Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Black Monday

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Photo by Stu Spivak [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Flickr

Most of the posts I’ve written about Youngstown are about good memories. This one isn’t, but September 19, 2017 marks forty years since Black Monday. Youngstown never has given up, but it never has been the same.

On Monday, September 19, 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, no longer locally controlled, issued this statement:

“Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, a subsidiary of Lykes Corporation, announced today that it is implementing steps immediately to concentrate a major portion of its steel production at the Indian Harbor Works near Chicago. . . .The company now employs 22,000 people. The production cut-back at the Campbell Works will require the lay-off or termination of approximately 5,000 employees in the Youngstown workers.” (cited in Robert Bruno, Steelworker Alley, p.9).

Five thousand people and their families faced the lost of a major income source, and work generations had counted on for a career. Between 1979 and 1980, U. S. Steel left Youngstown. By the mid-1980’s Republic Steel declared bankruptcy and ceased operations. Like a rock thrown into a pond, the big splash of Black Monday rippled throughout the Youngstown economy. It is estimated the area lost 40,000 manufacturing jobs and 400 satellite businesses.

There were probably multiple causes, including suburban malls and plazas, but McKelvey’s (Higbee’s) closed a couple years later, leaving my father without a job at age 59. Many younger workers left Youngstown to find work in other cities, many moving south and west. Older workers like my dad found whatever they could locally, to get by until retiring, usually at much lower wages. At the time, my wife and I were starting out our lives together and living in Toledo (a city that suffered similar catastrophic losses of automotive manufacturing jobs later on). When we heard the news, we realized that we would not be returning to the same Youngstown that we had grown up in when we visited parents. Gone was the glow of blast furnaces lighting up the valley at night.

I could go over all the history of attempts to re-start the mills, or lure manufacturers to Youngstown, or talk about all the reasons the mills failed. Others have hashed all that out. All I can say is I’ve never had much tolerance for those who blame workers or followers or circumstances for failure, particularly if the ones doing the blaming are management or leadership (I say that as one who has worked in management).

When someone dear to you dies, you grieve and face how life will be different after the loss. I remember the anniversaries of my parent’s deaths. As the years pass, I probably think less of the loss than of what we had. I also realize we can never go back to that life, or bring our parents back.

Perhaps that’s what the fortieth anniversary of Black Monday is like, as well. We grieve what the Valley lost, remember what was good, and maybe learn from the past so we don’t repeat it. We learn not to put all our eggs in one economic basket, and that we no longer can count on a particular type of job always being there for ourselves and our kids. We learn that ultimately the company won’t look out for us, nor can we count on the government to look out for us. And maybe we remember that our greatest resources are still our faith, our families and friends, and our own hard work, initiative, and a Youngstown “stick-to-it-ive-ness” that doesn’t give up, but keeps on getting up.

For those who will be in the Youngstown area on September 19, the Mahoning Valley Historical Society is hosting “Remembering Black Monday: 40 Years Later” at the Tyler History Center from 7:00 to 8:30 pm. A panel of historians and community leaders will discuss the impact and legacy event. This is a free event. More information is available at the Mahoning Valley Historical Society website.

6 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Black Monday

  1. Thank you for sharing this memory of the upcoming anniversary of “Black Monday” for Youngstown, Bob. I grew up in Struthers, and the youngest of 14 children. My dad worked in the power generating plant “Boiler House #5” when he retired in 1950’s, my oldest brother John W Gura worked, I believe at the Brier Hill location, also had a 1st cousin that was a VP in engineering, Carl Lucas. My dad would walk from northside Struthers to the Campbell Boiler House #5, 4 miles, saving 10 cents, bus fare, That was a very SAD day in Youngstown and surrounding area cities & towns. He worked there since late 1930’s.

      • I work in the Maritime industry and some times loading and unloading iron ore pellets in the Indiana, Harbor area (across from Chicago) to what is now called Arcelimittel, Steel in which is the Indian (India) version of The buy out of US Steel.

  2. A very close family member lost a great good paying job when US Steel closed. Sadly he never found decent work with good wages and benefits. He slowly became very depressed and lived a very morose life.

  3. I agree Bob. Many, many families were impacked. These workers started working at the steel mills right after high school and anticipated the “gold watch” or at least a fine pension. In my opinion, the steel executives abandoned the Mahoning County.
    Just my two cents–thanks for bringing this topic to us.
    Michelle Humans White

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