Jim Crow Segregation and Labor

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Jim Crow Segregation and Labor

United States 1880-1964


After the end of Reconstruction in 1877, southern states and local communities began to enact laws known as segregation or "Jim Crow" laws. These measures separated the races in public accommodations. Rather than passing one sweeping law, local and state legislators in the South passed a series of laws between 1881 and 1910 that required separate accommodations for blacks and whites in public spaces. These laws were indicative of the hardening of the philosophy of white supremacy throughout the South during this time.

C. Vann Woodward, a scholar of the New South, recognized that after slavery former slaves voluntarily chose to separate themselves from white southern society. This practice became de facto segregation, or segregation by custom. By the 1880s, however, the first generation of African Americans born outside of slavery entered adulthood, and they were the first of their race to test the bounds of de facto segregation by engaging themselves in the all-white public sphere. In order to maintain a rigid practice of white supremacy, southern white politicians began to codify segregation within the legal system. Thus began the transition from de facto to de jure segregation.

Although there were no segregation laws that applied to labor specifically, segregation and the emergence of a rigidly defined, biracial South had a tremendous impact on the way black and white workers organized, interacted with each other, and dealt with management.


  • 1877: In the face of uncertain results from the popular vote in the presidential election of 1876, the U.S. Electoral Commission awards the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes despite a slight popular majority for his opponent, Samuel J. Tilden. The election of 1876 will remain the most controversial in American history for the next 124 years, until overshadowed by the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000.
  • 1877: In part as a quid pro quo demanded by southern legislators in return for their support of the Republican Hayes over the Democrat Tilden, the new president agrees to end the period of martial law in the South known as Reconstruction.
  • 1884: At the Berlin Conference on African Affairs, fourteen nations (including the United States) discuss colonial expansion in Africa, and call for an end to slavery and the slave trade.
  • 1889: Discontented southern farmers merge their farm organizations to form the Southern Alliance.
  • 1896: U.S. Supreme Court issues its Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which establishes the "separate but equal" doctrine that will be used to justify segregation in the southern United States for the next half-century.
  • 1909: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is founded by W. E. B. Du Bois and a number of other prominent black and white intellectuals in New York City.
  • 1915: D. W. Griffith's controversial Birth of a Nation is the first significant motion picture. As film, it is an enduring work of art, but its positive depiction of the Ku Klux Klan influences a rebirth of the Klan in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
  • 1936: Hitler uses the Summer Olympics in Berlin as an opportunity to showcase Nazi power and pageantry, but the real hero of the games is the African American track star Jesse Owens.
  • 1947: Jackie Robinson joins the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African American player in Major League Baseball.
  • 1949: Apartheid is institutionalized in South Africa.
  • 1954: In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously strikes down racial segregation in public schools.
  • 1955: Rosa Parks refuses to move from her seat near the front of a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and is arrested. The incident touches off a boycott of Montgomery's bus system, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., which will last well into 1956. The situation will attract national attention and garner support for the civil-rights movement, before Montgomery agrees to desegregate its bus system on 21 December 1956—exactly a year after Parks's brave protest.
  • 1957: Integration of high schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, is accomplished with the aid of federal troops.

Event and Its Context

Origins of Segregation

Segregation, or "Jim Crow" laws, originated in the post-Reconstruction South. The first state to enact any such segregation law was Tennessee. This law was actually directed toward railway transportation. In 1881 the Tennessee legislature passed a law requiring that railroad companies provide distinct and separate accommodations for black and white passengers in first class. This law mandated railroads to provide these accommodations, divided by partition, while maintaining the same amenities for each section. Thus was born the policy of "separate but equal." Soon other states and local communities in the South passed similar legislation concerning first railroads and then other aspects of public life. By 1896 the United States Supreme Court ruled in the Plessy v. Ferguson case that the "separate but equal" doctrine was constitutional. Although these laws never applied to labor directly, they affirmed white attempts to stratify southern life on the basis of race.

The Farmer's Alliance

The Farmer's Alliance was a labor union that had made significant political inroads into southern politics by the 1890s, when these segregation laws were being drafted. The Alliancemen, as they were known, were instrumental in passing segregation laws in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and Kentucky. Politicians who were also Alliancemen sided with southern Democrats and supported "Jim Crow" segregation legislation for two reasons. First, they genuinely hated the railroads and believed that "Jim Crow" facilities hurt the railroad owners economically. Second, they believed that racial segregation was inevitable.

"Jim Crow" and the Workplace

The movement to mandate separate public spheres for blacks and whites gradually crept into the workplace. Before 1900 whites and African Americans frequently worked side by side in trade as well as in unskilled positions. During this time the South was becoming more industrialized, however, and factory owners were complicit in extending "Jim Crow" into the workplace.

Initially, factory owners and management throughout the South segregated the work place by providing "Jim Crow" housing for their black employees. As industries grew throughout the South, employers began to designate certain occupations for white labor only and other, less desirable, positions exclusively for black labor. Positions that required domestic or manual labor were "racialized" occupations. In places like Mississippi, local whites referred to these occupations as "nigger" work, or reserved for blacks only. Typically, many of these positions were in the service industry, including household domestics, which reinforced notions of white hegemony, since these positions placed blacks in roles subordinate to whites. Other positions involved manual labor and usually required hard or possibly dangerous work. Southern whites believed that black workers could be pushed harder than white labor and were more expendable when there was danger involved.

Factory owners had a monetary stake in creating "Jim Crow" positions throughout the South. By making certain positions exclusively black, management then drove the wages for those positions down well below equivalent white wages. Additionally, since certain jobs were reserved for whites, management reinforced an impression of racial status for white labor, keeping them tied to "Jim Crow" and making interracial cooperation between blacks and whites unlikely.

Service workers on the railroads, who were African American almost without exception, often found themselves relegated to substandard sections of the train during breaks, meals, and sleep periods. They were not allowed to mingle with whites during their free time. They could neither purchase nor eat their meals in the dining car; instead, they had to eat their food in the baggage car. Additionally, they had the responsibility of removing black passengers who tried to ride in the first-class cars reserved for whites. As a result of these unfair labor practices, they faced reprisals from the African American community. These workers were often called "Uncle Toms" because they were perceived as complicit in enforcing "Jim Crow" regulations.

Interracial Unionism

Since the 1960s historians have debated the amount of cooperation in labor organizing between white and black labor. Herbert Gutman was the first scholar to question the role interracial cooperation played in the labor movement. Gutman looked to the letters of Richard L. Davis, who was an Ohio coal-miner and union official with the United Mine Workers in the 1890s. Gutman believed that labor scholars had overlooked the role black labor played within the labor movement and suggested that black and white labor cooperated more frequently than previously thought.

By the 1980s labor scholars were challenging Gutman's assertions. Herbert Hill, former labor secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, argued that the experience of Richard Davis represented an aberration in labor history. He explained that interracial cooperation between black and white labor was sporadic at best and represented the exception, not the rule. Instead, he noted that craft and unskilled labor unions had a history of systematically excluding black labor and other workers of color. Hill noted that the history of unionism in America represented a firm acceptance of "Jim Crow" practices rather than a challenge to segregation and discrimination in the workplace.

Scholars since Hill have noted that, although many labor unions professed a commitment to interracial unionism, "Jim Crow" represented too great an obstacle for white workers to overcome in order to embrace racial cooperation. Daniel Letwin, in his examination of black and white mine workers in Alabama, believed that labor unions in that state encouraged cooperation and solidarity across racial lines, but white workers were unwilling to challenge a segregated occupational sphere to enact progressive social change.

Black Organizing and Biracial Unionism

Black labor unions in the United States have followed a path similar to the history of "Jim Crow." After the Civil War, some local labor unions accepted black members, yet many would not. With the creation of the National Labor Union in 1866, the labor movement finally spoke with a national voice, and although they welcomed black craft workers, they made it clear that African American workers would have to adhere strictly to organizational ideology. Typically this ideology neglected race concerns that black workers wanted to address. This position within the labor movement led black craft workers to form the National Negro Labor Union in 1869. The practice of black workers organizing separately from whites continued throughout the "Jim Crow" period. Even with the creation of other national labor organizations—such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the Knights of Labor, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), all of which were founded with the intention of equally representing all labor—black workers were mostly ignored or required to organize in separate branches.

In order to create a voice for black labor, many African American workers organized independent unions to challenge the hegemony of white supremacy within the labor movement and society in general. Black workers organized all-black unions like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids in 1925 as a means to combat labor issues that white unions refused to address. Other black and white workers participated in biracial unionism and organized in segregated divisions within specific local branches. Although the national chapter of the AFL had allowed black workers to participate in national conferences by the end of World War I, and southern states like Florida encouraged black workers to engage in biracial unionism, the state chapter refused to allow black workers to participate in the state conference. They could not even enter the building where the meeting was being held for fear that black workers might begin thinking that they were socially equal to whites. In short, white labor refused to allow black labor to participate with whites on an equal basis.

Even though some African American workers were not officially organized in unions, they still found ways to protest segregation. During World War I the federal government created the National War Labor Board (NWLB). The purpose of the NWLB was to investigate grievances that workers had with management during the war years in order to avoid crippling strikes that might hamper the war effort. Although white labor typically demanded higher wages, standardized hours, or better working conditions, black workers typically demanded that the NWLB investigate issues related to racial discrimination. Black workers for the New Orleans streetcar company, for example, demanded higher wages, which the NWLB recommended, yet the board also adhered to the "Jim Crow" scale of wages restricted to black labor in the South. Maids, who worked for several southern railway companies, filed numerous complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor's Division of Negro Economics. One complaint alleged that they were segregated from white washroom facilities and instead had to utilize a sandbox instead of an actual bathroom. Other blacks who worked for the railroads told stories of how railroad management demanded that they work in skilled positions but paid them unskilled wages. Like the NWLB, the Division of Negro Economics could do little more than request that these companies stop such discriminatory practices, but whether they did or not was completely up to the discretion of the company's management. Yet, black workers still mobilized and protested their treatment in the face of segregation, even without the protection of a labor union.

As a result of the practice of segregated unions and organizing, management typically used black workers as scab labor to break strikes and other labor actions initiated by whites. As long as white and black labor regarded race and labor issues differently, the chance for real biracial cooperation was nonexistent; therefore, management used race as a wedge between the two groups, effectively limiting gains that a united labor movement might otherwise have made.

Michael K. Honey, in his study of labor organizing in Memphis, Tennessee, during the New Deal era, noted that black workers were encouraged to engage in biracial organizing. As happened in other attempts to organize biracially, however, black and white workers were interested in different issues. Black workers in Memphis wanted to address issues related to segregation, while white workers refused to address the topic at all. As black workers participated in these biracial efforts, they gained experience in leadership roles and social organizing that a later generation translated into grassroots, civil rights organizing and activism after World War II. In addition, black workers created connections with liberal whites, who were amenable to black demands to end segregation. Thus, although black workers could not address segregation within segregated unions, they learned how to engage the local community politically in issues of segregation and discrimination.

March on Washington 1941

The March on Washington in 1941 was the first time black labor organizers promoted a successful national campaign against discrimination in the workplace. A. Phillip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, wanted to address low wages and discrimination within the war industries. He and other black labor leaders around the country planned a march on Washington during the summer of 1941. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration feared the reaction an event like this could have on the image of the United States during the war and moved to stop the march. Through Executive Order 8802, the president created the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). The FEPC investigated complaints of racial discrimination and had the power to recommend that the government withhold or withdraw federally funded defense contracts from companies engaging in such discrimination. This measure was enough to convince march organizers to call off the protest.

Although the executive order was a triumph for black labor leaders, the victory was incomplete. The FEPC did not have the authority actually to punish employers whom they deemed guilty of racial discrimination. In fact, the committee was afraid to commit to any policy that might disrupt the production of war goods. The committee had the power only to submit recommendations to the federal government. Additionally, the measure was never intended to be a challenge to segregation in the work-place or a challenge to "Jim Crow" occupations. White southern politicians and segregationists protested the FEPC's authority to investigate claims of discrimination and finally satisfied themselves that the FEPC was not challenging segregation. Before black labor leaders could bask in the glow of victory, some acknowledged that African American unions still had to fight segregation and agitate for access to jobs traditionally reserved for whites. In fact, the gains from the proposed march on Washington were hollow ones; however, the events that transpired subsequent to its cancellation convinced black union leaders that organization and activity could lead to important changes for African American workers.

Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had its origins in the 1963 "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." This event was coorganized by A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, and other civil rights activists. Although the purpose of this march was more broadly based than the one planned in 1941, civil rights leaders still demanded that the federal government address discrimination and segregation in the workplace. After the march, President John F. Kennedy supported a bill in Congress to guarantee civil rights for all Americans. Segregationists in Congress stalled his bill for the rest of his presidency. After Kennedy's death, President Lyndon B. Johnson spearheaded passage of the Civil Rights Bill. Unlike Kennedy, popular sympathy was with Johnson, owing to the violent death of four young girls in the infamous Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made its way through Congress in the face of protest from southern segregationists and conservative Republicans like Senator Barry Goldwater. It passed, however, and President Johnson signed it into law on 2 July 1964. The Civil Rights Act created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC has the authority to investigate, arbitrate, and recommend judicial prosecution of employers found guilty of discrimination based on race, sex, or ethnic background. A great deal of the overt discrimination in the workplace has been hampered or stopped entirely by the creation of the EEOC and the investigations it has initiated.

Key Players

Gutman, Herbert (1928-1985): Gutman, father of American working-class history, challenged conventional labor historians by examining the experience of workers instead of unions and other institutions. In 1969 in he wrote a seminal article that questioned the important role blacks played in the labor movement. Although labor scholars have since proven that his assertions were exaggerated, he was the first labor historian to interject race into the labor question.

Johnson, Lyndon B. (1908-1973): Johnson was president for more than half of the 1960s. Like his predecessor, John F. Kennedy, he was committed to publicly addressing racial discrimination and segregation. He was instrumental in Congress's finally passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Act created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that investigated cases of racial discrimination in the workplace.

Randolph, A. Philip (1889-1979): Randolph was editor of the black newspaper The Messenger. He also founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and helped organize the 1941 and 1963 Marches on Washington.

Roosevelt, Franklin D. (1882-1945): Roosevelt was president from 1932 to 1945 and is the only president to serve more than two terms. His presidency encompassed the depression and World War II years. Although he was sympathetic to African Americans, he never publicly challenged segregation or racism. As a result of trying to avert the 1941 March on Washington, he initiated Executive Order 8802, which created the Fair Employment Practices Committee that investigated racial discrimination in war industries.

See also: Black Codes; Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Civil Rights Act of 1964; Fair Employment Practice Committee; March on Washington Movement; National Labor Union; National War Labor Board.



Arnesen, Eric. Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Ayers, Edward L. The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Gutman, Herbert. Power and Culture: Essays on the American Working Class. New York: Pantheon Books, 1987.

Honey, Michael K. Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Letwin, Daniel. The Challenge of Interracial Unionism: Alabama Coal Miners, 1878-1921. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Weaver, Robert C. Negro Labor: A National Problem. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1946.

Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955.


Arnesen, Eric. "Following the Color Line of Labor: Black Workers and the Labor Movement before 1930." Radical History Review 55 (1993): 53-87.

——. "Up from Exclusion: Black and White Workers, Race, and the State of Labor History." Reviews in American History 26 (March 1998): 146-174.

Boston, Michael. "No Gold for Jim Crow's Retirement: The Abolition of Segregated Unionism at Houston's Hughes Tool Company." Southwestern Historical Quarterly 101 (spring 1998): 496-521.

Hill, Herbert. "Myth-Making as Labor History: Herbert Gutman and the United Mine Workers of America." International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 2(spring 1978): 132-200.

Honey, Michael K. "Fighting on Two Fronts: Black Trade Unionists in Memphis in the Jim Crow Era." Labor's Heritage 4 (fall 1992): 50-68.

—Robert Cassanello

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