Colored National Labor Union

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Colored National Labor Union

United States 1869


Between the 1820s and the 1860s the overwhelming majority of black workers in Baltimore, Maryland, were free, although some slaves did work alongside freedmen. For the most part, free black workers at this time were not allowed to join white trade unions. Sometimes, however, free blacks working along the industrial East Coast of the United States joined all-black groups such as the American League of Colored Laborers, which was established in New York City in 1850 as one of the first local organizations of black workers.

One such free black man was Isaac Myers, who grew up in Baltimore as the son of poor free parents. By 1841 Myers was apprenticed to James Jackson, a prominent black ship caulker. Within 20 years Myers was working as a skilled caulker and supervising other men in the caulking of clipper ships within the harbor. However, black workers, noticeably in the shipbuilding and maritime industries, were regularly dismissed from their jobs to make room for the growing number of whites looking for work. This unjust, but frequently occurring, situation led Myers and others to organize the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company. The successful operation of this company eventually led to the establishment of the first national black labor organization, the Colored National Labor Union, in 1869.


  • 1849: Harriet Tubman escapes from slavery in Maryland. Over the next eight years, she will undertake at least 20 secret missions into Maryland and Virginia to free more than 300 slaves through the so-called Underground Railroad.
  • 1854: Republican Party is formed by opponents of slavery in Michigan.
  • 1859: American abolitionist John Brown leads a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His capture and hanging in December heighten the animosities that will spark the Civil War 16 months later.
  • 1863: President Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in Confederate territories, on 1 January. Thus begins a year that sees the turning point of the Civil War, with decisive Union victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga. Thereafter, the Confederacy is almost perpetually on the defensive, fighting not to win but to avoid losing.
  • 1865: The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits slavery, is ratified.
  • 1869: The first U.S. transcontinental railway is completed.
  • 1869: Black Friday panic ensues when James Fisk and Jay Gould attempt to control the gold market.
  • 1869: The Suez Canal opens.
  • 1869: Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev introduces his periodic table of elements.
  • 1871: Chicago Fire causes 250 deaths and $196 million in damage.
  • 1876: General George Armstrong Custer and 264 soldiers are killed by the Sioux at the Little Big Horn River.
  • 1879: Thomas Edison invents the incandescent electric light.

Event and Its Context

Black Labor Organization Before the CNLU

A number of black labor organizations existed in the northern states and in the cities along the border between the northern and southern states before the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). Their primary activities were directed toward finding employment and providing education and job training for blacks. These groups included benevolent societies, such as the New York African Society for Mutual Relief (established in 1806); the Negro Convention Movement, which provided annual meetings of black leaders during the 1840s and 1850s; and organizations that promoted worker unity and industrial education, such as the American League of Colored Laborers (established in 1850). Black workers also formed collectives, such as the Waiter Protective Association of New York, to protect themselves from the violence of white workers who felt threatened by black employment, and to engage in unofficial bargaining for wage increases.

The formal unionization of black workers after the Civil War followed two basic means: integration into white unions and the formation of separate black-only labor organizations. Most of the black labor leaders looked toward an affiliation with a white-dominated federation, since, in the words of the black labor leader Isaac Myers in 1868, "Labor organizations are the safeguard of the colored man, but for real success, separate organization is not the real answer. The white and colored mechanics must come together and work together." Such comments reflected popular opinion within black labor unions when Myers imagined the first black national labor organization—the Colored National Labor Union (CNLU).

In the years immediately following the end of the Civil War, the number of northern black labor organizations increased. They concentrated on the usual functions of trade unions. However, the southern black labor organizations, formed after the war, were concerned primarily with the problems of agricultural laborers and the aspects of seeking basic rights for black workers. Strikes in the southern states occurred on a frequent basis as blacks voiced their dissatisfaction with their working conditions. In Savannah, Georgia, for instance, black dockworkers won a strike after the city council imposed an outrageously high poll tax of $19 on all persons employed on the wharves. In Louisiana in 1867, dockworkers in New Orleans pursued a strike for a wage increase to $4 a day, while in the same year a black strike on the levee in Mobile, Alabama, spread to other industries, eventually resulting in one of the largest demonstrations in southern history.

Background and Formation of the CNLU

White workers regularly resorted to actions such as strikes and violence to eliminate black workers from various trades. The CNLU was established as a direct result of one of those incidents. In October 1865 white caulkers from Baltimore, Maryland, along with ship carpenters, went on strike insisting that black caulkers and longshoremen be discharged so that white workers could be employed. The strikers, with the support of the local government and the police, succeeded in discharging black workers who were competing for their jobs.

Myers, one of the workers who had been fired, proposed that the black caulkers form a union in order to collectively purchase and operate a shipyard and railway. The newly formed black cooperative issued stock and raised $10,000 from the black community in and around Baltimore. After securing a six-year mortgage from a ship captain, the cooperative purchased a shipyard and railway and began operations on 12 February 1866. The Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company regularly employed around 300 black workers at an average wage of $3 per day. Within five years the company had obtained numerous government contracts and was able to pay off its debt one year ahead of schedule. The successful cooperative provided black caulkers with plenty of work around the Baltimore docks and ended the practice of white caulkers driving away black competition. The venture was often mentioned as the model used by other black workers in the northern states to solve employment problems.

During this time Myers formed and became the president of the Colored Caulkers' Trades Union Society of Baltimore. By the autumn of 1868, he had begun to think about organizing a national black labor movement that would work together with white labor organizations. He was drawn to the National Labor Union (NLU), which had been established in 1866 in Baltimore and was the first national federation of labor unions to openly acknowledge black workers. The NLU had voiced its eagerness to organize black workers and had declared at its first convention that the labor movement would gain strength when membership was granted without regard to race or nationality.

Black workers, however, continued to find that they were inevitably barred from membership in most white unions. For instance, the cigar-makers' union excluded blacks by constitutional provision, while black carpenters in New Haven, Connecticut, were not admitted to the white carpenters' union. Without any other recourse and in protest at being barred from white unions, black workers decided to form their own national labor organization that would represent local and state unions. According to a news report in the Baltimore Sun, approximately 30 blacks met on 20 July 1869 at the Frederick Douglass Institute to discuss Myers's plan to form a national black labor union. The group decided that a national black labor convention would meet in Washington, D.C., in December. During the next several months, local and state meetings were organized to select delegates and to formulate positions on the various topics to be discussed at the upcoming convention.

Historic Conventions for Black Labor

The first statewide convention of black labor took place in Baltimore in 1869. That same year, the NLU had issued a formal invitation to all persons interested in the labor movement regardless of color or sex to attend their annual convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 16 August 1869. The NLU had invited nine black delegates. At the statewide black labor convention, Myers was selected to represent the Colored Caulkers' Trades Union Society of Baltimore at the NLU meeting. At this time, Myers stated that black workers did not want to organize separately, but were forced to do so because of their exclusion from existing trade unions.

The NLU congress was the first national labor assembly where blacks were officially present. According to a 19 August 1869 article in the New York Times, one highlight of the NLU convention was a speech by Myers in which he expressed the goals of black workers, applauded the white delegates for their racial vision, and declared, "We carry no prejudices. We are willing to forget the wrongs of yesterday and let the dead past bury its dead." The newspaper also reported that Myers extended an invitation to all white delegates to attend the first national black labor convention to be held in Washington, D.C., in December 1869. Although they were recognized as a delegation, the nine black delegates were unsuccessful, at that time, at integrating black workers into the white union.

To fill the gap of black-worker representation in the labor movement, 214 officially accredited black delegates met to establish a confederation of independent black local and state unions: the Colored National Labor Union. On 6 December 1869 Myers called to order a black delegation from 18 states assembled in Union League Hall in Washington, D.C. The assembly was the first black congress in which labor was represented as the majority issue. Northern and southern black leaders collectively stated that only through their own independent union could black workers achieve equal employment opportunities and improved wages.

The delegates elected Myers as the first president of the CNLU and declared Washington, D.C., as the union's headquarters. During the meeting, the delegates stated that the CNLU would be neither a trade union body nor a political class organization, but a black people's assembly that would deal with the critical labor and social needs of all black people. The CNLU was the first national black labor organization founded in the United States.

Development of the CNLU

The new union included all black workers, such as industrial, skilled craftsmen, agricultural, and common laborers, unlike its white counterpart, the NLU, which included only skilled industrial workers. The delegates began developing the CNLU by first establishing a permanent National Bureau of Labor with offices in Washington, D.C. The bureau, composed of the chief officers and a nine-man executive committee, was given the power to collect information about employment opportunities around the country; negotiate with bankers and capitalists for financial assistance in establishing black business ventures; and lobby for legislation in order to achieve equality of employment opportunities.

The three main objectives of the CNLU were: (1) to improve the general condition of black workers; (2) to develop a national system of public education with equal opportunities for blacks; and (3) to attain equality in industry with the elimination of discrimination within trade unions. The CNLU encouraged blacks throughout the country to organize at the state and local levels in order to combine their wealth and information.

The first CNLU convention adjourned on 10 December 1869, with two representatives meeting with President Ulysses S. Grant to inform him of the new organization. After a meeting on 21 February 1870, which formulated plans to organize black workers, Myers began a southern tour for the new black labor federation. His speeches, which were often held for racially mixed audiences, emphasized that for white and black unions to succeed they needed to act together. He conceded, however, that blacks had to unite among themselves first in order to increase their power in the labor community. According to the New National Era (the official publication of the CNLU), which reported his speech on 27 April 1870, Myers said that in order for their labor movement to succeed all black workers must join trade unions and establish cooperative associations.

Division over Support for Political Parties

Even during the first year of the CNLU's existence, the Republican Party became a growing facet within the organization. Myers was against political influence within the CNLU, although the union generally supported the Republican Party. At the August 1870 NLU congress, while the newly formed CNLU was still a part of the NLU, the white delegates urged Myers and the other four black delegates to abandon the Republican Party and to unite with them in support of the new National Labor Reform Party.

The majority of NLU members viewed both the Democratic and Republican Parties as enemies of labor, and instead supported the National Labor Reform Party. However, the black delegates, including Myers, had little confidence that white workers would acknowledge black workers as equals in the work place. They felt the Republican Party, although not their ideal political party, was a friend to labor, and especially a friend to black labor. Blacks vividly remembered that the Republican Party, led by President Abraham Lincoln, had won their emancipation only a few years earlier. A bitter fight broke out over differences in support of the Republican and National Labor Reform Parties. Disagreements between blacks and whites eventually made it impossible for the two groups to settle their political differences.

A resolution in favor of supporting the National Labor Reform Party was overwhelmingly passed by a vote of 60 to 5, with all five black delegates voting against the resolution. The black delegates never returned to another convention, and ties with the NLU were soon severed. The effort on the part of the NLU to include blacks within their organization was seen by black labor leaders as only a benevolent gesture after the NLU failed to recognize the specific interests of black workers.

Decline of the CNLU

The second annual CNLU convention took place on 9 January 1871, but delegates from only 10 states were present. President Myers reported on progress made during the previous year. He cited the fact that the local unions established during the year were expanding, but he conceded that the CNLU was hampered by financial difficulties due to lower-than-expected union membership. Myers further stressed that all politics be left out of the convention and the unions themselves. According to a New National Era article from 19 January 1871, Myers concluded his remarks by once again emphasizing that unity of black and white labor was essential for the success of both, but that blacks needed to unify within their race first in order for their unions to achieve their own power and be seen as equal to white unions. The delegates elected Frederick Douglass as the CNLU's second president. Against Myers's wishes, the delegation also made a declaration of allegiance to the Republican Party. Myers continued to be active, although less dominant, in the CNLU's activities until the autumn of 1871.

The third CNLU convention was held at Columbia, South Carolina, in October 1871 and was essentially a black Republican convention. In April 1872 the fourth and final meeting convened in New Orleans as a Southern States' Convention, not as the CNLU. During this meeting the delegates consolidated black support for the Republicans for the upcoming presidential election. By this point Myers had disappeared from any leadership role. For the most part the CNLU ceased to exist on 17 May 1874, when the New National Era, of which Douglass was the editor, published an article with the title, "The Folly, Tyranny, and Wickedness of Labor Unions."

Lasting Influence of the CNLU

Even though the life of the CNLU was short—less than five years—it greatly influenced the subsequent founding of numerous black labor organizations and led to the eventual incorporation of black workers into previously all-white labor unions.

One of the most significant southern organizations established as a direct result of the CNLU was the Alabama Negro Labor Union (ANLU). James Rapier, the group's founder, promoted the ANLU throughout Alabama, trying to organize as many black workers as possible into the fledgling union. Eventually Rapier organized a state labor convention that met in Montgomery on 2 January 1872, with a total of about 50 black delegates from around the state. The delegates discussed the working conditions of Alabama farmers, promoting desirable areas where blacks could relocate and various state educational opportunities open to blacks. The discussion held during this meeting was used in 1880 before the U.S. Senate Committee on Education and Labor, which was investigating the causes of the Kansas Exodus of 1879 (the movement of southern blacks to the northern border states, especially to the rural areas of Kansas).

While the U.S. Senate Committee on Education and Labor was holding additional hearings in 1882, black workers were actively demonstrating and organizing in order to improve wages and working conditions. In this environment black workers found that the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor (KOL), a labor organization established in Philadelphia in 1869, was actively pursuing black members. Southern blacks—who were exposed to worse working conditions than northern blacks—especially liked the rebellious nature of the KOL. By 1886 about 60,000 blacks were members of the KOL, which held a total membership of about 750,000 members. That same year dissension increased within the KOL as different factions saw conflicting means to improve their working conditions. In December 1886 the American Federation of Labor broke off from the KOL and organized into its own labor union; it continued to exist into the twenty-first century as part of the AFL-CIO.

The decision to integrate white unions with black workers was based on both moralistic and monetary grounds. It was eventually decided to be the moral thing to do, and with increasing numbers of blacks competing for jobs, the inclusion of blacks within membership ranks brought more money into labor unions. Although never without protests from white members, blacks slowly gained inroads to labor organizations. The progress that black workers made during the late nineteenth century, throughout the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first century was in large part due to the pioneering efforts of Myers and his formation of the CNLU, which occurred only a few years after blacks were freed in the United States in 1865.

Key Players

Myers, Isaac (1835-1891): Myers learned the ship-caulking trade and supervised the caulking of clipper ships built in the Baltimore shipyards. After working for a wholesale grocery business, he helped to found a grocery cooperative, but resigned in 1865. Myers returned to the shipyards, but soon lost his job (as did more than 1,000 blacks) due to a strike of white workers. He led a group of black workers to form the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company and later became the president of the Colored Caulkers' Trades Union Society of Baltimore. From 1870 to 1879 he supervised mail service in the South for the U.S. Post Office. He opened a coal yard in Baltimore; became the editor of a weekly political journal; was appointed as a U.S. gauger from 1882 to 1887; and served as the secretary of the Maryland Republican Campaign Committee in 1888. He was actively involved in many Baltimore business and community organizations.

See also: Abolition of Slavery, United States; Black Codes; Jim Crow Segregation and Labor; Knights of Labor; National Labor Union.



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—William Arthur Atkins

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Colored National Labor Union

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