Prof. Robert Forrant’s Work Includes Student Contributions

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Prof. Robert Forrant, with student Bernard Trubowitz, received the Bread & Roses Hall of Fame Award for his research on the strike, the subject of his new book. Photo courtesy of the Lawrence History Center

By Julia Gavin

History Prof. Robert Forrant has been researching the struggles of textile workers during the Great Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912 for several years, bringing his projects to the classroom when possible. Seeing historical research at work engages his students, including two who contributed to Forrant’s new book, “The Great Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912: New Scholarship on the Bread & Roses Strike.”

The strike united 25,000 immigrant workers from several countries in a public protest against a wage cut and deplorable working and living conditions. Skillful neighborhood organizers, solidarity and a commitment to respect every striker’s culture led to a walkout across the city’s mills, crippling the big companies for more than a month. Forrant’s new book, co-written with Jurg K. Siegenthaler, discusses the strike from several viewpoints, including worker organization and cultural experiences in immigrant groups.

Ethan Snow ’10 ’12 and Janelle Bourgeois ’13 both contributed chapters to the book.

“The best part of this project was getting students published,” says Forrant.

Snow worked as a research assistant for Forrant while earning his master’s degree. He also worked with the Bread & Roses Centennial Committee to organize a yearlong series of events celebrating the historic strike, including an academic symposium.

There, Snow presented part of his master’s thesis, which later became his chapter, “Voices of Labor Militancy in Lawrence 1912-1931.” Snow used the Lawrence History Center’s oral histories of people involved in the strike to explore the years following the event and other movements in 1919 and 1931 which had not been closely studied.

“I found that the story of this particular strike is woven in to a much larger fabric of working-class history in Lawrence,” says Snow. “It wasn’t so much a singular, monumental occurrence but the beginning of a slow, steady march that would become the bedrock for years of strong labor activism in the city that was emulated across the country.”

People involved in the 1912 strike were involved in the 1919 and 1931 events, using lessons learned from Bread & Roses to improve the organization already in place. Snow credits the oral histories for giving an important and clear view of the events.
“I was only able to uncover all of this through the direct words of people who lived through these times, and their stories weren’t glamorous,” says Snow. “They weren’t filled with 'Bread and Roses' monikers and romanticized notions of what went on in the strike.”

Bourgeois’ inspiration began in the classroom, but took off during a trip to the Lawrence History Center with Forrant’s class. She uncovered a box of materials about Franco-Belgians immigrating to Lawrence that piqued her interest. The primary resources, including a charter for their club, gave her a first-hand account of the immigrants’ lives. Her chapter, “Believe Comrades ... the Day is Coming When Those at the End of Their Rope Will Require Struggle. It Will Be, Perhaps, Tomorrow” details the arrival of the “radical” textile workers to Lawrence and their involvement in the strike.

“I did some digging on the club charter signatories and found some French scholarship (a biographical dictionary) on one of the individuals and the project developed from there,” says Bourgeois.

Again, Bourgeois’ research was sparked by primary resources, which Snow credits with building a more complete view of events that took place more than a century ago.

“These stories are very real and they detail so much more about the strike and what happened before and after in Lawrence than mainstream accounts provide,” Snow says of the oral histories he used. “I came to realize that for us to have a real understanding and interpretation of history it is crucial to listen to the voices of those who truly own that history.”