Obituary: Maida Springer Kemp / Labor activist traveled worldwide

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As she grew from being a union foot soldier to a pioneering international labor advocate, Maida Springer Kemp traveled the world. Everywhere she went -- Europe, Africa, Turkey -- she looked for the union label, the sign that workers were being treated fairly.

 Maida Springer Kemp 

That's because Mrs. Springer Kemp knew the life of the thousands who toiled long hours in the garment industry sweatshops. She was one of them.

During the Depression, she earned pennies an hour in New York when she joined Local 22 of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union.

Believing organized labor offered a better life, she was a trailblazer in a segregated America, building alliances between the black community and labor. In England, in 1945, she became the first black woman to represent American labor abroad. Working with the Urban League, she helped forge a bond between the American Federation of Labor-Council of Industrial Organizations and the emerging African labor movement in the 1960s.

Mrs. Springer Kemp, a native of Panama who went to Harlem at age 7, had lived in Pittsburgh since the late 1970s. She died on Tuesday after a long illness. She was 94.

She moved here from Chicago in the early 1980s to be close to her son, Pittsburgh attorney Eric Springer, who as a child was often by his mother's side as she handed out leaflets for union rallies. Once in Pittsburgh, she was active in the NAACP and continued her union work through consulting.

The groundwork for her activism was planted in Harlem. There Mrs. Springer Kemp was deeply influenced by her mother, Adina Stewart Carrington, who listened to the black nationalist messages of Marcus Garvey and told her young daughter to be hopeful and value education.

Mrs. Springer Kemp's interest in the union movement was sparked by a 1929 radio address by A. Philip Randolph, the leader of the Pullman Porters, an all-black union of railroad service workers.

"She had always known about the pain of the black worker," said Yevette Richards, a history professor at George Mason University in Virginia who wrote a 2002 biography of Springer Kemp, "but Randolph's speech opened her up to realize there were larger forces at work that hindered all workers."

Randolph would go on to mentor her throughout her career. In 1937, when blacks were first allowed in New York's grand union parade, he chose Mrs. Springer Kemp to march. At Local 22, she moved through the union ranks and by the time she was named the first black business agent to control a district, she was known as "the pride of ILGWU."

Mrs. Springer-Kemp's union activism turned into a 50-year career that took her around the world. According to Richards, she inspired Turkish women -- and men -- and helped found the first women's labor movement in that country.

By the time Mrs. Springer-Kemp officially joined the AFL-CIO International Affairs Department in 1960, she was well known in Africa, serving as an adviser to fledgling trade unions in Kenya, Tanzania and Ghana. She also started an exchange program for Africans to study at Harvard University and, as Africa moved beyond colonialism, became friends with many of the continent's emerging leaders, including Tanzania's Julius Nyerere and Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah.

She established a garment workers trade school in Kenya, whose mission included opening opportunities for women. She set up a post-secondary scholarship for girls in Tanzania and created the Maida Fund to help agricultural workers in East Africa go back to school.

"Her influence wasn't just labor but as a humanitarian, too," said Richards.

Married twice, she divorced her first husband, Owen Springer. Their son, Eric, was born in 1929. In 1965, Mrs. Springer Kemp married James Kemp, a lawyer and Chicago labor leader and a former national president of the NAACP. The couple separated but remained friends until Kemp's death in 1983.

Besides her son, she is survived by two grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete.


Ervin Dyer can be reached at edyer@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1410. Correction/Clarification: (Published 4/1/05) The American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations was misidentified.


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