Cleo Silvers

I was born and raised in Philadelphia, a product of a family whose members, both free and previously enslaved, played an active part in African-American History. My great, great grandfather Frisby Green (or Verde in French) was a free African and a committed abolitionist. In 1811, at the age of 14, he came to the US from Haiti, on a merchant ship to take part in the Louisiana Anti-Slave Rebellions. Frisby became friends with Frederick Douglass and traveled extensively around the country, speaking out against slavery. He could also read and write (which was against the law for Africans and slaves), and left many letters with the family. A portion of these, "The Green Family Letters," are on exhibit at the Schomberg Museum in Harlem and can be viewed along with other artifacts. Frisby Green was my mother's grandfather.

In addition to his abolitionist work, Frisby's Philadelphia home was a stop on the Underground Railroad during the last 10 years of slavery. This is the house that my grandmother grew up in and where my mother was raised. My grandmother was a prominent member of the Eastern Stars, the women's section of the Free Masons, and a college graduate, a great achievement for an African-American woman at that time.

My paternal great grandfather, on the other hand, was a field slave whose oldest son, my great uncle James S. Benn, became a Bishop in the African-American Episcopal Church.

Growing up I maintained a keen interest in civil and social justice. I was the first African-American to win the Philadelphia Daughters of the American Revolution essay contest and was among the first African-American teens to integrate Dick Clark's Philadelphia-based "American Bandstand."

I graduated from high school at the top of my class and in 1967 became a volunteer in VISTA, the domestic Peace Corps. Coming from Philly, my assignment to the predominately Puerto Rican South Bronx was initially a culture shock. I overcame that by immersing myself in working to change the social conditions in the community and learning the language. My work there was a life changing experience and sealed my fate in the world of activism forever.

After VISTA, I continued to work with community groups in the Bronx and Harlem. In 1968, I was hired as a Community Mental Health Worker at Lincoln Hospital where I first became a member of 1199. I was also active in the Black Panther Party's Free Breakfast Program for Children and in preventative health care programs as a member of the Young Lords Organization.

I left New York in 1970, lived in Puerto Rico for 6 months, then over the next 10 years, traveled around the U.S. working as the National Organizer for the Black Workers' Congress. I was an autoworker and organizer in the UAW in Detroit, and among steelworkers in Gary, Indiana. I organized workers in Cincinnati, Ohio; Birmingham, Alabama; Boston, Massachusetts; and Los Angeles, where I worked with community college professors. While in Los Angeles, I also spent time producing jazz albums and independent shows for TV, which was an exciting change.

The focus of my life continues to be the improvement of conditions for working people in every aspect of their lives; housing, healthcare, education, integrity, peace and justice, criminalization of youth in communities of color, and culture. Until recently, most of my free time was spent actively working on committees and boards of directors that advocate for progressive change. These include the: Harlem Tenants Council, Brecht Forum, National Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, David Sanes Rodriguez Brigade for Peace in Puerto Rico, and many other community and labor based organizations. In January, I enrolled in Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations degree partnership with George Meany National Labor College Program.

Of all the endeavors I have pursued in life, the most gratifying has been my work as a Training Coordinator making educational opportunities available for hospital workers on a phenomenal scale. I've been able to realize so many of my social goals through my work at the Training Fund, and I am constantly inspired to do more, and to look for better and more effective ways to work, placing emphasis on providing excellent training for 1199 members. Being surrounded by committed people, seeing the lives of working people change exponentially and having a small part in all of this has no rival in my working life.