A century ago today, 26,000 Paterson silk workers under the banner of the Industrial Workers of the World were already four months into a citywide strike that captivated a nation.
Whether that event can still captivate the imagination of Americans is a question that the Paterson Falls National Historic Park and area museums and colleges hope will be answered with a resounding “Yes!”
The park and other cultural institutions are using the 100th anniversary of the famous 1913 silk strike as an opportunity both to celebrate Paterson’s labor history and to take another step in building the heritage tourism that Paterson’s political and civic leaders see as critical to the city’s economic future.
The 1913 the strike was critical for Big Bill Haywood and the radical Industrial Workers of the World. It was the high-water mark of their challenge to the more-conservative American Federation of Labor for leadership of the nation’s union movement.
But for Paterson’s militant class-conscious silk workers, the strike was just the latest — and largest — in a series of battles with the city’s manufacturers that would see them win an eight-hour workday two years later.
“There is a war in Paterson,” journalist John Reed wrote, and he was right. Paterson officials had effectively abolished the First Amendment in their city, declaring any meeting of three or more person to be an “illegal assembly,” and the jail was filled with strikers. One striker had already been shot to death.
But just across the Passaic River, the working-class suburb of Haledon had elected a Socialist mayor. The strikers moved their headquarters to Haledon, and Reed was busy up at the Botto House rehearsing hundreds of silk workers for their roles in the upcoming Paterson Pageant at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
“It’s hard for people today to understand how workers felt a hundred years ago, how radical they were, how hard they had to fight for rights that we take for granted, and how strongly they felt about their unions,” said Angelica Santomauro, executive director of the American Labor Museum/Botto House National Landmark.
“But students get it when you tell them that 14- and 15-year-old girls used to work 10- and 12-hour days in the mills, and that strike leaders like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn were not much older than they are,” she said.
One Big Virtual Union
Ironically, the divisive 1913 strike may have ultimately brought some unity to Patterson.
“We all know that Paterson is a city where virtually everyone seems to disagree with everyone else on virtually everything. But virtually everyone agrees that the new national park offers a great opportunity to seize, and that this moment is a unique opportunity to engage people in the city’s unique history,” said Leonard Zax, president of the nonprofit Hamilton Partnership for Paterson.
Zax — a Paterson expatriate turned Washington lawyer who was the driving force along with Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Rep. Wiliam Pascrelll (D-NJ) in pushing the nation’s newest national park through a reluctant Congress — made his remarks at the opening of “Oscar Bluemner’s America: Picturing Paterson, New Jersey” at the Montclair Art Museum.
The Bluemner exhibit is just one of a series of special historical and cultural exhibitions being offered as part of a year-long commemoration that began with the January opening of the Botto House’s strike exhibit and will conclude with the premiere of the play “Paterson Falls” at Drew University in November.
In one sense, the centennial of the strike comes a few years too early, because Paterson Falls National Historic Park is still in the early stages of its planning and development, and while the Great Falls is an unknown natural attraction, the park lacks the full visitor’s center and amenities that tourists expect.
But Darren Boch, the park’s energetic superintendent, recently unveiled a cellphone-accessible audio “Mill Mile Walking Tour” to take visitors through Paterson’s historic silk district
The audio tour, which Boch characterized as “a ranger in your pocket,” is narrated by TV news anchor Brian Williams, who grew up in New Jersey, and features the voices of President Obama and Paterson “favorite sons” Victor Cruz, the popular wide receiver for the Giants, and Junot Diaz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
“We have big plans,” Boch said. Paterson’s mills once ran on power generated by the water that rushed from the Paterson River through raceways, or canals, that crisscrossed the Silk District. “The goal of the National Park Service is to have the raceways flowing for aesthetic and interpretive reasons.”
The Lowell Inspiration
Zax compared Paterson’s heritage tourism potential to Lowell, the Massachusetts mill city, in 1978. Before Lowell’s national park opened, Zax noted, the chief economist of the Bank of Boston declared that “Lowell has no future.”
Since the park opened, heritage tourism has generated $400 million in economic activity in Lowell, he said, asserting that every $1 invested in national parks generates $10 for the local economy.
Paterson Great Falls National Historic Park is built around the 77-foot falls that inspired Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton to make Paterson the nation’s first planned industrial city, and the manufacturing and labor history that followed.
But Paterson and its tradition of labor activism also inspired a rich artistic heritage that is a crucial part of the year-long commemoration of the strike.
Former Bloomfield College Professor Steve Golin, who is delivering the keynote address today at William Paterson University’s conference on the 1913 strike, entitled his groundbreaking book on the Paterson strike “The Fragile Bridge” to highlight the importance of the connection between the IWW leaders; the Paterson strikers; and the New York City intellectuals, artists, and socialites who supported the strike.
“The importance of music, the visual arts and theater in the Paterson strike is unusual,” said playwright Rosemary McLaughlin, chair of Drew University’s Department of Theater and Dance.
Santomauro brought in the Solidarity Singers, the Industrial Union Council’s street chorus, to perform songs from the Paterson strike at the Botto House’s January 22 exhibit opening that coincided with the first day of the strike.
On Sunday, June 2, to commemorate the Paterson Pageant that was staged at Madison Square Garden, a parade of costumed speakers will troop to the balcony of the Botto House to reenact the speeches of strike leaders and notables.
Haledon Mayor Domenick Stampone will portray his town’s “Red mayor,” who invited the strikers to Haledon, and Sarah Klee, who just finished her sophomore year at Roger Williams College, will portray her great-grandmother, Hannah Silverman, a fearless 17-year-old strike captain who helped Reed produce the pageant.
“I was raised on stories of Hannah Silverman,” Klee said. “One hundred years ago my great-grandmother gave a speech to 25,000 striking workers, and I am ecstatic that I will get to reenact her important part in the strike from the same balcony.”
Klee, a history major, has been researching transcripts of Silverman’s defiant courtroom confrontations for direct quotes for her speech.
The Pageant Performance
Performance of scenes from the Paterson Pageant itself will have to wait for Drew University’s production of McLaughlin’s play, “Paterson Falls,” November 13 to 16.
McLaughlin’s play, which was commissioned by Playwrights Theater of New Jersey in 2004, grew out of Santomauro’s invitation to the playwright to assist an Eastside High School honors class in producing a school play about the strike in 1997.
“I hadn’t spent much time in Paterson, but it was clear there was a great story to be told,” said McLaughlin, who centered her play on Reed’s production of the Paterson Pageant. The play was an artistic success, but failed to raise the money needed to sustain the strike, which ended in July when the worn-out strikers returned to work without any gains.
It was Oscar Bluemner, an impressionistic modernist, who brought the Paterson strike to the New York art scene with a groundbreaking 1915 exhibition.
“Bluemner’s focus on the color red was a metaphor for the political and social forces that came to a head in 1913 in the Paterson silk strike,” Gail Stavitsky, chief curator of the Montclair Art Museum, said in describing her museum’s Bluemner exhibit.
“Paterson at that time was called the ‘Red City’,” she said, and critics at the time commented on “his sympathy with the strikers as suggested by the color red.”
“With Bluemner’s work, the artistic upheaval of modern art was equated with the social upheaval of the time, Stavitsku concluded.