Maida Springer Kemp (May 12, 1910 - March 29, 2005) was an American labor organizer who worked extensively in Africa for the AFL-CIO. Nicknamed "Mama Maida", she advised fledgling labor unions, set up education and training programs, and liaised between American and African labor leaders. In 1945, traveling to England on a labor-exchange trip, she was the first African-American woman to represent U.S. labor abroad. She was also active in the civil rights movement, and advocated for women's rights around the world.

Early life and career

She was born in Panama on May 12, 1910, to Harold and Adina Stewart. Her father, a Barbadian immigrant, worked on the Panama Canal project. At the age of 7, she moved with her family to Harlem, where she attended St. Mark's Catholic School. Her parents divorced soon after the move, and she was raised by her politically active mother. The Stewarts' home was a gathering place for activists and members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), whose accounts of personal experiences with racism had a lasting influence on Maida. Henrietta Vinton Davis, a founding member of the UNIA, was an inspiration to Maida and a role model as a female activist.[1]

During the Depression she went to work in a garment factory. In 1933 she met A. Philip Randolph, who became a lifelong friend and mentor. That same year she joined the Dressmakers' Union Local 22 of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU). She took courses offered by the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the Wellesley College Institute for Social Progress, and the Hudson Shore Labor School.[2] In time she became an ILGWU shop representative, and eventually rose to the executive board and education committee.[3] In addition to labor issues, Local 22 took an active part in civil rights activities in the Harlem community.[4]

Over the next few years she became increasingly active in union activities in New York. She served as Education Director of Local 132 of the Plastic Button and Novelty Workers' Union from 1942 to 1945, ran for the New York State Assembly on the American Labor Party ticket in 1942, and was appointed to the War Price and Rationing Board of the Office of Price Administration in 1944. In 1945 she became the first African-American woman to represent U.S. labor abroad when she traveled to England as an AFL delegate, on a trip sponsored by the United States Office of War Information, to study wartime working conditions in Great Britain.[5][6] From 1948 to 1951 she served as business agent for Dressmakers' Union Local 22 of the ILGWU;[2] she was the first African-American business agent to represent a district.[5]

International work

In the 1950s she began working for the AFL as an advisor to newly founded labor unions in Tanzania, Kenya, and Ghana, where she came to be known as "Mama Maida".[3] In 1951, sponsored by the American Labor Education Service, she traveled to Sweden and Denmark to observe workers' education programs. She then took an eight-month hiatus from ILGWU to study at Ruskin Labor College, Oxford University, on an Urban League Fellowship. In 1955 she attended the first International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) conference in Accra, Ghana, as one of five observers, of which she was the only woman. In 1957 she played a key role in the founding of Solidarity House in Nairobi.[2]

In 1959 she went to work for the AFL-CIO's Department of International Affairs as its representative to Africa. For the next several years she made her home alternately in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Nairobi (Kenya), and Brooklyn, New York. She started an exchange program for Africans to study at Harvard University, founded a trade school in Kenya whose mission included expanding opportunities for women, established a post-secondary scholarship for Tanzanian girls, and started the Maida Fund to enable farm workers in East Africa to return to school.[5] In the course of her work she befriended many of Africa's emerging leaders, including Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. Between 1957 and 1963, she attended the national independence ceremonies of Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Kenya.[2]

In 1964 she represented the U.S. at the 48th Session of the International Labour Organization conference in Geneva. In 1966 she resumed working as a general organizer for ILGWU. Later she worked for the A. Philip Randolph Institute.[2]

In the 1970s, as a consultant for the Asian-American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI), she worked with trade unions in Turkey, where she helped introduce women into the labor movement by establishing the Women's Bureau of TÜRK-İŞ. Initially her efforts were met with resistance by male union leaders who wanted women to participate in the organizing work, but had little interest in the concerns of women workers, such as equal pay, equal opportunity, and child care. She also worked in Indonesia to get more women involved in the labor movement.[7] She attended International Women's Year conferences in Mexico and Nairobi in 1975, and the Pan African Conference on the Role of Trade Union Women in 1977.[2]

Personal life

She married Owen Springer in the late 1920s, and had a son, Eric. The marriage ended in divorce. In 1965 she married James Kemp. In the late 1970s she moved to Pittsburgh, where she lived the rest of her life. She died after a long illness on March 29, 2005, aged 94.[5]

Honors and awards

Kemp received many awards over the course of her 50-year career, including the National Council of Negro Women's Woman of the Year Award, a Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, the Bessie Abramowitz Hillman Award from the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the first annual Rosina Tucker Award from the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the Women's Rights Award from the American Federation of Teachers, and an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Brooklyn College, City University of New York.[8] The Maida Springer Kemp Fund, created in her honor by UNITE and the AFL-CIO, combats child labor in East Africa by sending children to school for technical training,[9] providing financial aid to women to start small businesses, and supporting needlework schools.[3]

She was a member of the National Council of Negro Women, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the African-American Free Labor Institute, the Asian-American Free Labor Institute, the National Organization for Women, and the Coalition of Labor Union Women.[2]


  1. ^ Richards, Yevette (2004). Maida Springer: Pan-Africanist and International Labor Leader. University of Pittsburgh. pp. 14–22. ISBN 9780822972631. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "Kemp, Maida Springer. Papers of Maida Springer Kemp, 1942-1981: A Finding Aid". Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. 
  3. ^ a b c "Maida Springer-Kemp". The Pittsburgh Chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute. 
  4. ^ Richards (2004), p. 50.
  5. ^ a b c d "Obituary: Maida Springer Kemp / Labor activist traveled worldwide". The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. March 31, 2005. 
  6. ^ Richards (2004), p. 77.
  7. ^ Richards (2004), p. 277.
  8. ^ Richards (2004), p. xvi.
  9. ^ Richards (2004), p. 284.

Further reading