September 1, 1919. Labor Day

So much in evidence here on this late summer parade day looking north on Pacific Avenue from  a camera perch above 12th Street. Labor Day, 1919 was loaded with subtext and social turmoil hidden just below the surface. The previous January had seen the Seattle General Strike and the rise of organized labor in the Pacific Northwest. Less than six weeks after the Tacoma Labor Day Parade with its 6000 marchers, the American Legion would clash with the Wobblies at an Armistices Day parade in Centralia leading to a gunfight, six deaths, a lynching and murder trials in Tacoma and Montesano.

Labor Day 1919

During the First World War, still not a year in the past when this photo was taken, Pacific Avenue was regularly the venue for military parades, uniformed soldiers, and patriotic flag waving crowds. But by late summer of 1919, Camp Lewis was full of empty barracks and the city was filling up with waterfront workers, teamsters, furniture makers,policemen, warehouse workers, merchants and a flood of young men and women who were drawn to the city from farms and rural small towns. Chicago style skyscrapers and polite fashionable apartment buildings were changing the face of Tacoma as a decade of prosperity raised very real questions about class, wealth and social equity. The long, single file lines of women in white uniforms were not just an orderly display of their profession as nurses or waitresses.The marching lines were a symbol of the suffrage movement, and even though women had been voting in Washington since 1910, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had been ratified only three week before the parade day on August 18, 1919.

Teamsters following a wagon float and horse team.

The scene of midtown Tacoma also captures the heart of the city’s Jewish business district so well explored in a recent exhibit at the Tacoma Historical Society and exemplified by the Meyer Jacob sign in the foreground. The next block would carry the parade along the Pacific Avenue edge of Japantown and then on into the warehouse district and the heart of Tacoma’s labor territory. But mostly the Labor Day parade fixed Tacoma’s identity as a union town and marched the city into a future based on the equality of honest work for fair pay.


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