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Roscoe Vanzandt – Union Hero
On February 1, 1937, the motor line at Flint Chevrolet Plant Number 4 is running, producing motors for General Motors. Just after 3:30 pm, as the afternoon shift ramps up, Kermit Johnson and a hand full of other Union supporters begin running down the line. As they go, they instruct the men on the line to shut it down. Those who refused to stop their machines have them shut down for them. Once the plant is stilled. Management quickly leaves the plant and the workers are given the choice to join the strike or leave the plant. About a third of the workers elect to stay.
Once the confusion begins to ebb away and the men realize what they have done, they begin to look around, thinking of next steps. In the sea of white faces, one black man one stands out. This man, Roscoe Van Zandt, 53, a black sanitation worker is one of the workers left in the plant.
That night he strayed off, segregating himself from the other strikers, who were shocked and not sure about his presence in their midst. The next day when food was brought in, Roscoe got his share and started off, but was stopped by some of the men. While they were not use to socializing outside of their race, they recognized a fellow union brother and invited him back to sit with them. As the day wore on, the group even voted to allow Roscoe the use of the sole blanket and a makeshift bed on a table, because he was the oldest striker in the plant.
Their actions in taking the plant helped to sway the corporation into agreeing to acknowledging the Union and listening to workers complaints.
On February 11, 1937 an agreement was signed and the workers began to evacuate the plant. On the steps leading out of Plant 4, stood Roscoe holding the American Flag. Flanked by two other workers and backed by a throng of strikers, they began to march out. Roscoe’s fellow strikers had elected him to the honor of flag bearer.
Roscoe Vanzandt was the only black to participate in the sit-down strike in Flint that brought General Motors to its knees and recognized the United Auto Workers as the sole representation for the workers of General Motors.
Roscoe was born in the late 1880’s in Mississippi to Jerry and Catharine Vanzant. Sometime before 1900 the family moved to Crittenden County, Arkansas.
On December 22, 1916 he married Cora Blake. They had two daughters: Mabel and Myrtle.
By 1928 the family is living in Flint, Genesee County Michigan with Cora’s brother Burk.
On Christmas day 1928 Cora passed away.
Then in 1935 daughter myrtle passed also.
Records indicate that Roscoe may have remarried up to three other times:
1. Caroline Wellington (Riser) 11-18-36, Flint MI
2. Charlotte M Walker (Smith) 10-30-54, Flint MI
3. Lovie Boyce Van Zandt (1885-1952). Lovie’s obituary mentions Roscoe as a surviving spouse.
Roscoe passed on March 24, 1961. He is buried in the River Rest cemetery in Flint, Michigan.
His grave is unmarked but can be found next to the graves of Edgar and Lois Holt. Section 6R, Lot 107, Grave 7.
It is unfortunate but there appears to be no interviews with Roscoe concerning his involvement in the strike. Most books and web sites that are concerned with the strike do at least mention his involvement.
His daughter Mabel died in 1989 and appears to have never married. She too is buried at River Rest.
Roy Richard February 2023
Copyright Roy Richard