Born in Panama in 1910, Maida Springer-Kemp moved to New York City when she was 7 years old. Hard work was no stranger to Springer-Kemp, who began working in the garment industry as a pinker, hand finisher and sewing machine operator during the Great Depression.
Union activism also quickly became part of her life. She joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Local 22 in 1933 and met a man who would become a close friend and lifelong mentor – A. Philip Randolph.
Springer-Kemp’s union career was difference-making and ground breaking. She was involved in efforts to educate workers around the world, participated in the Civil Rights movement and advocated for the rights of women everywhere. She was instrumental in creating an international labor program at Harvard University and established needlework training schools in East Africa.
But before all that, Springer-Kemp was a rank-and-file member of ILGWU Local 22, where she served as a shop representative before rising to the executive board and the education committee.
As Springer-Kemp grew, so did her role in the trade union movement. From 1942 to 1945, she was Education Director of Local 132 of the Plastic Button and Novelty Workers’ Union. She ran to represent Harlem in the New York State Assembly on the American Labor Party ticket in 1942.
In 1945, Springer-Kemp became the first black woman to represent the AFL abroad, serving as its delegate on a trip sponsored by the Office of War Information to observe wartime conditions for workers in Great Britain. That same year, she went to work for the Dress Joint Board. Three years later, she became the business agent, a position she held for 13 years.
By the 1950s, Springer-Kemp’s national profile was growing, particularly because of her work overseas. She became the first black woman to represent the U.S. union movement internationally, going to Asia, Africa and Latin America as an AFL-CIO international representative. In Africa, where she organized workers and helped develop worker training, she was known as “Mama Maida.”
In 1966, Springer-Kemp returned to garment workers’ union, now UNITE HERE, as a general organizer. Later, she worked with the A. Philip Randolph Institute.
Springer-Kemp, who was married twice, died in March 2005 at age 94. She had one son, Eric, and two grandchildren. In her honor, her union established the Maida Springer-Kemp Fund. Through the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, the fund supports East African needlework schools, provides scholarships for workers’ children and gives women financial aid to start home businesses.