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Caught My Eye: Working the Port of Houston Collection

Photograph of Captain Doug Mims in the wheelhouse on the M/V Sam Houston in 2012

Captain Doug Mims in the wheelhouse on the M/V SAM HOUSTON, 2012. Photo by Anthony G. Potoczniak  for the Working the Port of Houston Collection (AFC 2012/006). 

As shipping delays persist, even if Ever Given and Ever Forward are both free to forge on, I am reminded of the AFC’s Working the Port of Houston Collection, and the insights it offers into the global shipping industry from the perspective of one of the world’s busiest ports. Focused on the history and importance of the Port of Houston, Texas, the collection illuminates its geographical – and, in turn, functional – relationships to the Gulf of Mexico and seafaring world.

In interviews with dozens of port workers, they discuss their lives and the various jobs they had, as well as their experiences of broader economic, political, and social changes spanning the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st. Indeed, one important conversation across a number of interviews concerns the technological shifts from manual labor – such as in the work of longshoremen who would load and unload by hand bananas, cotton, cow hides, flour, and rice – to automation, along with cargo containerization, and its impacts on the workforce. On containerization, Eugene Harris, who started working on the docks in the 1950s, laments: “the containers have taken all the work; if you don’t operate a machine […] there’s not work for manual labor.” (Harris was interviewed by then project team member and, until recently, our very own AFC Director Betsy Peterson.)

In 2011, five folklorists and documentarians, based out of the Houston Arts Alliance Folklife and Traditional Arts Program, interviewed over fifty “pilots, marine firefighters, longshoremen, tugboat operators, port engineers, union organizers, and owners of port-related businesses.” Led by folklorists Pat Jasper and Carl Lindahl, the Working the Port of Houston project and subsequent archival collection was supported by an AFC Archie Green Fellowship award, as part of the Center’s Occupational Folklife Project, established in 2010. As a whole, the Working the Port of Houston Collection offers rich insights into the diverse culture of work associated with the city’s port and ship channel, an important economic engine for keeping Houston afloat and in step with increasing globalization.

Steersmen Randall Spann (left) and Sean McDonald of Higman Marine Services, by the stern deck of the M/V ORANGE, 2012.

Steersmen Randall Spann (left) and Sean McDonald of Higman Marine Services, by the stern deck of the M/V ORANGE, 2012. Photo by Anthony G. Potoczniak for the AFC’s Working the Port of Houston Collection (AFC 2012/006).

For instance, Jasper interviewed Benny Holland, who started out on the waterfront in the 1960s, and worked his way up to serving as the Executive Vice President of the International Longshoreman’s Union. To the collection’s conversations, he brings a detailed perspective of union efforts, and its fight against the elimination of jobs due to automation and the shift to shipping containers for moving cargo. In particular, he discusses the monumental 1968 workers’ strike, which lasted 106 days, and the negotiations between union officials and management to protect workers’ incomes, pensions, and to compensate for jobs that were lost. Over the course of his service, he has seen firsthand the change from manual labor – where anyone “off the street” could get a job if physically fit – to skilled jobs, where one must be trained to operate multi-million dollar cranes for moving containers with millions of dollars worth of cargo, without damaging the ships. As Jasper has since noted: “This was no longer the human against human confrontation that had defined earlier labor crises, but rather a struggle pitting workers against degrees and levels of compartmentalization and mechanization impossible to compete against.”

The interviews also trace the impacts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that eventually brought an end to racial segregation in the decades that followed. For longshoremen, there were local unions for Black workers, but the unions notably remained segregated until the 1980s. Jasper explains that for “some very simple and pragmatic reasons, both the black and white unions supported the status quo, even though such a stance seems counter intuitive to the social justice efforts of the era.” Benny Holland notes that when the local unions began to integrate, it was at first difficult, since a number of Black union representatives lost their once-enjoyed autonomy and high-level jobs. The locals “were invested in retaining their autonomy over leadership and seniority and did not want to dilute their separate powers through a merger,” Jasper adds. After negotiations between the unions, nonetheless, the merger was ultimately achieved.

Photograph of Assistant Chief George Larrimer in the wheelhouse of the M/V FARNSWORTH, 2012.

Assistant Chief George Larrimer in the wheelhouse of the M/V FARNSWORTH, 2012. Photo by Anthony G. Potoczniak for the AFC’s Working the Port of Houston Collection (AFC 2012/006).

As with so many other AFC collections, such as the urban field surveys and other Occupational Folklife Project collections, the global connections of U.S. cities, including their sociocultural and economic relationships to points across the world, shines through. Layered into the stories of how so many Houstonians made a living in the port and shipping industries, the collection speaks to the significant role the city continues to play in the worldwide movement of goods, and the global economic forces of which it is a part.

Yet, as Jasper and Lindahl have argued, the port is often celebrated in terms of the institutions and corporations that fueled its world-class development. As a means for disrupting this mainstream narrative, the Working the Port of Houston project was also developed into the 2014 Houston Arts Alliance exhibition, Stories of a Workforce: Celebrating the Centennial of the Houston Ship Channel (and accompanying book). As they state, the exhibition served to: “Make the Port of Houston better seen, better known and especially, better heard […] By privileging the voices of the men and women who work there, [the project] called on the greatest ground-level experts to tell us their stories, to share their experience, to relay information about an occupational setting.” Rooted in ethnographic fieldwork and its application in amplifying a “previously unheard story,” the exhibition, and the interviews from which it stemmed, “is really a contemporary grassroots examination – through the words of the workers themselves.”

We hope you take some time to explore the Working the Port of Houston Collection, which was made available on the Library’s website in recent years. And stay tuned for a new story map that brings together many of the AFC’s Occupational Folklife Project collections, especially the dozens now accessible online!

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