The PBS documentary series “The Future of America’s Past” features Elissa Sampson, lecturer in the Jewish Studies Program, in the episode about New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, “The Fire of a Movement.”
Sampson speaks with historian Ed Ayers at the site of the 1911 fire, the former Asch Building, now part of New York University's campus. They discuss what happened during the fire and how subsequent public outcry about a tragedy which killed 146 young immigrant workers inspired workplace safety laws.
In her course, The Lower East Side: Jews and the Immigrant City, Sampson teaches the history of the fire and explores how it is remembered, including how activists have recently raised funds for a new interactive memorial at the site.
“Stories travel,” she says. “This one of the 1911 Triangle Fire has travelled globally through sites of labor and tragedy. Airing a program like this one on PBS allows this pivotal moment in the history of immigration to remain visible. Difficult history doesn't simply die or just go away. When we engage new generations in an ongoing dialogue across time, we can say that female immigrant lives matter then and now."
The Triangle Fire episode also includes footage of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Julia Wolfe, who did much of her research for her commissioned composition “A Fire in My Mouth” at the ILR School's Kheel Center archives. The composition premiered this year at the New York Philharmonic.
“The Fire of a Movement” will premiere nationally starting Sept. 3, but is available online now. Sampson’s appearance begins just after minute 2:00.
Image: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25 - 1911, first published on front page of The New York World 1911-03-26