, including leading the water distribution team to ensure that Jackson residents had access to clean drinking water following heavy flooding that affected poorly maintained city water systems and subsequent movements to stop the privatization of Jackson’s water and sewer infrastructure, to fully fund public education, and to remove the Confederate state flag.

Maria Harmon

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Sandy Stowe/Oxfam America

Maria Harmon is the co-founder and co-director of Step Up Louisiana, a grassroots membership-based organization that advocates for economic and education justice across the state. Harmon started organizing at the age of 16. While studying at Southern University A&M College, she worked with the Louisiana Democratic Party to build a network of over 2,000 civically engaged students. She helped start Democracy Prep Public School of Baton Rouge by enrolling 192 students for their first school year in 2015-2016. Holmes has also worked for the Micah Project, a federation of the PICO National Network/Faith in Action, in 2016 as a community organizer working in education and civic engagement.

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