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Finding AFL’s Gompers

I have lived in the nation’s capital for 30 years. Yet it was only this summer that I discovered Washington’s grand tribute to Samuel Gompers. Located in downtown Washington, the monument is positioned in Samuel Gompers Memorial Park on Massachusetts Avenue, a major artery, between 10th Street and 11th Street, N.W.

When I conducted an informal survey about the 16-foot-tall statue’s existence among well-educated friends, only a few knew about it. I have made it a personal mission to tell locals as well as visitors about this impressive statue and the Gompers legacy.

Too few American Jews are aware of how pivotal this one man, Gompers, was to the early history of the labor movement. Too few have visited this glorious monument dedicated to his accomplishments.

Born into a Jewish working-class family in London in 1850, Gompers migrated with his family to New York City in 1863. He was the founding father and longest-running president of the American Federation of Labor, serving from 1886 until his death in 1924. During his incumbency, Gompers was involved in numerous strikes and passionately advocated for higher wages, shorter hours, safe working conditions and collective bargaining with employers.

After his death, it was only fitting that labor would erect a memorial in honor of the leading trade unionist who legitimized their cause.

Gompers is the commanding centerpiece of the memorial, sculpted in bronze and granite and designed by Robert Aitken. Dressed in a dapper three-piece suit, Gompers sits attentively, a sheaf of papers on his lap and a coat draped behind him. In such an attentive position, Gompers strikes a powerful leadership pose. This realist depiction of Gompers is in sharp contrast to the idealized statues behind him. He is surrounded by six figures, each symbolizing different labor ideals. These include domesticity, education, justice and unity of the labor movement, the guiding principles of the AFL. Two standing workers shake while a man sits reading a book and a woman sits holding a child. Flanking them are the “goddesses of wisdom and justice.” Three excerpts of Gompers’s speeches are engraved on the memorial base. On the back is inscribed the AFL slogan and seal, the clasped hands of labor.

The memorial was dedicated in front of 7,500 spectators on October 7, 1933. As a testament to Gompers’s importance, President Franklin Roosevelt and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended the ceremony. The president spoke of his personal friendship with Gompers. The morning dedication allowed attendees to watch the afternoon World Series game between the Washington Senators and the New York Giants.

Gompers started out as a cigar-maker. And so it hit a chord when, on a recent visit to the park, I noticed several cigars lying on the statue base. It might have been a coincidence, but it’s possible that another fan of the labor leader was honoring him with the tools of his trade — paying tribute by leaving cigars instead of the traditional grave-side stones.

Labor Day was created in 1882 as a celebration of the American worker. In 1898, Gompers declared Labor Day as “the day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed.” Also lingering on the memorial’s foundation on my recent visit were two homeless people, proving that Gompers’s dedication for obtaining dignified work for all Americans has not achieved its final goal.

Aviva Kempner, who directed “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” is making films on Samuel Gompers and Gertrude Berg: America’s Molly Goldberg.

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