I Am Somebody: The Charleston Hospital Workers Strike

For this week’s post we are highlighting the documentary I Am Somebody that shows the unionized strike of Black female hospital workers in Charleston, South Carolina. The heat of the strike occurred from March 17, 1969 for more than 100 days but it was a culmination of over a year of organized work by the union Local 1199B of the Retail Drug and Hospital Employees. Hundreds of Black hospital workers went on strike to protest better working conditions and to combat the employment discrimination they were facing five years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made employment discrimination illegal.

Momentum for this movement began in February 1968 when Mary Moultrie, a nurse’s aids who had worked in a unionized hospital in New York City began working with local activist William Saunders to address the dismissal of five female African American nursing assistants at the Medical College Hospital for the state of South Carolina. The five aids were prevented from viewing patient charts by a White nurse although this was a part of their job. The aids walked off their jobs in protest because they were not able to properly care for patients without access to their charts. The five aids were subsequently fired for insubordination. Saunders, Moultrie and other African American community leaders persuaded the Medical College to rehire the aids. After this success, Black hospital workers began raising other complaints in weekly meetings with Saunders and Moultrie at the tobacco workers union hall on East Bay Street.

Black hospital workers complained of low pay, many only making $1.30 even after pay a raise. Segregation kept them in the low-paying, non-professional jobs like nurse’s aides, housekeepers, and cooks. They were also subjected to harassment from nurses, doctors, and patients who would call them derogatory names and prevent them from using employee lounges forcing them to eat their lunches in bathrooms and boiler rooms. Hospital personnel showed no concern for these issues and paid little attention to the festering Civil Rights Movement that was right under their nose.

Moultrie contacted the Local 1199 Union in New York City to see if they would consider expanding their influence to Charleston. By November 1968 the New York union placed two full time organizers in Charleston. They partnered with the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to organize what would become one of the biggest Civil Rights events in South Carolina. Notably, Coretta Scott King flew to Charleston in solidarity and participated in some of the protest.

This short documentary takes you through the organizing, protests and aftermaths of this historic movement with Black women at the Center. Filmed by African American filmmaker and television producer Madeline Anderson, who is historic herself, often credited with being the first Black woman to produce and direct a televised documentary film and syndicated TV series. She was also the first Black employee at New-York based public television station WNET, and one of the first Black women to join the film editors union along with many other historic accomplishments.

In the wake of many current events affecting the lives of women it is good to have a reminder of the positive affect and change women, especially Black women, can have when they organize.

Sources: College of Charleston has a great resource with oral history interviews and images detailing the events in Charleston. http://ldhi.library.cofc.edu/exhibits/show/charleston_hospital_workers_mo

Andreia Wardlaw