This is the third volume in The Black Worker: A Documentary History From Colonial Times to the Present, the first compilation of original mate–ials to encompass the entire history of Afro-American labor. Recently there has been a revived interest among historians in the relations between black workers and the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor. But this is the first presentation of historical documents, relating to black and white relations within this most significant of nineteenth-century labor organizations.1
The Black Worker During the Era of the Knights of Labor begins with the testimony of seven black workers before the Senate Committee on the Relations Between Labor and Capital (1883). While their assessments regarding the conditions of Negro life and labor in the South varied, they generally agreed that black workers languished at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Whether the labor movement was the answer to these woes, however, remained a question of paramount importance among black leaders, and during the 1880s a lively debate was conducted on the issue in the black press. The time for union organization was propitious, for black workers had innumerable economic grievances and throughout the era demonstrated an interest in labor solidarity unparalleled in the past. Large numbers of black workers joined the Knights of Labor, and startled the South by conducting strikes which were impressive in their execution. Faith in the Knights of Labor seemed justified when, at the 1886 convention in Richmond, the Order challenged Southern racial etiquette regarding the segregation of black delegates. This faith was misplaced, however, for the national leadership proved to be ambivalent on the race issue and failed to assist several crucial local black struggles, dooming them to failure. In any case, given the opposition to integration among southern white workers, there was little that the national leadership could do. Consequently, the Knights of Labor acquiesced to segregated local assemblies. Nor could the Order prevent the vicious suppression of black Knights in the South.
While the bulk of Volume III is devoted to the Knights of Labor, the materials on the Colored Alliance, the Cotton Pickers’ Strike of 1891, and the Savannah Longshoremen’s Strike of 1891, occur during the same era and were related, either directly or indirectly, to the Knights of Labor. They also constitute singular examples of militant activism among working-class blacks and, therefore, are included in this volume.
It is worthwhile to draw the reader’s attention to the numerous black newspapers which have been used as sources for this book, especially since their perspective on daily affairs is often conspicuously different from that presented in white newspapers. The following are black periodicals used in Volume III: New York Freeman, New York Age, Washington Bee, The Christian Recorder (Philadelphia), New Orleans Weekly Louisianian, People’s Advocate (Washington, D.C.), Cleveland Gazette, The Freeman (Indianapolis), The Weekly Pelican (New Orleans), Richmond Planet, The Appeal (St. Paul), and the Detroit Plaindealer.
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. Once again, Miss Lila Prieb demonstrated her expertise at the typewriter and patiently deciphered some very difficult copy. We also take pleasure in acknowledging the assistance of the manuscript departments at the Catholic University of America Library, Washington, D.C.; East Carolina University Library, Greenville, North Carolina; Howard University Library, Washington, D.C.; Tulane University Library, New Orleans, Louisiana; University of North Carolina Library, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Finally, we thank Roslyn Foner for designing the books in this series, and Susan Lewis for her countless hours of tedious proofreading.
Ronald L. Lewis
University of Delaware
Philip S. Foner
Lincoln University, Pennsylvania