LOCAL BLACK MILITANCY, 1872–1877
The admonitions of the CNLU to organize fell on fertile ground, which was amply demonstrated by the widespread labor militancy of the 1870s. Characteristically, when black workers struck for higher wages and better conditions, their white employers viewed these demands as “a fearful tendency” to be “unreasonable” (Doc. 1).
An interesting diplomatic exchange occurred in 1873 which reveals the economic vice which trapped black stevedores and laborers at Southern ports. Because usually they were confined to unskilled jobs, blacks became desperate when replaced. Thus in 1873, when British subjects temporarily took jobs as stevedores in Mobile, Alabama, Pensacola, Florida, and Washington, D.C., angry black workers drove the foreigners from the docks. These disturbances caused the British consuls to file protests with the Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish (Doc. 2–6).
Labor disturbances involving Negroes, however, generally involved strikes for higher pay and better conditions. Most of these strikes were peaceful, but others were not. In April 1873 about 800 to 1,000 laborers on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in West Virginia stopped work to secure back pay. Some of the strikers sabotaged operations by causing a minor train collision and several landslides which blocked the tracks (Doc. 7). In Jacksonville, Florida, black workers at the saw mills struck for higher wages and demanded a shorter work day. In this case, no serious physical conflicts occurred (Doc. 8–10).
The Louisiana sugar fields experienced some of the most militant black labor disturbances. In January 1874, for example, violence erupted in Terrebonne parish over higher pay. When the governor received a dispatch claiming that the strikers had “broken out into open riot and were murdering white people, burning houses, plantation mills and committing the wildest outrages,” he ordered out the militia. When the strike spread to other sugar parishes, the state militia fanned out to quell the disturbances. The trauma such black militia produced among local whites was synthesized in the newspaper headline which proclaimed: “War in Terrebonne” (Doc. 17–26).
During the late summer of 1876, black rice harvesters struck in the South Carolina low country along the Combahee River, demanding a fifty percent increase in their wages. Although many hands appeared willing to work at the current rate, the strikers “visited” each plantation and “persuaded” them to join the strike. The sheriff and a “strong posse” rushed to the area to protect those who desired to work, and the strike was quashed (Doc. 28–30). The Galveston, Texas, strike of July 1877 also exhibited surprisingly little violence. Confined exclusively to blacks, tools were thrown to the ground and about fifty workers marched through the streets stopping work, their numbers swelling as they progressed. The major reason for the stoppage was the inability to rent, buy clothing, food, and medicine for their families (Doc. 32). No sooner had the movement evaporated among the men, however, when the black washerwomen in Galveston struck for better pay, and shut down the Chinese laundry shops which had been undercutting the women’s wages (Doc. 33).
Predictably enough, white southerners reacted to these expressions of black militancy with alarm. Many blamed it on Radical Republican rule (Doc. 14), while others thought they saw the beginning of a communist revolution “with its sea of blood and its ocean of fire” (Doc. 16).
The most curious position on blacks and labor unions was expounded in the New National Era. Published in Washington, D.C., by Frederick Douglass and his son Lewis H. Douglass, the newspaper served as the official organ of the CNLU. The paper’s editorials, which were written by Lewis, strongly endorsed the Republican Party. Spurred, no doubt by his own negative experiences with white unions, Douglass’ basic disposition toward unionism was hostile. In the end, the only solution seemed to be for blacks to become capitalists themselves, or convince the capitalists to obey the Golden Rule, neither of which were very constructive alternatives (Doc. 40–47).