In honor of Black History Month, historian Daina Ramey Berry asks curators from the National Museum of African American History and Culture to share important stories of trailblazing African-American figures. Today we celebrate Northern California activist and labor organizer Frances Albrier with a look at powerful images that encompass her life’s work.
Frances Albrier was a 20th century activist, politician, and labor organizer who led several important campaigns for equality in Northern California. She was the first African-American woman welder in the shipyard industry during World War II and was active in the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the Brotherhood for Sleeping Car Porters, the National Council for Negro Women (NCNW), and a host of local organizations in the East Bay Area. Materials donated to the National Museum of African American History and Culture by her late daughter, Anita Black, allow us to salute her activism and honor her legacy. Albrier’s life teaches us about migration, labor and political activism on the West Coast, a region that is often associated with radicalism during the mid-late 20th century.
Planting Seeds of Leadership
Frances Albrier was born Frances Mary Redgray in Mount Vernon, New York on September 21, 1898. Her parents welcomed twins that day, but Frances’ sibling died at birth. Three years later, during a second pregnancy, her mother died after giving birth to Frances’ sister. The family responded to this loss by sending the girls to live with their paternal grandmother in Tuskegee, Alabama. There, Frances grew up in a close black community that valued education, activism, and religion. She attended Tuskegee Institute and benefitted from Booker T. Washington’s leadership and philanthropy. From him she learned that money earned through skilled trades could help pay one’s higher education tuition. At Tuskegee, George Washington Carver taught her botany and she recalled not knowing at the time how famous and influential he was on the national stage.
After she graduated, she attended Fisk University for a short time and transferred to Howard University in Washington, D.C. where she studied nursing and social work. At Howard, she met Mary Church Terrell and joined the NCNW. She graduated from Howard in 1920, and moved to California to be with her father (her grandmother passed just before graduation). She spent the rest of her life there, first in Pasadena, and then Berkeley, and was part of a large group of African Americans who migrated from the south looking for opportunities in the west. She met her first husband, William Albert Jackson, soon after arriving in California and the couple had three children together (William Albert in 1923, Betty Francis in 1925, and Anita in 1927).
Champion of Equality for All
Albrier was an activist for 60 years, focusing on social issues that impacted the African-American community. In 1921, she joined the UNIA, an organization led by Marcus Garvey, which focused on black liberation throughout the world. From 1925-1931, Albrier worked as a maid for the Pullman Company and became active in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters as an advocate for unions. The death of her husband in 1930 left her with three children under the age of 10. In 1934, she married union organizer William Albrier as the next phase of her political activism took shape.
Albrier became the first black woman elected to the Democratic Central Committee of Alameda County (1938) where she participated in several social justice campaigns focusing on issues such as voting rights, as well as racial and gender equality. Her desire to work in the nursing profession was truncated when she was denied such opportunities due to discrimination. However, this did not stop her from pursuing her dreams. During World War II she wore the uniform pictured (see above) as she became the first black woman to serve as a nurse for the Red Cross Motor Corps. Albrier advocated for gender equality and fought to end gender discrimination when in 1942 she became the first black woman welder in the Richmond Kaiser Shipyards. Albrier remained active in social justice causes in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s by pursuing several anti-discrimination platforms. One such program, the “Don’t buy where you can’t work” campaign, was started by Albrier and several community activists after local stores refused to hire black workers. Her activism continued until her death on August 21, 1987.
Preserving Albrier’s Place in History
In 2010, Albrier’s daughter donated two of her mother’s scrapbooks along with loose photographs and documents to the NMAAHC. Among the materials is a black and white photograph of Albrier taken in 1942 in full Red Cross uniform, including a shoulder patch on her left shoulder and a collar clasp around her neck. Even though she had her nursing certificate, discrimination prevented her from becoming a registered nurse; however Albrier eventually worked as a nurse during the war and proudly wore this uniform.
Albrier’s activism also involved voting rights, as demonstrated by the second photograph, from September 8, 1956, depicting a group of women and children standing in front of a motorcade with signs from the Citizenship Education Project, which was a partnership between the National Urban League and the NCNW. Albrier served as president of the San Francisco chapter of the NCNW and spent much of the 1950s canvasing and encouraging blacks in the East Bay area to register to vote because she believed that “A voteless people is a hopeless people.” The caption on the photograph reads “SMALLFRY CITIZENS JOIN REGISTRATION PARADE.”
Albrier took pride in her heritage and drew strength from her training at Tuskegee Institute and Howard University. She wanted the mainstream community to recognize and respect black culture so she initiated a storefront campaign to celebrate black history during Negro History Week. A third item is a black and white photograph of one of the intricate storefront displays she created in February 1957 (see below). This one, at the Emporium in San Francisco, contained photographs of African-American leaders, politicians, and entertainers; playbills, album covers, history books, and pamphlets; and a large quilt with an image of Frederick Douglass at the top. A U.S. Flag is prominently placed among the items, signaling the connection to citizenship and patriotism.
An Exceptional Legacy
Frances Albrier’s life story illustrates the significance of education, migration, activism, and citizenship for African Americans in the 20th century. It is also the story of wartime workers and the long civil rights movement told through the experiences of a remarkable woman. According to Paul Gardullo, NMAAHC Supervisory Museum Curator, linking stories like Albrier’s to the larger history of the United States “is the most important work of the NMAAHC.” Today, Frances Albrier has taken her place in history and we remember her as a woman whose life’s work engaged in activism profoundly affected her community. There is a community center named after her in Berkeley, as well as plaques at her former home and at San Pablo Park. Her family’s efforts to make sure the world knows about the admirable work of Frances Albrier have been a success.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., is the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history, and culture. The Museum’s nearly 40,000 objects help all Americans see how their stories, their histories, and their cultures are shaped by a people’s journey and a nation’s story.