There are several documentary histories of Black America, but The Black Worker: A Documentary History From Colonial Times to the Present represents the first compilation of original materials which encompasses the entire history of Afro-American labor. Since the vast majority of Afro-Americans are, and always have been, “workers,” this series fills a crucial gap in our understanding of a hitherto neglected, but highly significant, aspect of the black experience. Consequently, it is hoped that this collection will do for the black working class what John R. Commons, most particularly, did for the white working class in his famous Documentary History of American Industry.
Volume I, The Black Worker to 1869, launches a four-volume series on the nineteenth century. Since there are numerous documentary histories relating to the experience of slaves in agriculture, including two recent studies by Willie Rose Lee and John Blassingame, this volume deals only with “the other slaves,” the mechanics, artisans, and craftsmen. The major importance of this volume, however, is that it presents the first detailed picture of free black workers during the slave era, both in the North and the South. In the participants’ own words, it chronicles the daily conditions of life and work among black people during the Civil War, and concludes with a portrait of the entire black working class during the early years of Reconstruction and the formation of the Colored National Labor Union, the first federation of black labor unions.
Volume II, The Era of the National Labor Union (1870s), documents the economic and organizational activities of black workers, and race relations between black and white workers during this turbulent period of labor unrest.
Other volumes in the series on the nineteenth century include Volume III, The Era of the Knights of Labor (1880s), and Volume IV, The Era of the American Federation of Labor and the Railway Brotherhoods (1890s).
A second series of four volumes examining the twentieth century, presents documents relating to the black worker during the period from World War I to the present, and will follow publication of the volumes in the present series.
The documents are accompanied by introductions and notes which are intended to provide background information essential to understanding the documents themselves. In order to maintain authenticity, as well as the “flavor” of the period, we have retained the original spellings, except where they were obvious typographical errors, or where they obscured the meaning of the text. Even though there are obvious mechanical limitations inherent in this effort, nevertheless, we have attempted to preserve these documents in their original form.
We hope these volumes will stimulate an interest in black labor history among laymen and students, while at the same time provide scholars with a wealth of little-known primary source materials, and suggest new lines of inquiry for future research.
Ronald L. Lewis
University of Delaware
Philip S. Foner