This is the fourth volume in THE BLACK WORKER: A DOCUMENTARY HISTORY FROM COLONIAL TIMES TO THE PRESENT, the first compilation of original materials to encompass the entire history of Afro-American labor. Recently there has been a revival of interest in working-class history, but this is the first presentation of historical documents relating to race relations within the most important labor organizations of the 1890s: the American Federation of Labor, the railway brotherhoods, and the United Mine Workers of America.
THE BLACK WORKER DURING THE ERA OF THE AMERICAN FEDERATION OF LABOR begins with the founding convention of the AFL, which came into existence during the late 1880s as an organization of craft unions, and was destined to become America’s most powerful labor organization. During the 1890s, the AFL leadership urged that black workers be organized even though it met with stiff resistance from the white unions, especially in the South. Black organizers were hired by the AFL to bring black workers into the labor movement, and received strong support from the AFL national office. The Federation’s constitution prohibited the practice of racial discrimination by member unions, and in at least one celebrated case, refused to admit a machinist union which barred blacks from membership. By the end of the decade, however, the AFL had yielded to the pressures of white unions in practice, if not in rhetoric.
The determination of white unions to bar black members was dramatically revealed by the course of action taken by the railway brotherhoods. The brotherhoods of firemen, trainmen, conductors, and engineers not only restricted black membership, but also launched an effort to eliminate Negroes from railroad service entirely, except as porters. Conducted by their official organs, this attack brought forth one of the most vicious racist assaults in the history of American race relations. The documents presented in Volume 4 demonstrate the white racial hostility which any movement for working-class solidarity was likely to encounter. On the other hand, some unions were relatively open. The United Mine Workers of America, for example, accepted members without regard to race, religion, or nationality. In fact, blacks not only were members of the UMW, but many also served as officers on local and district boards, and in one case, on the national board. Still, blacks experienced racial difficulties even within the UMW, and a protracted exchange between black and white miners in the UNITED MINE WORKER’S JOURNAL revealed some serious grievances by black miners on the one hand, and an insensitivity to those complaints by white miners on the other. That exchange is reproduced in this collection.
The adamant refusal by most unions to admit blacks were part of a broader racial hostility which prevailed in America during the early years of the AFL. Just as the rise of racial segregation produced the need for a new political counter-strategy, so too a new counter-strategy for circumventing the debilitating effects of exclusion was necessary for black workers. This volume reproduces a sampling from that wide range of opinion regarding the alternatives which seemed available at the time. Volume 4 concludes with contemporary assessments of the status of the black worker in America, the most notable being that of W. E. B. Du Bois, a young and gifted black social scientist.
This volume concludes the series on the nineteenth century; another four volume series on the black worker during the twentieth century will follow. Like the other volumes in this series, the documents presented are accompanied by introductions and notes, and original spellings have been retained except in cases where they obscure the intended meaning.
The editors wish to express their gratitude to those who have been generous in their assistance toward the completion of this book and the series generally. Miss Lila Prieb once again rendered a masterful typescript. Again we thank Roslyn Foner for designing these books, and Susan Lewis for her many hours of tedious proofreading. Finally, we would like to acknowledge our appreciation for the material assistance of the Black American Studies Program at the University of Delaware, and the financial assistance provided by the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Delaware.
Ronald L. Lewis
University of Delaware
Philip S. Foner
Lincoln University, Pennsylvania