Knights Break Color Line

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Knights Break Color Line

United States 1886


Late-nineteenth-century America experienced a hardening of racial lines that was reflected in the American working class, including white craftsmen who excluded African American workers. The unskilled workers, who included nearly all African American wage earners, were unorganized before the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor brought them into the largest labor organization in Gilded Age America. African Americans accounted for about 60,000 of the over 700,000 members at the Order's zenith in 1886. Race became the defining issue at the general assembly in Richmond, Virginia, in 1886. At that time the Order embraced its motto—"An injury to one is the concern of all"—by boycotting a white-owned hotel that refused to lodge an African American delegate from New York City. The organization then selected this same delegate to introduce its leader, Grand Master Workman Terence Powderly, at the opening of the convention. After the Knights declined to insignificance, their legacy of interracial cooperation found life in new labor organizations.


  • 1866: The Winchester repeating rifle is introduced.
  • 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.
  • 1878: Thomas Edison develops a means of cheaply producing and transmitting electric current, which he succeeds in subdividing so as to make it adaptable to household use. The value of shares in gas companies plummets as news of his breakthrough reaches Wall Street.
  • 1882: Agitation against English rule spreads throughout Ireland, culminating with the assassination of chief secretary for Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish and permanent undersecretary Thomas Burke in Dublin's Phoenix Park. The leader of the nationalist movement is Charles Stewart Parnell, but the use of assassination and terrorism—which Parnell himself has disavowed—makes clear the fact that he does not control all nationalist groups.
  • 1884: Chicago's Home Life Insurance Building, designed by William LeBaron Jenney, becomes the world's first sky-scraper.
  • 1886: Bombing at Haymarket Square, Chicago, kills seven policemen and injures numerous others. Eight anarchists are accused and tried; three are imprisoned, one commits suicide, and four are hanged.
  • 1886: The Statue of Liberty is dedicated.
  • 1886: Apache chief Geronimo surrenders to U.S. forces.
  • 1888: The Blizzard of 1888 in the United States kills hundreds and causes more than $25 million in property damage.
  • 1892: Bitter strikes in Australia lead to the closing of ports and mines.
  • 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.

Event and Its Context

The adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished the institution of slavery, but the end of Reconstruction in 1877 brought to a close the short-lived attempts at racial justice. The white majority denied African Americans freedom and equality by various means. De facto racial segregation was practiced, to varying degrees, throughout America, but the South added a plethora of restrictions, such as vagrancy laws, poll taxes, and segregation laws, coupled with intimidation and violence, to isolate and exploit African Americans.

The Knights' Racial Ideology

At the same time that African Americans, especially in the South, suffered from racial segregation, American workers began to feel a loss of opportunity and equality caused by the consolidation of capital in post-Civil War era. On 28 December 1869 a band of skilled garment cutters led by Uriah Stephens, organized Local Assembly No. 1 of the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, a labor organization that emphasized education and cooperation as means to escape the wage system. Wage earners, especially skilled workers during the early years of the Gilded Age, embraced a mix of cultural, political, and economic values that historians refer to as the concept of the producing classes. They revered the freedom, egalitarianism, dignity of labor, and rewards of self-improvement as concepts and principles that defined the American republic. Skilled workers saw themselves as valued citizens who contributed to the welfare of their communities. Citizenship and work were intertwined. On the other hand, workers, who had fought recently for the Union in a war that had saved the republic and abolished slavery, decried the consolidation of capital and its concomitant power that dictated to labor and treated wage earners as wage slaves.

The Knights' leadership set the tone for its ideological and strategic perspectives towards African American workers. Stephens, the first grand master workman, grew up as a Quaker and trained for the Baptist ministry. He was a staunch abolitionist who supported the Republicans' first two presidential candidates—John Fremont and Abraham Lincoln—and saw African Americans as equal in the economic sphere, but not as social equals. Stephens condoned segregated labor organizations.

Terence V. Powderly, the Knights' second grand master workman, believed abolitionism and organized labor were two revolutionary movements that supported the freedom of toilers. He recognized African Americans and whites as equal in the field of production and argued that poor whites were held back by their refusal to join together with African Americans for the betterment of all producers. Although Powderly had no problem on principles with the racial integration of Knights' local assemblies, he believed it more practical, especially in the South, to maintain segregated assemblies until such time as education might break down the barriers of prejudice. The paramount concern to Powderly was the advancement of workers and not racial equality, a social question that he believed would by remedied with time.

Organizing African American Workers

Most black wage earners resided in the South, where the Order's white leaders tended to be more liberal on racial matters than were the rank-and-file white members. Some white leaders hailed from the North, some were Republicans, and others were Democrats who were enlightened on racial issues. The Knights' policy of accepting African Americans as economic equals while maintaining the social superiority of whites caused tension. On the local assembly level, whites maintained a policy of separate locals for black and white workers. Locals, in turn, belonged to district assemblies that usually had both black and white local assemblies. District Assembly 92 of Richmond was the only all-black district assembly, a situation that gave the African American local assemblies more representation at the state and general assemblies. Black locals at Savannah, Georgia, and Pensacola and Petersburg, Florida, also tried to form African American district assemblies, but they were thwarted by white-led district assemblies. Though local assemblies were nearly always segregated, the racial integration of district, state, and general assemblies provided leadership opportunities for African American Knights.

White union organizers formed the initial African American Knights' local assemblies in the South. The indifference and insensitivity shown by some white organizers, however, led to their replacement by African American organizers. The use of black organizers received support from white state assemblies in the South, as whites realized the importance of bringing black wage earners, who might otherwise be competitors, into the Order.

In 1885 the Knights' successful labor strikes against railroads controlled by financier Jay Gould brought a flood of new members into the Order. When the Order suffered some major defeats in late 1885 and 1886, membership reached its zenith and went into a rapid decline. While white workers left the Knights, African American wage earners continued to join the Knights because they believed the Order represented the best hope for their desperate plight. Unskilled African American wage earners, who resided in large cities and smaller industrial towns in the North, founded local assemblies of waiters, hod carriers, laborers, teamsters, and dockworkers. Although southern cities also had black local assemblies, including women's locals of domestic workers, most African Americans resided in the rural South, where they suffered the indignities of racial segregation, hard labor for meager earnings, and debt peonage that tied them to their white employers.

When the Knights attempted to organize southern agricultural workers, they encountered determined and sometimes violent opposition from white planters and farmers. In one of the largest strikes engaged in by southern Knights, thousands of sugarcane workers struck during the 1887 fall harvest. Planters appealed to Louisiana's governor for assistance from the state militia, which joined with local sheriffs' posses to shoot strikers; they killed at least 30 African Americans. The strike was crushed and the local Knights destroyed.

The Richmond Convention

The Knights' general assembly in 1886 drew 658 delegates to Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy. New York City's District Assembly 49 (Home Club), a large, politicized body, sent 60 delegates, including Frank J. Ferrell, an African American. The New York delegation made room reservations at the Merchants Hotel but voted to cancel them before leaving New York City when the proprietor refused to admit any blacks. The entire delegation, motivated by the Knights' motto—"an injury to one is the concern of all"—stayed in tents they had brought or boarded with African American families. These Knights further challenged Richmond's racial practices when Ferrell accompanied them to an evening's entertainment at the theater, where he became the first black in the city's history to occupy an orchestra seat rather than the gallery seats designated for blacks.

Master Workman J. E. Quinn of District Assembly 49 approached Powderly to request that Ferrell introduce Virginia governor Fitzhugh Lee to the convention. Powderly thought this proposal would needlessly insult Richmond's social mores, so a compromise was reached. Governor Lee welcomed the Knights' delegates, followed by Ferrell, whose introduction of Powderly mentioned the Knights' dedication to the abolition of distinctions based on color. The convention ended with a picnic attended by a few thousand of the city's African Americans, making it the largest racially integrated social event in Richmond up to that time. The Richmond convention created consternation among local whites and became a national sensation. Southern newspapers blasted the Knights for forcing social equality upon the host city, while the African American press, along with many labor and Northern newspapers, praised the Knights' actions and principles.

The Legacy of Racial Inclusion

The Knights admitted African American members at a time when blacks increasingly experienced the degradation and limited opportunities fostered by legal and de facto segregation. The actions of the Knights at the Richmond general assembly in 1886 showed congruence with the Order's motto and earned the allegiance of many African Americans. Lost strikes and the rise of antilabor sentiments rendered them an insignificant labor organization by the early 1890, but their influence as a biracial movement carried forward in the North and South. After racially integrated local assemblies of coal miners in the Midwest passed from existence, the principle of racial inclusion went with these miners into the nascent United Mine Workers. Coal miners in West Virginia organized racially integrated unions, and the same situation existed in Birmingham, Alabama, with coal and iron ore miners.

Key Players

Ferrell, Frank J.: Ferrell, an engineer and member of District Assembly 49, was the only black in the 60-man New York City delegation sent to the Knights' 1886 convention. He registered six patents for steam boiler parts in the 1890s.

Powderly, Terence Vincent (1849-1924): Powderly, a machinist, joined the Knights in 1876 and served as a leader in the Scranton, Pennsylvania, local and district assemblies. He succeeded Uriah Stephens, the Knights' founder, to the office of grand master workman in 1879 and held the post until defeated in 1893. In 1878 he was elected on the Greenback Labor party ticket to three two-year terms as the mayor of Scranton.

See also: Jim Crow Segregation and Labor; Knights of Labor.



Brier, Stephen. "Interracial Organizing in the West Virginia Coal Industry: Participation of Black Mine Workers in the Knights of Labor and the United Mine Workers, 1880-1894." In Essays in Southern Labor History: Selected Papers, Southern Labor History Conference, 1976, edited by Gary M. Fink and Merl E. Reed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977.

Foner, Philip S. Organized Labor and the Black Worker,1619-1981. 2nd ed. New York: International Publishers, 1982.

Foner, Philip S., and Ronald L. Lewis, eds. Black Workers: A Documentary History from Colonial Times to the Present. Vol. 3, The Black Worker During the Era of the Knights of Labor. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

McLaurin, Melton A. The Knights of Labor in the South.Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978.

Spero, Sterling D., and Abram L. Harris. The Black Worker: The Negro and the Labor Movement. New York: Columbia University Press, 1931.


Kessler, Sidney H. "The Organization of Negroes in the Knights of Labor." Journal of Negro History 37 (July 1952): 248-275.

Miner, Claudia. "The 1886 Convention of the Knights of Labor." Phylon 44, no. 2 (1983): 147-59.

Worthman, Paul B. "Black Workers and Labor Unions in Birmingham, Alabama, 1897-1904." Labor History 10 (summer 1969): 375-407.

Additional Resources


Grob, Gerald. Workers and Utopia: A Study of Ideological Conflict in the American Labor Movement, 1865-1900.Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1961.

Rachleff, Peter J. Black Labor in the South: Richmond,Virginia, 1865-1890. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984.

Ware, Norman. The Labor Movement in the United States, 1860-1895: A Study in Democracy (reprint ed.). Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1959.

—Paul A. Frisch

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Knights Break Color Line

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