Labor history is often missing from the U.S. history curriculum. For example, here in Massachusetts, the History and Social Science Framework includes only a few labor history topics (i.e. the formation of labor unions, progressive era reforms, 1919 Boston police strike, and New Deal work programs). When labor history is included, events that highlight the intersection of workers rights and racial inequity are often missing. For instance, A. Philip Randolph is the only historical figure in our state's high school social studies standards, and my suspicion is that he is also rarely included, or at best a fleeting mention, in most U.S. history classrooms.
In this post, I offer 10 people and events that can be used to help students investigate the intersection of race and labor with links to websites that provide teachers with related primary sources.
1. Frank Ferrell, The Knights of Labor, and Racial Exclusion
A major controversy erupted at the 1886 Convention of the Knights of Labor over whether or not Frank Ferrell, a black representative of the Knights of Labor in New York City, should introduce the governor of Virginia at the opening session. This is an excerpt from Knights of Labor leader Terence Powderly’s 1890 autobiography detailing the tense moments leading up to Frank Ferrell’s appearance.
2. A. Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
In the 1920s, a group of disgruntled Pullman porters in New York City asked A. Philip Randolph, a strong advocate of the rights of black working men and women, to help them form a union of sleeping car porters and maids. George Pullman, president of the railroad company, fought the union, denounced Randolph as a communist and recruited support from the middle-class Black leaders of the Chicago. The Brotherhood was the verge of collapsing when Congress passed federal laws guaranteeing the right of all legitimate unions to organize workers without interference from their employers. Much of Randolph's philosophies on labor and politics was outline in this 1919 editorial "Our Reason for Being" in The Messenger.
3. East St. Louis Massacre of 1917
In the early 20th century, many southern African Americans sought job opportunities in northern factory towns during the Great Migration. The migration quickly expanded the size of the Black community in the St. Louis area, including East St. Louis, Illinois. On July 1, 1917, a rumor spread claiming that a White man had been killed by a Black man, and tensions boiled over. The next day, the city of East St. Louis exploded in the worst racial rioting the country had ever seen. Most of the violence - drive-by shootings, beatings, and arson - targeted the African American community. The riots, called the East St. Louis Massacre by many in the Black community, raged for nearly a week, leaving hundreds of African Americans and nine Whites dead, and $400,000 worth in property damage. More than six thousand Black citizens, fearing for their lives, fled the city. Several prominent Black civil rights activists spoke out against the riots, including this editorial by W.E.B. Du Bois and speech by Marcus Garvey.
4. The Bracero Program
The Bracero Program (translated as "One who works with his arms") lasted from 1942 to 1964 and allowed Mexicans to take temporary agricultural work in the United States. 4.5 million Mexican farmers came and worked primarily on the West Coast and Southwest. Several groups concerned over the exploitation of Bracero workers tried to repeal the program. As part of this protest, Leonard Nadel took these photographs of Bracero workers in 1956.
5. Operation Bootstrap/Operación Manos a la Obra
In 1948, Puerto Rico elected its first governor Luis Muñoz Marín who favored manufacturing as a means to developing the island's economy. As a result, the U.S. government launched an industrialization program known as “Operation Bootstrap/Operación Manos a la Obra,” which focused primary on inviting American companies to establish factories and business ventures in Puerto Rico. These companies would receive incentives, such as tax exemptions and infrastructural assistance, in return for providing jobs for the local population. At the same time, they often had poor conditions for their workers and the flood of U.S. products that reinforced economic dependency for the island. The U.S. government also encouraged the migration of Puerto Ricans to the mainland U.S. (i.e. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts, California, and Florida) and Hawaii. For many Puerto Ricans, this labor-related event is the push and pull factor that brought their families to the mainland. There are many graphs displaying statistics related to the U.S. government program.
6. Sue Cowan Williams Sues for Pay Equity for Black Teachers in Little Rock
Sue Cowan Williams represented African American teachers in the Little Rock School District as the plaintiff in a 1941 case challenging the rate of salaries allotted to teachers in the district based solely on skin color. As a result of her lawsuit, the school district did not renew her contract. While loosing the initial case, she would win on appeal in 1945, be reinstated in her position, and spending the rest of her teaching career in Little Rock (retiring in 1974). The case ruling is available here from Morris v. Williams (1945).
7. The Local 22 Strike and the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company
In the 1940s in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers of America forced the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company to improve work conditions for the Black (and largely female) workforce, who often endured incredibly hot conditions and long hours, while breathing tobacco dust, we segregated in an area separate from White employees. Besides pictures, few primary sources exist. However, Duke Magazine has an excellent in-depth story on the union and strike.
8. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta: National Farm Workers Association and the Grape Strike and Boycott
In 1962 Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta founded the National Farm Workers Association. The union would grow to include over 50,000 field workers, many of whom were Chicanos or Mexican immigrants. Chavez and Huerta organized numerous protests, including the Delano Grape Strike and Boycott. There are numerous primary sources available at the Farmworker Movement Document Archive and an excellent documentary film called Viva La Causa.
9. The '82 New York Chinatown Strike
In June 1982, demanding a fair contract, unionized garment workers, who were largely Asian women, went on strike in New York's Chinatown. As a result of thousands workers, many of whom were also immigrants, marched through the streets of Chinatown forcing employers to withdrew their demands. Within hours, the workers had won the strike. The memories of the workers from the '82 Chinatown Strike have been compiled into this anthology.
10. Hattie Canty and the Las Vegas Hotel Maids Union
In 1990, Hattie Canty was elected president of the Las Vegas Hotel and Culinary Workers Union Local 226. As a result of the union workers' actions and strikes, work conditions and standard of living were improved for thousands of working class people in Las Vegas’s hotel and casino industry. This was covered in a New Yorker article from 1996.