Thursday, July 24, 2008
A Socialist's story unfolds
CHARLEROI, Pa. – Darlene Pennline’s mother gathered all documents linking their family to the Socialist Party and tossed them into the flames of a coal furnace in the 1950s.
The files were destroyed because U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy had launched the Red Scare, an intense mission to expose and prosecute communists and their likes in a wide-reaching witch-hunt.
“My grandfather wanted all of that stuff concerning his father out,” said Pennline, 72, of Charleroi, Pa., a former retail center in the heart of steel-making country.
And so the family’s impressive story of their ancestor, Louis Goaziou, was swept under the rug, discussed only in whispers, until the last surviving Goaziou died in April 2008
The death of Herbert Goaziou reopened the doors to his grandfather’s intact Charleroi print shop that barely changed since the early 1900s, when Louis Goaziou began publishing a newspaper that promoted the Socialist mission.
It’s an astounding collection of a bygone era with a story of international interest because of its connection to the French Socialist movement, said Ronald A. Baraff, director of museum collections and archives at the Steel Industry Heritage Corp., whose employees came to Charleroi last week after hearing about the print shop.
“To walk in and it be unchanged and to have that story all in one place is phenomenal,” Baraff said this month at the 807 Fallowfield Ave. building.
Louis Goaziou was born March 22, 1864, in Scrignac County in the French province of Brittany, where his family raised him to be a priest.
But he shunned the rigidity of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, Pennline said, and became involved in France’s radical workers’ movement after experiencing hardships while employed in a coal mine.
Goaziou immigrated to America in 1880 and settled in Charleroi, where he began about 20 years later publishing a French-language newspaper, L’Union Des Travailleurs, which, when translated, means the union of workers.
He used the newspaper to spread Socialist propaganda, which pushed the importance of workers pooling their resources to benefit their families and neighbors. He has been called by the French a militant and “the most remarkable figure” of the Franco-American Socialist movement.
The Charleroi area was a hotbed for union activism under the leadership of Goaziou, who also founded the Co-Masons that gave women equal rights to join the organization.
As many as 40 percent of the steelworkers in nearby Donora could have been considered socialists for rejecting World War I. Goaziou hosted a visit in Charleroi in 1911 by Eugene V. Debs, who ran for president on the Socialist ticket. He also helped to organize volatile labor rallies, one of which was attended by Mother Jones, a fierce labor and community organizer who was popular in the coalfields.
In 1908, Goaziou became the first president of the American Federation of Human Rights, which wanted its members to shun ignorance, keep high standards of honor and support social justice for men and women. He had noble ambitions, Pennline said, in an era before communism and socialism became associated with oppression after the 1917 Russian Revolution.
After his March 31, 1937, death at age 73, the printing business was owned by his son, Herbert, and passed along to his grandson, Herbert, who stopped printing on his 90th birthday on May 25, 2003.
Pennline is Louis Goaziou’s great-granddaughter, and a niece of the Herbert Goaziou who recently died and never had any children. She has vowed to dedicate her retirement to turning the print shop into a museum in partnership with the Charleroi Area Historical Society.
The museum is the first step in developing a walking and driving tour of Charleroi, whose downtown with Belgium-influenced architecture was included in September on the National Registry of Historic Districts.
The Goaziou story also prompted the National Park Service to dispatch a photographer to Charleroi last week to document the building. The photos will be added to the public digital files of the National Library of Congress.
Despite the loss of the family’s Socialist files, the Goazious kept just about every other record down to the shop’s first contract April 27, 1910, for power from West Penn Electric Co.
They weren’t much for show, having just painted the walls in the shop once in a dull battleship gray. Several dusty and faded nude photos of pinups were attached to the wall behind the three printing presses, including one of actress and 1930s sex symbol Jean Harlow.
The presses are known in the industry as platen jobbers that date to the 1840s and are considered to be America’s contribution to the printing industry.
Pennline has been asked to refrain from moving anything in the pressroom until a preservation expert is consulted to date the presses and devise a preservation plan, said Nikki Sheppick, the historical society’s secretary.
She said the shop was deemed the most important among the 1,800 buildings in town that earned the National Registry honor.
“This is the premier site in the puzzle,” Sheppick said.
(First published by the Observer-Reporter)