Today we are remembering how one hundred years ago a fire broke out in a factory a few blocks to our west. How 146 workers died in that fire.
We are not a people who spend much time thinking about the past. We are a busy people, a forward looking people. So why does this tragedy still haunt us?
Across the street, at 77 East 4th Street, Rosie Friedman lived. She came from Bialystock in Poland when she was 14, part of a flood of Eastern European Jews hoping to leave violence and discrimination behind, hoping for something better in America. She came alone to live with her aunt and uncle here, to find a job and send money home to her family. In her uncle’s tiny apartment, there were also two boarders, five people in a one bedroom apartment, and like many immigrant teens, its likely she would have slept on the kitchen table or on a mat on the kitchen floor. There were some compensations to her life here – the Manhattan Lyceum, next door, offered concerts and lectures, as did Cooper Union and the Educational Alliance. There were dance halls, picture shows, there were young people everywhere. But most of her waking hours, she was a worker. Six days a week she was a worker at the Triangle Factory. Until, at the age of 18, she died in the fire.
Why does her death hurt us still? What is it about the Triangle Factory fire that makes it more than a horror story?
I think that the fire woke us up to to see that a great injustice was taking place. We had been lulled somehow into thinking that the conditions of factory workers were ‘normal.’ That the way the factories were managed by their owners was ‘normal.’ That things were hard for immigrants, but that this was ‘normal.’ It took the photos of Jacob Riis, it took the work of the Settlement Houses, of the newborn unions, and, finally, it took the Triangle Fire to show us that things were not ‘normal’, that in fact, things were not right and they must be, had to be changed. To show us that we as a people had a responsibility to our younger, poorer, less Americanized brothers and sisters - a responsibility which couldn’t be ignored, couldn’t be walked away from.
So much was wrong. For Rosie, as a woman, an immigrant, a Jew, a worker, a young person... so much was wrong. Could we really be asking people to put their lives at risk for a job in a factory? What happened on the road to success that had hardened the Triangle bosses, men who had once been sweatshop workers themselves, hardened them so that they fought bitterly against the workers at every step – so that they routinely locked the fire escape doors because they feared their young employees would steal scraps of fabric from their business.
We remember the Triangle Factory Fire. We remember the trapped girls that chose to leap nine stories to their deaths rather than burn. We remember them because we know, that day, we failed them. We have responsibilities to each other, to justice, to fairness, and those responsibilities include that we look at our world closely, and that we question all that seems ‘normal’, because what history teaches us over and over again is that what seems ‘normal’ may in fact, be very, very wrong.