Remembering Roman Mayfield: An IAM Member Who Broke Racial Barriers

During Black History Month, the IAM is remembering the life and legacy of IAM trailblazers like Roman Mayfield, a World War II veteran, and one of the first African Americans to join the union. Mayfield, who passed away in 2002 at the age of 81, was hired at Boeing in Seattle as a production worker in 1946. 

Back then, he was not allowed to join the union. But Mayfield, undeterred, still attended union meetings. In 1950, the union finally recognized minorities after accepting his membership, 14 years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act. That bold move would change the IAM and pave the way for new African-American members who would join the ranks.

The progressive move by the IAM was inevitable. Six years before Mayfield’s membership in 1950, the union was already breaking away from racial segregation by openly discussing the possibility of welcoming African Americans into the ranks. IAM District 727, which represented 35,000 workers at Lockheed in southern California, sent an open letter in 1944 to lodges throughout the country. 

“Our membership believes,” the letter read, “that the [all-white] clause in our ritual is unworthy of our great democratic association and opposed to the principles of democracy in the Constitution of the United States.”   

A boom in defense hiring at Boeing brought an influx of African Americans to the Seattle area during the 1950s, as many, mostly from the Deep South, migrated west for new job opportunities. Mayfield’s story served as a beacon of hope for them, a catalyst for change. Boeing would go on to hire thousands of Black workers over several decades, many of whom would become IAM members.

“That first wave of Black Machinists were courageous visionaries,” said IAM Human Rights Director Nicole Fears. “Their hard work, dedication, and commitment to civil rights has ultimately enabled an African American woman, like me, to ascend from the shop floor to the top of this union as a director.” 

Mayfield served as a shop steward for 35 years. He was also the only active member to walk the line in all five of the union’s strikes against Boeing in 1948, 1965, 1977, 1989 and 1995. During the 2000 IAM Grand Lodge Convention in San Francisco, Roman was recognized for his service as a trailblazer, when a resolution was passed in his honor.

“Roman’s story is important to remember and share with young Machinists,” said Fears. “Our union is fully integrated now and the IAM is at the forefront of worker and civil rights. But there is still work to be done. Roman’s story inspires all of us, as IAM members, to continue to the fight for racial equality and justice on the job.”

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