Graham, Charlotte Smith (1912–1993)

By: Patricia Evridge Hill

Type: Biography

Published: September 1, 1995

Charlotte Smith Graham, dressmaker and labor organizer, was born in Dallas in 1912. One of twelve founders of a Dallas "sewing circle" that affiliated with the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union in 1935, she remained active in union affairs for more than forty years. During the ILGWU's ten-month 1935 Dallas strike for union recognition, increased wages, and the elimination of workplace abuses like kickbacks to foremen and mandatory work "off the clock," police jailed the recently married Charlotte Duncan fifty-four times. Although she was usually charged with violating court-ordered injunctions that limited the number of pickets in front of Dallas dress factories, Duncan was also jailed for participating in a strike riot on August 7, 1935, during which ten female strikebreakers were attacked and stripped of some or all of their clothing. The Dallas "strike strippers" made the New York Times, and articles and illustrations describing the melee appeared in newspapers in Italy and Australia. Condemned as "unwomanly violence" by Dallas editors, "strike stripping" was a spontaneous demonstration of the dressmakers' anger and frustration after months of employer intransigence. The independence and militancy of Dallas's approximately 150 striking dressmakers shocked many of the city's middle-class residents and even surprised long-time ILGWU organizer Meyer Perlstein, the union's choice to lead the Dallas locals.

Despite the vitality of the ILGWU's Dallas members and the Industrial Commission of Texas's recommendation that the dress manufacturers recognize the union and submit to an arbitrated settlement, the Dallas strike failed. Blacklisted for her support of the union, Charlotte Duncan moved to the West Coast where she worked in a union dress factory in Los Angeles, participated in another major strike, and organized "run away" garment plants throughout southern California. Duncan returned to Dallas in 1941 to find the ILGWU's two locals, No. 121 and No. 204 active but still facing stiff opposition from local manufacturers. Despite her notoriety, the demand for experienced workers during World War II led Duncan's former employer, Justin-McCarty Manufacturers to rehire her. Almost immediately, Duncan resumed her organizing efforts for the ILGWU. By the end of the 1940s she joined the staff of the Dallas Central Labor Council, where she met her second husband, Frank W. Graham of Local 59, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Charlotte Duncan Graham moved to Washington, D.C., with her husband in 1952 when he accepted a position on the IBEW's staff. Frank Graham served as administrative assistant to electrical union presidents Gordon M. Freeman and Charles H. Pillard before retiring in 1973. The Grahams returned to Texas, where they remained active in labor circles, the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Community Chest. Charlotte Duncan Graham died on September 23, 1993. Although she had no children, Graham encouraged dressmakers to include their offspring in union activities to demonstrate that they were respectable and mature wives and mothers. Graham's niece began distributing labor literature as a toddler. In her work to combat Dallas newspapers' portrayal of working women as frivolous dilettantes who could rely on husbands and/or fathers for support, Graham helped to draw attention to the harsh industrial conditions facing Texas women in the 1930s and 1940s.

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Richard Croxdale and Melissa Hield, eds., Women in the Texas Workforce: Yesterday and Today (Austin: People's History in Texas, 1979). Charlotte Graham, Interview by Patsy Putnam, 1973, Labor Archives, Special Collections, University of Texas at Arlington. Patricia Evridge Hill, "Real Women and True Womanhood: Grassroots Organizing among Dallas Dressmakers in 1935," Labor's Heritage, Spring 1994.
  • Women
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Activists
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas
  • North Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Patricia Evridge Hill, “Graham, Charlotte Smith,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 08, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 1, 1995

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