1961: A Turning Point
On March 25, 1961, the ILGWU held a public ceremony at the scene of the tragedy to commemorate the Triangle fire’s 50th anniversary. New York City Mayor Robert Wagner Jr. and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt were among the featured speakers, joined on the platform by survivors of the fire and union organizers. Later that day, the ceremony moved to the Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn. For weeks prior, ILGWU president David Dubinsky and Leon Stein, editorof Justice, the union’s publication, had worked furiously to organize an impressive roster of speakers and partners, including elected officials and representatives from New York City’s Fire and Police Departments and New York University. Dubinsky and Stein also reached out through the dense network of union locals to ensure that on the day of the ceremony, the intersection of Greene and Washington Streets would be filled with union members. The union’s simultaneous campaign to enforce mandatory sprinkler legislation in New York State factories demonstrated that the fire still being used to bolster arguments for worker safety.
The 50th anniversary marked a milestone in commemorations of the Triangle fire. From 1961 onward, commemorative ceremonies took place yearly in March, demonstrating the importance placed by the union on sustaining public memory of the fire and its victims, and on recognizing its survivors. An important legacy of the 50th anniversary was the choice of locations; the physical sites connected to the fire were used as rallying points. Both the former Asch Building and the Evergreens Cemetery provided tangible, physical connections to the tragedy.
The following year, in 1962, Leon Stein published The Triangle Fire, a book based on the oral histories he collected from survivors in the late 1950s. Stein felt compelled to preserve these first-hand accounts—direct memories of the fire—before they were lost to time. Both the oral histories and Stein’s book provide invaluable testimonies to the circumstances before, during, and after the fire. The stories highlight what survivors viewed as the most significant parts of their history in terms of the role they played in keeping the fire’s legacy alive. Stein’s account is still one of the most important resources on the fire, personalizing the events and humanizing the statistics of that tragic day.
Norma Jean Garriton, Tracie Logan,
and Autumn Heath-Simpson