STATE AND LOCAL BLACK LABOR MEETINGS
As the CNLU turned more and more to political action, it was inevitable that the organization would become inextricably linked to the Republican Party. The CNLU itself did not meet again after its joint convention with the Southern States Convention of Colored Men at Columbia, South Carolina, in October 1871.
Although the political events which hastened the demise of Radical Reconstruction in the South also helped to seal the CNLU’s downfall, politics alone does not explain the demise of the black organization. It is difficult to see how the Union’s failure could have been avoided. Most southern Negroes were isolated and extremely poor, and where that fact did not retard organization, intimidation by hostile employers did. In the North skilled blacks could not find employment because of racial prejudice among both employers and white workers. The only realistic solution lay in effective organization of a unified black and white labor movement, but virulent racial prejudice rendered that course impossible. Black workers had no reliable allies even among their white working–class counterparts who, at their best, completely ignored blacks. White unions usually left discretion to their locals, while some openly excluded Negroes by constitutional mandate. The only course open to the CNLU was to support the Republican Party, which it felt “morally bound” to do. Thus the fate of the black workers was necessarily tied to the fate of the Republicans’ southern policies, and when the party yielded its power to the white Redeemers, so did the CNLU.
Even though its life was short, the CNLU influenced the founding of numerous state labor organizations among blacks. Following the first convention in early 1870, Isaac Myers undertook an organizing trip for the union. In Richmond, Virginia, Myers helped launch a convention of workingmen to whom he underscored his belief that “the watchword of the colored men must be Organize” (Doc. 1). Myers spoke to similar audiences in other cities as well. His speeches, reported in the New National Era, the official organ of the CNLU, stimulated black workers to move forward aggressively in organizing local unions. In New York City, for example, black workers were making such headway that a call went out for a New York State Colored Labor Convention. The delegates made considerable progress at the convention, held in Saratoga on August 24, 1870, including the foundation of a State Bureau of Labor (Doc. 2–8).
The most significant spin–off organization established in the South, the Alabama Negro Labor Union, was founded by James Rapier. An officer in the CNLU, Rapier labored vigorously in Alabama to organize black workers in Alabama and represented the moving spirit in the state. After conferring with local black leaders, Rapier agreed to spearhead another state labor convention to consider “the working conditions of colored farmers in Alabama,” possible sites where blacks might emigrate, and educational opportunities available for blacks in Alabama (Doc. 9). After a thorough investigation of these topics, about fifty black delegates from across the state gathered in Montgomery on January 2, 1872, to discuss their findings (Doc. 10).
The proceedings of the convention were presented in 1880 before a U.S. Senate Committee then investigating the causes of the Kansas Exodus of 1879, which is considered in Part IX of this volume. Little of the ANLU’s history can be reconstructed, but apparently it was still active in November 1873, for the local white press took issue with some of its proceedings (Doc. 11–13).