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John Matthews

Community activist and union organizer John Alderman Matthews, Sr. was born on March 3, 1910 in the Panama Canal Zone to Theresa and Christopher Sylvester Matthews, a homemaker and a school teacher from Jamaica. One of seven siblings, Matthews grew up and attended high school in Kingston, Jamaica. After high school, Matthews moved to New York City, where over the years, he studied at New York University, the New School of Social Research, City Colleges of New York, and Bronx Community College.

Matthews began working in the field of civil rights in 1935 when he and four other workers formed the first picket line against the Transport Workers Union. At the same time, he became a founding member of the Harlem Labor Union, forcing the union to accept African American as bus drivers. In 1943, Matthews attended military school in New Jersey and served in the 92nd United States Infantry Division in Europe.

After returning from the war, Matthews went to work as a salesman, but continued his community activism. He founded a bartenders’ and restaurant workers’ union that broke open employment barriers in Harlem and the rest of New York City in the mid-1950s. In 1963, he worked as a campaign secretary to U.S. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. In the mid-1960s, Matthews spearheaded efforts that ended discriminatory hiring or membership practices by Bond Clothing Stores, Bronx State Hospital, Park Sheraton Hotel, Borden’s, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. This work culminated in Matthews, who had earlier become the first Vice President of the New York Chapter of the NAACP, being named chairman of the NAACP Labor and Industry Department in 1967.

Throughout the late 1960s, Matthews continued his political activism, founding the Kennedy Democratic Club. He was recognized for his accomplishments in Newsweek magazine in 1995. Throughout his life, Matthews continued to organize communities under tenants and youth organizations.

Matthews was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on December 17, 2006.

Matthews passed away on March 28, 2013.

Accession Number

A2006.176

Sex

Male

Interview Date

12/17/2006

Last Name

Matthews

Maker Category
Schools

Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing & Visual Arts

First Name

John

Birth City, State, Country

Panama

HM ID

MAT05

Favorite Season

Hunting Season

Favorite Vacation Destination

Jamaica, Bermuda, Panama

Favorite Quote

None

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Birth Date

3/7/1910

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

Panama

Favorite Food

Lobster, Clams, Oysters

Death Date

3/28/2013

Short Description

Salesman and community activist John Matthews (1910 - 2013 ) was the co-coordinator of the first picket line against the Transport Workers Union and became a founding member of the Harlem Labor Union. Matthews also founded a restaurant workers’ union that broke open employment barriers in Harlem, New York, and was named chairman of the NAACP Labor and Industry department.

Employment

Local 2

Favorite Color

Aquamarine

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of John Matthews' interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - John Matthews lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - John Matthews describes his parents

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - John Matthews describes his parents' move to the Panama Canal Zone

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - John Matthews describes his childhood in Kingston, Jamaica

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - John Matthews describes his grandparents

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - John Matthews describes his childhood in Cuba

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - John Matthews recalls his high school education in Jamaica and New York City

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - John Matthews describes the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - John Matthews recalls attending night school in New York City

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - John Matthews describes New York City's Harlem neighborhood

Tape: 1 Story: 12 - John Matthews describes his life in New York City's Harlem neighborhood

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - John Matthews describes his occupations in New York City

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - John Matthews recalls how he became involved in labor organizing

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - John Matthews remembers picketing the Transport Workers Union of America

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - John Matthews recalls Joe Louis' boxing matches in New York City

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - John Matthews remembers demonstrating with the Harlem Labor Union

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - John Matthews remembers serving in the segregated U.S. Army

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - John Matthews explains his decision to attend military school

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - John Matthews recalls being among the first black liquor salesmen in New York City

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - John Matthews recalls his work with the Liquor Salesmen's Union Local 2

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - John Matthews talks about marrying a white woman

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - John Matthews recalls the African American clientele of Frank's Restaurant

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - John Matthews recalls his initiatives against employment discrimination

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - John Matthews explains his organizing methods

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - John Matthews recalls Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.'s role in picket organizing

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - John Matthews remembers forming the Robert F. Kennedy Democratic Club

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - John Matthews recalls working on Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.'s campaign

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - John Matthews recalls the American Federation of Labor's discrimination against black workers

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - John Matthews describes his NAACP involvement

Tape: 3 Story: 11 - John Matthews reflects upon his civil rights accomplishments

Tape: 3 Story: 12 - John Matthews talks about the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - John Matthews remembers attending the March on Washington

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - John Matthews recalls the 156th Street Tenants and Friends Block Association

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - John Matthews recalls serving on the Francis Delafield Hospital Community Board

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - John Matthews talks about New York City's NAACP chapter

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - John Matthews reflects upon his achievements as a civil rights organizer

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - John Matthews talks about the Concerned Citizens Block Association

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - John Matthews describes New York City's 161st Street

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - John Matthews talks about stereotypes of African Americans

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - John Matthews describes his relationship with David N. Dinkins

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - John Matthews recalls advancements in civil rights during his lifetime

Tape: 4 Story: 11 - John Matthews describes his involvement in Prince Hall Masonry

Tape: 4 Story: 12 - John Matthews reflects upon his volunteerism

Tape: 4 Story: 13 - John Matthews recalls meeting Malcolm X and Fidel Castro

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - John Matthews talks about the New York City Fire Department and his current volunteer work

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - John Matthews describes the boating community of Freeport, New York

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - John Matthews describes how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - John Matthews reflects upon his life

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - John Matthews recalls famous members of New York City's Harlem community

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - John Matthews describes New York City's African American political leaders

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - John Matthews describes his hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - John Matthews talks about his contact with the mafia

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - John Matthews describes his love of music

Tape: 5 Story: 10 - John Matthews recalls his campaign for district leader in New York City

Tape: 5 Story: 11 - John Matthews recalls his awards and recognitions

Tape: 5 Story: 12 - John Matthews remembers Charles B. Rangel

Tape: 5 Story: 13 - John Matthews recalls playing alto saxophone in a local band

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - John Matthews recalls his presidency of the Bottle and Cork Club

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - John Matthews remembers Evelyn Cunningham

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - John Matthews reflects upon his life and the importance of history

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - John Matthews narrates his photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

3$3

DAStory

9$11

DATitle
John Matthews recalls the American Federation of Labor's discrimination against black workers
John Matthews reflects upon his civil rights accomplishments
Transcript
Now why did you decide to, to open the League of Construction Workers?$$The league? Because as I tell you before, trying to--not transfer--the unions had A Local, B Local. B Local was the fabrication shop where all the black people could work in there. But in the other high rise buildings and all that, black people couldn't work. And the A Local black people wasn't in the A Local. And the union was member of the American Federation of Labor. And that was a discriminatory union also, right. So this is where it's all starting. And then the Congress of Industrial Organizations which was founded by John L. Lewis, and then later on the CIO merged with the AF of L CIO [American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)]. But the Congress of Industrial Organizations started from discrimination in the AF of L, see.$$Now what did you do? And, and you fought them as well. The AF of L.$$Yeah I fought the AF of L, I had to. Well like Michael Quill and them, they belongs to a union, which was all black. And they was affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. So have to break a lot of barriers, man, lot of barriers. It take time to sit down to remember like if you were to get me when I was sixty, would I remember all that (laughter) (simultaneous).$$(Simultaneous) You're doing a great job, you're doing a great job.$Well when you think about like the '60s [1960s] and working with Adam Clayton Powell [Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.] and the Kennedys, and of all of those things you've done, which are you most proud of?$$Well what can I tell you, I'm proud of all of them, man. I'm proud of everything that I have done. As I said to you before, probably the reason why I lived to be ninety-seven, I am wide open with everybody. I don't have no enemies that I know of. To say you don't have a enemy, you're gonna have enemy, I don't care what you do in life. But I am an open person. I like everybody, I don't care who the guy is, could be a junkie. 'Cause I never know when the junkie can help me cross the street. The same one that I don't like is the one gonna help me, right. So I have an open mind. And my life with the human race, I don't care whether you're white or you're black. To me everybody's the same. You was made by the same creator just like he put all different types of plant in the woods, different birds, different animals. And all of 'em seem together except the human being. We make discrimination against each other. So that's it.