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Early Labor Rights and Activism: Learning about the 1938 Pecan Shellers Strike

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This post is by Camryn Blackmon, an intern in the Library of Congress Archives, History and Heritage Advanced Internship Program.

On January 31, 1938, about 12,000 Mexican Americans employed as pecan shellers walked out from their jobs to protest the pecan shelling companies. But what led to such a large group of workers organizing a strike? Photographs from the online collections of the Library of Congress can allow students to learn more about the living and working conditions of these workers.

The Great Depression was challenging for many U.S. families and workers, but for Hispanic Americans and African Americans, it added new challenges to already difficult lives. Before the Great Depression, cities in the south were already heavily segregated, separating racial and ethnic minorities from certain types of housing, resources, education, and job opportunities. Before the economic crisis, low-paying and difficult jobs were the only opportunities available for most people of color to support their families and survive, but the impacts of the Great Depression made this even more difficult as they faced racial discrimination and worse economic hardships.

San Antonio, Texas, was among many cities extremely segregated. A majority of Mexican Americans lived in poorer neighborhoods on the West Side, where opportunities for work were sparse and many people were limited to jobs nearby.

Image of Pecan Shellers in a large room working
Mexican women pecan shellers at work. Union plant. San Antonio, Texas. Russell Lee, 1939

Image of female pecan sheller seperating pecan meats from shells.
Separating meats from shells. Pecan shelling plant. San Antonio, Texas. Russell Lee, 1939

Pecan shellers in front of Dillon and Dexter Pecan Shelling company
People Standing in Front of Dillon and Dexter Pecan Shelling Company, San Antonio, Texas. Russell Lee, 1939

The biggest employer on the West Side of San Antonio was the pecan industry, with 400 factories in the area. Thousands of Mexican Americans started working as pecan shellers in the factories. Pecan shellers cracked pecans and separated the meat from the shells of each pecan by hand. They would usually work for about 10 hours a day every day of the week. Despite the long hours, they were only paid 2-3 dollars a week. Shellers were paid 7 cents for each pound of pecans shelled, but eventually their pay was reduced to 5 cents a pound.

Pecan shellers were also required to work in unhealthy environments: small spaces with poor lighting, bad ventilation, and no place to use the restroom. Many workers were exposed to tuberculosis because of the tight spaces and lack of ventilation. The combination of low pay and dangerous working conditions compelled pecan shellers to come together to demand improved conditions and fair wages.

Engage students with photographs in the online collections of the Library of Congress that document the daily life of pecan shellers, both at work and in their homes.

  • Ask students to examine a selection of the photos to find clues about why the pecan shellers organized a strike.
  • Present students with the three images featured in this post, or select others from the gallery. Ask students what they can learn about the pecan shellers’ work from the images. Ask them also to consider what they cannot learn, and encourage them to generate questions. Support them in considering how they might find answers.
  • Russell Lee photographed the pecan shellers as part of a government project to document life in America between 1935 to 1944. Ask students: Why do you think he decided to include the pecan shellers? What story do you think he was trying to tell with the photographs?

Learn more about the strike with the resources in this guide.

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