THE KNIGHTS OF LABOR CONVENTION IN RICHMOND, 1886
By 1886 no fewer than 60,000 blacks were members of the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor. Rapid strides had been made in the South, especially in Virginia, where Negroes constituted half of the 10,000 to 15,000 members in 1886. Black Knights were best organized in Richmond, where a purported 3,125 members in twenty-one local assemblies and one separate black District Assembly had been enrolled. To many Afro-Americans, however, the Knights of Labor stood at a critical crossroads. Would it wage an active battle for racial equality, or simply make a token effort in order to appease white supremacists? This question came to a climax at the 1886 convention in Richmond, Virginia. The forces involved swirled around one man, Frank J. Ferrell, an engineer, and the only black in the New York delegation. Well-suited for the battle, Ferrell, a Socialist and ardent unionist, was recognized in the Negro press as the most able black member in the Knights of Labor.
A few months before the convention opened, it was learned that Ferrell would not be permitted to stay in the same hotel as the white delegates of District 49, known as the “Home Club.” The 49ers rejected this arrangement, and in protest came to Richmond with tents. Just before convention business got under way, the New Yorkers informed the Grand Master Workman, Terence V. Powderly (see Part VI), of the incident. As a reprisal the 49ers proposed that Ferrell be chosen to introduce Governor Fitzhugh Lee when he rose to welcome the delegates at the opening session. After some hesitation, Powderly finally agreed to permit the black delegate to follow the governor on the platform and introduce Powderly. He praised the “Home Club” for upholding the Order’s principles on racial equality. In an assertion of these principles, the New York contingent and Ferrell upset the local populace by attending a performance at the Academy of Music, becoming the first black in Richmond’s history to occupy an orchestra seat in one of the city’s theaters (Doc. 1–3, 36). If these events were not unsettling enough, a few thousand black residents actually attended the picnic which brought the convention to a close. It was the largest racially integrated social affair in Richmond’s history. For the first time many white northerners actually confronted the insults which black workers experienced in the South, and became convinced that black Knights must be placed on an equal political and economic, if not social, footing (Doc. 24, 27, 28).
The Richmond convention created a national sensation. Southerners heaped abuse on the Knights, charging them with forcing “social equality” upon the people who had accepted them as guests, a charge which Powderly felt compelled to rebut in the Richmond Dispatch. The Negro press, as well as many labor and Northern newspapers, applauded the actions of the delegates. But after Powderly’s disclaimer regarding social equality, the black press mixed its praise with disappointment and some distrust. Generally, however, blacks saw the events in Richmond as justification for their full support of the Knights of Labor (Doc. 4–23, 25–6, 29–34).
In the North, 1886 was a year marked by a powerful counter-offensive by employers, characterized by lock-outs, blacklists, arrests, imprisonment, and occasional execution. As a result, union membership in the North plummetted. But in the South, blacks flocked to the Order. In fact, after 1886 the Order attracted more black workers than whites. Several explanations account for this development. First, for many months following the Richmond convention, the Knights’ national organization remained faithful to the principles of labor solidarity and interracial unity. Equally important was their program, which struck hard at several major grievances particularly affecting southern blacks. Stressing land reform, increased public education, and workers’ cooperatives, was bound to appeal to landless and poorly educated Negroes. Moreover, the Knights provided Negro members with a mechanism for the organization of mutual-benefits assistance within the community, as well as social functions, and the means for the training and development of a leadership class.
Finally, in 1886 the Knights of Labor proved their coercive power by winning the so-called Great Southwestern Strike against the powerful railroad magnate, Jay Gould (see Vol. III, Notes 15,23). This demonstration of power presented evidence that the Order could indeed provide black workers with a powerful agency for improving their station in life.