On a bright, chilly Friday before the Martin Luther King Day weekend, Lapronda Eason wheeled a garbage can through the gleaming halls of the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
Eason has been a caretaker, literally, of American history for almost 13 years. She’s a janitor, a custodian, or a BSW, as the job is called at the Smithsonian, a building service worker.
The distinctive timbre of Dr. King’s voice could be heard in the museum’s gleaming entryway. It was his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which he gave in 1963 during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The speech recording is part of an exhibit called "Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863, and the March on Washington, 1963."
It’s an exhibit with which Eason and her colleagues have a special connection.
Dr. King died in Memphis in 1968, advocating for the rights of public employees—city sanitation workers—to form a union. Those workers joined AFSCME, the union of state, county and municipal workers. Eason and other Smithsonian workers are members of Local 2463 of AFGE, the country’s largest union of federal workers.
For Eason and the other BSWs, the link to Dr. King is as real as the job they do every day.
Janitorial work—cleaning bathrooms and sweeping floors—may be humble work, like the job of a city sanitation worker, but that doesn’t make it any less important.
And like 1968 Memphis workers who marched with simple dignity expressed on placards that read, “I AM A MAN,” Eason takes pride in her work. The facilities at the Smithsonian Museum of American History are clean, she said. People tell her so, and thank her, she said. It’s a good feeling.
Before the 1968 strike, which began when two workers were crushed and killed, those sanitation jobs were dangerous, with low pay and no benefits.
Today, although AFGE workers can’t negotiate for pay, Eason’s union gives her a strong sense of security. It’s a good job, a career job, she said.
MLK Day always makes for a busy weekend, but with the inauguration, too, it is “all hands on deck,” Eason said.
“We keep this place clean, I’m telling you,” Eason said as she flashed a charming smile. “Listen, it’s got to be kept up, because people are coming here from all over the country, all over the world, to learn about our history, our connections.”