Springer Kemp, Maida. Oral History Interview.

Collection Number: 6036/024

Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library


Springer Kemp, Maida. Oral History Interview., 1978-1978
Collection Number:
Springer Kemp, Maida Balanoff, Elizabeth
0.333333333333333 linear ft.
Forms of Material:
Articles, reprints, pamphlets, correspondence, photographs.
Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library
This collection consists of a transcript of an interview with Maida Springer Kemp, conducted by Elizabeth Balanoff in 1977. The interview was part of The 20th Century Trade Union Woman: Vehicle for Social Change Oral History Project, in cooperation with The Black Woman Oral History Project, the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College.
Collection material in English


Founded in 1900 by local union delegates representing about 2,000 members in cities in the northeastern United States, the ILGWU grew in geographical scope, membership size, political influence to become one of the most powerful forces in American organized labor by mid-century. Representing workers in the women's garment industry, the ILGWU worked to improve working and living conditions of its members through collective bargaining agreements, training programs, health care facilities, cooperative housing, educational opportunities, and other efforts. In 1995, the ILGWU merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) to form the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE).


Maida Springer Kemp was born on May 12, 1910 in Panama and moved to New York City at the age of seven with her mother. After receiving an education in where she attended a black boarding school, Kemp became a licensed beautician, though never worked in that trade. Her earliest experience in the garment industry was when she worked as a pinker while in school. Because of the Depression, in 1932 as a young wife with a small child, Kemp became employed as a finisher doing hand sewing in a garment shop and joined the ILGWU. During the 1933 general strike, she was a member of a strike committee. She continued to work in the shop for the next eight years and became very active in the union. Kemp held various roles in Local 22 of the Dressmakers' Union, including executive board member, chairman of the education committee and shop representative. In 1942, Kemp became union staff and was appointed education director of Local 132, the Plastic Button and Novelty Workers' Union (an accessory local of the ILGWU) focusing on educating the new membership that consisted of refugees, recently released prisoners, women and minorities.
Kemp became the first black business agent of ILGWU Local 22 in 1947 and held that position for thirteen years. As a business agent, she was often sent out as a representative or attended educational programs. Kemp developed international interests and studied and traveled to increase her knowledge of the world labor movement. She received an American Scandinavian Foundation scholarship to study workers' education in Sweden and Denmark and through an Urban League fellowship studied at Ruskin College at Oxford.
During her tenure with the ILGWU, Kemp devoted time to other organizations as well. She often worked on projects for A. Philip Randolph, such as helping with a City Council campaign and putting on a rally in Madison Square Garden for the Fair Employment Practices Commission. Kemp became the first black woman to represent American labor abroad when the AFL sent her to England in 1945.
In 1955, Kemp was sent as an AFL representative to an International Confederation of Free Trade Unions conference in Africa for a three week seminar. Inspired, Kemp soon became tireless in her work in Africa. She developed training programs for workers, secured funds for constructing trade union centers such as the Solidarity House in Nairobi, and educating the leadership of the African labor movement. Her extensive travel to Africa prompted her to intermittently live in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Kemp received many awards and honors during her lifetime and was a member of numerous organizations including the NAACP, National Organization of Women (NOW), the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), the National Council of Negro Women, and the Urban League. Kemp died on March 29, 2005 at the age of 94.


The collection contains the bound oral history of Maida Springer Kemp. The interview was conducted by Elizabeth Balanoff as part of the oral history project "The 20th Century Trade Union Women: Vehicle for Social Change" in cooperation with "The Black Women Oral History Project" of the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College. The oral history took place over the course of multiple interviews beginning on January 4, 1977. Kemp discusses her family background and early history of coming from Panama and the alienation of being both a foreigner and black. She comments on the closeness with her mother and their introduction into America and its culture, and early influences, especially in the black community.
Kemp recounts her early work history and how she became involved with the ILGWU, her activism and participation within the union and the various positions she held and roles she played. She focuses on the importance of social issues of the union including health and education. Kemp also touches on subjects such as racial and sex discrimination. Contacts and acquaintances of the women from other unions and labor, including Pauline Newman and Rose Schneiderman are mentioned.
Her work outside the ILGWU is examined, including the early trips overseas for the AFL, and projects with A. Philip Randolph. Much emphasis in the interview is placed on Kemp's international efforts, especially Africa. Discussed is the labor movement in Africa and the support and organization by American labor in those efforts, the importance of workers' education, the progress made in educating the leadership of the African labor movement, and the building and organizing of trade union centers, mainly Solidarity House in Nairobi.
Kemp provides her personal thoughts on the women's movement, she states that she is a supporter but not an activist, and believes it is misunderstood in a similar way as the labor movement. The interviewer asks Kemp what she would have told or done if she had a daughter, and the conversation turns to advice for young women regarding education, career, sex and marriage. Other topics discussed in detail include Kemp's involvement in organizations such as the NAACP and the Urban League.

Kemp, Maida Springer.
International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.

Women labor union members -- United States -- History -- Sources.

Form and Genre Terms:
Oral histories


Access Restrictions:
Access to the collections in the Kheel Center is restricted. Please contact a reference archivist for access to these materials.
Restrictions on Use:
This collection must be used in keeping with the Kheel Center Information Sheet and Procedures for Document Use.
Cite As:
Springer Kemp, Maida. Oral History Interview. #6036/024. Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library.


Related Collections:
5780: ILGWU records
5780/062: ILGWU. International Relations Department records


Box 1 Folder 1 1977