March 1998

John Artemus

Labor Organizer

John Artemus

John Clarence Artemus was never afraid to take risks, At an early age, this native of Edgefield South Carolina, understood that the system of segregation practiced against African-Americans in the South was wrong and had to be challenged. Because of brave leaders like Artemus, who were prepared to fight for fairness and justice, segregation was eventually defeated. Born in 1885 to parents who were share croppers, Artemus realized that this type of farming system benefited only the white landlords and not the black tenant farmers. He was forced to leave Edgefield when he confronted his family’s landlord over unfair wages. Artemus moved to Columbia, where he worked for several of the city’s major merchants as a store clerk. He worked during the day and attended Benedict College in the evening. During these years, he learned carpentry from local master craftsmen. He added to his knowledge of the building trade by studying construction and contracting through correspondence courses. He worked on many homes and rental properties in both black and white communities. After many years, Artemus left his carpentry trade to join the Columbia office of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, Founded by John Merrick in Durham, North Carolina, in 1898. For 12 years, Artemus worked as an insurance agent and an assistant manager. The Great Depression of the 1930s caused a decline in many businesses, including insurance. Artemus returned to carpentry, hoping to benefit from the federal building projects started by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Although racial discrimination was prohibited on all Public Works Administration projects, African-American workers were effectively barred from participating in these projects because the area contractors hired labor from all-white union organizations. Artemus aggressively worked to solve this problem. He and a small group of supporters organized Local 2260 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America to represent African-American workers throughout central South Carolina. Their efforts broke many racial barriers. As the union’s business agent from 1939 to 1954, Artemus assured black participation in major construction projects, such as the redevelopment of Fort Jackson, the building of Shaw Air Force Base, the Savannah River Site, the DuPont Fibers complex near Camden and numerous federal housing developments from New Jersey to Florida. From 1951 to 1959, this outstanding labor union leader represented the state’s African-Americans as vice-president-at-large of the South Carolina Federation of Labor Executive Board. The desire to involve African-Americans in politics and to guarantee their right to vote was another of Artemus’ causes. He became the first treasurer of the newly formed Progressive Democratic party, an organization formed to provide African-Americans with an opportunity to take part in state and national elections that were never officially recognized but their activism ultimately led to a 1947 court decision that stipulated that all citizens must be allowed to participate in the state’s primary elections. Polling places were flooded by new voters in 1948. “J.C.” Artemus never relaxed in his quest to register and give political insight to new African-American voters. By 1950, he was a member of the Columbia Democratic Executive Committee. This great labor leader and political reformer also served as a poll manager at one of the city’s most influential precincts from 1952 until his death in 1964.