GRAND MASTER WORKMAN TERENCE V. POWDERLY AND THE BLACK WORKER
TERENCE V. POWDERLY AND THE BLACK WORKER
The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor national leadership espoused racial views which were considerably more progressive than those held by most Americans, especially in the South. Both of the Order’s most influential spokesmen had been strongly influenced by the ante-bellum reform movements, including abolition. Uriah Stevens (1821–1882), who served as the first Grand Master Workman between 1869 and 1879, approved of segregated locals, although he believed that both black and white locals should be treated equally. Stevens’ successor, Terence V. Powderly, held even more advanced racial attitudes. For him the goal of organized labor—“Freedom of the man who worked”—applied to all workers black or white.
In his second official decision as Grand Master Workman, he declared that the color of a man’s skin had no relationship to his admission to the Order. In his memoirs, Powderly observed that in the field of work, blacks and whites were economic equals. Those poor whites who hated blacks, he concluded, did so because they were ensnared by the bondage of prejudice as well as poverty, and suggested that there was a direct relationship between the two conditions. He reminded southerners that however subconsciously, they had long ago recognized the absurdity of their own racial taboos by sexually levelling any meaningful distinction between the races. During the hullaballoo created by the Ferrell case at the 1886 convention, Powderly withstood considerable denunciation for supporting Ferrell’s direct challenge to racial customs of Richmond. Although Powderly did not permit Ferrell to introduce Governor Lee, as District 49 desired, Ferrell was allowed to introduce the Grand Master Workman, whom, in this charged atmosphere, Ferrell described as a man “above the superstitions which are involved in these distinctions” of race. Powderly further revealed his equalitarian bent when he revoke the credentials of white organizers in Alabama and Georgia who had exploited newly formed black locals by failing to turn over the dues collected from these locals. The official organ of the Knights of Labor, the Journal of United Labor, demanded their expulsion for injuring the Order’s cause among blacks.
Nevertheless, the Grand Master Workman’s racial views were not so idealistic as to prevent him from attempting to soothe the ruffled nerves of white southerners. Although he did not oppose integrated locals, and there were many, he accommodated himself to the strategy that segregated local assemblies were the only “practical” manner by which the South could be organized. To Powderly, the issue of “social equality” obscured the primarily economic goals of the labor movement. In his memoirs he wrote that he did not seek “to interfere with the social relations of the races in the South, for it is the industrial, not the race question we endeavor to solve.” Moreover, he was willing to curtail work among Negroes when it conflicted with organizing southern whites. Although Powderly appointed black organizers in the South, excellent opportunities to expand the Negro membership were neglected even after 1886 when interest in the Order was so high among Afro-Americans. In his correspondence are letters from black leaders requesting an audience, and correspondence from others desiring to organize local assemblies, many bearing Powderly’s stamp, “No Answer Required.”
Although a clear inconsistency existed between Powderly’s racial views and some of his actions, ambivalence was a relatively progressive position in the 1880s. As the leader of a national organization which depended upon the support of anti-Negro white workers for its national existence, Powderly was confronted with the complex problem of organizing blacks to prevent employers from using them as tools against organized labor. Resolution of the dilemma required the education of all workers to their class interests. Consequently, Powderly attempted to circumvent the potentially destructive racial issue by maintaining that the goal of the Order was economic redress, not the solution of racial discrimination. Aware of the problem which racism presented to organized labor, however, Powderly tried to steer a middle course. The result was bifurcation of equality, a modified segregation within the organization. The documents presented in Part VI reveal a union leader caught between long-run ideals and short-run realities.