History Professor at Roosevelt University (Retired)
Betty Balanoff, wife and mother of a labor family with deep roots in the steel workers union, retired in 1991 from her career of 28 years as a professor of History at Roosevelt University. She had a particular interest in labor and immigration history. In fact during the early part of her career, she introduced the first labor history course open to undergraduates at a Chicago college. For some time both Roosevelt and the University of Illinois had provided labor education under the sponsorship of labor unions, but labor history, as such, was not available to the general student population. Oral history in labor was another of her pioneering programs. The library at Roosevelt University holds her collection of over 60 interviews with both rank and file union members and labor leaders. This work was supported by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in celebration of the American Bicentennial. The transcripts have been digitized and are available on-line to all. Among those interviewed are:
• Irving Abrams and Fred Thompson of the IWW who were among the founders of the ILHS.
• Mollie Levitas, long-time secretary to famed John Fitzpatrick and Edward Nockles, president and secretary-treasurer of the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL).
• Lillian Herstein, beloved delegate from the Chicago Teachers Union to the CFL.
• George Patterson, spokesperson for the demonstrators at the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937.
• Addie Wyatt, International Vice President of the United Food and Commercial Workers and previously a staff member of the Packinghouse Workers, CIO .
Attorney and from Alderman of Chicago's 5th Ward
In 1929 as the Great Depression took shape, a freshly minted lawyer, Leon Despres, began his first job in a large Chicago law firm. Unhappily for this young socialist, Leon (Len as his friends called him) found that his principal assignments involved the foreclosure of delinquent home-mortgages. Accordingly, he soon set up his own law firm and began hanging out with a like-minded young attorney Joe Jacobs, who was developing strong labor union connections, and, in 1969, became the founding chairman of the ILHS.
Len turned mostly toward civil rights and other social justice issues. One of his clients was the newly forming Chicago-based International Brotherhood of Red Caps (IBRC), which was under the leadership of Willard S. Townsend with whom he developed a close relationship.
Len was among the lawyers who took depositions from the many witnesses to the carnage inflicted by the Chicago police at the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre at Republic Steel. Later, Len helped the La Follett Congressional Investigating Committee to gather information used in its scathing criticism of the police conduct on the field that day. At the subsequent public protest meeting, which filled the huge Civic Opera House, Leon Despres was a principal speaker. Studs Terkel recalled having wept in response to Despers’s oratory as he called upon City Hall to give full support to labor’s struggle to organize.
Elected Alderman of the 5th Ward, Leon Despres provided the City with a visible demonstration that a single person can “speak truth to power” as he defied the Mayor’s frequent demands that he shut up and sit down, a television City Council drama, which occurred again and again. In much the same spirit, Len joined hands with author and historian Timuel Black to organize a group of Chicagoans who flew to Alabama, where they joined the historic march with Dr. Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery.