A Steelworker’s Sacrifice

English: Steel mills and a long staircase in t...

English: Steel mills and a long staircase in the South Side Slopes neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we filled out tons of paperwork during the course of planning my mother’s funeral, I was a little bit surprised by my father’s insistence on filling out the documents by including what I thought was a long-ago discarded “Jr.” as part of his name. My father’s inclusion of the suffix reminds me that there are a few things to convey about my paternal grandfather as a participant of The Great Migration.

He was the first one to migrate northward in his family, taking with him my paternal grandmother, the first one to migrate from her family. He was lured by the promise of big money to be made in the steel mills. When they arrived in Pittsburgh in 1942, the onset of World War II meant that there was a great deal of money to be made in steel. The unions had gained a foothold in the first part of the twentieth century, but big business had made it a consistent desire to break those unions.  The big bosses turned to the African Americans of the South to lure them to steel-producing cities like Pittsburgh, as strikebreakers.

Doubtless, he did not know he was taking someone’s job.  All he knew was that he was getting paid more than he ever had, and worked hard to create a better life for his sons. Despite not being allowed to join the existing unions, African American steelworkers like my grandfather could see the horrible conditions in the mills and made inroads to the unions in different ways.  According to Joe Trotter and Jared Day in their book Race and Renaissance, African American steelworkers created their own unions, but continuously sought to join predominately white unions on their own terms.

As the lowest in rank, African Americans had to work the hardest and most dangerous jobs in the mills. They were exposed to the most heat and noxious fumes.  It was the fumes that got to my grandfather and weakened his lungs, rendering him an invalid for the last ten years of his life.  I have the vaguest memories of a snappily-dressed, curmudgeonly man who sat in a corner in an overstuffed barcalounger. He would play with my sister and me by creating a monster’s lair behind the chair. He would come at us from opposite sides of the chair, and growl and threaten to get at us. We would squeal and shrink away from him in mock horror, never really wanting to escape his terrifying clutches.

I was too young to understand why he didn’t get up from the chair more often.  Neal Huguley, Sr. was only 56 when he died, an age that seemed ancient to me when I was six, but now seems much too young an age to die. I now understand what that Jr. was for.  My father, as well as my son, carry his name forward. We are all grateful beneficiaries of his great sacrifice for a better life.

Thank you, Mom, for the love of history

 

English: Portrait of Frederick Douglass as a y...

English: Portrait of Frederick Douglass as a younger man (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

My mother died this week. While I set up this blog to put forward educational information on The Great Migration, I feel I would be sorely remiss if I did not pay tribute to my mother. Her overall feeling was that people did not pay enough attention to history and we had to do more to get them to understand it’s value to our lives and its richness. She did this through her genealogical research, and I use historical romance to do mine. She was my sounding board in many ways, and  made it a point to interrogate me on my projects, just as I had done the same for her.

She was all on board with The Bledsoe Sisters.  But she continued to remind me of how there were so many stories that needed to be told.  When I published my first blog post, she was proud of it, but then followed up with an e-mail about many other series and story ideas, enough to keep me busy for decades, and I had to remind her that I had only written one blog post.

You see, she was the one who used her retirement years to trace our family’s history back to that landmark year of 1776.  This may mean small potatoes to some, but in African American genealogy it is no small feat to “break the “wall” before 1870, the first census where African Americans are recorded as people. A remarkable accomplishment.

I will miss our many debates about history and historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, discussions about genealogical reality shows, and whether people understood how close we are to the past.  She had laughed and found particular resonance in comedian Louis C.K.’s comment about how slavery was “just two 75 year old ladies” away.

Since she was my best friend, I would share with her my frustrations about how the publishing industry does not seem very open to my ideas.  So, to me, my mother is going forward stir things up a bit, “nudge” as we say in the writing world, and see what could be holding things up in the delay of spreading this love of history.  She is my guardian angel now and her name will always be on any dedication page of anything I ever publish.  I start today.

Rest in peace, Lilia C. Huguley, and thank you for the love of history.