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Calloway, Ernest A. (1909-1989) | Saint Louis University Libraries Special Collections:  Archives and Manuscripts

Name: Calloway, Ernest A. (1909-1989)
Variant Name: Ernest "Cab" Calloway


Historical Note:

Ernest A. Calloway, whose nickname was "Cab," apparently after the famous musician who shared his surname, was born in Heberton, West Virginia on January 1, 1909.  His father, "Big Ernest," left "a deeply-rooted family in Bedford County, Virginia" to become a coal miner in West Virginia.  Calloway's mother Mary Hester was Big Ernest's second wife, having married as an orphan of 15.  Young Ernest may have developed his social conscience early under the influence of his father, who had experienced violence in the coalfields--"He had been shot once in the arm and it was always giving him trouble"--and was a convinced unionist who commanded respect among blacks and whites alike (Ernest Calloway, "How We Came to Appalachia," in the newspaper insert celebrating his life, September 22, 1973, Personalia Series, Folder 1) .  Finally settling in Jenkins, Kentucky, Big Ernest built the first black church and school in the community and served as the first secretary of the United Mine Workers in the area, a tribute to his ability to mediate among local mountain people, the new black population, and the varied ethnic groups of miners who flooded in to work the coal seams.

Young Ernest himself became a miner at the age of 17 without finishing high school.  Having already discovered Harlem the year before--"'Harlem showed me there was another world outside the mines and the mountains'"--he quit his job in 1929 and began to wander, from the river boats of New York to Mexico to California.  The now aspiring author wrote his first piece about "'a new developing craze called marijuana'" (Jake McCarthy, "Before It Was Fashionable," _St. Louis Post-Dispatch_, April 9, 1973, Personalia Series, Folder 1). 

In 1933 Calloway's first journalistic effort appeared as a report on the problems faced by black miners in Appalachia, an assignment undertaken at the urging of Elmer A. Carter, editor of the magazine _Opportunity_, the mouthpiece of the National Urban League.  Carter had been impressed with two prior articles submitted by Calloway that had remained unpublished, and both Carter and Ira DeA. Reid, director of research for the League, recommended that Calloway seek admission to Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, New York. 

In 1934 Calloway won a scholarship to the college, which was dedicated to developing future labor leaders, and later recalled debating ideas with Norman Thomas, touring the nation with the school's theater group, and his "first beating by a policeman--in Cleveland when we demonstrated against the neo-Fascists."  In 1935 Calloway was back in Virginia working with the unemployed; he recalled, "[W]e had to meet at different places each week to avoid being raided by the local police" (Ernest Calloway, "Forty Years of Unionism," on page 1 of his compilation _Trade Union Note Book_, Works Series, Folder 15).  He also took part in the 1936 march by the jobless on Washington D. C. and two years later moved to Chicago, where he remained for the next 12 years.

In Chicago, Calloway was instrumental in organizing the red caps on the railroad and then served as educational director of this United Transport Service Employees Union.  He was also at the center of "a bitter and widely publicized conflict" when as a protest against segregation in the military he refused to be drafted into the army (Gus Lumpe, "Who Is Ernest Calloway?," page 3 of newspaper insert, September 22, 1973, Personalia Series, Folder 1).  He spent a year on the editorial staff of the _CIO News_ in Washington, D. C. before becoming an organizer in the union's Southern Organizing Drive in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  Between these two stints he journeyed to Ruskin College in Oxford in 1948 as the recipient of a scholarship from the British Trade Union Congress.  There tutorials with his professors and pub visits joined "trips to London and the small West Indian night clubs" as lasting memories (Calloway, "Forty Years of Unionism," Works Series, Folder 15).

Calloway arrived in St. Louis in 1950 after giving up a Fulbright Scholarship in favor of a career as research director for the Teamsters, in his own words "one of America's most socially exciting local unions" (Calloway, "Forty Years of Unionism," Works Series, Folder 15).  Five years later he was elected president of the St. Louis branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).  Under his leadership the organization concentrated on widening employment opportunities for blacks, picketing and boycotting leading local businesses such as Famous-Barr department stores and utility companies.  Calloway pursued a similar agenda while national vice president of the Negro American Labor Council.

In 1957 the NAACP successfully spearheaded the campaign to defeat a new city charter, arguing that its purpose was to restrict black influence in city government and that it offered no guarantees of civil rights.  Calloway also ran the political campaigns of the Rev. John J. Hicks, the first black member of the St. Louis Board of Education and thus the first successful black candidate in a citywide election, and of T. D. McNeal, the first black state senator in Missouri.  Calloway's wife DeVerne, formerly DeVerne Lee of Memphis, Tennessee, was herself elected to the first of six consecutive terms as a Missouri state representative in 1962.  That same year Calloway helped lead the struggle for the public accommodations bill that ended segregation in St. Louis. 

Calloway formed the Committee on Fair Representation in 1967 and formulated a congressional redistricting plan that  ensured meaningful black participation in the political process.  The following year Calloway contested the Democratic nomination for Congress but lost to William Clay, who, in the words of St. Louis newspaperman Jake McCarthy, "tried to label Ernest Calloway an Uncle Tom.  It hurt Calloway deeply.  Damn near killed him" ("Before It Was Fashionable," _St. Louis Post-Dispatch_, April 9, 1973, Personalia Series, Folder 1).  Along the way he found time to publish the newspaper _New Citizen_ and to write a column for the _St. Louis Sentinel_, a weekly black newspaper.

After his retirement from the Teamsters Union in 1973 Calloway devoted his full time to teaching at Saint Louis University, an association that had begun in 1969 when Director of the Center for Urban Programs George D. Wendel arranged for Calloway to be released from his Teamster duties a few hours per week in order to take up a part-time lectureship at the center.  Calloway's first class was UA 130, "Black Metropolis," an introduction to the society, politics, and economic aspects of black life in the city.  At this time Calloway's rank was equivalent to assistant professor; in 1976 he was promoted to associate professor with tenure.  In 1977 he retired as associate professor emeritus.  While at the University Calloway served on the St. Louis City Plan Commission, as dean of the Zoning Commission, and as a member of the Community Development Commission.

Calloway died on December 31, 1989 a few hours before his eighty-first birthday.  He had long been in ill health.  He was survived by his wife DeVerne, to whom he had been married since 1947.  They had no children.  The St. Louis Chapter of Black Trade Unionists annually awards the Ernest and DeVerne Calloway Award to those making a significant contribution to the labor movement.  At Saint Louis University the Ernest A. Calloway Jr. African American Scholarship Fund provides aid to black high school students hoping to study at the University.  Each year 25 awards are available, varying in size with need and academic preparation.  Recipients of the prizes are termed Calloway Scholars.

The essence of the clear-sighted, strong-willed Calloway shines through in a comment recorded by his longtime friend Jake McCarthy: "'I grew up hating white people. . . .  A friend of mine was lynched in 1933. . . .  Later I went up to see the remains.  It took me many years to forget the smell.  Later I found hatred a waste of time.  What you have to deal with are institutions, laws, customs.  I have spent 50 years working hatred out of my system'" (Jake McCarthy, "Before It Was Fashionable," _St. Louis Post-Dispatch_, April 9, 1973, Personalia Series, Folder 1).

Sources: Newspaper articles in the collection, obituary in program for memorial service, teaching contracts
Note Author: Christine Harper





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