article
May 20, 2016

Kate Mullany is stepping out of the shadows at last

Source: Liza Frenette
Kate Mullany House

The collar cleaner who left the scalding Troy laundries to walk out into the cold winter and march for the women’s union she’d just formed is coming forward again.

Kate Mullany is stepping out of the shadows at last.

Thursday, this Irish immigrant was honored with an induction into Labor’s International Hall of Fame at a ceremony on the lush green grass in back of her former rowhouse on 8th Street in Troy.

A row of purple flowers with snowball heads dazzled the side of the red brick house, where Kate’s third-floor apartment is now being restored in 19th century fashion.

Barbara Jones, consul general of Ireland, attended the ceremony and reminded people that Mullany’s parents were “refugees from starvation” in the potato famine of Ireland. The story of the Mullanys has “the elements of the kaleidoscope of America,” she said. Paul Cole, a former labor leader who now devotes his energy to being the stalwart keeper of Mullany’s legacy, led the ceremony. He helped guide the process to the property’s designation as a National Historic Site in 2004.

There are 91 National Historic Sites, Cole said at the ceremony, and the Mullany House “is the only one that has an exclusive emphasis on labor and Irish working women.”

He said the induction into the Labor’s International Hall of Fame for Mullany is a “spectacular honor.”

Without volunteers such as Cole to “fight diligently to protect labor’s history, workers’ history would be silent,” said Selma Goode of the hall of fame.

Mullany House board member Susan Zucker was also cheered for her volunteer work on the project. She was joined in the crowd by fellow board member NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale, and NYSUT President Karen E. Magee.

The medallion-shaped sculpture presented at the ceremony is a replica of the 63-foot tall sculpture that stands in Detroit outside the Labor’s International Hall of Fame.

Mullany will join former AFT President Sandra Feldman, who was posthumously inducted into the labor hall of fame in 2015.

Mullany’s mother, who was sickly, bought the property after her husband died, and rented out five units in the building. She lived upstairs with Kate and three other children. Kate the was sole breadwinner, working 12-14 hours a day in the steaming laundries where caustic cleaners such as bleach and sulfuric acid, and the use of coal-heated irons caused injury to the women cleaning and pressing the detachable collars. She helped form the country’s first bona fide all women’s union.

Amy Bracewell of the National Park Service said the property not only houses Mullany’s legacy, but also provides an opportunity for education. Her work “helped spread ideas of equality and human rights,” she said, calling it a “remarkable story.” Bracewell is superintendent of the Saratoga National Historical Park. She spoke at the ceremony in the familiar park service outfit and wide-brimmed hat.

Shawn Ellis, from the Labor’s International Hall of Fame headquarters in Detroit, said inductees chosen for the hall of fame have a strong history of promoting history through education.

The Collar Laundry Union Singers performed after a light drizzle had passed over, reprising the song “What Have We To Lose,” from the original play based on Kate Mullany, “Don’t Iron While the Strike Is Hot.”

The apartment is being meticulously restored by Tracy Lee, a carpenter with expertise in historical restoration. Standards are set by the National Park Service. Each door is being custom made or restored according to specifications by historical architects. (http://www.nysut.org/news/nysut-united/issues/2016/may-2016/restoring-the-house-that-kate-and-labor--built)

Troy Mayor Patrick Madden said the restoration is an important link for Troy, which had a major role in the industrialization of America.

“At one point we were the fourth wealthiest city in the country,” he said. But that wealth was made possible by workers who labored for “barely subsistent wages.”

Mullany, he said, stood up to the power of the factory owners.

“It must have been terrifying to stand up to those men and not blink,” he said.

Roxanne Castleman traveled from Tolland, Conn. for the ceremony. She did not come empty-handed.

She had purchased some cane chairs from the 1800’s and was looking up information about their origin in Troy. She came across the architect’s furnishings study for the Mullany House. She contacted Cole, who has been searching for period furnishings and donations to help restore the house to National Historic Site standards.

“He said, ‘I want them!’” Castleman recalled, laughing.

It turns out the chairs were not her only connection to Troy. Her great grandmother, from Ireland, is buried in Hoosick Falls. “She was a factory worker here in the 1800’s,” Castleman said.

Castleman made a donation to make it possible for the Mullany House to now have six cane chairs. They will all be seats of honor.