African American Labor History

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African American Labor History

From the arrival of the first slaves in Virginia in 1619 to the present, African Americans have formed an important part of the American working class. Whether as slaves or as free men and women, they have performed a wide range of tasks vital to the building and sustaining of the nation's economy.

Yet blacks often found themselves possessing few economic resources of their own, restricted to lower sectors of the economy, and shut out from better-paying jobs. Despite their tremendous achievements in the economic realm, black Americans have faced a long history of racial discrimination at the workplace and in the job market. Throughout the course of American history, African Americansboth individually and collectivelyhave challenged with varying degrees of success the limits placed on their economic opportunity.



A driving force behind the growth of chattel slavery in North America was white Americans' need for labor, particularly on the farms and plantations of the South. White slaveholders exploited African and African American slaves in order to expand agricultural production and enrich themselves.

The first slaves in Virginia in the seventeenth century were put to work cultivating tobacco. Slaves in South Carolina and Georgia in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries labored on large rice plantations. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the rise of "King Cotton" ensured that the majority of slaves would work on the cotton plantations rapidly extending westward from the eastern seaboard states through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.

Not all slaves were agricultural laborers. On large plantations, some black women worked as cooks, domestic servants, midwives, and nurses. Skilled male artisans worked as carpenters, ship builders and caulkers, and iron molders, while some unskilled male slaves were leased to individuals and companies to lay railroad tracks, dig canals, and mine coal or salt.

Not all slaves were confined to the South, either. Until northern states passed gradual emancipation laws in the late eighteenth century, slaves also labored as freight handlers and teamsters on the docks and in the streets and warehouses of such cities as Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. They also worked in ropewalks and shipyards, on farms and plantations, and even on ships.


The Civil War that ended slavery in the South did not produce economic equality for the four million freed men and women. During the Reconstruction era (1866-1877), emancipated slaves encountered greatly restricted economic opportunities.

Southern white legislators passed so-called black codes in 1865 and 1866 that barred blacks from working in skilled jobs, and while the North quickly outlawed black codes, white craftsmen aggressively resisted the entrance of black workers into their trades. Most ex-slaves, while formally free, continued to work as dependent, landless agricultural laborers on cotton, sugar, and rice plantations. Their strong desire to secure their economic independence through land ownership was thwarted by a number of factors: the federal government's failure to support land reform, black people's deep economic deprivation, and the refusal of white landowners to sell property to blacks.

By the 1870s, a system of sharecropping had emerged that granted black workers a small degree of day-to-day independence from white control while at the same time guaranteeing their continued economic subservience to more powerful white property owners. In exchange for the use of land, tools, seed, and fertilizer, black families planted and harvested their crop. At year's end, they paid substantial rent plus interest, or turned over a large portion of the crop to the landowner.

Some blacks managed to escape oppression by migrating west or north. In some cases, people saved enough to purchase small plots of land. But the share-cropping system remained dominant well into the twentieth century. Only in the 1940s and 1950s did the mechanization of southern agriculture destroy the system, rendering a large sharecropping population economically unnecessary.

Black workers also faced discriminatory employers and fellow workers in the North, where the black population remained small in the decades following the Civil War. Most black northerners were excluded from skilled or factory jobs and confined to the ranks of unskilled common labor or domestic service.


An organized labor movement emerged after the Civil War in response to growing industrialization, but it was largely hostile or indifferent to the needs and desires of the freed people. As a result, black workers in many cities organized their own unions or associations to represent their members' interests.

In Baltimore, Maryland, for instance, Isaac Myers (1835-1891), who had been born to free parents in 1835, defended his fellow black ship caulkers who lost their jobs when white workersmany of them demobilized Confederate soldierswent on strike to demand the firing of black shipyard workers. In 1866, Myers helped to found the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company, a black owned and operated company that gave employment to hundreds of unemployed black shipworkers before it finally closed in 1883.

Since white unions excluded blacks as members, Myers vigorously advocated all-black unions. He saw them as a way of increasing black workers' power and also of fostering eventual alliances with white trade unions. When the all-white National Labor Union refused to admit black organizations into membership, Myers in 1869 founded and led the short-lived Colored National Labor Union, a federation of recently formed associations of black ship caulkers, longshoremen, hod carriers, and other laborers.

But Myers's optimism about the possibility of an alliance between black and white workers did not survive the depression of the 1870s; by 1881, he had concluded that the prejudice of white labor against blacks was simply too strong: "Everywhere," he wrote,"the white trades union prohibits the admission of colored men as members. "As long as these organizations were effective, he argued, black mechanics would "gradually drop into obscurity and the grave."

Despite the hostility of white trade unionists, some black workers continued to form unions to protect and improve their wages and working conditions and to gain access to work in a discriminatory job market.

During the 1880s, the Knights of Labora national body composed of thousands of local "assemblies"opened its doors to black members, on the grounds that all workers, regardless of race, should have equal rights and should work together to further the interests of the "producing classes. "After the collapse of the knights in the late 1880s and early 1890s, the dominant organization of workers was the American Federation of Labor (AFL), an association of skilled craft unions.

The AFL proved less open than the Knights of Labor to black workers, as well as to other minorities and women. In most cases in which white craft unions excluded blacks from membership, the AFL took no action against them. Nor did the AFL do much to organize black workers in unorganized industries.

In the 1910s, the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) challenged the AFL. In contrast to the AFL's "craft unionism," which organized workers according to their craft, the IWW advocated "industrial" unionism, whereby all workers in a given workplace would join the same union. The IWW also promoted the overthrow of capitalism and the formation of an alliance of all workers, regardless of race.

In the timber camps of Louisiana and East Texas and on the docks of Philadelphia, the Wobblies, as IWW members were called, successfully organized black and white workers and fought aggressively for their members' rights. Repression by employers and the government, however, ended the IWW's influence during and after World War I.


White trade unions' long record of racial exclusion and discrimination created considerable skepticism and even hostility among large numbers of blacks toward the union movement. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, black workers tended to organize separately from their white counterpartsa process known as "biracial unionism. "Given the pervasiveness of segregation by the end of the nineteenth century, few whites or blacks proposed organizing integrated locals. Instead, all-black locals and all-white locals formed, sometimes competing for jobs and benefits, sometimes cooperating.

On the docks of New Orleans in the 1880s, and again from 1901 to 1923, for example, black and white longshoremen and cotton yardmen belonged to separate unions, but they agreed to divide available work equally between blacks and whites, to abide by identical rules and accept the same wages, and to present a united front in all union-management negotiations. Similarly, in the coal fields of Alabama in the 1880s and 1890s, black and white locals of the Knights of Labor and the United Mine Workers jointly represented miners of both races.

Black labor activism targeted the exploitative conditions, low wages, and harsh or discriminatory treatment faced by African American workers. Like their white counterparts, blacks participated in a wide range of labor conflicts and upheavals. In 1887, nine thousand black sugar workers joined the Knights of Labor to challenge planters and militiamen in an unsuccessful showdown in the sugar parishes of Louisiana. In 1892, thousands of blacks joined with white workers in a general strike that temporarily shut down New Orleans.

The World War I era witnessed several large-scale strikes: by black dock workers along the Gulf coast, by black female laundry workers in Mobile and Little Rock, by black coal miners in Alabama and West Virginia, and by black phosphate miners in Florida. During this period, associations of African American railroad workersincluding porters, dining car workers, locomotive firemen, brakemen, and yard switchmenlodged literally thousands of protests with managers and federal officials, calling for an end to race-based differences in pay, promotion, and job assignment.

If biracial unionism offered advantages to black workers in some cases, at other times it locked blacks out of better jobs. Members of AFL "auxiliary unions," which enrolled black workers excluded from more powerful white locals, were often forced to pay dues to white officers and received little protection in exchange. Only in the 1940s did black workers' protests and U.S. court decisions put a legal end to discriminatory auxiliaries that denied black workers equal rights.

White trade unions' long record of racial exclusion and discrimination created considerable skepticism and even hostility among large numbers of blacks toward the union movement.


The 1930s witnessed two crucial developments in the history of black labor. The first was the rise to prominence of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), led by the charismatic black radical A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979). The BSCP was formed in 1925 by disgruntled employees of the Pullman Company, which manufactured and operated luxurious sleeping cars for long-distance train travel. The BSCP called for a reduction in the number of hours that porters had to work each month, increases in pay, a grievance procedure that protected employee rights, official recognition of the BSCP as the legal bargaining agent for Pullman porters, and collective bargaining between the company and the union.

From the start, the BSCP confronted numerous obstacles. A powerful opponent, the Pullman Company conducted a well-financed antiunion campaign: it hired spies, sponsored its own loyal "company union," and disciplined and fired union activists and supporters. The BSCP, in contrast, had little money to pursue its union drive and was opposed by many black ministers and newspaper editors, who argued that it jeopardized black jobs.

The tide began to turn in the 1930s. Under dedicated and able leadership, the BSCP received the backing of the AFL, won over the support of black leaders, and took advantage of a more prolabor attitude in government. Sweeping a government-conducted union election in 1935, the BSCP finally won a contract from the Pullman Company in 1937. Porters' wages and working conditions improved significantly, and the BSCP became the leading African American union in the nation.

From the 1930s through the 1960s, BSCP locals were extremely active in civil rights activities in the North and South. BSCP members and leaders fought against segregation laws and practices, funded court challenges to Jim Crow segregation, spoke out constantly against racial oppression, and regularly challenged the AFL's racist policies toward black workers.

SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT "Pullman Pass" by Michael Harper


The second important development in black labor history during the 1930s was the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The AFL had refused to commit itself to organizing production workers in basic industries such as auto, steel, farm equipment, rubber, and meat packing. It had also refused to embrace the strategy of industrial unionism. In 1935, several unions broke away from the AFL to form a rival labor federation, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The CIO took the position that all workers in a given factory or industryregardless of their specific tasks or skills, race, ethnicity, or sexought to belong to a single organization. The new CIO conducted extensive organizing campaigns in the late 1930s and 1940s, winning victories that produced substantial gains for their members.

Success in unionizing the auto, steel, meat packing, and other basic industries required the support and active involvement of African American workers. Failure to recruit black support would guarantee the loss of any union drive, and the CIO, unlike the AFL, actively sought black participation. But the "approach to the Negro was not dictated solely by expediency," concluded the black social scientists Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake in 1945, "for the CIO was, in a sense, a crusading movement also."

The rise of industrial unions affiliated with the CIO did not end discrimination in the labor market. In many cases, southern locals were more conservative and racist than their northern counterparts. Some unions, usually those with left-wing leadership, like the Farm Equipment Workers' Union or the United Packinghouse Workers of America, earned a good reputation on issues of racial equality. Others, like the United Steelworkers of America, were sharply criticized for failing to protect black workers or advance their interests.

African American laborers' struggle for racial equality, then, took place in both the workplace and the union hall.


During the World War I years, labor shortages occurred in the North as a result of the military draft, the cutoff of European immigration to the United States, and an expanding wartime economy. These factors, combined with an agricultural crisis and continued racial oppression in the South, produced an unprecedented Great Migration that brought half a million black southerners to industrial centers like Chicago, Detroit, and New York.

Because of the demand for labor, black men and some black women broke the color bar in employment, securing unskilled or semiskilled factory jobs for the first time. Although the end of the war in late 1918 produced high rates of black unemployment, an expanding economy in the 1920s contributed to an even greater migration of southern blacks to the North. Black economic advancement remained slow, however. When the Great Depression of the 1930s ended and the economy geared up for World War II, black workers were hired only as a last resort.

In 1941, A. Philip Randolph and others pressured the government to take a stand against employment discrimination in the defense industry and elsewhere. Their protests resulted in an executive order desegregating the defense industry and the creation of the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to investigate charges of discrimination. But the FEPC had no enforcement powers. Some companies and industries voluntarily complied with its orders to hire African Americans. Others, such as the railroad industry and its all-white unions of locomotive firemen and brakemen, continued to bar black employment.


The labor movement has experienced hard times since the 1970s. Increasingly hostile employers, competition from corporations using cheap labor overseas, deindustrialization, and government policies that favor employersthese factors have all taken their toll on union membership, which has dropped significantly in recent decades. Yet black Americans who are union membersin industrial and in government jobscontinue to earn higher wages and experience better working conditions than their nonunion counterparts.

Even as the union movement has declined, there have been some notable success stories. The rise and growth of Hospital Workers' Local 1199 has dramatically transformed a once poorly paid sector in one of the nation's fastest growing industries. A politically and racially progressive organization, Local 1199 became an important "civil rights" union in the 1960s, raising the living standards and improving the working conditions of its largely minority membership.

Black protests and the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s and 1970s made employment discrimination illegal. Along with affirmative action and antipoverty programs, these contributed somewhat to the breakdown of racial barriers in the job market. But a stagnating economy in the 1970s and a conservative political reaction in the 1980s and 1990s have weakened the enforcement and efficacy of both laws and programs.

A black middle classincluding teachers, civil servants, politicians, doctors, lawyers, and corporate executiveshas expanded dramatically since the 1960s, but a large percentage of urban blacks remain trapped in poverty. In a process known as "capital flight," corporations have moved hundreds of thousands of high-wage factory jobs from America's urban centers to suburban and rural areas and abroad to Mexico and Asia. The resulting deindustrialization has devastated the nation's inner cities, drying up the employment opportunities once available to urban black workers.


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"Pullman Pass" by Michael Harper


In this poem, Michael Harper reflects on the history and experience of African Americans who worked in the Jim Crow era and calls attention to the thinly veiled hostilities that have characterized the "separate but unequal" culture of twentieth century. Describing the experiences of a Pullman porter, the poem pays tribute to African oral traditions, touching on the value of memory and personal history.

He was eighty-seven
when I photographed
him, straight up
in the natural light
of his fifty-year
gold service Pullman's
pass, Twentieth Century Limited,
and claimed he was there
when Rockefeller and Vanderbilt
agreed on the merger
at the US Hotel
in Saratoga Springs;
he'd been a jockey then
the Skidmore girls
would count the hairs
on his smooth skin
while he told them stories
in any direction or position.

He told this dime story
once about Rockefeller
giving out new dimes
in the parlor car
relaxing from his dinner.

"I'll put these with the others,"
Henry said to Rockefeller;
"How many of these do you have?"
and so Henry went back to his locker
and brought back a cigar
box with a rubber band around it,
and opened up the lid.
Rockefeller turned to his lawyer
accountant and said to count
the dimes in the box
and write out the check
for the amount,
a dollar for a dime.

Henry had a soft voice;
he roadsided every cavern
and watering hole when he rode
on his pass;
he bought his wife
a farm with that Rockefeller
check: $2600,
a lot of acreage
for a black man
who feigned reading and writing;
straight back, tall as an arrow,
and pretty walking out the US
Hotel, where he had friends.

Segregated then at the Hotel:
wouldn't let no white people work there.

SOURCE: Harper, Michael S."Pullman Pass," in Healing Song for the Inner Ear. University of Illinois Press, 1985. Copyright © 1985 by University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.

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African American Labor History

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African American Labor History