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August 26, 2020

Honoring Helene Powell, gender equality advocate and labor activist

Born on April 17, 1919, Helene Powell was raised by a close-knit family in a small Black community in San Jose. She went on to take an active role in the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, Local 6 (San Francisco). Read more about this gender equality advocate and labor activist below.

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Honoring Helene Powell, gender equality advocate and labor activist

The California Historical Society is home to a wonderful collection of oral histories, recorded in the 1970s, documenting the lives and activism of women labor activists and radicals in California. The sound recordings and transcripts are evidence of the extensive—and often unacknowledged—role that women played in the labor movement in California.

Born on April 17, 1919, Helene Powell was raised by a close-knit family in a small Black community in San Jose. When she turned seventeen her family moved to San Francisco and Powell attended Lowell High School, a college preparatory public high school. After graduating in June 1937 she was accepted to the University of California, Berkeley, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish. It was during her time at UC Berkeley that Powell became increasingly involved in labor issues, serving as president of the Negro Students Club and participating in activist organizations such as the Associated Student Government’s Committee for Peace, California Youth Legislature, and Student Workers Federation.

CIO women organizers, Labor Herald, July 9, 1943; Helene Powell Oral Histor Collection; MS 3518; California Historical Society;

After graduating in 1941, Powell took a job with Alexander Balart Coffee Company in San Francisco. It was there that she was able to put her student activism into action, participating in a three-day strike against the company over wages. Her involvement in the strike prompted her to take an increasingly active role in the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, Local 6 (San Francisco). In 1943 Powell was appointed the ILWU’s International Representative to Los Angeles where she helped organize aircraft employees, worked on housing reform and, as part of the CIO Political Action Committee, recruited and registered African American voters in Los Angeles’ Central Avenue neighborhood for the 1944 presidential election. In the mid-1940s Powell returned to San Francisco, becoming a member of the Legislative Committee of the ILWU. Powell was particularly involved in Local 6’s efforts in the area of gender discrimination, understanding that that the influx of women into traditionally male jobs during World War II had changed expectations about gender equality in the workplace, as well as in the labor movement.

Helene Powell and ILWU Local 6 Officials, 1943; California Historical Society; CHS2015.1931

The interview between Helene Powell and interviewer Lucille Kendall, conducted in 1976-77, covers her early years growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, her experiences as a student at UC Berkeley, her involvement with the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) Local 6 in San Francisco, and her appointment—at the age of 24—as the ILWU’s International Representative to Los Angeles. The audio is available here, and the transcript can be accessed in the North Baker Research Library at the California Historical Society. Efforts to digitize the transcripts and make them available are underway.