WISL — A Testimony of Rockaway’s Black History and Historical Strength — Part 1


Picture the year, 1931, in Rockaway’s blessed seaside peninsula. Though the Great Depression was already full-throttle, many of you or your parents and grandparents may nostalgically reminisce about fun-filled memories of living or visiting the peninsula’s popular seaside resorts. Many of Rockaway’s Irish settlers cherished the peninsula because according to the book, “Between Ocean and City, The Transformation of Rockaway, New York” by Lawrence and Carol P. Kaplan, “Rockaway resembled their original home in County Sligo on the Atlantic Ocean in northwestern Ireland.” However, for the growing population of African Americans coming in droves from the South, seeking work as menial workers in these picturesque resorts, it was a tale of two cities. Their experience was far from picturesque, much less a period of frolicking fun on the beach. But one plucky lady hailing from Augusta, Georgia, was determined to change that, and thus the Working Girls Cooperative League, later renamed the Women’s Industrial Service League, Inc., (WISL) was born.

WISL, which celebrates its 87th year anniversary this year, is still in action with no plans to stop helping the community they have dutifully served for almost nine decades.

WISL’s founder and first president, Eleanor Beatrice Hull, who served from 1931 to 1940, came to NYC from her hometown Augusta, Georgia, where she attended Lucy Lane College for nursing. She worked at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx as a nurse, and decided to switch gears to become an entrepreneur. According to WISL’s current president, Frances Shackelford-Howell, (who was installed as president in 2012), Hull was a very motivated woman, who was determined to make a positive difference in the Far Rockaway community.

According to Shackelford-Howell, when Ms. Hull decided to switch from nursing to become an entrepreneur, she relocated to Far Rockaway, where she purchased property. After witnessing how African American men and women hailing from the South failed to secure steady and fair employment as domestic workers and laborers in Rockaway’s seaside resorts, she was determined to help them not just find jobs, but train them to be highly-skilled, invaluable workers. A lot of these women and men experienced harsh conditions in the seasonal resorts they worked. Also, once the summer season ended, many were left unemployed and homeless, and lived in the streets. Ms. Hull saw the need, and stepped in to help.

According to the Kaplans' book, “Largely hidden from view, invisible in the manner described by Ralph Ellison’s novel, ‘The Invisible Man,’ small numbers of black people lived in the Rockaways, for hundred of years. Along with the English, they were among Rockaway’s earliest settlers. Almost from the very beginning of its resort history, Rockaway’s summer businesses employed poorly paid black workers for some of the most arduous jobs…nonetheless, they were never seen in white sections of town.”

Hull, determined to change that, became a member of the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce and received her NYS license to open an employment agency. Her first business was on Beach 20th Street and later moved to 20-11 Mott Avenue, where she remained until her retirement.

During Hull’s leadership, to help with the housing need, in 1936, she pooled resources with other WISL members to purchase a home located at 1428 Beach Channel Drive. This blue and white house not only provided housing, but was designed as a multi-purpose facility. Shackelford-Howell said, “The house didn’t just provide shelter, it also served as a communal kitchen, where warm food was served. At the back was a playground for the children to play and where community barbecues were held. It was a safe place, where the women could entertain their visiting family and friends. Due to the steeped religiosity of WISL, profane activity or lifestyle was not encouraged. Many of the women went to school at night, and went on to become nurses, secretaries, beauticians and entrepreneurs.

Due to Hull’s untimely death in 1962, Emily Capers Brown succeeded her as WISL’s second president. She continued the legacy of “black women helping other black women.” However, Brown saw another need. These woman who had their own growing families with husbands and children, needed a safe, clean, habitable place to call home. At the time, some lived in dilapidated housing without heat. Consequently, there was a high incidence of tuberculosis, especially among  the children. Brown, with the help of influential members of the community, conducted a survey of Far Rockaway’s black ghetto. Through the sponsorship of WISL and the Queens TB 6000 TB and Health Association, after a chest x-ray program was launched, it became obvious the tuberculosis was the culprit, and intolerable living conditions were to blame. Thus, the Council for Health and Welfare was born. Brown led the fight for adequate housing, a 10-year battle that culminated in the Redfern Housing Project, providing homes for hundreds of families.

However, the Redfern Projects initially were not designated for African American families, but for displaced white war veterans and their families who met the New Deal’s criteria for the working poor.

Fast forward to 2018, the Women’s Industrial Service League is still up and running. Tune in next week for more of WISL's intriguing history and present progress in The Rockaway Times.

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