By Michael Lumelsky


MAY 2001

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TRS Mess



On May Day, five hundred people filled Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village for a celebration of the life of Debra E. Bernhardt, trade union historian and director of the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University.  Academics and union officials mingled in an atmosphere of warmth and respect.

Bernhardt, who died on March 22, described her work as “documenting the undocumented,” gathering the history of America’s working people.  There are more than 200 union collections and over 3,600 hours of oral history in the Wagner Archives, mostly collected by Bernhardt. These include papers and oral history from the PSC. She led a successful three-year campaign to have Union Square, site of unionist, socialist, and anarchist rallies and the first Labor Day parade, declared a national historic landmark.  She was also the co-creator of Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives, a traveling exhibit and illustrated book documenting New York City’s laborers and labor movements of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The memorial meeting began with the New York City Labor Chorus, surrounded by the banners of visiting unions, singing “Union Maid.”  Daniel Walkowitz of the NYU history department, where Bernhardt received her doctorate in public history, remarked that “her success as a public historian lay as much in her activism as in her scholarly work.”  Miriam Frank, another colleague, agreed:  “There was nothing Debra liked better than a good challenge to a bad rule.  There were rules that she broke and rules that she staunchly kept—for example, she never, ever crossed a picket line.”  Larry Cary, a labor lawyer and the first staff member of the Wagner archives, told the audience that Bernhardt “made the archives a place that felt comfortable to eminent scholars as well as leaders of the working class from the five boroughs.”

Norah Chase, a PSC grievance counselor and professor of English at Kingsborough Community College, told Clarion, “Debra was a friend to this local and many others.”  Bernhardt worked with PSC members on the union’s archives, which are part of the Wagner collection.  Chase said, “I admired her as a dedicated trade unionist, a generous and creative human being and a devoted friend.”


1911 button commemorates Triangle Shirtwaist fire of same year.  Box above corpse reads  "Operators wanted.  Inq. 8th floor."  This --and much more-- available at Labor Arts site


"Debra E. Bernhardt, a labor historian who 'documented the undocumented' lives of blue-collar New Yorkers, as she put it, left a lasting legacy when she died in March at 47....[including] a Web site,, which went online last week.  The site, which Dr. Bernhardt helped create, is devoted to the arts and artifacts of workers in New York and elsewhere as they sought safer working conditions, fairer treatment and better pay."    --NY Times, 5/20/01, page 7, City Section

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