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Gateway to Equality: Black Women and the Struggle for Economic Justice in St. Louis

by Keona K. Ervin

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Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century
294 pages  Pubdate: 07/28/2017  6 x 9  11 b/w photos

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Like most of the nation during the 1930s, St. Louis, Missouri, was caught in the stifling grip of the Great Depression. For the next thirty years, the "Gateway City" continued to experience significant urban decline as its population swelled and the area’s industries stagnated. Over these decades, many African American citizens in the region found themselves struggling financially and fighting for access to profitable jobs and suitable working conditions. To combat ingrained racism, crippling levels of poverty, and sub-standard living conditions, black women worked together to form a community-based culture of resistance—fighting for employment, a living wage, dignity, representation, and political leadership.

Gateway to Equality investigates black working-class women’s struggle for economic justice from the rise of New Deal liberalism in the 1930s to the social upheavals of the 1960s. Author Keona K. Ervin explains that the conditions in twentieth-century St. Louis were uniquely conducive to the rise of this movement since the city’s economy was based on light industries that employed women, such as textiles and food processing. As part of the Great Migration, black women migrated to the city at a higher rate than their male counterparts, and labor and black freedom movements relied less on a charismatic, male leadership model. This made it possible for women to emerge as visible and influential leaders in both formal and informal capacities.

In this impressive study, Ervin presents a stunning account of the ways in which black working-class women creatively fused racial and economic justice. By illustrating that their politics played an important role in defining urban political agendas, her work sheds light on an unexplored aspect of community activism and illuminates the complexities of the overlapping civil rights and labor movements during the first half of the twentieth century.

Keona K. Ervin is assistant professor of history at the University of Missouri.

An interesting, well-reasoned case for the importance of black women in the local labor movement and beyond. -- Gears of Biz

Gateway to Equality is an important work of historical research that not only explores black women’s paid work and working-class black women’s class experiences, but also importantly situates black women’s struggles for justice and dignity—often unpaid and always fraught, whether led by working-class or middle-class black women—as “labor.” -- Rhonda Y. Williams, Professor of History and Author of Concrete Demands: The Search for Black Power in the 20th Century

In this masterful work, Keona Ervin makes a convincing case that African American working-class women's self-organization not only shaped black freedom movements and trade unionism but also embodied the larger possibilities for a democratic social contract for all. Gateway to Equality uses gender not only as a means of identifying the full scope of black women's work and activism, but also as a tool for interrogating the meanings of 'civil rights' and 'labor' themselves. In accomplishing this, Ervin pushes to the next level the study of black working-class community and struggle in St. Louis, Missouri and beyond. -- Clarence Lang, author of Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936–75

Gateway to Equality is an important work of historical research that not only explores black women’s paid work and working-class black women’s class experiences, but also importantly situates black women’s struggles for justice and dignity – often unpaid and always fraught, whether led by working-class or middle-class black women – as 'labor.' -- Rhonda Y. Williams, author of Concrete Demands: The Search for Black Power in the 20th Century