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Charles Stewart, III

Electrician and organizer Charles Vernon Stewart was born August 7, 1910, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Raised in Omaha, Nebraska, and Chicago, Illinois, Stewart attended Dore Elementary School, Phillips High School and was the first African American admitted into Greer College, a trade school for electricians. Determined to succeed, Stewart, at eleven years of age, alongside his stepfather, Sam Taylor, formed an underground educational effort to learn the trade of electricians, a trade that blacks were not allowed to practice. Stewart and Taylor had a Greek friend who helped them by ordering electrical home study magazines for them because the publishers refused to mail copies to blacks. The group successfully completed each test they took and soon began working alongside other black electricians in Chicago. In 1922, Stewart helped his stepfather establish Taylor Electric Company, and in 1927, he graduated from Greer College.

In 1929, black electricians in Illinois were not allowed to join the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 134. Competing white electricians often vandalized Stewart’s and other black electricians’ electrical jobs at night, forcing them to redo their work at their own expense. As a result, Stewart helped organize twenty other black electricians, and together they persuaded U.S. Congressman Oscar DePriest and a black state senator to grant them a charter that permitted them to legally practice as electricians, contract for electrical jobs, and legally stopped white electricians from destroying black electricians’ work. Stewart and his associates formed the first black electrical union in the United States. In 1943, the government forced the Local Union 134 to desegregate by making three percent of their members black. Stewart and his stepfather were among those who left the black union (primarily because the black union was not allowed to bid on major electrical contracts) to desegregate Local Union 134.

Stewart was hired by Berry Electric in 1942 and soon became the first black foreman for one of the largest electrical contractors in Chicago. Stewart built a racially integrated team of electricians capable of completing large jobs, such as the Jewell Grand Bazaar. Stewart also built the electrical source box for the River Oaks Shopping Mall in Calumet City, Illinois. Stewart, who retired from Berry Electric after thirty-seven years, remained a resident of Chicago’s south side.

Charles Stewart passed away on February 13, 2006 at the age of ninety-five.

Accession Number

A2004.256

Sex

Male

Interview Date

12/13/2004

Last Name

Stewart

Maker Category
Middle Name

Vernon

Occupation
Organizations
Schools

Greer College

Wendell Phillips Academy High School

Dore Elementary School

Howard Kennedy Elementary School

First Name

Charles

Birth City, State, Country

Tuscaloosa

HM ID

STE06

Favorite Season

Fall, Hunting Season

State

Alabama

Favorite Vacation Destination

Omaha, Nebraska, Yankton, South Dakota

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Illinois

Interview Description
Birth Date

8/7/1910

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Chicago

Country

USA

Favorite Food

Frosted Flakes

Death Date

2/13/2006

Short Description

Labor activist Charles Stewart, III (1910 - 2006 ) and associates formed the first African American electrical workers' union in the United States, with a charter that permitted African Americans to legally practice as electricians and legally stopped white electricians from destroying African American electricians’ work. Later, Stewart was instrumental in the desegregation of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 134.

Employment

Berry Electric Contract Company

Taylor Electric Company

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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Charles Stewart, III's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Charles Stewart, III lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Charles Stewart, III describes his maternal family history

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Charles Stewart, III talks about his mother

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Charles Stewart, III talks about his father and paternal family

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Charles Stewart, III talks about his family and their livelihood in Nebraska

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Charles Stewart, III mentions his sister and father

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Charles Stewart, III describes his childhood and schooling in Omaha, Nebraska and Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Charles Stewart, III recalls an early childhood memory

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Charles Stewart, III recalls the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Charles Stewart, III remembers his love for hunting and his dogs

Tape: 1 Story: 12 - Charles Stewart, III recalls liking school

Tape: 1 Story: 13 - Charles Stewart, III recalls World War I

Tape: 1 Story: 14 - Charles Stewart, III describes his move to Chicago, Illinois and his stepfather

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Charles Stewart, III talks about hunting with his father and stepfather

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Charles Stewart, III recalls race relations in Omaha, Nebraska

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Charles Stewart, III recalls the 1919 race riots in Omaha, Nebraska

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Charles Stewart, III remembers black institutions and newspapers in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Charles Stewart, III recalls Chicago, Illinois in the 1920s

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Charles Stewart, III remembers playing piano and violin as a child

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Charles Stewart, III describes his childhood in the Catholic Church

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Charles Stewart, III states the schools he attended in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Charles Stewart, III recalls an electrician teacher and the state of electrical wiring and electronics during his youth

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Charles Stewart, III talks about attending Wendell Phillips Academy High School in Chicago, Illinois and Greer College in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Charles Stewart, III remembers jobs he took on in his youth

Tape: 2 Story: 12 - Charles Stewart, III describes how he came to attend Greer College in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 2 Story: 13 - Charles Stewart, III recalls experiences as an electrician and shares how to avoid static shock

Tape: 2 Story: 14 - Charles Stewart, III talks about organizing black electricians in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Charles Stewart, III recalls receiving and learning from a set of electrician's books while working with his stepfather

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Charles Stewart, III talks about the history of charter #9632, a group of black electricians, and their relationship to I.B.E.W. Local 134

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Charles Stewart, III recalls how white electricians destroyed black electricians' work

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Charles Stewart, III recalls the road to union membership for black electrical workers in the 1930s and early 1940s

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Charles Stewart, III recalls when he and other black electricians were allowed into I.B.E.W. Local 134

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Charles Stewart, III talks about benefits of being part of I.B.E.W. Local 134

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Charles Stewart, III talks about projects he worked on as an electrician, pt. 1

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Charles Stewart, III talks about electrical work he did for Al Capone, Red Sullivan and others

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Charles Stewart, III talks about projects he worked on as an electrician, pt. 2

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - Charles Stewart, III remembers an engineer's costly mistake on an electrical project

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Charles Stewart, III recalls his experiences as a foreman for Berry Electric Contract Company

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Charles Stewart, III shares a story about working as a foreman for Berry Electric Contract Company

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Charles Stewart, III reflects upon his physical strength

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Charles Stewart, III describes his sister's work in desegregating suburban Illinois schools and remembers wiring her newly built home

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Charles Stewart, III responds to HistoryMaker William Bonaparte, Jr. being cited as the first black electrician in I.B.E.W Local 134

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Charles Stewart, III recalls making a dangerous choice while doing electrical work for a store in Bronzeville, Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Charles Stewart, III describes how he tried to help other black electricians get into I.B.E.W. Local 134

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Charles Stewart, III describes his hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Charles Stewart, III talks about his sister's efforts to desegregate South Holland, Illinois schools

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - Charles Stewart, III reflects upon his life

Tape: 4 Story: 11 - Charles Stewart, III talks about his family

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Charles Stewart, III talks about his stepfather's business, Taylor Electric Company in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Charles Stewart, III reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Charles Stewart, III reflects upon how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Charles Stewart, III offers advice to those who are interested in pursuing electrical work

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Charles Stewart, III narrates his photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

2$4

DAStory

14$1

DATitle
Charles Stewart, III talks about organizing black electricians in Chicago, Illinois
Charles Stewart, III recalls his experiences as a foreman for Berry Electric Contract Company
Transcript
Were there were very many black electricians when you started out?$$No, there was about fifty that I knew of. And when I say I knew of it was all of these electricians on the South Side [Chicago, Illinois] and some on the West Side [Chicago, Illinois] we were trying to get together to get into the local and to do so, they had, had to get together. So we all got together and met at different places, first we met at the musicians' hall on State Street. Then we went to Samuels [ph.] shop at 46th [Street] and State Street. Then we went to the church building on 51st [Street] and [Martin Luther] King Drive which was South Parkway at that time. And we'd meet at different places and whatnot. And, of course, electricians were about fifty, something like that. And all of 'em didn't have steady jobs, they just had, whenever they could come across a job like that or like would give them some revenue, then they needed that for house rent and whatnot, and, you know, house rent wasn't near what it is today. So they kept the money but we met just the same, would then take up a collection and whatnot. In the collection we had the one leader, Ed Lauter [ph.]. Fellows that said they could lead but we had one leader who was Herman Washington. And he went to bat with Local 134 [of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers]. And he went directly through Mike Boyle [Michael "Umbrella Mike" Boyle] who assigned Bobby Brooks [Robert P. Brooks, Jr.] as the go-between, between him and Washington.$$Okay. So--$$At that time the war [World War II, WWII] was starting and whatnot and, and the government was demanding 3 point something percent of blacks on these jobs. And so Mike Boyle and whatnot would figure out where to send them and, of course, Washington had built up a crew and I was a foreman. And there were four to five of us and we went to the Buick [Motor Division] plant, the Ford [Motor Company, Torrence Avenue Assembly] Plant, Chrysler [Motor Corporation] plant. We went downtown to two or three big buildings and whatnot. And this man takes me in this building that I'm calling at 15th [Street] and Wabash [Avenue], down there.$Let me ask you about supervising white people and others, you know, was it, was that difficult when you were made a foreman on the job?$$No, because I always used the term we, we're going to do this, not I want this done or I want that done, it was always we're going to do it. And so that's what we did, we did the job and most of the fellows, now there would be fellows like when we were doing, I can't think of the name of the company now but we were doing this big job and it was a welding company and they welded these water tanks and things like the bottoms and whatnot and then then they'd run 'em through the machine and folded 'em, when I say folded to make 'em round and all that kind of business. So we had a fellow there and he was a steward on the job but I had put him and another journeyman together on the job and what they did in the course of the day it just wasn't, this is the only man I ever fired from any job, so I had fired him and, of course, it was twelve o'clock at night when [Robert] Berry finally got me and he says you can't fire him. I says don't tell me I can't fire anybody I says no, 'cause either he's got to go or I got to, one of us has got to go. So the next morning we were there and whatnot and I showed him what he had done, I says he dropped the wire down from the ceiling, he already had the measurements so he dropped the wire down from the ceiling over this machine and over that machine, he'd taken one two inch elbow and ten feet of pipe and one two inch elbow and ten feet of pipe. I said this is two journeyman, electricians, I says and that's all he tried do, I said I could have did that with my eyes closed without the extra man. So they let him go, then rather they sent him to another job, you know. He didn't stay there. It was either, I told him, either me or him so I stayed instead of him.$$Okay.$$So I figure that my work was showing for itself, you know.$$Okay. Did, did anybody ever refuse to work with you or walk off the job or anything when you were--$$(Laughter).$$--a foreman?$$Oh, yes. We were working in Leighton Township [ph.] on a streetcar turned around, and everybody showed up at this job but this one fellow and he finally showed up. And so when he showed up he yelled said, who's the pusher on the job, (unclear) that's foreman. So I said, I am. You are? So he gave a big jump and so he said I'm going to my car and get my tools I'll be right back. So he went on off and so I told Fred [ph.] I says he's, he's not coming back. And he says a nickel says, I says no. So anyway it went on like that so about nine o'clock I called the office and I says there was another man, this was during the, as I say the war [World War II, WWII] hadn't started but everybody was getting prepared for the war, so I says I had five men here but this guy left and so Bud Miller [ph.] says you wanna know what we told him? I says what did you tell him? We told him that if you work for Berry [Electric Contracting Company] one of these days you have to work with Charlie Stewart [HistoryMaker Charles Stewart, III] so you might as well start it now. So we'd give him his pay and let him go. So that was the kind of feeling that I had with my company, you know.