Labor Organizing With Cisco Houston
Cisco Houston and the National Maritime Union
Editor's Note: Mr. Greenberg kindly agreed to share his memories of Cisco Houston for publication on this site. The World War II veteran now lives in Florida. (This article was written in November, 2004.)
I joined the U.S. Merchant Marine five days after graduating from high school in 1942. I sailed continuously until the war was over, serving in every war zone, including the South Pacific, the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. I then sailed intermittently from the end of the war in the summer of 1945 through 1948. In August, 1947, I was returning from Japan as engineering officer on the S.S. William Leavitt. When we docked in San Pedro, California the National Maritime Union Port Agent came on board. He knew who I was, knew my political leanings, and talked to me about the problems that the National Maritime Union faced in its upcoming national election. He urged me to stay at sea, go back into the NMU, get elected as a delegate to its convention, and help organize the membership to vote "progressive" in the upcoming election. The leadership strongly appealed to me to become the organizer for the West Gulf of Texas in order to help accomplish this mission. I agreed.
Late August of '47 found me in Port Arthur, Texas, heading up a group of seven NMU seamen who were determined to campaign on every ship that entered port. They urged the election of ship delegates who would support the Progressive leaders, the ones who had built the union, at the upcoming NMU National Convention in New York City.
One of my new friends was a seaman named Cisco Houston. All of us moved into the other side of a duplex belonging to the NMU port agent. We were able to find folding cots for sleeping. We mostly ate at neighborhood bars and restaurants. We rarely cooked for ourselves, although occasionally one of the girlfriends of a group member would cook a meal for us. Living and working together, we became very close. We shared our wartime and our union experiences. We would go aboard each ship, call for a union meeting, and urge the crew to elect a delegate to the convention and to support the election of the Progressive leaders.
Cisco talked of his early years and of traveling with Woody Guthrie, and later shipping out with him. He also spoke of his years traveling with his brother, Slim, who also became a seaman. Slim went down with his ship early in the war in the North Atlantic, in November of '42. We all talked a little about girlfriends, and those that had had wives. At the time, we were all single. As I recall, Cisco referenced having a small daughter, but he never elaborated. He was dedicated to unionism, and was willing to give his all.
At night Cisco often played and sang for us. Sometimes he took his guitar when we went out to bars. The strength and character of his voice was something to hear. His collection of folk music seemed endless, particularly the songs of his old shipmate Woody. He was truly one of the neatest people you could ever meet. He always had a good word for everybody. He was fun-loving, sincere, and dedicated to his ideals.
To support ourselves financially, it was decided that one at a time we would take turns and sign on one of the tankers based at Port Arthur. Usually this meant a fast round-trip up the East Coast, to Savannah, Pennsylvania, or New York. Normally this would take only four-to-five weeks. The returning seaman would then toss his pay into the pot so that the rest of us would have money to live on, while another in the group took a trip. Cisco was gone on one trip for almost five weeks, and we were so glad when he returned, because with his pay we could eat better, and get to hear his music again.
Once, when it was my turn, I signed on as a "vacation relief" on the S.S. Nevada, which, it turned out, only went out into the Gulf of Mexico to an offshore oil rig, and then returned to port. The total round-trip was only nine days. My buddies were a little miffed that I had been gone such a short time, while they always had to be away for a month or more.
On a few Saturday nights, we went across the state border to a small country roadhouse in Louisiana, near Bridge City. (This is only about eight miles east of Port Arthur.) People would gather from the bayous to play, and to dance to Cajun music. One time Cisco brought his guitar and played for the group. Even though it wasn't Cajun, they loved his music. The Cajun accordion player and a fiddle player followed along with Cisco's songs. This was the kind of backwoods country where Hudie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) had his roots. Cisco had mastered a good repertoire of Leadbelly's songs, and knew him. "Goodnight Irene" was always a crowd favorite.
Besides organizing for the NMU election, my friends and I decided it was a good time to go into the Negro community. We urged them to join a union, pay the Texas poll tax, and prepare to vote in the next national election. Negroes in those days did not dare to vote in Texas. These were the years in which lynchings were not uncommon. This, of course, was many years before the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King. Our timing was more than a bit premature, but when you are young and have ideals, you feel that you can accomplish anything. Well, we did not have much success in urging Negroes to pay the poll tax and vote. We were told that Blacks would not dare to show up at a polling place, for fear of reprisals.
One day Cisco and I and another friend were talking to people in the Black neighborhood. A police car pulled up and two officers arrested us and took us to jail. They warned us that we'd better stay out of those neighborhoods. They said it would be best if we were to get out of town and get back to New York, or else we could end up in some bayou with no grave marker.
In the Port Arthur jail, we shared the same cell. It had old, roach-infested mattresses, so we spent the night sleeping while sitting up against the wall. We had been charged with vagrancy. We got our union attorney from Houston to appear with us in front of the judge. That judge turned us loose, provided that we agreed to stay out of the Negro neighborhood.
On Christmas Day, 1947, my buddies and I had failed to obtain any food for the household. All of the restaurants and stores were closed. We spent a long 24 hours with nothing to eat. You can imagine how a bunch of young guys handled that.
A month or so later, we moved part of our operation to Galveston, Texas, about 90 miles from Port Arthur. We continued our election organizing. It was getting rough out there. We endured constant threats and occasional fights. Cisco and two of our buddies had remained in Port Arthur. One day, on one of the docks, a group of Joe Curran's goons came after us. They shot at us a number of times, but fortunately missed.
At the National Maritime Union convention in New York, our side lost. All the Progressive founders of the union were tossed out. Now came that harrying period in U.S. history where the communist "witch hunts" and the McCarthy Era began. "Blacklisting" was the new thing, and most of us in the old NMU were prohibited from sailing anymore.
During that time, I started going with a girl that I ended up marrying a few months later. Cisco and two of our friends were still in Port Arthur. They came over to Galveston for my wedding. We couldn't find a preacher on the weekend in Galveston to get married, and the court house was closed. So we ended up getting married in Texas City, about 10 miles from Galveston. Cisco was my Best Man. We had a party, and said goodbye to each other, wondering if our paths would ever cross again. We promised to get together in the future, but that opportunity never came about. With the election lost, we all scattered to different parts of the country, and embarked on the next phases of our lives. Cisco was about 27 years old, and went to New York City. I was 23, and ended up in Western New York as Director for the Progressive Party, which supported Henry Wallace for President of the United States in 1948.
After that election was over, I found that "The McCarthy Era" was doing a pretty effective job. I was blacklisted, prevented from getting any sort of job at sea or in industry. These were trying days for America. Over those years, Cisco and I lost track of each other as our lives took us onto different paths.
See Here for Bob's account of the National Maritime Union, 1935-1948.