Sylvester James, Sr.

“I hate to see it go … but it’s gone.”


After suffering from what he affectionately calls “woman problems,” Sylvester James, Sr. moved to Turner Station from South Carolina in 1953 and began working in the labor gang at Bethlehem Steel. “It was a rough job,” he says. “Dirty. But it was a good job.” He jumped from position to position until his retirement in 1993, simultaneously donating his time and efforts to the Civil Rights movement and to the Steelworkers Union. He remained involved with Sparrows Point after his retirement as the caretaker of the Union Hall where he worked alongside his wife and many of his closest friends. In the wake of the plant shutting down, he admits that he doesn’t miss Bethlehem Steel as much as he misses all the wonderful people he worked with at the plant and the Union Hall. “We don’t have nothing,” he says, “but I’m still a union man.” (Written by Caitlin Smith, Maryland Traditions intern and recent UMBC graduate)

My name is Sylvester James Senior, I born March the 1st 1931 in Rock Hill, South Carolina and I came to Baltimore in 1953. And I went to work at Sparrows Point Bethlehem Steel, June the 6th 1953. Well I had an uncle working there and my brother worked there but they’d been here about probably most their life. The first couple weeks, it wasn’t too bad, it was pretty good. So I worked in the labor gang I was off every Monday and Tuesday and so all day like that I worked that for 3 years.

Labor gang you do most the clean up work, you go clean and sweep the floors and like on […] terms […] fell down on the weekend and then you clean the mills and stuff, do a lot of cleaning, that most we did. Only good thing about it was the money, yea thats it. So, making that money I looked over everything else, everything else was good. In ’53 I never thought it would shut down though, never thought that. But, see a lot of people lost a lot but I didn’t lose too much because my wife was working for Baltimore county, I went on her insurance so everybody lost their insurance so I didn’t lose my insurance, I lost our life insurance down there, and thats the most I lost from down there see.

Well I liked because it was a big company down there, and another thing I got to know a lot of people down there, and not too much I miss the Bethlehem Steel, I miss the people I was working with, it had a lot of good people and I miss that a whole lot. I hate to see it go though, but it’s gone. (Edited by Ryan Porter)