Many of the city's active unionists, archivists, historians and others knew Debra E. Bernhardt, a life long activist, and head of the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives and Tamiment Library for nearly 20 years. Debra was a leader in preserving and disseminating the history of working people, co-author with Rachel Bernstein of Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives, A Pictorial History of Working People in New York, and the moving force behind the successful campaign to have Union Square designated a national historic landmark. Hundreds of union members and friends contributed $5 each toward naming a bench in the square in her honor.
Debra wrote about the historic highs and lows of what she called a "culture of solidarity" among New York City working people, so it is fitting that the day of the celebration/dedication of her bench is going to be combined with a dedication of a new postage stamp honoring Cesar Chavez, founder and leader of the first successful union of farm workers in the country.
The celebration will include the "second unveiling" of the new Cesar Chavez stamp. (The first unveiling was held in Los Angeles on April 23, where the current president of the Farm Workers was joined by the Postmaster General, the governor of California, the mayor of Los Angeles and others. ) The postal service will offer the stamp for sale, and also will design a special cancellation just for this day, honoring Debra (on what would have been her 50th birthday) and the history of labor in Union Square.
Debra's husband Jon Bloom, Brian McLaughlin, president of the CLC, Susan Cowell from UNITE, Postmaster of the Bronx Tony Rosario, Irv Hershenbaum from the United Farm Workers, and others will speak. Music will be provided by the New York City Labor Chorus, which Debra sang with for many years, labor's troubadour Joe Glazer, international soprano Frances Ginsberg and others.
Six plaques commemorating important events in the history of labor in the square have recently been installed in the pavement in the south west corner of the square, and it here that the bench will be dedicated. Debra collaborated with UNITE and the Parks Department and many others to make these plaques possible, as she collaborated with so many people on a myriad of public history projects that honor the history of workers in New York.
A web exhibit about the plaques and the square will be posted on May 9 and remain available indefinitely, on the Labor Arts website laborarts.org. People are also invited to visit the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives during May and June to view an exhibit about Debra's work preserving the history of labor in New York. The Archives is located at 70 Washington Square South, 10th Floor Bobst Library, NY, NY 10012. (212) 998-2630