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Flint Women’s History Month - Genora Johnson Dollinger

by Liz Svoboda on 2024-03-19T13:09:34-04:00 in History, History: Local, Library Information: Archives | 0 Comments

Posted on behalf of Callum Carr, Head of Archives.

Genora Johnson DollingerMost Flint residents know the story of the 1936/37 Sit-Down Strike, an occupation protest of working conditions and pay at General Motors plants, specifically Chevy-in-the-Hole. What many people do not know, however, is how Genora Johnson Dollinger and the Emergency Brigade—an armed all-female force—contributed to organized labor's eventual victory and the creation of the United Auto Workers (UAW).

Genora Johnson Dollinger was born Genora Albro in 1913 and raised in Flint by her well-to-do family; her father owned a photography business and several rental properties. She attended Flint Central High School when she met her first husband, Kermit Johnson, a factory worker at GM. Kermit and his father often discussed socialism and labor rights with Genora. Despite her privileged upbringing, she became involved with politics and labor organizing. While in treatment at Hurley Hospital for tuberculosis, Genora read voraciously on the topic of labor rights, socialism, and communism. Kermit and Genora would establish the Socialist Party of Flint, headquartered in the Pengelly building alongside the nascent UAW, the Communist Party, and the Proletariat Party.

Genora worked closely with the UAW and was responsible for inviting the Reuther brothers up to Flint for a lecture series. She was a major organizer of the Sit-Down-Strike and worked closely with Bob Travis and the Sit-Downers. Genora helped to print labor newspapers published by the striking workers, visited wives to reassure them and gain their support, and regularly spoke in public using the Sound Car. She also organized Flint’s youth into the Youth Socialist Party, who then knocked on doors drumming up support for the strikers.

Emergency Brigade lined up along Chevrolet Ave during Battle of the Running BullsThe Emergency Brigade was established on the night of the Battle of the Running Bulls, a violent clash with city police and General Motors hired goons. Genora ended the battle by using a rudimentary PA system to call on the women in the crowd of onlookers to come down to the fray to defend their boyfriends, husbands, and brothers, of whom Kermit was one. One woman broke through the police crowd control, then another, and another. Soon, a line of women formed between the aggressors and the embattled Chevrolet factory. Genora organized these radical women and then armed them to continue to serve the striking workers as a human shield. 

While there was a women's auxiliary whose duties included cooking and delivering massive meals, the Emergency Brigade (EB) immediately distinguished itself as an organization of women uninterested in domestic responsibilities. Genora said that she would not use the word women in the title of the brigade lest someone thought they were there to feed and cloth, not fight in the streets. The women of the EB carried bats, cudgels, chains, and whips under long winter coats. They wore matching red berets and armbands to stand out in crowds and promote solidarity. The work of the EB was chronicled in the 1978 documentary With Babies and Banners. The EB was so successful that their example was followed at other UAW strikes in Pontiac, Detroit, and other factories outside of Michigan. 

After the Sit-Down Strike, Genora married her second husband, Sol Dollinger, and continued her work to organize the unemployed in Flint to protest the horrid living conditions in the city’s slums and Hoovervilles. She eventually moved to Detroit to find employment after being blacklisted by most factories in Flint. In 1945, men broke into her Detroit home at night and severely beat her with lead pipes because of her organizing activities. This attack did not deter Genora, and she continued her organizing work. She ran for the U.S. Senate in 1948 and for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1950 as a candidate for the Socialist Worker Party. Her fight for equality continued with the civil rights and women’s liberation movements of the 60s and 70s, being active with chapters of the NAACP, ACLU, and NOW in both Michigan and California. She passed away at the age of 82 in 1995.

Genora and Sol’s papers are held by Wayne State University's Reuther Library, but she was interviewed in 1978 as part of the UM-Flint Labor History Project, and the transcript is available online. Her autobiography, Striking Flint: Genora Johnson Dollinger Remembers the 1936-37 General Motors Sit-Down Strike, and biography, Not Automatic: Women and the Left in the Forging of the Auto Workers' Union, are available in the Genesee Historical Collections Center. For a short biography, we recommend her chapter in Yvonne Johnson’s Feminist Frontiers: Women Who Shaped the Midwest, which is available online through our EBSCOhost Academic eBook Collection.

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