A couple of years ago I purchased this photograph of World War II soldiers. The photo was part of a silent auction at a history conference in San Antonio. When no one initially bid on it, I felt that such neglect of our war heroes could not be allowed to stand. I courageously signed up at the five-dollar minimum and won the photo as the only bidder.
Afterwards, I slowly began to discover the photo’s true significance. Dated August 12, 1944, it depicts U.S. troops who had been ordered into Philadelphia to manage the trains of the Philadelphia Transit Company (PTC), whose workers had gone on strike. The “Girls of 7th & Carpenter Sts” put on a thank-you dinner for the troops that August day. Owing to the troops’ presence, the strike was coming to a close as these soldiers dined.
The strike had been mainly about race relations in time of war. Some 30,000 African Americans moved to Philadelphia in the war years, and more than 500 blacks worked for the PTC. Blacks filled the more menial positions at the PTC while whites were granted exclusive access to jobs as motormen and conductors. Blacks protested the exclusion, and wartime labor shortages gave their complaint added weight. The federal Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC) stepped in and ordered the PTC to end the discrimination. The workers’ union balked, arguing (inaccurately) that the promotion of blacks to the better positions would disrupt the seniority system. In a petition, exactly 1,776 union transit workers said they would refuse to work with blacks placed in traditionally white-only jobs. When the PTC took on eight black workers for training as streetcar operators, union leaders called upon workers to report sick on August 1, 1944, the day the eight blacks were to begin hands-on work in the cars.
The strike began that day. With transit service disrupted throughout the city, President Roosevelt ordered the U.S. military to take control of the PTC. The workers were undaunted, however, and by the end of August 4, a Friday, transit service in Philadelphia had come to a complete halt. On the following day Major General Philip Hayes ordered 5,000 U.S. troops of the Third Service Command to operate and guard train cars as needed. Hayes threatened to fire workers who did not show up for work on Monday, August 7. Most did and the PTC became fully operational after six days of disrupted service. On August 11, Hayes began pulling troops out of the city and on August 17 he returned control of the Philadelphia transit system to the PTC. The training of blacks as operators continued without resistance in the succeeding months. The black workers of the PTC had won.
By August 12, 1944, a Saturday, the strike was essentially over; the troops’ work in Philadelphia was winding down. Indeed, the men in the photo seem quite relaxed. They are described in the caption as “U.S. Goodwill Troops of the P.T.C. Lines.” That label politely obscures the labor strife but conveys what their presence probably meant to the “Girls of 7th & Carpenter Sts” who put on the dinner. The photograph depicts eleven women, 48 men in uniform, three young men in civilian clothes, and one priest. A variety of ethnicities appear to be represented among both the women and the men, but evidently none of the blacks in whose interest the troops had acted were part of the celebration.
In Philadelphia and across the nation, white Americans scorned the strike not so much as a racial injustice but as an ill-advised distraction from the nation’s serious business of fighting the Japanese and Germans. The troops themselves probably felt the same way. Like Union soldiers in the Civil War, they had served the cause of black liberation regardless of what their views of African Americans may have been. And they were more than happy to enjoy a nice Philadelphia dinner to celebrate a job well done.
The author gratefully acknowledges the following source for historical information referenced in this post: Allen M. Winkler, “The Philadelphia Transit Strike of 1944,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 59, No. 1 (Jun., 1972), pp. 73-89.