Black History Month | Remembering Hilton Hanna

Book cover of "The Steward and His Job" by Hilton E. HannaHilton E. Hanna arrived in Madison in 1934 and over the next several decades, he became a key figure in the city’s civil rights and labor movements.

Born in the Bahamas in 1908, Hanna came to Madison to pursue a master’s degree in economics.  While working on his degree, he took a job in the casing department at Oscar Mayer, joining Local 538 of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America. Soon, he became chair of the local union’s education committee.

By the time he received his degree in 1946, Hanna had helped re-establish the Madison chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  Around this time, he joined the staff of the School for Workers, where he specialized in public speaking and radio broadcasting.  He also worked for his union, becoming an international vice president and executive assistant to International Secretary-Treasurer Patrick Gorman.  Hanna co-authored a 1960 biography of Gorman, The Picket and the Pen: The Pat Gorman Story.

Hanna also wrote The Steward and His Job, a union steward handbook for the Amalgamated Meat Cutters.  Describing the steward as “the backbone” and the “trouble-shooter” of the union, he wrote that the steward was “the union at work in its most basic role.”  This can be interpreted two ways: “the union doing what unions do” is one, but perhaps the more significant interpretation of “the union at work” is “the union on the job, in the workplace.”  Stewards in School for Workers classes today still learn this important distinction.  Hanna eloquently argued, “The steward is the beacon light for those having grievances,” while also insisting that “Stewards make the union.  Build well.”

Hanna continued his work in the local labor and civil rights movements for several decades.  In 1968, he helped found and became president of the Madison Urban League.

Hanna left Madison in the late 1980s and retired to Tuskegee, Alabama, where he died in 2005 at the age of 97.

Hanna’s obituary in the Wisconsin State Journal includes a photo of him with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in which Hanna appears to be signing a book for Dr. King – perhaps a copy of The Picket and Pen.