THE CALL AND THE RESPONSE
Volume I of this series concluded with the determination of black labor leaders to call a convention in 1869 to organize their own labor union because they found the National Labor Union, a white organization, to be insensitive to the special needs of black workers. Even though the NLU was the first American union to admit black representatives to its conventions, the NLU nevertheless found silence the better part of valor on the sensitive issue of member unions barring black workers from membership. The NLU also supported independent political action through the Labor Reform Party, and demanded that blacks abandon the Republican Party to join with the Reformers. Blacks, however, were ardent supporters of the party which had sponsored Radical Reconstruction.
On July 20, 1869, the State Labor Convention of the Colored Men of Maryland resolved that a national black labor convention should meet in December 1, 1869, in Washington, D.C., to discuss issues central to the particular concerns of blacks (Doc. 1). Throughout the nation, local and state meetings convened to select delegates and to formulate a position on the various issues to be discussed at the upcoming convention. The largest and most important of these gatherings was held in Macon, Georgia, in October 1869.
The proceedings of the Macon convention were printed in the conservative Macon Telegraph (Doc. 2). In a series of editorials, however, the Telegraph objected to several of the ideas which blacks articulated at the meeting. The demand for higher wages would only force planters to let land be fallow (Doc. 3). The editors reminded planters that it was not in their interest to defraud blacks of their wages, for through “good management” alone could planters “preserve a dominant influence over the negro.” Indeed, it was their “business as white men” to do so (Doc. 4). The Telegraph also disagreed with the Convention’s outrage over violence against blacks which went unpunished, accepting the jaded assessment of local peace officers that these actions were strictly in “self defense” (Doc. 5). The Telegraph’s final judgment on the convention, however, was surprised that while it did “no great amount of harm” the meeting did nothing of importance either (Doc. 6–9).
The racially liberal National Anti–Slavery Standard applauded the Macon convention as “the beginning of a new industrial era” in the South “based on free labor” (Doc. 10). In a similar vein, the (Augusta) Georgia Republican a Radical newspaper, viewed the convention as a gathering of “the most intelligent colored laboring men in Georgia,” and expressed relief that “at last the colored laboring men in Georgia are united” (Doc. 11).
In the wake of the Macon convention, numerous local black workingmens’ associations were organized in the South, especially in Georiga. For example, black workers of Cass County organized themselves into a local union and sought assistance from white Radical sympathizers (Doc. 14–15). Although local meetings were held from Virginia to Texas, the second largest meeting held in the South was at Columbia, South Carolina, in November 1869. Organized by the state’s leading black figures, the meeting was attended by 300 black and white participants (Doc. 21–22).
In the North, local black communities formed workers’ organizations as well. Of special interest was the meeting in Newport, Rhode Island, which failed to define a policy toward black women. The women complained that they too suffered the degradation and demoralization of prejudice in their employment. As a result, the local executive committee nominated and approved a woman delegate to attend the convention along with the men (Doc. 17).
Most of the state and local conventions underscored their determination to keep politics out of the convention, and to confine their discussions to issues alone. They reaffirmed their conviction that the interests of labor and capital were identical, a view generally accepted by labor organizations of the day. The National Labor Union itself viewed the forthcoming convention of black workers from their usual ambivalent posture, but advised the delegates to let “common sense” rule and to “frown down” any attempt to transform the assembly into a Republican auxiliary (Doc. 30).