LPS alumna publishes the first history of a revolutionary Philadelphia-born labor union

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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

“I took Anne Farnsworth-Alvear’s class in oral histories when I was a Bachelor of Arts (BA) student at the College of Liberal and Professional Studies (LPS), and that’s where the idea for my book started,” remembers Dr. Sharon McConnell-Sidorick (BA ’97 Summa Cum Laude). Sharon’s Silk Stockings and Socialism: Philadelphia's Radical Hosiery Workers from the Jazz Age to the New Deal was published in April of 2017 by the University of North Carolina Press. Her book is the first to chronicle the history of the socialist-led American Federation of Full-Fashioned Hosiery Workers (AFFFHW).

Sharon came to the LPS Bachelor of Arts program after completing her studies in information systems at Burlington County College. “I fell in love with the anthropology courses I took. My husband encouraged me to apply to LPS when we saw an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, and I went for it. I always wanted to do something more,” she notes. When Sharon joined LPS, her tuition was fully funded by the Bread Upon the Waters Scholarship, which recognizes outstanding women over the age of 30 who are part-time undergraduates.

After earning her BA in Anthropology and starting a Master of Liberal Arts at Penn, Sharon became a co-chair for the New Jersey Campaign for a Nuclear Weapons Freeze. During a meeting, she was introduced to an older couple, Alice and Howard, who were from the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia where Sharon grew up. “They both left school at age 14 to go to work in a hosiery factory. When they found out I was from Kensington, they told me all these stories about what was going on in this socialist workers’ union that they helped form. The AFFFHW opened the first housing project under The New Deal, right in Juniata Park with a fully staffed childcare center for working mothers in 1935. I couldn’t believe all of this happened in Kensington, and that I’d never heard about it before.

Silk Stockings and Socialism: Philadelphia's Radical Hosiery Workers from the Jazz Age to the New Deal

The element of feminism in the labor movement piqued Sharon’s interest, and she started digging deeper. She gathered her research and began a PhD at Temple University on the subject—and her thesis eventually developed into her book. Sharon recalls, “I grew up in the area, in a union family and I knew nothing about this socialist hosiery union. Its history had been lost. I remember Howard telling me, ‘well you’ll just have to write it, won’t you?’”

While writing her book, Sharon poured through the National Archives in College Park, Maryland and financial records of the city’s industries at Wharton. She also traveled to archives in Madison, Wisconsin and Detroit, Michigan and dove into union documents, including newspapers, interviews, economic data and convention proceedings. She found that “the industry wasn’t progressive, but this particular union was. They helped establish the Congress of Industrial Organizations. They were very active in housing, the right to unionize and creating social security. They organized skilled and unskilled laborers, African American workers in the South, and women.”

Her book also includes an oral history of Kensington and its industrial development. She interviewed current residents whose families have lived there for generations. “It’s difficult sometimes to write about regular people, l found, because they don’t often keep records, so oral histories are a great way of doing that,” she adds.

Reflecting on her journey from non-traditional undergraduate student to a published author, adjunct professor, historian who speaks at conventions and PhD, Sharon says, “It still doesn’t feel real. My book was accepted by three publishers, including NYU and Johns Hopkins. You send these things out assuming rejections, and there I was with three offers. I know all of this wouldn’t have been possible without the Bread Upon the Waters Scholarship I received from Penn. Not only did it remove the financial burden, but it also helped me believe I could do this—and that’s a huge obstacle to overcome, especially for working class kids.”

Sharon is appearing at the Penn Book Center on September 7th at 6 p.m. to discuss her book, Philadelphia and the radical politics of the American Federation of Full-Fashioned Hosiery Workers.

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