THE SECOND AND THIRD CONVENTIONS OF THE COLORED NATIONAL LABOR UNION
In accordance with the Constitution of the CNLU, a second annual meeting commenced in Washington, D.C., on January 9, 1871. The delegates were requested to inform themselves regarding local employment conditions, educational facilities available to black youths, the extent of cooperative associations founded locally, and the means required to advance the economic condition of black workers (Doc. 1). The real historical significance of the second CNLU convention, however, must be perceived against the background of conflict over racial policy within its white counterpart, the National Labor Union.
The fourth annual convention of the NLU opened in Cincinnati on August 15, 1870. Almost immediately, a bitter dispute erupted between the white and black delegates over the seating of John W. Langston of Ohio, a brother of the more famous John Mercer Langston of Virginia. John Langston was denied a seat on grounds that he was not a workingman, but a politician who had done all he could to prevent the first CNLU from breaking with the Republican Party. The split widened as the convention proceeded. The white assembly adopted a resolution demanding equal pay for men and women, which blacks favored. But the black delegates were annoyed when the convention saw no need for a similar resolution regarding equal pay for black workers. The real conflict, however, arose over the political resolution which declared that the major political parties were dominated by nonproducers who drew their wealth from the exploitation of workingmen. The resolution urged “our colored fellow citizens” to abandon the Republican Party and unite with white workers in a Labor Reform Party. It assured blacks that their true interests would be served by this new political party since blacks were working people.
The black delegates had little confidence that white workers would reward their political support with justice on the economic front, and were more interested in eliminating the barriers against the right to work than in reforming the monetary system as proposed by the Labor Reform Party. This was the last convention of the NLU which blacks bothered to attend. That the split was irrevocable can be seen in the proceedings of the second CNLU convention (Doc. 2–7).
Because of this bitter dispute, and the continued difficulty of organizing black workers in the midst of the “fearful reign of terror” which prevailed throughout the South, delegates at the CNLU convention were in no mood to pacify the white labor movement. Isaac Myers delivered the keynote speech—his last, since Frederick Douglass would be elected the second president of the CNLU—and he took direct aim at the Labor Reform Party as a “grand farcical clap–trap” whose intention to reform the monetary system was “Preposterous.” The convention then reaffirmed adherence to the principles of the Republican Party. The committee reports were uniformly militant. For example, the Committee on Capital and Labor, chaired by George T. Downing, reported that freedom for the black worker in the South had turned out to be a cruel hoax. Former masters owned the land, and if blacks agitated for their rights, they were likely to be thrown off the estates. Their only realistic alternative was to move into industrial employment. But here they faced an almost insuperable obstacle in the form of white trade unions which generally refused admission to black workers. It was clear that the main obstacle to cooperation between black and white labor movements was basically economic, while the purely political issues were secondary. That the NLU either would not, or could not, understand the black position is vividly illustrated in Doc. 10.
The third convention of the CNLU was held in Columbia, South Carolina, on October 18, 1871. It was a joint meeting, however, with the Southern States Convention of Colored Men. It is impossible to distinguish between the delegates of the Southern States Convention and the CNLU, but most of the prominent black Reconstruction leaders were present, along with such prominent labor spokesmen as Isaac Myers (Doc. 9).