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Woman sewing in a garment shop

The Kheel Center ILGWU Collection

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Celebrate Women's History Month


Maida Springer Kemp was born on May 12, 1910 in Panama and moved to New York City at the age of seven with her mother.  After receiving an education in where she attended a black boarding school, Kemp became a licensed beautician, though never worked in that trade.  Her earliest experience in the garment industry was when she worked as a pinker while in school.  Because of the Depression, in 1932 as a young wife with a small child, Kemp became employed as a finisher doing hand sewing in a garment shop and joined the ILGWU.  During the 1933 general strike, she was a member of a strike committee.  She continued to work in the shop for the next eight years and became very active in the union.  Kemp held various roles in Local 22 of the Dressmakers’ Union, including executive board member, chairman of the education committee and shop representative.  In 1942, Kemp became union staff and was appointed education director of Local 132, the Plastic Button and Novelty Workers’ Union (an accessory local of the ILGWU) focusing on educating the new membership that consisted of refugees, recently released prisoners, women and minorities. 

Kemp became the first black business agent of ILGWU Local 22 in 1947 and held that position for thirteen years.  As a business agent, she was often sent out as a representative or attended educational programs.  Kemp developed international interests and studied and traveled to increase her knowledge of the world labor movement.  She received an American Scandinavian Foundation scholarship to study workers’ education in Sweden and Denmark and through an Urban League fellowship studied at Ruskin College at Oxford.

During her tenure with the ILGWU, Kemp devoted time to other organizations as well.  She often worked on projects for  A. Philip Randolph, such as helping with a City Council campaign and putting on a rally in Madison Square Garden for the Fair Employment Practices Commission.  Kemp became the first black woman to represent American labor abroad when the AFL sent her to England in 1945. 

In 1955, Kemp went to Africa as an AFL representative to an International Confederation of Free Trade Unions conference in Africa for a three week seminar.  Inspired, Kemp soon became tireless in her work in Africa.  She developed training programs for workers, secured funds for constructing trade union centers such as the Solidarity House in Nairobi, and educating the leadership of the African labor movement.  Her extensive travel to Africa prompted her to intermittently live in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Kemp received many awards and honors during her lifetime and was a member of numerous organizations including the NAACP, National Organization of Women (NOW), the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), the National Council of Negro Women, and the Urban League.  Kemp died on March 29, 2005 at the age of 94.

Learn more about Maida Springer Kemp in the archives and read her oral history:  6036/024