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?