"In Labor's Corner"
Needles and Pins
1969 Integration Humor
I'll begin by saying that I'm Ben Yomen. But I'm also known as Ben Yomen Miller. My parents came to America in 1900 from a village near Kiev in the Ukraine, in Russia. My father was a machinist. My mother was a milk maid. She delivered milk in the village, like the character "TEVYE" played by my friend the late Zero Mostel in "Fiddler on the Roof".
My family was living in Malden, Massachusetts. near Boston, when I was born in 1911, and moved to Detroit when I was four. My father found a job at Ford Motors and later went to Chrysler Motors working in the upholstery department. In Boston he had helped organize the Machinists Union. When the UAW was formed, he was one of the first to sign up with Chrysler Local 7.
At the grocery store with my mother, I could hear her talking to a friend about her five sons and daughter, Rose, and how hard it was to make ends meet. About me, she said. "He's always drawing little people. Benny has golden fingers." By the time I was nine, there was no doubt that I wanted to be an artist and cartoonist.
Coming home from school I sometimes stopped to draw cartoons on the sidewalk, usually popular comic strip characters. Kids gathered around. One kid piped up. "I bet you can't draw Barney Google." A fan quipped, "Benny can draw anything". Sometimes I would exit with my Charlie Chaplin walk into the sunset.
I looked forward to the day I would enter Cass Tech High in Detroit where I could get basic training in art. Right away I created a comic strip for the school paper. My art classes were proceeding well except for the one where the teacher told me my work was too bold. She said I would never make it as an artist. Yet it was precisely my bold style, using brush instead of pen, plus litho crayon, that eventually proved most effective, not only in the cartoons I did for America's labor press, but in my painting as well.
Later I was awarded a free scholarship to the Wicker School of Fine Art in Detroit. I attended advanced painting classes after school. I also attended a Jewish Community Center art class on Sunday mornings. During this time I was sending gag cartoons to magazines and even sold one, my first sale, to COLLEGE LIFE a humor magazine.
In the summer of 1930 I was 19 and anxious to go to New York to sell a comic strip. At this time the New York Central Railroad had a special low round-trip fare to Detroit. I was able to buy a return ticket for $3 from a passenger who wasn't going back to New York. Since my funds were limited, I checked into a cheap hotel in Manhattan and the next morning I was facing the feature editor of a big syndicate. While he looked at photostats of my strip, I looked at him for some reaction. Finally he commented, "Interesting, but not what we're looking for".
In the following days I tried several syndicates and got the same response. I looked for a job in the art field. On both accounts I failed. To make matters worse, I was broke, with only 65 cents in my pocket. I wasn't ready to go home yet. With my sketch pad, lettering brushes and determination, I was prepared to stick it out for the next two days by panhandling in Times Square, staying in a flop house at night, doing caricatures in bars, and lettering show cards for a meal at a cafeteria. I slept in Grand Central Station, on the subway and in Central Park. I also managed to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as a gallery exhibit. Finally I painted the office of a bus terminal for a ride home to Detroit.
My first major contact with the labor movement came during the Ford Hunger March in the winter of 1932. Organized by the Detroit Unemployment Council, more than 3000 jobless workers along with their families, friends, and union organizers marched to Ford's Dearborn, Michigan offices with a petition for jobs. They were met by Ford's security force who fired teargas and bulletsat the marchers. The workers hurled cold mud and stones back at them. Five young men were killed, dozens were injured and 60 were jailed.
I was there with two artist friends to make sketches. Noting the sketch pads, the police arrested us as "suspects". After this murderous assault on workers my outlook on life changed. From that time on, using cartoons as a weapon, I would target bosses who had no respect for workers.
Two days later, I returned to my sign shop at Mac's Used Book Store in downtown Detroit where I had an arrangement to do all the signs and price tickets in exchange for space. I did signs, show cards and sandwich-boards for the local merchants.
In 1935 I landed a job in New York at the Max Fleischer Studios, where they produced "Popeye" and other animated cartoon films. Later that year I returned to Detroit on a weekend to marry Rose Rosenfeld, a hometown girl. After the reception I recall saying to my father-in-law, "Don't worry, someday I'll make fifty dollars a week". As newlyweds, later that day, we boarded the train to New York to begin a life in the big city.
At work I tried to move up from the inking department to backgrounds, but learned the company was moving to Miami where wages were lower. That happened and I was unemployed.
It was time to apply for a WPA job on the Federal Arts Project. They classified me as an art teacher. I taught children painting and drawing after school in a Czechoslovakian church in Manhattan. The only drawing paper available was the backside of large marriage licenses. I was also sent to teach in a community center in Red Hook, a poor, run-down neighborhood in Brooklyn.
In 1937 I was one of the 11,800 WPA teachers fired in New York. A sit-in protest demonstration was called by the WPA Teachers Union. I recall sitting on the floor with 150 others in the office of the Federal Education Project. Our arms were locked and we sang union songs until the police began dragging us, one by one, out to the patrol cars.
Outside, police were fighting pickets and sympathizers. One hundred were arrested including myself. Many were injured. The WPA responded to the public support of the union by rescinding the order.
In the cartoon market I was lucky in the last two years. I sold gags and political cartoons to MILADY, JUDGE, NEW MASSES, and KEN. I
n 1939 while Congress was busy cutting funds for WPA and the Dies Committee was attacking civil liberties, I started doing cartoons for two publications, THE CIVIL SERVICE STANDARD, CIO, and NEW VOICES, Wholesale and Warehouse Workers Union, Local 65, CIO.
Later that year I joined the staff at Federated Press, a labor, news and feature service covering union publications throughout the country. My political cartoons would appear in about 200 union periodicals each week. Meanwhile, I was adding more union accounts to my list. By now, with FP exposure, I was becoming known for my passionate views toward the struggles of trade unions in organizing for better conditions.
The following were also added; JUSTICE ILGWU, AFL, ACA NEWS, American Communications Association, CIO, Retail Wholesale Department Store EMPLOYEE, CIO, THE UNION Mine, Mill, & Smelter Workers, CIO, and LOCAL 802 American Federation of Musicians AFL.
In 1941, my wife and I took off in our 1937 Chrysler Royal on a much needed vacation to Mexico City. Our union contact showed us the sights and arranged for me to be interviewed by the editor at EL POPULAR. He wanted to know my thoughts about the U.S. and the threat of war in Europe and he offered me a job as a political cartoonist. I also attended a national labor conference where I met Vicente Toledano, Mexico's John L. Lewis.
In 1943, while demonstrations for a Second Front were going on, I received my draft notice. The Army classified me 4F because of a heart murmur. That was OK. I didn't want to leave our baby boy who was only five months old. Now I could continue fighting Hitler on the home front using my cartoons as a weapon.
In my spare time I painted oils and water colors and attended art classes at the United American Artist's School in New York I exhibited in various galleries including the Brooklyn Museum's 27th Annual Exhibition which showed my oil painting, "UNEMPLOYED", from a litho crayon sketch I did back in 1939. I recall an incident during the Xmas holiday in 1939 when I went to Miami Beach with my wife to visit relatives and do some sketching. After we got settled I asked my brother-in-law for directions by bus to the other side of the tracks. He was up in arms, "Don't go there" he said. "That's where the colored people live. It's not safe. Make your sketches around here." My mind was set. He finally told me which bus to take. The next morning I hopped on the bus and reached the area OK. I walked down the dirt road passing old shacks. I saw a man sitting on his steps, looking dejected. I asked him if he would mind if I sketched him. He obliged and asked me if I could spare a cigarette. He held the pose. We talked. He had been out of work for a long time.
I completed the drawing, thanked him and walked on looking for another subject to draw. A patrol car pulled up and a big cop stepped out in front of me and said, "No whites are allowed here. For your own safety, you'll have to get out." I said, "Isn't this America?" But when I saw the expression on his face I decided to leave quietly and not wait for an answer.
Also in 1943, I was voted the "most popular cartoonist in the labor press today" by AFL,CIO and Railroad Brotherhood editors responding to a Federated Press survey. Later that year Federated Press introduced a new weekly cartoon series I created called CONGRESSMAN DRIPP, which received rave reviews from the labor press. The editor of THE UNION Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers CIO, described it this way, "...a new comic cartoon character by Ben Yomen, America's number one labor cartoonist."
In 1945 I was lured back to Detroit to become Art Director of the UAW's "AMMUNITION" and handle all art work in the Education Department. I was also on hand to provide any needed art work for UAW Locals striking for better wages against formidable anti-union companies. With a three-day-a-week job, I had time to do cartoons for Plymouth Local 51 THE BEACON, UAW,CIO plus other union publications. I continued to send political and DRIPP cartoons every week to Federated Press in New York.
In 1947, I produced a children's book titled ROBERTO, THE MEXICAN BOY, which I wrote and illustrated. It was published by Albert Whitman & Co. Chicago and printed in full color. It was well received and had a second printing.
During the years 1946 to 1949, I exhibited drawings and paintings in annual Michigan Artist Shows at The Detroit Institute of Arts, The Scarab Club Gallery shows, and the Jewish Community Center.
In between doing cartoons for FORD FACTS, UAW Local 600, I hand lettered grocery handbills for a printer and a wholesale food company, which led me to a 9 to 5 job in 1951, as art director for Wrigley's Super Markets. I was particularly proud of the outdoor billboards I designed, and the "Brand Names Award" the art department won in 1954.
I left Wrigley's in 1956 the same year Federated Press folded after distributing labor news to newspapers in America and overseas since 1920.
In the mid-60's until 1970, my work appeared in the HOTEL, BAR, RESTAURANT REVIEW Local 705 AFL. I remember drawing a number of comic strips for the union's campaign to organize the Big Boy restaurants in Detroit.
In 1980 Dave Elsila editor of UAW Solidarity contacted me. It was a treat to be back. Besides editorial cartoons I drew a new feature called "Senator Rightwing". I stayed with Solidarity until 1985.
In 1992 more than 40 of my original 1940's era cartoons were organized into an exhibit by the Labor Museum and Learning Center of Michigan in Flint, with the support of the Michigan State AFL-CIO and the Michigan State Building and Construction Trades Council. The exhibit has been shown at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University, The George Meany Center for Labor Studies in Silver Spring, Maryland, and most recently, in the fall of 1999, at the University of Michigan Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library. ROBERTO was included in the exhibit and is now in that library's rare books section.
The 1994 Michigan gubernatorial election was too important for me to pass up. The thought of four more years of John Engler's attacks on public education, and the teachers' union prompted me to contact the editor of the DETROIT TEACHER, Local 231 AFL-CIO, and offer my services. She was delighted. A number of campaign cartoons were also produced for the DETROIT LABOR NEWS, AFL-CIO. Howard Wolpe (D) the teachers' and labor's choice for governor was defeated.
In the years between 1936 and 1970 I was a member of three unions: The Cartoonists Guild, The United American Artists, and The Newspaper Guild of New York.
My wife and I have two sons, Bob and George, two grandsons, and three great- granddaughters.