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#TBT - 100 years ago Black people played a key role on Seattle and Tacoma's waterfront.

Frank Jenkins_ILWU Leadership_1937_Photo courtesy of ILWU newspaper, The Dispatcher

The #TBT series is a collaboration between the Black Heritage Society of Washington State and Africatown Seattle to give historical insights and perspectives into Black history and Black contributions in the Seattle area and Washington State as a whole.

By Stephanie Johnson-Toliver

The history of jobs, strikes and respect for African American longshoremen on the Seattle-Tacoma waterfront is an interesting journey and battle of gives/takes and challenges that were brought to bear by individuals who were the likes of Frank Jenkins.

A second-generation longshoreman, Jenkins became one of first African Americans to hold a leadership position in one of the most influential unions to set early policy for hiring nonwhites, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

Some Union Background

The ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) and its predecessor, the ILA (International Longshoreman’s Association) have a history of progressive racial policies in comparison to policy and action at like organizations. As early as 1918, the ILA was open to men of any race, but the open door did not put an end to discrimination as the union remained predominately white. The significance was that ILA publicly advertised and influenced the hire of black people given the fact most unions in the day blatantly excluded nonwhites. In 1937 when the ILWU split from the ILA and joined the CIO, its policies became even more inclusive. In stark contrast to the ILWU, in the 1940s, blacks were explicitly barred from most other unions. On the West Coast, the major ship-building union, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders had a constitution that allowed only whites to be union members. In December,1943, the Fair Employment Practices Commission ordered the Boilermakers to abolish their white-only clause.

Admittedly, what appeared on paper at the ILWU did not completely translate to a warm and fuzzy welcome. The real cultural work that was needed to implement the policies was a daily crusade.

The effort, courage, and leadership that was required to move the ILWU forward to “walk the talk” and demand accountability was a mix of union leadership and civil rights activism championed by Frank Jenkins.

About Frank Jenkins

Frank Jenkins was born in 1902 in Monterey, California at what is now Fort Ord. In 1909, Jenkins, his mother, his older sister and two younger brothers relocated to Fort Lawton in Seattle while his father completed his last six months as a commissioned soldier in Honolulu, Hawaii. Frank’s military upbringing shaped how he would live his life.

Frank’s father would become a role model to him as an example of a black man leading a successful and rewarding life. Frank’s mother, who was a military child herself and a native of the Philippines, also set an impressive standard. In the years approaching the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, Mrs. Jenkins involved herself in many social justice causes in Seattle.

Frank and his sister attended Queen Anne High School in Seattle. Their parents did not complete high school and were insistent that they graduate and continue with higher education. Frank commented once in an interview that they were intentionally discriminated against at high school and found that extensive fistic ability was needed. “Fistic ability” is a term that Jenkins himself coined.

The Docks

Jenkins began a summer job on the waterfront around 1918. His father was a foreman for an oil importer which allowed him some authority over workers on the dock, he hired Frank. To the dismay of his parents, Jenkins dropped out of Queen Anne High School after his sophomore year claiming there was nothing else to be learned in school. His introduction to the docks was following a bitter strike in 1916 during which employers brought in 300-400 African American strikebreakers (out of a total of 1400) from out-of-state, this was the catalyst for ILA to reluctantly, at first, begin accepting people of color into its ranks.

Increasingly, between 1921 and 1934, there was constant back and forth on the docks between the union, hiring halls, companies and workers with respect to equity in job assignments and pay. Favoritism made it difficult to guarantee steady employment, especially for blacks. The frustration over the system peaked in February 1934 and delegates from the Pacific Coast unions made demands. They decided to strike after negotiations between the ILA and Waterfront Employers Association (WEA) broke down. On May 9, 1934, all ILA locals on the Pacific Coast struck against their employers and 1,200 men did not report for work and only 100 crossed the picket lines to their jobs with just three men continuing to work in Seattle.

Seattle Police armed at the Magnolia Bridge-Smith Cove_Longshoremen’s Strike_1934 Photo courtesy of Museum of History & Industry, Seattle, WA

Jenkins and ILWU

In June of 1934, the consequences of the strike were beginning to have major implications on the welfare of residents, particularly in Alaska. The WEA notified the union that it would arbitrate all issues on a coast wide basis. On July 31, 1934, the longshoremen returned to work with the union eventually winning increased wages. Hiring halls were still open to non-union men, everyone would have to pay the same fee to utilize the halls and all of the dispatchers would be required to be union members appointed by the ILA.

Through it all, Frank saw the labor unions as important civil rights advocates, with ILWU founder and president, Harry Bridges, an Australian-born American being a stand-out for him. The election of Bridges as President, and with improved wages and hours in the union, Frank was eager for the opportunity to get involved in the ILWU Local 19 Executive Board. He held positions of official capacity in the union from 1936 to 1940 and again from 1943 until his retirement in 1967.

Jenkins worked tirelessly on the Labor Relations Committee to promote anti-racist practices. When World War II began, the Army used longshoremen along the Pacific Coast to load their vessels. By this time, Frank had a 1-A classification, which granted him access to most of the waterfront, including high-security areas. An Army lieutenant asked if he would accept a working position aboard ship, but Jenkins wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps as an enlisted man. Frank never had the opportunity to serve his country as he hoped in either the Army or Navy. He was turned away by both, not for lack of experience and ability, but because he was black. Disheartened, he didn’t let the blow extinguish his patriotic spirt, instead it fueled his passion to work more intently toward fair and just treatment.

Frank’s tenacity would be tested again in 1955 when his Coast Guard pass was lifted in July after he testified at the Harry Bridges trial. This time he would prevail through the court system. The Red Scare was in full swing and many union men were accused of being communists. The Coast Guard claimed they’d been looking for Jenkins since 1953 to revoke his pass based on their allegations that he had communist affiliations. The claim was hard to believe since Frank was living and working regularly in Seattle on the waterfront. How could they miss him? After a hard and earnest appeal to the Coast Guard that included ILWU attorney representation for Frank and nine white union officers as character witnesses, Jenkins’ pass was returned four months later in November 1955.

On Retirement

Jenkins retired in 1967. He put all he had into a union that significantly changed working standards by placing men of all different ethnicities and races side by side in the workforce through tumultuous times. Frank was respected and held in the highest regard by union members and friends. He was a trailblazer on the Seattle waterfront.

On April 23,1995, the Black Heritage Society of Washington State celebrated the legacy of African American Seattle/Tacoma longshoremen. The men in the photo represent between 25-50 years of dedicated service on the docks as members of ILWU. Judge Jack Tanner, first African American federal judge in the Pacific Northwest is among them.

Pictured the left: top row – J.R. James, Robbie Robinson, middle row - Richard Gardenhire, Lenzie Shellman, Merlen Levias, front row – Ray Cutchlow, Spellman Foster, Jack Tanner, Frank Fair

Today, as Seattle’s waterfront evolves and transforms itself, we should never forget the men and women who work 24-7 to keep our port moving and the efforts that were behind the struggle for equity in opportunity and jobs that still exists.



1. Black Heritage Society of Washington State, Inc., Seattle, WA www.bhswa.org

2. Blackpast www.blackpast.org

3. Elston, Megan, Black Longshoremen, The Frank Jenkins Story, University of Washington, Seattle Civil Rights &

Labor History Project, http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/frank_jenkins.htm , 2005

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