EXCLUSION OF BLACKS FROM WHITE UNIONS DURING EARLY RECONSTRUCTION
The practice of barring blacks from membership in craft unions is an old one in America. The documents in Part IX reveal the early racial rationale for this pattern of discrimination, and vividly illustrate how it worked in practice against those people of color whose credentials were frequently flawless.
Writing in 1868, one white member of the New York coopers’ union expressed sentiments which demonstrate that the bastardization of social-darwinism had already taken root, and provided the rationale for exclusion of blacks from craft unions. Using the ever-ready shibboleth that “birds of the feather flock together,” this white worker believed that it was against “nature” for blacks and whites to live and work on close terms, and that the “inferior” races were destined to disappear. This unionist’s rationale reflected the conception, so popular then and now, that the craft union is a closed fraternity rather than an instrument for the elevation of the working classes generally. Since control was based on exclusion, it was easy to take the next step toward refusing admission to Negroes. In brief, racial unity was preferred to working-class consciousness (Doc. 1). This point of view was challenged by the editor of the Workingman’s Advocate, the organ of the National Labor Union, who favored class solidarity as an organizing principle (Doc. 2).
Few cases illustrate the results of racial exclusion from the crafts better than the rejection of Lewis H. Douglass from the Columbia Typographical Union in Washington, D. C. As the son of Frederick Douglass, Lewis had learned the craft of typesetting in his father’s own shop at an early age. Possessing considerable skill and experience, it had been easy for Douglass to obtain a position at the Government Printing Office. On the job, Douglass earned the respect of his peers, who were represented by the typographical union. When Douglass applied for membership in the union, however, he was denied admission on the contrived grounds that he had previously worked in a printing office out west without being a member of the shop union. Douglass and his allies protested that he had not been permitted to join because of his race, and asserted that this was the motivation behind his rejection this time as well. Douglass’s position reflected the dilemma of black craftsmen; even though he was barred from the union because of his color, the same union charged him with being anti-union (a “rat”).
The rejection led to a serious struggle between the racist and non-racist factions in the Columbia Typographical Union, and the controversy drew considerable comment in the labor press, especially the New National Era, which vigorously protested the action taken by the union (Doc. 3–10). The conflict was duly noted by other craft organizations, and many rushed to shore up their restrictive mechanisms (Doc. 11–12).
New York, Dec. 6, 1868
To the Editor of the WORKINGMAN’S ADVOCATE
In your issue of the 23rd of Nov., I notice that a resolution adopted by the United Coopers, No. 4, of New York, to the effect that a colored man working in Mr. Brigg’s shop, and complained of by his shopmates requesting the union to take action in the matter, and the action taken by the union, leaving it optional with the men most interested whether they would work with the colored man or not, has furnished the text for the false side of your editorial entitled “False and True,” and your text for True being furnished by a section in the constitution of a homestead association. Now, Mr. Editor, I shall ask you to be kind enough to give me space in your widely circulated and useful paper, to set the action of the nation, of which I am a member, right in the eyes of our fellow-workman throughout the country. Now sir, I shall meet your arguments in rotation. In the first place you say it is quite evident a strike or a discharge afforded the only remedy. Now sir, the union knew previous to taking action, that neither one or the other was necessary, for the foreman of the shop in which the colored man was working had signified his intention to discharge him if the men working in the shop wished it to be done; and it is my belief if the men working with the negro had signified their intention to work with him, a permit to work without a card would have been granted by the union. I agree with you as regards organizations, and believe they should be established on the broadest basis, so broad as to embrace all who know what it is to sell their labor, but I disagree with your mode of organizing. I believe organization should not be promiscuous, and instead of saying wise indeed are those who organizes on a basis without respect to race or sex, I should be inclined to say unwise indeed, and not from any prejudice or respect to caste. I disrespect caste, and hold and maintain that it is assumed; not inherited from nature; but I also hold that caste is not race, and while legislation should meet all races alike, ignore caste in the different races and place all alike on a sound democratic basis, yet such a result as this does not argue for a moment that the barriers of race should be torn down and all races be received into the social embrace, no more than the Arab steed and jackass in the same field, enjoying all the blessings of heaven alike, should fraternise and become social equals.
The next turn your editorial takes, I consider a groundless threat. We all know that the negro is a free man, never again to be bought and sold, and who does not feel thankful that the greatest stain on the fair issue of our country is removed by the act of emancipation, now seeing they are free as all of God’s creatures are by nature, and should be by practices. Such being the case, the question then arises, what are the duties of a free man in a free country? It is an easy matter to solve by each person seeking himself the question. Then what you claim for your self you should willingly grant to others, and that is in this country a voice in making the laws we live under, and in whose eye all should be on an equality, all receive alike the same protection. Now, sir, you will see by my sentiments that I consider that although that colored cooper is not as yet my political equal in this state he should be. But you say political equality to the negro will be political enmity to labor, because the white laborer refuses to place himself on a social platform with the negro laborer, and I must confess, honestly, that I have not the slightest ambition to work with a negro, to meet him in our trade unions, or do anything that would have a tendency to break down the demarcations of race that God has seen fit to ordain, and for those reasons, I know that no sensible negro will be my political opponent, and furthermore, no sensible negro will demand such concessions, for it takes them out of their element. I am sure that poor colored cooper, surrounded by thirty white men, just felt as I would feel surrounded by a like number of blacks, and I am sure I have not the least wish to realise the feeling. The old saying birds of a feather flock together, has always proved true in the past, and will. I feel persuaded, in the future, and I think that the lines of demarkation between races will be more closely drawn in the future than they were in the past. My reasons for thinking so are these: First, freedom leaves the negro at liberty to turn their faces in any direction they wish; secondly, a growth in intelligence consequent upon their changed relations in life, will enable them to see that they are contending against odds in competing with a superior and more enterprising race; and thirdly, self-preservation will cause them to draw from the unequal contest and colonize by themselves, and it is my serious impression that if such a course should not be pursued they will the sooner disappear before the coward march of the white race, which is destined, I believe, at no very remote date to supplant all the races of the globe. As regards their political action, in that I see nothing to fear. Some, like the minority of our own race will have minds of their own, and act with us and for us, while the mass like the many of our own race, will be the puppets of political gamblers. I have now come to the pleasing contrast, and I must say that I cannot see the parrellel between the societies.
The society you have branded as false, is a protective society composed of men of the same race who assemble at these meetings on a social, not a political equality, and only separate to co-mingle more closely.
The true society is a speculating enterprises, where one person’s money is as good as another’s, and when they separate they may not meet again until the next meeting.
I remain, yours truly,
John Hewitt, Member of United Coopers’
No. 4, New York
Workingman’s Advocate, December 12, 1868.
In the ADVOCATE of Dec. 12th, there appeared a communication from a member of the United Coopers’ Union, No. 4, of New York, in which exception was taken to an article which appeared in our issue of Nov. 28th, under the caption of “THE FALSE AND THE TRUE,” wherein we commented on the reported action of said union, in regard to the complaint of one of its members in refusing to work with a colored cooper; and stated that such action was calculated to produce a conflict between the two races which would necessarily prove injurious to the interests of both.
We have carefully read the protest of our correspondent, and as before stated, fail to see, wherein he meets a single point raised by our objection. In reply to our statement that it was self-evident that a strike or discharge afforded the only remedy, he says?
Now sir, the union knew previous to taking action, that neither one or the other was necessary, for the foreman of the shop in which the colored man was working had signified his intention to discharge him if the men working in the shop wished it to be done; and it is my belief if the men working with the negro had signified their intention to work with him, a permit to work without a card would have been granted by the union.
Exactly so; which goes to prove that his color was the only objectionable feature raised. In the article referred to we said nothing whatever of social equality, never for a moment hinted at it, but viewed the question as one of principle. We said:
The dignity of labor must be practically recognized. Unpalatable as the duty may be the issue must be met, and wise indeed is that organizations, which instead of fighting the dead issues of the past, accepts the situation in good faith, and uses its influence to enlighten and enroll the colored element in the ORGANIZED ARMY OF LABOR. Certainly no one is so deeply interested in securing such a result as the man who earns his living by honest toil.
In other words, that as trades unions had proved necessary to the white mechanic, in resisting the unjust demands of capital, it was equally essential that the colored race, in their new relationship, should be taught their advantages, else their influence would be exerted in the wrong direction. We did not dictate or even suggest how these organizations should be formed. We did know, however, that in every northern city colored organizations and churches exist, though we have yet to learn of the first objection to such societies, on the ground that their recognition would necessarily involve a recognition of social equality.
Again, our crime, to illustrate more clearly his position, makes use of the following language:
While legislation should meet all races alike, ignore caste in the different races and place all alike on a sound democratic basis, yet such a result as this does not argue for a moment that the barriers of race should be torn down and all races are received into the social embrace, no more than the Arab, steed and jackass in the same field, enjoying all the blessings of heaven alike, should fraternize and become social equals.
So we say, but we can’t allow our friend to dodge the issue in this manner. While we should utter no protest against the Arab steed refusing to fraternize with his jackass-ship, we should most decidedly object to his refusing to allow him to eat grass enough to subsist on, which is substantially the position assumed. But let us examine a little farther into this bugbear of social equality. Let us suppose, for example, that Mr. Briggs should, in an emergency, take off his coat for a day or two, and go to work among his operatives, would be even for the time being, as his social equals, or vice versa. Not at all, unless both employer and employes are exception to the rule. Why then all this buncombe, about the social equality of the negro when he insists upon the privilege of earning his living by the sweat of his brow?
In view of what we have said, the congratulations of our correspondent on the emancipation of the negro face, his willing concession of political privileges seems rather inconsistent. In fact we fail, to see the freedom. Political equality means that the negro race shall have an equal vote with the Caucausian in shaping the destiny and future legislature of the country. Yet strange to say the privileges of competing with them in the race of life. [ illegible ] The claim that the character of the negro will ultimately compel him to abandon the field to the white mechanic is altogether gratuitons. So long as he was a chattel no correct opinion could be formed of his capacity; now that he is a freeman independent on his own exertions—his relation is entirely changed, while the future alone can determine what that capacity is.
But it is needless to pursue this question further. We cannot conclude, however, without remarking that the conclusions of our correspondent seem to be as defective as his premises. Referring to his belief that the line of demarcation between the white and black race will be more closely drawn in the future than in the past, he says:
My reasons for thinking so are these: First, Freedom leaves the negro at liberty to turn their faces in any direction they wish; secondly, a growth of intelligence consequent upon their changed relations of life, will enable them to see that they are contending against odds in competing with a superior and more enterprising race; and thirdly, self-preservation will cause them to draw from the unequal contest and colonize by themselves, and it is my a serious impression that if such a course should not be pursued they will the sooner disappear before the onward march of the white race, which is destined, I believe, at no very remote date, to supplant all the races of the globe.
With regard to the first proposition, we answer, the freedom referred to reminds us of the freedom of the British pauper—freedom to starve. The second is a sword which cuts both ways: If the inferiority of the black race is self-apparent, why not leave their destiny to the inexorable logic of events? The third is an opinion directly at variance with the experience of the past, and the testimony of the ablest thinkers of the age, many of whom agree that color is the result of a climatic agency.
But we have done. That our readers may more readily understand, however our true position; and wherein we differ from our New York friend, we reprint the following from our November article, every word of which we now re-affirm:
The line of demarcation is between the robbed and the robbed, no matter whether the wronged be the friendless widow, the skilled white mechanic or the ignorant black. Capital is no respecter of persons, and it is the very nature of things a sheer impossibility to degrade one class of laborers without degrading all. To make labor dignified, therefore, we must dignify the laborer, no matter what his calling or social position.
Workingman’s Advocate, January 2, 1869.
MEETING OF THE WASHINGTON UNION—THE APPLICATION OF DOUGLASS REPORTED FAVORABLY—THEY ADJOURN WITHOUT ACTION.
Washington, June 20th.—Typographical Union No. 101, of this city, met last night. The anticipation that the case of Lewis H. Douglass, for admission or rejection into the Union, would come up, had the effect of bringing together one of the largest representations of the compositors of this city ever congregated at one meeting. Two of the Committee on Nominations reported in favor of ten applicants, including Lewis H. Douglass. As to the last named, they said he had served a sufficient length of time at the business; that he gives satisfaction as a compositor; that he has a good character; is not a “rat,” and that there is no reason except his race and color that should deprive him of becoming a member of the Typographical Union. Being, therefore, a fair man they recommended that he be admitted to membership in Columbia Typographical Union. A minority report was submitted, signed by the remaining member of the Committee. After stating the facts in the case, he says the plain requirements of the law of this Union and of the National Union are not to admit to membership a printer without card, who comes from a place where a Union exists, unless he brings from such Union a certificate satisfactorily explaining why he has none, and that the character Douglass established for himself in Denver still attaches, and does not lift him above the operation of the general law, outside of which Union No. 101 cannot safely travel. A motion was made to lay the latter or minority report on the table. The vote was taken amid frequent interruptions and great confusion, and resulted in Yeas 229, Nays 164. The announcement of the vote was received with applause mingled with hisses. On motion, the majority report was adopted amid enthusiastic cheering and confusion. The Union proceeded to vote seriatim upon the candidates proposed for admission, with the exception of Lewis H. Douglass. Three names having been balloted for and the candidates elected, the President was about to read the fourth, when a motion to adjourn was made, and this prevailed amid great disorder and excitement.
National Anti-Slavery Standard, July 3, 1869.
Address of the Majority of Columbia Typographical Union.
WASHINGTON, D. C., July 3d, 1869.
To the President of the International Typographical Union:
Sir—A minority of the members of Columbia Typographical Union, No. 101, at a meeting held on Saturday, June 26th, adopted an address to be forwarded to you as President of the International Typographical Union, in which they set forth certain alleged grievances, and ask “that you will give a speedy relief from the difficulties which environ and the evils which threaten, even though the revocation of the charter of No. 101 and the granting of a new character be necessary to do so.
The proceedings of the meeting of the minority of said Union, together with this address, having received considerable publicity, we, the majority deem it our duty to calmly and respectfully acquaint you with the facts, to the end that you may act understandingly and with a view to the best interests of the craft.
For some time past an enmity has been manifested towards the members of our Union employed at the Government Printing Office, by those employed elsewhere, which on more than one occasion has threatened the disruption of the Union. This animosity arises in part, no doubt, from political differences. Many of those embraced in the minority have either taken an active part against the nation during the late rebellion, or strongly sympathized with those engaged in endeavoring to destroy our country and its free institutions; while the members comprising the majority, nearly if not quite all, heartily sustained the government in its struggle for existence, many of whom imperilled their lives and some sacrified their limbs in its defense. Another cause of difference, consequent in a great measure upon the above, that very many of the employes of the Government Printing Office have been drawn from various cities and towns of the Northern and Western States, taking the places of those who were reared in Washington and vicinity. Still another cause of discontent may be found in the fact that certain ambitious demagogues, of the rule-or-ruin order, having lost most of their former prestige in the Union, in consequence of the above-mentioned changes, are struggling to regain their leadership by desperate measures; hence they now ask for the revocation of the charter of a Union that they can no longer control, and the granting to them of a new charter that they may build up a Union which they can control.
The present cause of disaffection, or rather the excuse now offered for disturbance, arising from the application of a colored man for membership, is presented in the following brief
History of the Douglass Imbroglio.
A few days before the regular May meeting of the Union, Mr. Lewis H. Douglass obtained employment at the Government Printing Office. He at the same time made application for membership and obtained from the proper officer of the Union a permit to work until his. case could be acted upon. The news spread rapidly; it created great excitement, and caused a great rally at the May meeting of those opposed to this recognition of the right of colored men to earn as honest livelihood on equal terms with whites. Deeming it impolite to oppose the admission of Mr. Douglass on the ground of color, the minority resorted to the subterfuge of denouncing him as a rat. As soon as his name (with others) had been referred to the Committee on Nominations, (which committee is charged by the constitution with the duty of examining into all applications for membership,) and, before the committee had time to report, this minority became clamorous for immediate action. Resolutions were introduced which asserted that Mr. Douglass had been rejected by the Denver Union as an improper person, censured the Financial Secretary for granting him a permit to work and ordered a revocation of said permit.
The authors of this resolution, knowing its utter falsity, and fearful of its contradiction, demanded and loudly insisted upon the previous question. A scene of the wildest confusion followed. A point of order was now raised, that after an application for membership had been referred to the committee on nominations for investigation and report, and before the committee had time to report, resolutions prejudging the case could not be entertained. The chair sustained the point of order. The confusion now became so great that it was found impossible to transact any other business, and the Union, by a vote of 158 to 150, adjourned.
Before the time for our next regular meeting arrived, the National Typographical Union assembled at Albany. One of the delegates from this Union, elected before this question came up or was foreseen, acting in the interest of the minority, without any instructions from the Union—without the knowledge, advice, or consent of its membership—introduced a resolution, which was adopted by that body, censuring the Congressional Printer for employing L. H. Douglass, “an avowed rat,” calling upon Columbia Union to reject his application, and pledging the support of the National Union in such action.
This action of the National Union was unjust, absurd, and unparalleled, as will be seen by the following considerations:
1. The National Union had no jurisdiction of the matter, and consequently its action was extra-judicial and not binding. Each subordinate Union is of necessity the judge of the qualifications of applicants for membership subject to the requirements of the Constitution and the National Union. In this instance no appeal had been taken, no constitutional requirement violated, and the case not properly brought before the National Union.
2. The National Union, by its action, attempted to prejudge and decide a case while yet in the hands of the Committee on Nominations of this Union, before said committee had an opportunity to report, and before any action in the case by the Union had been possible.
3. This action of the Union was based upon the simple assertion of one of Mr. Douglass’ most violent enemies, without a particle of evidence being produced on either side, and without giving the accused, or his friends, any notice or opportunity of hearing or defense.
4. The decision was contrary to truth and evidence, as is clearly shown by the reports of the committee, and documents in our possession.
5. The action of the National Union was contrary to law, custom, and usage is in this or any other similar organization.
We deny most emphatically that Mr. Douglass is an avowed rat, or that the term rat is in any manner applicable to his case. The National Union defines a rat to be one who works for less than Union prices, and nothing else constitutes ratting. Not a particle of evidence has yet been adduced to show that he ever worked an hour for less than Union prices, or that he ever knowingly worked in an unfair office, or that the charge of ratting was ever preferred against him until after his application was made to this Union. On the contrary, the proprietor of the office in which Mr. Douglass worked in Denver, and in which it is charged he ratted, certifies that he paid him Union prices, is willing to make oath to that effect, and offers his books for inspction as verification. The Secretary of the Denver Union, under official seal, certifies that Mr. Douglass is not a rat.
Knowing that great injustice had been inflicted upon Mr. Douglass and his friends by the minority of Columbia Union, and by the National Union, we determined to use all Constitutional means in our power to defeat their schemes and elect Mr. Douglass. At the regular June meeting of Columbia Union there was an unusually large attendance of the members, the opponents of Mr. Douglass coming in full force with black balls in their pockets. The majority of the Committee on Nominations reported favorably on the application of Mr. Douglass. A minority (one member) of the committee reported adversely, without, however, adducing any satisfactory reason for his rejection. A motion was made to lay the minority report on the table, which was carried—ayes 229, nays 164. The majority report was then adopted viva voce. Before a ballot in his case was taken, the Union upon motion adjourned, as it had a constitutional right to do.
The motion to lay the minority report on the table was a test vote. The result—229 against 164—showed that the friends of Mr. Douglass had a large majority, but not a two-thirds majority, which is necessary to elect. If a ballot had been taken at that meeting it would have resulted in the rejection of Mr. Douglass. The consequence would have been, a compulsion of the members of the Union employed at the Government Printing Office, numbering over 270, to strike. Such a strike could have ended only in defeat, as it would have been a strike not directed against the government as an employer, but a strike in opposition to the principles of the government itself, in conflict with the moral sentiment of the nation, and at war with the spirit of the age. The majority, the friends of Douglass, who voted for adjournment, not only voted thus because they had the constitutional right to do so, but because they were determined to preserve the Union in accordance with their solemn obligations as members; while the minority, the opponents of Mr. Douglass, the men who now ask you to revoke our charter, voted against adjournment, because they would rather see the Union destroyed than be without the control thereof.
After adjournment, the minority, in a high state of excitement, held an informal meeting, at which divers threats were made by the leaders—among others, that they would reject every candidate proposed hereafter by the majority, for the purpose of keeping down our numbers—forgetting their obligations to the principles of the Union; that they would form a Union of themselves, and have our charter revoked, and that they would never whitewash any one of the majority. Various charges were made, without any foundation in fact, against the Congressional Printer, among others, that he always had been and is now a rat in principle, and had combined with other employing printers to break down the Union. Violent language, calculated to provoke disturbance, was freely indulged in. Finding, however, that little attention was given to their blustering, they subsequently called the meeting of the 26th and resolved upon the address to you heretofore named. The men who made these threats and these charges are the men who are now controlling the movement which is to result, as they hope, in the revocation of our charter.
We think it is proper, in this connection, to call your attention to the attitude in which the minority have placed themselves by their action of the 26th. When they became members of the Union they pledged themselves to support the consitution, by-laws, etc., as required by article III, section 4, thereof. By their action of the 26th they have violated this pledge. Article XIII. of the Constitution provides:
“This Union shall not be dissolved as long as fifteen members desire to preserve its organization.”
These members, (the minority), as long as fifteen members are opposed to it—and the majority are opposed to it—have no right to ask for the revocation of our charter. The majority, which is over two hundred, are determined to preserve the Union. The minority have pledged themselves as long as fifteen members desire to preserve this Union, to uphold it. In violation of their pledge they now ask you to destroy it.
A review of the facts in the case of Mr. Douglass cannot fail to convince any unprejudiced mind that the entire ground of objection to him is on account of his color. The less hypocritical of his opponents admit this, and even the most violent and unfair leaders of the minority formally offered to compromise the difficulty by granting Mr. Douglass a permit from the Union to work as long as he desired, provided we would withdraw his name from the Union, thus virtually confessing that he was a fair printer, and they were willing that he should work, but were determined to prevent the admission of colored men into the Union. This proposition, it is needless to say, was promptly rejected by the advocate of Mr. Douglass on the ground that it was in violation of the letter and spirit of the constitution of the Union to license rats, (the minority claim that Mr. Douglass is a rat), or to work with them, that if Mr. Douglass was a fair printer he should be admitted into the Union, and, not, he should not be allowed to work in a fair office; that the printers of the Government Printing Office could not consent to work with a fellow-craftsman who was deemed unworthy to become a member of the Union.
We do not believe that color should be made a bar to the admission of Mr. Douglass, because—
1. It is not made so by the constitution of our Union.
2. Because distinction on account of color is antagonistic to the spirit of the age and the laws of the land.
3. Such distinctions are detrimental to the best interests of labor associations, by forcing those of a different color into competition with us, which must eventually, if persisted in, insure the reduction of the prices of labor and the ruin of labor associations.
4. Because it is unjust, and a relic of that barbarism which was engendered by the system of slavery now happily abolished in our country.
Our convictions on this subject are lasting and sincere. There is a principle underlying the question of the admission of Mr. Douglass, which we are unwilling to sacrifice—a principle for which many of us have fought and more have voted and labored—a principle involving the rights of human nature. The simple admission or rejection of one or a dozen applicants for membership is a matter of small consequence compared with the sacrifice of principle that a minority ask us to make.
Many of us have been, for years, identified with the labor movement. We have among us men who have presided over Typographical Unions in other cities, and participated in the deliberations of the National Union when it was in its infancy, and have never faltered in their devotion to the principles of the organization. We have not forgotten the long hesitation and final reluctance of the old Columbia Typographical Society to unite with the National Union or the terms upon which they united. This union would not then have been accomplished, but for the accession to that old Society of members from distant Unions. Considering all these circumstances, it is far from agreeable to see the National Union arrayed against its life-long friends, to gratify the unwarranted prejudices of these new converts, who now seek to break up the Union and bring untold evils upon the craft, simply because the minority are not permitted to rule.
We do not propose to abandon the Union, or the principles upon which it is founded, under any circumstances. We have as yet violated no constitutional requirement, nor do we intend to violate any, but shall use every honorable and constitutional means to secure the recognition of equal rights for all fair printers without distinction on account of color. We ask no special favors of the National Union in this struggle for equal rights; but we demand and insist that there shall be no interference with us by the National Union in the exercise of our constitutional rights and privileges. Columbia Union is able to settle the present difficulty in its own time and way in such a manner that it will remain settled for all time to come. If, however, the officers of the National Union should so far outrage law, courtesy, and common usage, as to act upon the suggestion of the minority of our membership, and declare our charter forfeited and grant a new charter to said minority, we shall be driven to the necessity of appealing to our fellow-craftsmen throughout the country to withdraw from the National Union and to organize a new National Typographical Society, which shall be founded on the principles of justice to all men, regardless of race or color.
We should very deeply regret to be compelled to resort to such a revolutionary measure as this would be, but self-preservation, the highest of all laws, would leave us no other choice. In such a contest we would be sustained by the whole power of the government wherever its influence could be brought to bear in our behalf, by the great majority of the press of the country, by the pulpit unanimously, and by the public sentiment as overwhelming as that which emancipated the slave and gave him a common legal and political status. There can be no doubt upon whose standard victory would eventually rest.
We appeal to you, therefore, with no common earnestness not to hurl into the midst of our organization so consuming a firebrand as the one to which you are asked to give your official sanction, which would be without warrant in the letter or spirit of the instrument from which you derive your power.
We hope you will not follow the counsels of a prejudiced, selfish, desperate minority, and thus commit the National Union, so far as you can, to a course which must produce ill will, discord, and eventual disruption. May you be endowed with that wisdom and prudence which is so much needed in this crisis.
To grant the request of the minority would only more inflame the passions and prejudices already charged with too much mischief, and it would surely read the national organization into two antagonistic bodies, each claiming similar powers and jurisdiction. You may rest assured that there are not less than three hundred printers within the jurisdiction of this Union who never will yield their rights and privileges as members at the dictation of a factious minority.
Mr. President, a grave responsibility rests upon you. We hope you will not convulse, read, and finally destroy that union of our noble craft, which has been so happily and successfully established after years of toil, by causelessly and unlawfully interfering with what should have been a purely local question. Union and equal rights is our motto; may it be yours likewise.
National Anti–Slavery Standard, July 17, 1869.
Content removed at rightsholder’s request.
New York Times, August 8, 1969.
That there are deep-seated prejudices against the colored race no one will deny; and these prejudices are so strong in many local unions that any attempt to disregard or override them will almost inevitably lead to anarchy and disintegration . . . and surely no one who has the welfare of the craft at heart will seriously contend that the union to thousands of white printers should be destroyed for the purpose of granting a barren honor of membership to a few Negroes.
Printers’ Circular reprinted in Proceedings of the International Typographical Union of 1870 (Philadelphia, 1870), p. 140.
The Columbia Typographical Union of this city met on Saturday night last. The application of LEWIS H. DOUGLASS, WILLIAM A. LAVELETTE, FREDERICK DOUGLASS, Jr., and KEITH SMITH, colored compositors, for admission, having been evaded and postponed from several other meetings of this Union, was down on the calendar for action at this January meeting of the Union. In accordance with their most inwardly prejudice the Union adjourned without any action on these applications. This Union is composed largely of members who are working under a Republican administration, and who themselves profess to accept the policy of the administration of not proscribing men for reason of color, race, or previous condition.
New National Era, January 26, 1871.
It seems to be, in the eyes of the Columbia Typographical Society of this city, a great misfortune, if not a crime, for a colored man to learn the art of printing, and then endeavor to earn his daily bread by plying that bocation. That combination of white printers, many, if not most, of whom are employed in the Government Printing Office, assume to say that a printer shall not be employed in this city who is not a member of some Typographical Union which is in fellowship with the Columbians. Under this rule Mr. Lewis H. Douglass, nearly two years ago, applied for work and was put to case in the Government Printing Office, by the present Congressional Printer. To avoid difficulty he also applied for membership in the Columbia Union. His case has been under consideration ever since, without coming to any termination. He is neither admitted to membership nor rejected, but is kept in the Union as a sort of foot-ball for the prejudices of men who have been educated to think that the colored man has no rights that the white man is bound to respect.
We briefly alluded to this case last week, and we now refer to it again, for the reasons that it interests every friend of freedom and human rights in the country. Since the application of Mr. Douglass for membership, three other colored printers—Messrs. William A. Lavalette, Keith Smith, and Frederick Douglass, Jr.—have filed applications for membership in the Union, and have been treated with the same unjust and unjustifiable line of conduct that has followed the case of their predecessor. This treatment is not only very unjust, but it is offensive and unmanly. Inasmuch as these applications have been entertained by the Union, the least that can be done, in justice to the applicants, is to put the question to a test-vote which shall decide it one way or the other. If these colored printers are not to be admitted to membership, then why keep them under years of suspense? If the Union must follow out its laws and resist the employment of colored men in the Government service, why not bring that issue to the front at once? We see no better time than now, while Congress is in session, for the trial of that issue. We have no authority for representing what the course of the Congressional Printer will be under such an issue, but we have confidence that he will stand firmly by the right of the colored man to earn his livelihood by a trade that he has learned at the expense of years of patient and unrewarded toil. We have no fear of his receding from the position he took on this question at the outset, and has held steadily ever since. We believe that if he should be menaced by a “strike,” for the reason that he employes colored men who are kept out of the Union by narrow and bitter prejudice, he will say to those who thus confront his authority, “Strike! and let the worst be known.”
We do not see how these colored printers can retain their self-respect and continue their applications for membership with an organization that studiously and continuously treats their cases with palpable neglect, if not with contempt and scorn. We see no way now but for these men to withdraw their applications for membership, and leave the Union, which presumes to dictate to the Congressional Printer who he shall and who he shall not employ in the Government Printing Office, to settle between themselves the question of jurisdiction and authority over the management of that establishment. In this way the end may be reached.
New National Era, February 2, 1871.
To the Columbia Typographical Union, No. 101:
Inasmuch as the Columbia Typographical Union, No. 101, has assumed to say that no printer, however qualified, shall work within their jurisdiction who is not a member either of their or some other Union subordinate to a concern known as the National Typographical Union, and made other regulations concerning prices, qualifications to membership, etc., which to it seemed good in the premises, the undersigned, having obtained the promise of employments in the Government Printing Office, by the Hon. A. M. Clapp, Congressional Printer, and desiring to comply with the usages, however ancient or recent at the time of his coming, made formal applications for membership to said Union.
The majority of the committee, to whom was referred said application for membership, saw no just cause why I should not be admitted to fellowship in said Union as a competent workman, and recommended an imitation.
However deficient in mental caliber some men are for great occasions, they occasioned its possess unbounded perspicacious talents for techniculties. After the report of the Committee on Nominations had been delivered to your conclave, in American embryo, far-seeing, future statesman (how ungrateful are republics! fifteen months have elapsed and the people of this great nation have not only not rewarded, but have not even recognized, his genius!) saw a technical informality, which caused the application to lie over for two months. During the interin of which, I was frequently told that printers had no mean prejudices; that if it had not been for them the history of six or more thousand years would be comparatively unknown; that the onward progress of science would be checkmated; that they are the indispensible gentleman who devote their lives to the salvation and preservation of all arts, and are content to die martyra to their singular avocation for the benefit of the world. How credulous I was!
The second time having arrived for the consideration of my application, brought with it that of Mr. Lewis H. Douglass, and together they were postponed for one year. The applications of Messrs. Smith and Frederick Douglass, Jr., underwent the same fate.
As a gentleman possessing docile and lawabiding proclivities, I waited for the year to be fully complete and ended. On the day of the evening to which my “case” had been postponed I addressed a note to the Union, through its president, (Mr. Webb,) the gist of which was essentially as that given in the Daily Patriot of the 4th instant.
To effectuate the purposes for which your organization is formed, you require, in a measure, not only unity of interests, but a degree of moral responsibility, integrity of character, indefatigable devotion and vim in each individual member—all of which are essential in a crises, or else I utterly misunderstand the relation you hold to each other and the object of your formation. Entertaining these exalted notions of the character of your august assembly, with a firm purpose of embodying them in, and making them a part of, my individuality and the basis of a future conduct, I believed then, and do now, that I would not only lose my self-respect, compromise the conduct of my former life, be unworthy the respect and confidence of your organization in quiet employment or emergent times, but would lose the formal recognition of my employer and those who are temporarily placed over me, if I allowed the Union to again meet and daily with my case, when I could give a broad but respectful suggestion of the probable consequences of such action in a letter addressed to the Union, as before mentioned.
I placed that letter in the hands of Mr. Coffin, to be read before the adjournment of the state meeting in January, that the members of the Union might take due notice thereof and govern themselves accordingly. I learned the next day, by the morning papers and otherwise, that the letter was not read, and the Union adjourned without reaching my case; that the new president arbitrarily adjourned the meeting, contrary to the expressed wishes of a majority then present and voting. I intimated that I was dissatisfied with such treatment, and that no man with common sense and self-respect would stand it.
A few days later I proposed to Mr. Coffin, after a brief resume of the field, that for me to retain my self-respect, and the Union to retrieve itself from the stigma of indifference to the just rights of a competent fellow-workman, a special meeting might be holden to adjust matters. Mr. Coffin fell in with my proposition, and through his personal friendship for me and zeal for the absolute rights of all, the required number was obtained requesting a special meeting.
It was hinted to me on the day of the meeting that a point of order would be raised and sustained by the president, the meeting would be adjourned, and I would thereby receive a complete snub. I thought, and I said at the time, that surely gentlemen would have a better care to their own interests than to precipitate me into acting that part I should have long ago.
I took it for granted that printers possessed all the intelligence the world gave them credit for. The note above referred to, as addressed to the Union, was couched in courteous, firm, and comprehensive English. The charge that I only intimated a withdrawl is giving me credit for diplomatic talents which those I am intimately acquainted with believe to be contrary wise. Those who had any conversation with me will testify that I was unequivocal in my expressions, and firm in my determination, to have a vote at all hazards on the evening of the 3d instant.
When I make application for work I do it upon the consciousness of my competency at a workman. When I made application for membership in your Union, I did it with a disposition to comply with your regulations. Do not console yourselves into the belief that you have a shrine to which I supplicate to worship rules as I found them is all you can charge upon me. I never asked admission as a colored printer. If you proposed to make war upon those who favor my admission and me on the ground that I was born outside of your orthodox complexion, however gallantly my friends and self might have fought you, we could never succeed in removing that distinguished and indellible landmark that makes us so conspicuous in all the avenues of life.
The pretended friends, who have a constitutional weakness, superinduced by climatic, geographical, esthatical, or other cause to me unknown, (and for which I know this region to be quite prolific; who could or would not be for forced into voting outside a stated meeting, (“no coercionists,” I mean,) do not even merit a negro’s contempt.
To my sincere friends, for the insults, vexation, and obloquy they have undergone for the sake of having justice done a fellow-workmen, whose friendship to me requires a justification of my action in peremptorily withdrawing my application, and for whom this letter was mainly written this is my defense.
At the time Mr. Douglass wrote a letter in answer to some inquires concerning his petition for membership, I did not then, and do not now, approve of the course he pursued. I told him that I considered his compliance with the curious as detracting from his personal dignity. An unsuccessful attempt was made to inveigh me into writing a letter to the Union upon which to build a fool’s claim to sympathy or influence the action of the Union.
In filling up a blank petition I did all I could in the premises. By your constitution no historical or biographical sketch, esthetical or ethnological tests are required; hence I believed it would be presumption on my part to inflict anything of that nature on your assembly. I made application in the manner required of all who propose to affiliate with or work in your jurisdiction, contenting myself to be bound by and conform to your regulations.
The technical informality, the propriety at his time, the absolute ignoring, and the direct snub, each occurring in the order in which they are named, as a subterfuge to dodge the issue, is more than I can, is more than I would, bear from you if the strength of your organization were multiplied by one hundred. I have already gone to the verge of that point, whereas one step further and honor goes beyond recall. May I forever fail to pronounce or write another word of the English language if I cross that point at this or any other time.
The cause of a strike cannot (should it occur) be charged to me. If the printers of Washington, or any other place, have no more manliness, no more humanity, no more fellowship toward each other than to persist in a bullheaded course of conduct, the result of which is to throw a majority of their comrades upon the benevolence of the public and their poor pittances, and perhaps reduce the price of their own labor one-third or one-half, I think you need go and quaff anew at the fountain of unadulterated common sense. The course of such conduct does not even merit the dignity of the name prejudice.
The thrust at my sensitive feelings was conscious and premeditated.
“Fate never wounded more deep the generous heart, Than when a blockhead’s insult points the dart.”
feelings of a senstive man stung to the quick can experience, to a warfare upon your organization, until you shall have so far recovered common sense, as to cry, “Hold! we’ll act the part of men.”
I am alone responsible for my action. It is not for me to say that the other colored printers appreciate the circumstances as I do.
If there is one among you so vile who would not do, under the circumstances, as I have done, you fellowship a thing which is not worthy of the name man, but ought to be denounced by his own family and execrated by his comrades.
Very respectfully, yours,
W. A. Lavalette.
New National Era, February 9, 1871.
In another column we publish a letter written by William A. Lavalette, a colored compositor, employed at the Government Printing Office, giving his reasons for withdrawing his application for membership to the Columbia Typographical Union, No. 101. We think that he is correct in withdrawing under the circumstances. In his characterization of Mr. Lewis H. Douglass’s letter in answer to questions propounded to him by one who was urging his admission on the Union, he is in error. Mr. Douglass certainly did not depart with any dignity by answering questions such as are propounded to every applicant for membership to the Union. Nor did Mr. Lewis H. Douglass write the letter with any knowledge that it would be published, but simply to enable his friends to present his case to the Union correctly. At the time Mr. Douglass made application for membership his opponents thought to defeat his admission on technical grounds and to leave the question of color out. Mr. Douglass’s friends proceeded to meet them on those grounds, and the letter of Mr. Douglass to D. W. Flynn (to which Mr. Lavalette has reference) was used for the purpose of showing that the changes brought against Douglass were erroneous.
New National Era, February 9, 1871.
Expulsion of the Navy-yard Members from the Union—a Letter from one of the Expelled.
Washington, June 19th.—On Thursday evening the Bricklayers Union held a regular meeting, at which the subject of the employment of two colored men in the Navy-Yard here was taken up. The committee to whom the matter had been referred reported that two colored men were employed in the yard, upon the same footing as the whites, and gave the names of six members of the Union who were working with them, in defiance of the rules of the Union. A resolution for the expulsion of the six men war offered, and adopted after considerable debate. One of the expelled members sent the following letter to the Union:
WASHINGTON, D. C., June 8, 1869.
Bricklayers’ Union No. 1., Washington, D. C.— GENTLEMEN:—At a meeting of the Union, held June 3d, 1869, it was resolved, by a large majority of the members that myself and other members of the Union employed in the Navy-Yard should stop work or be expelled from the Union. This demand is made us from the fact that colored bricklayers are employed in the yard. We respectively are not allowed to vote without a property qualification; Massachusetts, which requires an educational qualification; and Pennsylvania, Maryland and other States where the ballot is withheld from the negro. The representation will be lessened in the North, East and West, but it will not be affected in the South, as all those who are excluded from the ballot box for participation in the rebellion will be counted in making up the basis of representation.
National Anti-Slavery Standard, July 3, 1869.
Some of the workingmen’s associations here, warned by the troubles of the Printers’ Union, are taking measures to keep the negro out of their membership. The house carpenters held a meeting last evening, at which a constitution was adopted, wherein the word “white” was inserted in all places where the character of the members of the association is described. Some objection was made that the word was unnecessary, because if the name of a negro was presented for membership he could be rejected by a vote of the association. A majority of the members, however, thought that it was better to make assurance doubly sure, by providing that negroes would be ineligible to membership, and this was finally agreed to. It is said that other workingmen’s associations will take similar action.
New York Herald, July 9, 1869.
Resolved that we are ever willing to extend the hand of fellowship to every laboring man, more especially to those of our own craft; we believe that the prejudices of our members against the colored people are of such a nature that it is not expedient at present to admit them as members or to organize them under the National Union.
Proceedings of the Fifth Annual Session of the Carpenters and Joiners, Workingman’s Advocate, October 2, 1869.