Southsider’s series focused on the Women of Bethlehem Steel Collection in the Beyond Steel Archives gives our readers the opportunity to explore the stories of women in our community who worked in the steel industry. Each article in the series will feature an introduction to one oral history, a link that allows our readers to listen to her oral history, and analysis of the major themes that the speaker addresses. This week we are honoring Esther Lee.
Many Bethlehem residents will know Esther Lee; she is the current President of Bethlehem’s chapter of the NAACP, served on the BASD school board, and generally has been at the center of Bethlehem politics and social justice work for decades. But, not many residents will know details about Esther Lee’s employment at Bethlehem Steel. As a part of the Women of Bethlehem Steel Oral History Project, Esther Lee shares intimate details about her experiences as a Black woman growing up in Bethlehem and eventually working at the Steel. Her oral history not only teaches us about what it meant to be a working woman during the second half of the 20th century, but also reveals her experiences of racism in Bethlehem. In many ways, her identity as African American and as a woman intersect and particularly inform her experiences. Below, I explore some of the fascinating personal accounts that Esther Lee offers us in her full length oral history, in order to capture some of the lessons that we, as residents of Bethlehem, can learn from her insights.
Racism and Employment
Growing up, Esther Lee and the other Black women around her were keenly aware that society was structured so that their employment prospects were incredibly limited. For Black women during the 1950s, when Lee graduated high school, domestic work was the primary option. Lee notes in her oral history that giant corporations like Bethlehem Steel were a “white world,” and if the Steel did hire Black folks, it was only men, and always in the cokeworks, the most dangerous part of the process of steel making. Lee remembers there being a “bleakness” to the future when it came to jobs, and she ascribes the flight of the Bethlehem Black community to cities like Philadelphia as directly related to being “chased out” by systemic racist restrictions on employment for African Americans.
Throughout her working life, Lee encountered racist attitudes and bigotry everywhere she worked, including the Steel. In her interview, she powerfully recounts the ways in which her managers, and later city leaders, treated her differently than white employees, which made her wonder: Is this because I am a strong willed woman, willing to talk back? When white co-workers and managers would act suspicious about the fact that she and her husband Bill, who also worked at Bethlehem Steel for many years, would talk so much together, she felt like it was as if they were asking: “Who gave you the right to talk?” For her, this bigotry portrayed an attitude that she, and other African Americans, weren’t supposed to be able to communicate with each other at work and instead should avoid common workplace banter and silently go about the day’s tasks. In remembering these racist attitudes, Lee reflects that her response then, and now, was defiance: “What do they expect us … to do? Become subservient to them? I am a human being. That constitution refers to me.”
In terms of her work at Bethlehem Steel, Lee has a different perspective than many of the white male workers who reflect on their time at the Steel as the best time in their lives. For Lee, it was a good job with good benefits, but she was always aware of racism. Her white male coworkers had the privilege of not having to consider the impact that racist attitudes can have on a person’s flourishing.
Esther Lee’s reflections also teach us about the direct impact of anti-racist policy change, and the power of Black networks. Repeatedly, Esther Lee contextualized her opportunity to work at the Steel and gain the affiliated benefits as directly related to the Consent Decree of 1974 . This agreement between the United Steelworkers of America, nine major steel companies, and the federal government promised to increase minority hiring and thus continue embedding the work of the Civil Rights Movement into the steel industry. Lee heard about the opening for an office job at Bethlehem Steel through NAACP networks. Just this small detail speaks to the countless undocumented ways that Black people look out for each other and find ways to substantially leverage opportunity and policy change for their own flourishing.
Other Challenges as a Black Woman
Esther Lee’s oral history also recounts much about the lived history of the way employers and the government have fallen detrimentally short in supporting working mothers in this country, and how mothers have persisted and raised incredible children anyway. In the interview, Lee recounts the ways she and her husband sacrificed to ensure their children could learn piano and engage in other cultural endeavors. She also notes that there was no such thing as paid maternity leave, and so after she had her second child, she only took a week off before returning to work. It was simply necessary to return to work so fast, as there were no policies that valued and protected working mothers by giving them valuable time with infant children. Esther Lee’s story about the lack of maternity leave is an important account of why we need to continue to fight for adequate leave for new mothers as they support their infant children through the first months of their lives.
Lee also reflects powerfully upon the impact of racism in housing, and the ways that housing policies like redlining affected African American communities just as much as employment discrimination. Redlining was a set of racist housing policies that refused to insure mortgages in and near African American neighborhoods, essentially entrenching residential segregation. When she was in school, Lee remembers shrinking into herself when the white students and teachers around her would talk about their expansive yards, the trees in front of their houses, and the robins that would flit by. Because many in the African American community of Bethlehem did not have the economic resources of white families due to job discrimination and low wages for work, her home was different than the pictures in textbooks and the stories of middle-class white students. She didn’t have a large yard, and she recounts this dissonance between her life and her classmates as a way to reveal that the white reality was construed as normal, as neutral, as expected. Similarly, she describes how her experiences with educational settings continued to prioritize the experiences of white Americans at the expense of providing histories and narratives of communities of color within the U.S. Her experiences as a child in Bethlehem public schools fueled her commitment to making curriculum more inclusive and effective for diverse students in our city. Her reflections on racism in the workplace, the lack of support for motherhood in places of employment, and the centrality of the whiteness in educational curriculum are still relevant for us to consider today as we work toward a more equitable future for all residents of Bethlehem.
Esther Lee, A Voice to Be Heard
After working at the Steel, Esther Lee’s rich working life would go on to include being the first African American woman elected to a school board in the Lehigh Valley in 1971. But her ambitions didn’t stop there. She repeatedly ran for a state representative seat and once again faced racism. For her, the attitude was clear: “they’d put a cat in office before they’d let me have a seat.” But this has not stopped her growth and success. Lee continues to be a powerful activist for education in the Lehigh Valley. Even here, in sharing her oral history and highlighting the history of racism in Bethlehem that she experienced, she is an activist for racial justice.
In sharing her life stories with the Women of Bethlehem Steel Oral History Project, Lee generously gives listeners a unique vision of local history, and points us towards ways we can learn from this history to change our present and our future. Lee reflected briefly on a moment from her husband’s childhood, when he had been on a school trip, and had to eat in the kitchen when all his white friends were allowed to eat in the dining hall. For her, this is just one example of the fact that each Black person “has some kind of experience like this” yet are not allowed to express these stories in public forums. She notes that these stories get shut down or tuned out, because our society doesn’t want to think about race or racism. Too many of us want to pretend it doesn’t exist, which only allows it to continue: “And [these memories of racism are] hurtful and you remember them. And because some of us … are not allowed the privilege of sharing, we’ll go to our death with that in us.”
In the conclusion of her interview, Lee reflects that Bethlehem still has much more to do in order to truly “open up” the conversation and truly be inclusive and anti-racist. By attending to her oral history, listeners have the opportunity to learn from one of our community’s important leaders about the history of Bethlehem, reflect upon injustice in our communities, and imagine more just futures.