Years ago while studying the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 for a cultural anthropology class, we held a kiddush in honor of and as a living interpretation of the young women, many Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, who died when the 9th floor factory accidentally caught fire near closing time. It was the practice of the factory management to lock the doors to keep the workers at their stations. It was the “9-11” of its time as women leaped to their deaths from the windows – their only means of escape. (Just coincidence the last 3 numbers in the year echo a future New York tragedy 90 years later.) The fire was unanticipated, but 100 years later, the tragedy still remains a rallying cry for humane working conditions, better wages, and workers rights. Until now 6 of the 146 victims who died in the fire were unidentified. Historian Michael Hirsch was able to do extensive independent research and found their names. The names were read yesterday, March 25. 100 years ago to the day.

At the end of our classroom presentation, for some strange reason I wept.

You can view “Triangle Fire” on the website for the PBS documentary history series “The American Experience” at this link.

“Are My Hands Clean” recorded by Sweet Honey In the Rock on the “Live” album
Lyrics by Bernice Johnson Reagon

I wear garments touched by hands from all over the world

35% cotton, 6% polyester, the journey begins in Central America

In the cotton fields of El Salvador

In a province soaked in blood,

Pesticide-sprayed workers toil in a broiling sun

Pulling cotton for two dollars a day.

Then we move on up to another rung – Cargill A top-forty trading conglomerate, takes the cotton through the Panama Canal Up the Eastern seaboard, coming to the US of A for the first time

In South Carolina At the Burlington mils Joins a shipment of polyester filament courtesy of the New Jersey petro-chemical mills of Dupont

Dupont strands of filament begin in the South American country of Venezuela Where oil riggers bring up oil from the earth for six dollars a day

Then Exxon, largest oil company in the world,

Upgrades the product in the country of Trinidad and Tobago

Then back into the Caribbean and Atlantic Seas

To the factories of Dupont

On the way to the Burlington mills

In South Carolina

To meet the cotton from the blood-soaked fields of El Salvador

In South Carolina

Burlington factories hum with the business of weaving oil and cotton into miles of fabric of Sears

Who takes this bounty back into the Caribbean Sea

Headed for Haiti this time –

May she be one day soon free –

Far from the Port-au-Prince palace

Third world women toil doing piece work to Sears specifications

For three dollars a day my sisters make my blouse

It leaves the third world for the last time

Coming back into the sea to be sealed in plastic for me

This third world sister

And I go to the Sears department store where I buy my blouse

On sale for 20% discount

Are my hands clean?