This 'champion of the lowly' rallied a waitress union in Kansas City 100 years ago
Sarah Lloyd Green, a fierce women's rights activist, stood up for waitresses, Black and white laundry workers, women trolley conductors, soap manufacturers, and meat packers. Yet her story is not well known.
The early 20th Century was a tumultuous time in Kansas City. Women’s roles in the public sphere were expanding. People of color were fighting for basic liberties, and workers were demanding better conditions and pay.
Into this milieu stepped Sarah Lloyd Green -- suffragette, feminist and fiery labor organizer. She organized waitresses, Black and white laundry workers, women trolley conductors, soap manufacturers, and meat packing workers. She was at the vanguard of a growing movement of working women in Kansas City, yet her story is not well known.
Jeff Stilley is on a mission to change that.
Stilley is a graduate student at the University of Missouri. He has been writing his dissertation on Kansas City’s labor movement during the 1910s,a time when the city was seeing growing unrest over how workers were treated.
“And this figure Sarah Lloyd Green kept popping up over and over again in my research,” Stilley says. “She is kind of a central figure in every strike throughout the period, whether it involves women workers or not.”
The early years
Sarah Jane Preytherch was born in Wisconsin in 1883 to Welsh immigrants who arrived in the United States a year before. Sarah’s father was a coal miner and avid unionist, and her mother was a feminist.
Eventually the Preytherch family moved to Iowa. Sarah became pregnant, but the child’s father didn’t stick around.
In 1903, all three generations of the family arrived in Kansas City and continued to live together. Records show that Sarah found a husband, Curtis Green, and she found work as a waitress.
“I will note that waitresses at this point in U.S. history are kind of on the margins of society,” Stilley says. “Many of them are divorced single mothers. Upper-class women kind of look down on them as, you know, not living up to their standards of morality. And it was a real kind of sisterhood.”
Kansas City’s Labor Wars
According to local labor historian Judy Ancel, the 1880’s to the 1930’s was a particularly violent era in our nation’s history,a period known as the labor wars.
“It’s an era of many violent strikes, many deaths of workers trying to win their rights,” Ancel says. “And it was an era in which the political leaders of this country absolutely refused to recognize the rights of workers.”
Violent strikes in Kansas City go back to the late 1800s with the railroad workers. But unrest intensified in the early 1900s. Meatpackers and streetcar workers went on strike, and people gathered in the River Market and elsewhere demanding the right of free speech.
Sarah Lloyd Green’s sister worked as a telephone operator, one of the industries being organized by the Women’s Trade Union League. Green connected with that group. Her outspoken personality and strong convictions made her a natural leader.
“She kind of shot from the hip and didn’t hold back,” Stilley says.
Stilley says Green had a knack for making friends with all types of people — male trade unionists,society women and the working poor. In 1916 the networking paid off. She was elected president of the local chapter of the Women’s Trade Union League, a position she held until she died.
She was invited to speak at numerous women’s club groups, she taught night classes for working women, and she was good friends with local suffragette Phoebe Ess. In a move with some significance today, Green nominated Ess to be the first woman to run for political office in Kansas City, but she lost a school board race to real estate developer J.C. Nichols.
In 1918, Green was part of a powerful moment of interracial solidarity that was rare for the era. Black and white laundry workers were on strike, and employers, city officials and worker representatives were called to a meeting at the Muehlebach Hotel.
“And they are just about to get started when someone brings word that Black women strikers were denied entry to the hotel,” Stilley says.
The Muehlebach was a Jim Crow hotel at the time.
“Sarah Green immediately asked the white strikers to leave and protest and they did so, and there’s evidence during the strike that white and Black women were arrested together on the picket line,” Stilley says.
Although more than 20,000 workers in Kansas City showed solidarity with the women laundry workers, the dispute ended in a stalemate. But Sarah Green kept on. She organized a domestic workers union for Black women, which increased pay by 25%. She was arrested, but the charges didn’t stick.
But while she was popular, she was also controversial. Some historians say she was known to make racist remarks about Asians and Asian Americans. And her agenda and fiery personality weren’t for everyone. Some people thought she was too brash, radical and dangerous.
In the last years of her life she worked as a social worker for Jackson County. She was known to publicly ostracize men who had left their families.
Sarah Lloyd Green died from pneumonia in 1929 at age 45. The Kansas City Star called her “the champion of the lowly.’ According to her obituary, scores of mourners from every walk of life attended her funeral.
“Mrs. Green’s loss will be felt keenly by hundreds in Kansas City whose names do not appear in Blue books, but whose love for her was very great,” the obituary reads. “Her life... was a long fight for the things she believed would improve social conditions.”
It wasn’t until after her death that Green’s Women’s Trade Union League would tackle the booming garment industry, calling on it to unionize. Thegarment district clashes between workers and employers would continue through the 1930s and 1940s in Kansas City.
Stilley recognizes that Green was by no means perfect. But he believes it’s important to tell stories about key figures in the local labor movement who are often overlooked in history. Workers like Green — who challenged patriarchy, was ahead of her time, and made a difference for generations going forward.
“She just thought people should be treated right,” Stilley says. “And she was going to fight like hell to make sure that happened.”
Suzanne Hogan is contributing announcer, producer and reporter for KCUR 89.3. She also hosts and produces the podcast, A People’s History of Kansas City. Reach her at email@example.com