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Colored National Labor Union


COLORED NATIONAL LABOR UNION. The Colored National Labor Union (CNLU) was a post–Civil War attempt by African American laborers to achieve collective representation. Before the war, free blacks had had some success at labor organization. Societal and workplace changes after the war, however, focused more attention on labor unions than ever before. Railroads and heavy industries boomed and slavery ended, freeing all African Americans. While the practicalities of their economic situation kept most freedmen in the South for another generation, some faced white opposition when they sought industrial or skilled jobs.

White laborers began to organize for more control over their workplace, and African Americans tried the same. After unsuccessfully asking the National Labor Union to integrate them, in 1869, 214 African American delegates created the Colored National Labor Union, with Isaac Myers as its president. Myers, a lifelong free African American and a skilled ship caulker, had organized fellow black shipyard workers into a successful cooperative after their employer fired them. That cooperative had ultimately purchased its own shipyard. Under Myers's leadership, the CNLU unsuccessfully petitioned Congress to subdivide southern public lands and give African Americans their own acreage. The CNLU was egalitarian, accepting men and women, skilled and unskilled workers, and industrial and agricultural workers. In 1872, famed civil rights leader Frederick Douglass became head of the CNLU, aligning it more with the Republican party. The CNLU ceased to exist as an independent entity after it adopted the ideas of other African American labor groups.

While some largely white labor groups, such as the Knights of Labor, accepted black members, others, like the American Railway Union, rejected them. Although African American workers proved vital to the industrial home front during World War I, it was not until another major war loomed in 1940 that the federal government supported them with the creation of the Fair Employment Practices Commission.


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Berry, Mary Frances and John W. Blassingame. Long Memory: The Black Experience in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Brooks, Thomas R. Toil and Trouble: A History of American Labor. New York: Dell, 1971.

Cassedy, James Gilbert. "African Americans and the American Labor Movement." In Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration, vol. 29, no. 2 (1997). Available from

"Isaac Myers." The African American Resource Center. Available at

Taylor, Paul F. The ABC-CLIO Companion to the American Labor Movement. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1993.

R. StevenJones

See alsoAfrican Americans ; Labor .

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