It’s one of New York City’s most tragic disasters, an accident
that cut short the lives of 146 garment workers, many of whom were
young, immigrant women.
To mark the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire,
St. John’s University hosted a number of events in March across the
Queens, Staten Island and Manhattan campuses. From lectures to
debates, film screenings to vigils, these programs allowed students
to explore the history and cultural ramifications of this pivotal
moment in American history.
University Provost Julia Upton, RSM, Ph.D., ’73G, ’75G played an
instrumental role in planning these commemorative events.
“It has been called ‘The fire that changed America,’” she noted.
“But I wonder how much it changed us. The fire fueled the
international labor movement and many fire safety laws have been
enacted as a result of that tragedy. But have sweatshops vanished?
Does social justice pervade the workplace in America now? Those are
the questions I continue to ask a century later.”
The planning for this anniversary began three years ago when, as
incoming freshmen, the class of 2011 was asked to read
Triangle, Katherine Weber’s fictionalized novel about the
last survivor of the Shirtwaist Fire. Since then, Dr. Upton and
other administrators worked with the St. John’s community to
develop creative programs to commemorate the tragedy’s
The Queens campus hosted events that dealt with many of today’s
most pressing political issues. Marc Lacey, a New York
Times writer who runs the newspaper’s Phoenix Bureau,
delivered a lecture entitled “Immigration: The Hot-Button Topic of
our Times,” describing present-day border issues and how the
immigration debate has evolved since 1911.
Other programs dealt with labor laws. Rev. James J. Maher, C.M.
’84C, Executive Vice President for Mission and Student Services,
delivered a lecture entitled “Then and Now: Fair Labor Conditions
in a Global Context.” He discussed contemporary global labor issues
in the footwear and apparel industries, focusing on the challenges
that remain and the need for continued vigilance. Afterwards, the
St. John’s Debate Team and a visiting team from Morocco held a
public debate pertaining to the topics raised in Fr. Maher’s
presentation, arguing whether or not consumers are responsible for
poor labor conditions.
“I think this debate was the best thing we have done for this
campus,” said Stephen Llano, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and
Director of Debate. “The debate was excellent, the arguments were
high quality and the students spoke eloquently.”
The Staten Island campus also hosted programs, including a
lecture and book signing by Dr. Richard Greenwald, Dean of Drew
University and author of The Triangle Fire, the
Protocols of Peace and Industrial Democracy: In Progressive Era New
York. The Manhattan campus, meanwhile, featured a Triangle
Fire Documents and Artifacts Exhibit on display in the Davis