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Recollections of Maude DeVictor
By Barry Romo
In March of 1978, a whole bunch of us in VVAW were living on the South Side of Chicago. We called it the "Barracks," a whole house that we rented. Bill Shunas came over and said, "You've got to watch Channel 2 this evening, this is earthshaking - this is the next movement." CBS in Chicago was airing a multi-part series by reporter Bill Kurtis called "Agent Orange: Vietnam's Deadly Fog." We watched it that night and saw Maude for the first time. We said "oh my goodness" and called other people up to let them know about it. We contacted Maude. She was amiable to us.
Maude at Chicago Veteran's Day Event,
November 11, 2001.
We had been bringing up Agent Orange since at least 1971. We knew it was causing birth defects in pregnant Vietnamese women. It was in tons of our literature. We believed the Vietnamese, Canadian, and Polish doctors who said it was causing birth defects in Vietnam. But none of us knew that we were dying from it.
Maude was the first one that let us know veterans of the US war on Vietnam were dying from Agent Orange. The CBS special told how Maude helped a veteran who ended up dying from Agent Orange. She was a VA worker, a clerk, who was not a person with any authority. She was a 1950's Navy vet. And so we thought we've got to call a meeting to distribute this, a national meeting, and put it out all over. We called local chapters and said, "you should contact people locally." I was working at the Post Office then, and one of the unions that I belonged to was a largely African American union. They had an office on the South Side. A guy, Charlie Thomas, was president then. I worked for them, as well because I believed in one union. I was also a member of the Clerk's union as a member and a steward in the Mail Handler's Union, as well.
And so, we asked Charlie if we could use his union hall. It was near 79th, the east side of the expressway. Then we ended up bringing together people from California, Texas, and Wisconsin and local people and people from the East Coast, as well. We called the event the Winter Soldier Investigation of Agent Orange.
When we first called Maude, she responded great. She was a leftie activist. She acted really positively to us and broadening it out, not just being something on Channel Two. She spoke at the event, and other people did as well. Some who would go on to set up their own groups. Some actual charlatans who would claim that "oh, we can clean you" … I mean real charlatans who would play into the pain of families with husbands and with kids that were deformed with problems and husbands dying of cancer. They would claim to have magic elixirs and stuff.
In 1985, Maude lost her job at the VA. Basically, what happened was that her male boss and supervisor called her into the office. One was in front of her and one was behind her. And so she had a rape reaction to being surrounded by males with tension and stuff. I think they knew what they were doing. You don't surround an employee and then complain that she shouldn't be working on Agent Orange. And so, they didn't give her an award. They fired her for helping Vietnam Vets that were dying from Agent Orange.
We would go at lunch-time and picket the VA, with her union, calling on CBS to back her, because she got fired. They never did. She literally became a hero. When they fired her, she had no money and a family. But they could no longer tie her down. She would go to places across the country. I remember one particular thing when someone died in New York, who was not a VVAW person but a big person in the movement for testing and treating Agent Orange. We were suing with Victor Yannacone, our lawyer, the six biggest chemical companies. They literally went to the funeral and took pictures of people's license plates. Not like the FBI. The FBI would probably sneak around, even with the Mafia. The chemical companies did that openly and brazenly. They tried to combine fear with people's sorrows.
The lawsuit came a couple of years later, by the mid-80s. It was in federal court. There were thousands and thousands of people. The first one was in Brooklyn or New York. The next one was in Chicago. We were down there, my daughter and I. I have a picture of us picketing and demanding that the children had to be involved. In the judge's settlement, the children weren't included. We were demanding like a billion dollars. It was like $160 million, which wouldn't even have covered anything, even the vets themselves. The judge, you know, of course, knows better than anybody else. He thought he was being a good guy by giving the largest settlement, eventually.
A side thing; the guy from the anti-abortion group - Randall Terry from Operation Rescue - would show up at the Agent Orange events. He used to dress almost like a vampire. He had on a suit, but on top of the suit, he had a giant cape, a white cape. They were there at the events to demand that people with Agent Orange not have abortions. Here were kids, like Sukie's and Jim's kids there, going "I'm not going to live to be 16". Thank god they did live. But every doctor told them they were going to be dead. The Operation Rescue people absolutely just used it to get coverage.
So after the settlement, Maude still worked with VVAW a lot. She spoke at a lot of events. But, most importantly, Harold Washington had got elected as the first black mayor of Chicago. VVAW was the main part of Vets for Washington. This was an example of progressive people coming together to elect a progressive mayor. So, when Harold got elected, he appointed Maude as the head of the Vets Human Rights Commission. We thought Harold was going to live forever, but of course, he didn't. But he lasted for five years.
The night before Harold died, he had a giant drink-a-thon at City Hall. I was there, I missed work at the Post Office. He announced a jobs program for vets. It guaranteed bonus points for being a Vietnam Vet to get hired. It included free training at the Junior College system if you didn't do good enough to get hired. So, they could hire vets as police and fireman. I'm pretty sure VVAW member Dave Curry and Maude wrote it.
No other place in the country had free things to help you improve your score if you couldn't get hired. It was also a minority hiring program. Why, because people who were Daley's, none of them went to Vietnam, especially if they were tied in with the Machine. Black and Brown people in the city were drafted in higher percentages.
At some point, after Harold died, Maude went down to Nicaragua, during the Contra Wars, to side with the Sandinistas against the Contras. She went down there to do solidarity work. She contributed in a meaningful way to physically opposing the Contra policies in Central America. She went to Bluefields, on the Caribbean coast. It was in the African American part of Nicaragua. She went down there and met the Sandinista Blacks. They were a Christian sect. Back in the day, they were English speakers and had to set up their own schools, under Somoza. She ended up bringing a Black Sandinista leader to Chicago for a visit. She brought him over and we talked. He was a great guy, a nice guy. That was the first time he had fried chicken. We got it from Harold's, goddammit. And he loved it.
In 1992, VVAW had its 25th Anniversary in New York. So, VVAW from Milwaukee and Chicago and some other places rented enough seats on the train to fill up a car. We were riding together, talking about old times; John, Annie, Maude, me, Bill Branson, Bill Davis, Bill Shunas, and others. We literally drank the bar car dry. So we're telling stories - drinking, smoking, doing all kinds of things all the way to New York. We rented the rooms for her because she didn't have the money. We partied down every day. There were people that were VVAW people and in the Gay Vets Alliance who worked in the Twin Towers. That's where we slept and had some meetings. Because we were a vets group and had people working there, they gave us a place with free fresh fruit, great sandwiches, and any alcohol we wanted. We could see the Statue of Liberty out of the windows.
We loved her. She was a woman activist, Black activist, vet activist, and an international activist as well. I wish we would have got her to Vietnam, but she might not have made it due to her health.
Maude was a woman who will never get the attention and praise that she deserves, for what she accomplished. VVAW will miss her. I will miss her.
Barry Romo lives in Chicago and has been a leader in VVAW since 1971.
Winter Soldier Investigation of Agent Orange, Chicago, 1979.