Trailblazers

Benjamin Fletcher

Benjamin FletcherBenjamin Fletcher (1890-1949) was a union leader and organizer in the early 1900’s. He joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) while employed as a dockworker in Philadelphia in 1912. The IWW, nicknamed Wobbly, was the one union that welcomed members from all races and treated them fairly and equally.

Fletcher was active in the union and soon stood out for his intellect and oratory skills.

In 1913 he helped establish the Philadelphia Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union Local 8, the local or Philadelphia branch of the IWW.

The membership of Local 8 was made up of African Americans, European immigrants and West Indians. Fletcher believed that worker solidarity in the workforce was more important than racial solidarity. He realized that integrated union groups prevented employers from using race to pit different ethnic groups against each other, and made sure the leadership of Local 8 reflected the diversity of its members.

The IWW was against war and passed an anti-war resolution at the union’s 1916 convention. This view made the IWW leadership a target of the FBI. They were accused of treason and arrested for conspiring to strike. Fletcher was convicted in 1918 and sentenced to ten years in prison.

African American leaders, including W.E.B. DuBois, and civil rights leader, Asa Philip Randolph protested Fletcher’s imprisonment. In 1920 Fletcher was released on bail. President Warren G. Harding commuted his sentence in 1923, and in 1933 he received a full pardon from President Franklin D Roosevelt.

Mary Fields

Mary FieldsIn July 1775 the Second Continental Congress established the US postal system. Enslaved men, who worked for transportation contractors were among the first postal service mail carriers. Women began carrying mail in 1845.

The first black woman to carry mail for the United States postal service was Mary Fields, “Stagecoach Mary.”

Fields was born into slavery around 1832 in Hickman County, Tennessee. After becoming a free woman she went to work for St. Peter’s Catholic School in Montana. She provided protection for nuns at the school, drove their supply wagon, and made necessary repairs to keep the school running.

Although known for her kind heart, Fields had a temper and stood her ground when confronted. When one confrontation ended with her shooting a man in self-defense, she was fired by the Bishop.

Fields relocated to Cascade County and opened a restaurant, which soon failed. She was not considered a good cook and often fed many that had no means to pay. She then opened a laundry. Fields was beloved by the people in the town. When her laundry burned down the townspeople pitched in and helped her reopen it.

In 1895 she got a job delivering mail for the United States Postal Service. Fields was more than sixty years old at the time. She drove the mail stagecoach and delivered mail between Cascade, St. Peter’s Mission and remote homesteads until she was almost seventy. She never let the weather or the rugged trails keep her from doing her job.

Field, who was often described as a “cigar-smoking and crack shot who was as tough as any man around” died of liver failure in 1914.

Richard Etheridge

Richard Etheridge
Before the establishment of the United States Coast Guard, there was the United States Life-Saving Service.

The Life-Saving Service was responsible for operating stations in coastal regions, rescuing shipwreck victims and assisting those experiencing problems at sea.

In 1880, Richard Etheridge became the first African American to command a lifesaving station when he was appointed keeper (head life saver) of the Pea Island Station on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Pea Island Life-Saving Station CrewEtheridge led an all-black crew and put them through demanding drills to make sure they were ready and able to tackle all lifesaving tasks. He was hailed as one of the most courageous and ingenious lifesavers in the service. Under him, Pea Island Station became one of the most efficient lifesaving stations in the country.

In 1996, the Coast Guard Gold Lifesaving Medal was awarded posthumously to Etheridge and his Pea Island crew for their daring rescue of the crew of the E.S. Newman in 1896

Richard Etheridge was born into slavery in 1842. At the age of twenty-one, he joined the Second North Carolina Colored Volunteers and served three years in the Union Army. He died in 1900 while still in service at the Pea Island Life-Saving Station.

Anthony Bowen

First Black YMCA in Washington
Did you know that Anthony Bowen founded the first black YMCA?

Bowen was born into slavery in Prince George’s County, Maryland in 1809. While enslaved he worked after hours and was able to save enough money to purchase his freedom. He later purchased his wife’s freedom and moved to Washington, DC.

When a segregated YMCA opened in Washington, Bowen decided that a Y was need for black men. Bowen was a leader in his community and worked to establish churches and places where free blacks could socialize and be educated.

In 1853, he founded the first Colored Men’s Christian Association and served as the organization’s first president. The Y became an important part of the black community and its meeting rooms were used by major organizations such as the NAACP and the Negro Medical Aid Society. It was also used to house students attending historically black Howard University. Many well-known African Americans including Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall spent time there.

Through the years there were reorganizations, reformations and moves to better locations. The Anthony Bowen YMCA is still serving the community and is part of the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington.