For nearly a quarter of a century, the International Workers Order fought relentlessly for racial equality, interracial solidarity, industrial unions, and social security programs that would protect all Americans. Located at 80 Fifth Avenue for its entire lifetime, from 1930 until 1954, this progressive mutual-benefit fraternal organization was a pioneering force in the U.S. labor and civil rights movements. The IWO not only operated as an interracial organization, but also advocated against racist policies and developed anti-racist programs. Its fight for civil rights was dynamic and interdisciplinary, using political advocacy, IWO-sponsored health insurance, and community theater among its many tools.
The IWO’s leadership pronounced that there would be “No Jim Crow in the IWO,” and at its height the consortium included 188,000 members from many political, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. In the 1930s and 1940s, African American members of the IWO instituted the Lincoln-Douglass Society, one of many federations under the organization’s wide umbrella. Beyond lobbying vigorously for black civil rights, the Society offered high quality health insurance to its members, who faced discrimination from private insurance companies. IWO vice president and Harlem resident Louise Thompson Patterson was one of many notable activists to fight for racial equality as part of the IWO.
Beyond serving as an interracial organization, the IWO supported campaigns such as the federal anti-lynching bill, the permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee, the integration of the armed forces, the elimination of Jim Crow segregation in public facilities, and the protection of black voting rights. It also organized rallies in defense of the “Scottsboro Boys,” the nine black teenagers who were falsely accused of rape and sentenced to death in Alabama in 1931. Congressman Vito Marcantonio of East Harlem, who served as another IWO vice president, introduced legislation drafted by the Order to bar discrimination against Jewish, Italian, and black individuals in war work. Furthermore, the IWO demanded the integration of Major League Baseball, segregated beaches, and the Stuyvesant Town co-ops in New York City.
Even as they pushed for equality on an institutional level, the IWO’s members understood the importance of art, literature, music, and theater in the fight for civil rights. Actor, musician, and activist Paul Robeson was a prominent IWO member, who frequently performed at the Order’s rallies and concerts. The IWO also organized the Harlem Suitcase Theater, led by Thompson Patterson, which sought to bring socially-conscious theater to African American audiences throughout the Depression. Its debut production, “Don’t You Want to be Free?” was written by Langston Hughes, whose “Revolutionary Verses” chapbook and other poems were also published by the Order.
Actors Butterfly McQueen and Robert Earl Jones performed in “Don’t You Want to be Free?,” which served as their respective acting debuts. The Harlem Suitcase Theater, which featured productions on topics including racism, lynching, and industrial workers poverty, travelled to Atlanta, Nashville, and other American cities. It also presented an opera by composer James P. Johnson. Today, the Harlem Suitcase Theater and the organization’s other troupes, including the IWO’s Freedom Theater, are viewed as trailblazers of experimental community theater.
From its beginning, the IWO was the frequent target of House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigations, and in 1954 the organization was disbanded following legal action undertaken by the state of New York. Nevertheless, the legacy of the IWO lives on in countless ways, and its history is essential in the ongoing fight for civil rights today.
Village Preservation has recently received a series of extraordinary letters from individuals across the world, expressing support for our campaign to landmark a historic district south of Union Square. For more information on the International Workers Order at 80 Fifth Avenue, please read the letter of support from Dr. Robert M. Zecker, Professor of History at Saint Francis Xavier University and the author of “A Road to Peace and Freedom”: The International Workers Order and the Struggle for Economic Justice and Civil Rights, 1930-1954.
Dr. Zecker will be giving a virtual talk about the IWO on Wednesday, July 22nd at 6:00pm. Register for “A Road to Peace and Freedom”: The International Workers Order and its Civil Rights and Social Justice Work here.
To help landmark 80 Fifth Avenue and other buildings in this area, click here. To read more history of the buildings and area south of Union Square, and our preservation efforts in the area, click here. To learn more about Civil Rights and Social Justice sites in our neighborhood, click here.