THE CONDITION OF BLACK WORKERS IN THE SOUTH
In the spring of 1882, John T. Morgan, Senator from Alabama, submitted a resolution calling for the establishment of a committee to investigate the causes behind the numerous industrial strikes which wracked American industry during the 1870s and 1880s. Southern senators, led by Morgan, planned to use these hearings to demonstrate to the average industrial worker of the North that he, too, was financially penalized by the contemporary high tariff schedule. They believed that the hearings would convince northern laboring men to pressure their congressional representatives into supporting the lower tariff schedules demanded by southern senators. The southern senators also hoped to reveal cases of northern industrial employers who used political coercion against their employees. If it could be shown that the industrialists controlled the voting behavior of their employees through job coercion, then Republican charges that southerners were subverting the political rights of Negroes would be effectively countered.
In order to undermine Morgan’s strategy, the Republicans urged that the Senate Committee on Education and Labor undertake a broad examination of the entire range of relations between labor and capital. In effect, the Republicans challenged the southern Democrats, believing that the evidence would in fact vindicate the industrialists’ high duty structure, and show workingmen that these duties were necessary to their own well-being. On August 7, 1882, the resolution was unanimously adopted.
Despite the initially partisan intentions, however, the hearings evolved into a genuine attempt to arrive at a fair, assessment of industrial labor relations. Much of the credit for the exemplary conduct of the hearings goes to the chairman, Henry W. Blair of New Hampshire (1834–1920). A conservative on most social issues, Blair was genuinely concerned for the welfare of industrial workers and sought to get an impartial hearing for every witness, whatever his views. Surprisingly, the southern Democrats also adopted this general attitude and chose not to utilize the plight of northern workers as a vehicle to justify the treatment of Negroes in the South. The most important southern member of the committee was James Z. George of Mississippi (1827–1896). Even though George was an ex-confederate colonel, and had played an integral role in the restoration of white supremacy in his home state, he, too, had a genuine interest in the welfare of workingmen.
Before the committee passed a parade of employers, union leaders, all kinds of workmen, and ordinary citizens, all of whom spoke their minds. Even though the hearings produced few immediate results, for the first time in history a broad sample of opinion on industrial problems was collected and recorded. Relatively few blacks were asked to appear before the committee, but the seven whose testimony is reproduced in Part I reflect a variety of non-agricultural occupations: sleeping-car porter, minister, lawyer, carpenter, barber, bricklayer, and teacher. Their perspectives varied according to their social class, but some common concerns emerge from their collective testimony.
One of the primary concerns was for improved educational opportunities. Most agreed that both blacks and whites preferred segregated schools because this freed them from the fear of racial conflict. Blacks considered industrial education of primary importance because whites would not work with blacks in the mills and factories; therefore, youths could not obtain training in the skilled trades. Nor must a sound education in the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic be ignored, for the masses of freedmen could only become good citizens when they were able to understand the world in which they lived. Moreover, blacks believed that the states could not, or would not, fund their education and, therefore, the freedmen looked to the federal government as a source of financial aid. In that they were to be disappointed. Nevertheless, those blacks who testified revealed how well assimilated they had become by their strong affirmations of self-reliance and the American “work ethic.” Blacks simply asked that the barriers of racial discrimination be lowered in the race for economic advancement.