Philip S. Foner, Ronald L. Lewis, and Robert Cvornyek birthed a new generation of Black labor history scholarship with the publication of The Black Worker: From Colonial Times to the Present, eight substantial volumes of documentary history. Published over the course of six years, from the late seventies to the mid-eighties, the voluminous compilation of archival materials both anticipated and reflected its moment. Writing at a time of renewed interest in labor history, Black history, and social history, and no doubt deeply influenced by the upsurge of peace, Black freedom, women’s, anti-imperialist, and workers’ rights movements during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Foner, Lewis, and Cvornyek helped to ensure that the emergent “history from below” included Black workers. This multi-volume documentary history is as wide as it is deep. It is the product of a massive, Herculean effort that involved compiling and organizing thousands of pages of primary source documents and making sense of the complicated and contradictory stories they tell. In the acknowledgements that open the first volume, Foner and Lewis thank no less than 23 libraries and historical societies across the United States. They, along with Cvornyek, would go on to thank many, many more in each successive book. Theirs was big, synthesis-style, social, political, intellectual, and institutional history that tried to capture as broadly as possible the patterns, trends, and themes that made race and class, and the Black labor experience, in particular, significant, shaping forces in United States history. With its compelling perspective on the salience of Black labor history along with its sheer breadth and depth, The Black Worker was and is required reading for students of labor and working-class history and African American history.
During the eras that preceded the publication of The Black Worker, a racially exclusive academic enterprise largely ignored the scholarship produced by Black labor scholars, preventing it from reaching a wider public audience. Mainstream (white) labor history’s “Black problem” may best be defied as, simply put, erasure. Black workers were largely absent from or mere footnotes in established histories; dominant narratives presented a “house of labor” occupied primarily if not exclusively by white, male, industrial workers. What’s more, these histories tended to frame the story of the making of the American working-class as one of American trade unionism, failing to provide a full examination of most unions’ widespread practice of racial exclusion and discrimination, much less attempts by Black workers to organize their own labor. Of course, the absence of Black scholarship in mainstream accounts did not mean that Black labor scholars did not exist or were not producing works about Black labor history. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Black social scientists such as Gertrude McDougald, Elizabeth Haynes, W.E.B. Du Bois, Abram L. Harris, Carter G. Woodson, Robert C. Weaver, and Charles H. Wesley created the field of Black labor studies.1 But the Black scholars who used social science as a weapon against the racist ideologies of their time—ideologies, we should point out, that found their basis in pseudo-scientific arguments about the nature of Black labor—were largely overlooked, though not without significant resistance. Radical scholars like Foner, who were themselves confronting their own particular forms of marginal status within mainstream academic institutions, became key contributors to the opening of fields to marginalized voices. The Black Worker should be credited with playing an influential role in shaking up the “house of labor” such that its established residents had to, in some ways, make room for newcomers.
A deep and sustained examination of the history of Black workers was a fitting choice for the editors of The Black Worker because personal and professional commitments pushed them to challenge their field of study. Countering economist John R. Commons’s and the Wisconsin School’s theory of labor history, Foner and his co-editors argued that the history of the American working class was fundamentally one of class struggle: workers were aware of their oppression by capitalism; they should act in their own economic and political interests as a subjugated class; and trade unionism could be, with its potential fully realized, the most powerful engine of social democracy for the working classes.2 The Black Worker’s editors pushed industrial unionism over craft unionism, political unionism over non-partisanship or bipartisanship, and the fundamental antagonism between labor and capital over shared interest between the two. The historical experiences of African American laborers powerfully articulated the legitimacy of such an approach. In this vein, one of the central arguments that emerges in the volumes is Black workers’ militancy. From congressional committee hearings of the late nineteenth century in which Black workers discuss their living and working conditions and make a compelling case for national advocacy, to the labor organizing and economic activism of civil rights workers such as Coretta Scott King, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King, Jr., The Black Worker shows that Black workers’ “class consciousness”—to borrow a term in vogue at the time of its publication—was an engine of social transformation. There was a “usable past” of working-class militancy starring American labor’s neglected members, they seemed to say.
The Black Worker is a documentary history spanning from “colonial times to the present.” At the opening of each new volume, the editors rightfully point out labor history’s resurgence during the 1970s and count their work as “the first compilation of original materials which encompasses the entire history of Afro-American labor.” Foner and Lewis were right to note that, while there had been a renaissance in Black history during the 1960s and 1970s, during which the field moved into the mainstream in unprecedented fashion, studies that explicitly emphasized the history of Black labor and reached similar magnitude as The Black Worker had yet to be published. In the introduction that opens the volumes, they state the clearly important and arguably undertheorized fact that “the vast majority of Afro-Americans are, and always have been ‘workers’,” and as such, were fundamentally central to the shaping of American labor history. An obvious point under even the most hasty of reviews of African American history, yes, but the statement was, in fact, hardly inconsequential. With this observation, Foner and Lewis, and others, issued a challenge to the field of American labor history, noting its glaring oversight of Black workers. One might also say that by pointing out the irony of the preponderance of Black laborers in American history, on the one hand, and the dearth of Black labor history in mainstream accounts, on the other, Foner, Lewis, and Cvornyek were making larger observations about and issuing challenges to the basic assumptions of their field. In other words, the presence of Black laboring bodies into the precious canon of (white) labor history would yield powerful new insights about the history of class in America in the broadest and most illuminating of ways.
Divided in two major parts, with the first four volumes dedicated to antebellum history through the end of the nineteenth century and the second four to the twentieth, The Black Worker’s central themes include, most principally, Black workers in industrial slavery and the skilled trades under slavery and following emancipation; free Black workers’ experiences in the labor marketplace; Black unionism and Black workers’ role in strikes; race relations in labor unions, particularly white workers’ racial hostility and intransigence and white labor leaders’ acquiescence to such reactionary behavior; and debates over the at times fractious civil rights–labor coalition following the mid-1950s when the AFL and CIO merged and as the struggle for Black citizenship took a decidedly influential turn. The volumes also include the writings of prominent Black male political and social leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Kelly Miller, Ira De A. Reid, A. Philip Randolph, and Paul Robeson, for example, as well as proceedings from Black gatherings such at the influential Black Convention Movement and the Colored National Labor Union of the nineteenth century along with sizeable compilations of important twentieth-century Black labor organizations. Documents on AFL proceedings, the organization of the CIO, and Communist trade unions, especially during the 1930s, provide a window into the ways that race and trade unionism were inextricably connected throughout the history of American unionism.
Among its greatest strengths, The Black Worker’s rich collection of primary source materials makes possible the writing of many books on various topics within Black labor history. The history of Black labor during the antebellum period comes alive through articles pulled from local newspapers in, for example, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Louisiana, and South Carolina, and data pulled from field-defining scholars of slavery such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Edmund S. Morgan, and Ulrich B. Phillips. One learns, for instance, about the costs of maintaining industrial enslaved populations from a 1970 article published in Business History Review and about the occupations of free people of color in Georgia in 1819 from data pulled from Phillips’ A Documentary History of the American Industrial Society (1910). Passages from famed abolitionists William Wells Brown and Frederick Douglass recount the experiences of the hiring out system and other firsthand accounts document the processes of escape and the means by which enslaved persons purchased their own freedom.
Records central to grasping collective understandings of work, uplift, and racial progress as defined by Black leaders and ordinary Black workers during the late nineteenth century, when debates about racial politics were especially rich, fill the collection’s second volume. Proceedings of the Colored National Labor Union’s inaugural national conference, its second and third conventions, and meetings from local and state chapters come from records such as The Christian Recorder, The National Anti-Slavery Standard, and The New Era, while papers from Duke University’s Freedmen’s Bureau Project, and statistics from the National Bureau of Labor suggest the critical importance of labor to Black organizational and political life. State Black labor conventions in the late nineteenth century tell the story of what occurred in places such as Richmond, New York, Saratoga, and Alabama. Documenting the rise of local Black militancy immediately following the Civil War, the sources depict striking Black workers across the South, including, for instance, the Galveston Strike of 1877 and a strike led by Black washerwomen. Testimony from Black workers about racial terrorism in South Carolina show the centrality of Black labor to the activities of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, while Black labor radicalism, perhaps defined narrowly as Black socialism or Black Marxism, finds articulation in a section that includes an 1877 speech by abolitionist and socialist Peter H. Clark.
The documents that make up volumes three and four show the centrality of Black unionism to the debates about labor and capital that profoundly shaped national politics in the late nineteenth and turn of the twentieth centuries. They include, for example, the testimony of Black workers to the 1883 Senate Committee on Relations between Labor and Capital and debates within the Knights of Labor about whether Black workers were influential political participants. The formation of the Knights and Black workers’ organizing in the South is told through New Orleans local papers such as the Picayune and Weekly Louisianian. Also noteworthy are Frederick Douglass’ address to the National Convention of Colored Men in Louisville, Kentucky and the work of writers who crafted editorials for the New York Freeman, New York Age, and AME Church Review. The proceedings of Knights of Labor conventions are found in local and national papers, the papers of Knights leader Terrence V. Powderly, and excerpts from his account, Thirty Years of Labor (1889). The Colored Farmers’ National Alliance, a crucial organization that inserted Black farmers into the white-dominated and racially exclusive or discriminatory “southern alliances” such as the Farmers’ alliance and the Populist or People’s Party, holds a prominent place.
The fourth volume concerns itself primarily with the robust debate within the AFL over race and the inclusion of Black workers. The documents show just how racially exclusionary were the practices of AFL-affiliated unions. If Gomperism is proven limited in such accounts, then Black worker organizing and militancy, by contrast, is shown to play a decisive role. Key turn-of-the-century strikes, for example, the New Orleans General Strike of 1892 and the Galveston Longshoreman Strike of 1898, are depicted through local and national newspaper coverage. Documents about the United Mine Workers and their unique practice of including Black workers, Black coal miners and the debate around Black strikebreaking, as well as writings by labor leaders Albion W. Tourgee, Ignatius Donnelly, and Du Bois (in this case an excerpt from his important study The Philadelphia Negro), round out the list.
The collection aptly documents Black migration, including the Exodusters movement of the late nineteenth century and the better-known Great Migration of the early twentieth century. In this case, the editors draw upon records from the United States Department of Labor and studies included in the Journal of Negro History. Congressional committee reports on the East St. Louis Race Riot of 1917, records on the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 taken from the Chicago Commission on Race Relations study, and writings in the NAACP organ The Crisis and A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen’s The Messenger tell the story of the precarity of Black workers’ lives during the early twentieth century, but also the ways in which they organized to navigate and oppose it. The work of notable Black labor scholars in addition to Du Bois, finds a home in the middle volumes. For example, George E. Haynes, the first African American man to earn a Ph.D. from Columbia University and Director of Negro Economics for the United States Department of Labor, and Helen B. Irvin, an expert on Black women’s labor, have writings that yield social-scientific insight. On the subject of Black women’s labor history, volume six includes a rich collection, with studies on Black women industrial workers in Philadelphia from the U.S. Department of Labor and articles written by labor intellectuals including Helen Sayre, Mary Louise Williams, Nora Newsome, and Jean Collier Brown for publications such as the National Urban League’s Opportunity and The Messenger, as well as for the Women’s Bureau. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters has voluminous records dedicated to it. Numerous articles from The Messenger, The New Leader, The Chicago Defender, The Pittsburgh Courier, and records from the Chicago Historical Society capture the work of the historic Black-led labor union of Pullman Porters.
Volume seven is among the richest of the collection because of the high rates of labor union mobilization and worker self-organization that went on during the 1930s and 1940s. The Congress of Industrial Organizations and its mass organizing efforts that included Black workers receives considerable attention. The organizing efforts of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, which we learn supported federal anti-lynching legislation, the National Negro Congress, and the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union are documented through sources drawn from Black newspapers, Communist publications such as The Daily Worker, library archives, the records of civil rights organizations, and the papers of Franklin D. Roosevelt. A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington Movement of the 1940s and the fight over the Fair Employment Practices Committee and the series of AFL conventions in which Randolph introduced multiple anti-discrimination resolutions, reveal organizing efforts in the watershed years of wartime mobilization and the influence of industrial democracy as a widespread political aspiration. The postwar period concerns the organization of the National Negro Labor Council, which played an important role in infusing an emphasis on jobs and economic justice into a national civil rights platform, and the work of the activist Paul Robeson and the illuminating publication Freedom, his radical newspaper. The final volume delves deeply into the relation between civil rights and labor during the 1950s and 1960s. A notable collection of speeches by civil rights leaders Vernon E. Jordan, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, and Benjamin Hooks at AFL-CIO conventions is also included. It concludes with documentation of the organizing efforts of Black and Brown hospital workers, an effort widely supported by the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement.
We should measure the significance of The Black Worker, in part, as a function of the life and times of its principal editor. The author of over 100 published works, Philip Sheldon Foner was an avowed and unapologetic Marxist labor historian.3 The son of Russian immigrants, Foner earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in History at City College and a Ph.D. in History at Columbia University under the direction of Allan Nevins, the famed two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and historian. Foner landed his first professorship at his alma mater. In 1941, City College officials fired Foner, who was one of 50 faculty members to lose their positions, and his brothers, Jack, who also taught in the history department at City College, and Moe, who worked in City College’s registrar office. His brother, Henry, a teacher in the city’s public schools, was also blacklisted. This was a prelude to a time, during the Cold War, when leftist scholars were routinely charged with Communist conspiracy and subjected to investigations, committee hearings, and expulsions from their places of employment. Although he was banned from mainstream academic institutions for more than 25 years, Foner continued to research, write, and publish during this time. Forty years after the dismissal, City College leaders issued him a formal apology.4
Following his stint at City College, Foner became co-owner of Citadel Press, weathering the turbulent McCarthy period as a self-employed writer and editor. After 26 years of being banned from employment in the academic profession, Foner became a professor at Lincoln University in Lincoln, Pennsylvania, a Historically Black College and University, where he worked during the 1960s and 1970s until his retirement. Lincoln’s graduates included Black luminaries such as Horace Man Bond, Kwame Nkrumah, Melvin B. Tolson, Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall, Gil Scott-Heron, and Black Arts Movement architect Lawrence (Larry) Neal. For a historian of U.S. labor and working-class history and an exile of one the country’s most important public higher education institutions, Lincoln University was a welcome home. One notes in Foner’s body of work the influence of the Black educational institution, whose students were undeniably influenced by and participants in the civil rights and Black Power revolution. A 1994 recipient of the New York Labor History Association’s lifetime achievement award, Foner was also the author of the ten-volume History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Organized Labor and the Black Worker; Women and the American Labor Movement and The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. He is widely recognized by historians of American labor as a key thinker in the field.5
Although his co-editors’ public roles did not match that of their colleague, Lewis’s and Cvornyek’s contributions and professional accomplishments were no less important. After earning a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Economics at Ohio University and a master’s and doctorate in History at the University of Akron, Lewis joined the faculty at the University of Delaware, holding a joint appointment in African American Studies and History. He taught courses in African American history and produced scholarship that became an influential part of an emerging canon on race and labor. Lewis worked at the University of Delaware for the duration of the publication of The Black Worker. His 1978 co-edited volume with James E. Newton, The Other Slaves: Mechanics, Artisans and Craftsmen, obviously influenced the structure and content of The Black Worker’s volume one, which succeeded in complicating the history of Black labor under slavery by focusing on workers laboring outside the plantation regime. Following the publication of The Black Worker, Lewis published books on the history of Black coal miners and Appalachian studies and history. Earning his bachelor’s in Political Science and History a year after Lewis’s arrival to the University of Delaware, Cvornyek received a master’s degree in History at Lewis’s alma mater, the University of Akron, and later earned a master’s of philosophy in History and a doctorate in History at Columbia University. After the publication of The Black Worker, Cvornyek published books and articles on African American sports history.
The desire of the editors of The Black Worker to promote research in Black labor history was realized. The volumes became a core contribution to the growth and development of the field of Black labor studies. The Black Worker, like other publications of its time, was an act of historical recovery that helped usher in and make possible the emergence of new, influential scholarship. It is commonplace for historians of marginalized persons to assert that telling the history of their subjects isn’t simply an act of incorporation but is rather one of revision in that conceptual frameworks are rethought. Reflection on the significance of The Black Worker shows this incorporation to be no small or insignificant task. Inserting the voices and actions of the marginal into the canon of history was of monumental importance, and was a defining task of the volume editors’ generation of envelope-pushing historians and progressive and radical intellectuals. By incorporating new voices into the standard chronology of American labor history, The Black Worker helped to push the field to revise its core keywords and conceptual underpinnings.
KEONA K. ERVIN is Associate Professor of African American History at the University of Missouri.
1. Francille Rusan Wilson, The Segregated Scholars: Black Social Scientists and the Creation of Black Labor Studies, 1890–1950 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006).
2. Melvyn Dubofsky, “Give Us That Old Time Labor History: Philip S. Foner and the American Worker,” Labor History 26 (1985): 119–120.
3. Lawrence Van Gelder, “Philip S. Foner, Labor Historian and Professor, 84,” New York Times, December 15, 1994.
4. Van Gelder, “Philip S. Foner, Labor Historian and Professor, 84,” December 15, 1994; Robin D.G. Kelley, foreword to Philip S. Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619–1981 (New York: Haymarket Books, 2017), xiv.
5. Kelley, xiv.