NEWCASTLE, Maine — One person who is prominently featured in the mural in the lobby of the Maine Department of Labor is former U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, who also has a committee room named after her in the building.
Perkins, whose family was from Newcastle, was a pivotal figure in the history of the American work force, according to Barbara Burt, executive director of the Frances Perkins Center in that Lincoln County community.
Burt said Wednesday afternoon that news the state intends to remove the mural and rename the committee rooms was a big, and unwelcome surprise.
“It is very shocking to us that the state would want to erase that,” Burt said. “It’s just incredible. You can’t erase history. It’s there. People won’t forget.”
She said that Friday marks the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, which Perkins witnessed. That fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, many of whom could not escape the burning building because they had been locked in by company managers.
“That really galvanized her,” Burt said Wednesday. “She really said of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory that it was the birth of the New Deal.”
Perkins eventually was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to be secretary of labor. She served in that position for 12 years, the first woman to be a Cabinet secretary and the longest-serving Cabinet secretary in history.
During her tenure, she was one of the prime driving forces behind the Social Security Act, Burt said, and also worked on issues including workplace safety, creating a minimum wage and child safety.
Perkins died in 1965 at the age of 85, and the center that bears her name was founded in 2009 in the brick house built on the Maine coast for her grandparents, the home where her father was born and raised. Frances, who was born in Boston, spent summers and vacations in Maine with her grandparents and eventually inherited the home with her sister Ethel, according to the center’s website. The site, adds, “Frances loved the place and came often to get away from the busy world whenever she could.”
The Frances Perkins Center’s mission is to both preserve and protect her family homestead and to educate about Perkins’ work.
“We follow her commitment to social justice,” Burt said. “It’s sort of a hidden part of our history.”
She said that if the mural does leave the Maine Department of Labor, she would be willing to take responsibility for it at the Frances Perkins Center, but that’s not her first choice.
“Our goal would be to display it in various public places around the state, but we would consider that a poor second choice to having it stay [at the Department of Labor,]” Burt said.
There had been a few emails sent Wednesday between Burt and state officials regarding the mural, but she could not confirm that it would be sent to the center.
She said that the decision by Gov. Paul LePage’s administration about the labor department seems “very inflammatory.”
“It’s the Department of Labor, not the Department of Commerce,” Burt said. “I wish [Perkins] were here to fight. She was a very adroit politician, in that she could bring people together who couldn’t possibly imagine that they’d be on the same side.”