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African Americans in the Great Depression and New Deal  

Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy

For African Americans, the Great Depression and the New Deal (1929–1940) marked a transformative era and laid the groundwork for the postwar black freedom struggle in the United States. The outbreak of the Great Depression in 1929 caused widespread suffering and despair in black communities across the country as women and men faced staggering rates of unemployment and poverty. Once Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), a Democrat, was inaugurated as president in 1933, he launched a “New Deal” of ambitious government programs to lift the United States out of the economic crisis. Most African Americans were skeptical about benefiting from the New Deal, and racial discrimination remained rampant. However, a cohort of black advisors and activists critiqued these government programs for excluding African Americans and enacted some reforms. At the grassroots level, black workers pressed for expanded employment opportunities and joined new labor unions to fight for economic rights. As the New Deal progressed a sea change swept over black politics. Many black voters switched their allegiance from the Republican to the Democratic Party, waged more militant campaigns for racial justice, and joined interracial and leftist coalitions. African Americans also challenged entrenched cultural stereotypes through photography, theater, and oral histories to illuminate the realities of black life in the United States. By 1940, African Americans now wielded an arsenal of protest tactics and were marching on a path toward full citizenship rights, which remains an always evolving process.

Article

Chicago  

Ann Durkin Keating

Chicago is a city shaped by industrial capitalism. Before 1848, it was a small commercial outpost in Potawatomi country, and then it expanded with the US economy between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. Between 1848 and 1929, Chicago grew from under 30,000 to more than 3 million, fueled by the construction of railroads, warehouses, and factories. Working-class immigrants built their own neighborhoods around industrial sites and along railroads, while a downtown dominated by skyscrapers emerged to serve the needs of corporate clients. Since 1929, Chicago remained an industrial powerhouse and magnet for Black and Latino migrants, even as its economic growth depended more and more on commerce and the service industry.

Article

Detroit  

Ryan S. Pettengill

From its earliest origins through the 21st century, Detroit was a capitalist venture that was tied to the global economy. Throughout the pre-Columbian period, Detroit served as a meeting point where a diverse confederation of Native Americans came together to conduct business and diplomacy. Later, the city became a contested territorial holding that the Western imperial powers of France, Spain, Great Britain, and the United States fought over, as it represented a critical gateway that opened up trade to the central and western regions of North America. Between 1835 and 1929, capitalists built wharfs, railroad lines, factories, warehouses, and other forms of industrial infrastructure, attracting throngs of working-class job seekers and causing Detroit’s population to boom from approximately 1,100 in 1819 to more than one million in 1930. The population peaked at nearly two million in 1950 and, by 2020, it had declined to approximately 700,000. Detroit’s history might be thought of in three distinct periods: a pre-Columbian period where the region consisted of a preindustrial space that was occupied by Anishinaabeg peoples, later to be claimed by European colonists; a long industrial era in which businessmen, such as Henry Ford, centralized production within the city; and a slow period of economic decline as the city struggled to adapt to different trends in a global economy. As Detroit entered the 21st century, the city faced a declining population, rising budget deficits, and a crumbling infrastructure. Still, as several multinational corporations based their operations out of Detroit, the city remained a capitalist venture fundamentally tied to the global economy.

Article

Labor and Black Power  

Austin McCoy

From the early 1960s through the 1970s, Black workers in various economic sectors organized and were inspired by Black Power principles such as community control, self-determination, and racial solidarity. This Black Power unionism utilized an array of strategies and tactics, ranging from direct action and radical class struggle to negotiation and lawsuits, to combat racial discrimination in employment. Black workers in sectors such as construction and auto and steel industries also utilized strikes, shutdowns, and other forms of protest to combat the intransigence of labor unions that failed to address segregation at the workplace, poor treatment of Black workers, and seniority policies that made work more precarious for them. While Black Power unionism enjoyed some successes—albeit often incomplete—their efforts to enact “affirmative action from below” encountered stiff opposition from employers and unions in the context of the economic and political crises of the 1970s. Ultimately, Black Power unionism exposed the limits of post-Jim Crow desegregation policy in US racial capitalism. Black Power unionism was a political movement that was as salient for Black workers as the Black Panther Party. Although its achievements were limited, its influence far outlived the Black Panther Party itself.

Article

New York City  

Matthew Vaz

The contemporary city of New York, comprising the five boroughs of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island, covers three hundred square miles and contains almost nine million people. Often described as the center of the world, the city is home to the headquarters of the United Nations and is a hub of global media and finance. Yet New York is also a city of neighborhoods, animated by remarkably local concerns. The dense population, the complex government, the vast wealth, the archetypal urban poverty, and the intricate and impressive built environment have all taken form through a layered series of encounters among groups over the course of four centuries. The Lenape Indians, the original settlers of the area, encountered Dutch colonizers in 1624. The English seized control from the Dutch in 1664. Both the Dutch and the English imported enslaved Africans in large numbers. The natural advantages of the harbor propelled the area’s growth, attracting settlers from elsewhere in North America in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Human-created infrastructures like the Erie Canal spurred economic growth after 1825 that attracted European immigrants from western and northern Europe in the mid-19th century and Europeans from southern and eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1898, five counties were consolidated and created the five boroughs of New York City with a population surpassing three million. African Americans from the US South and Latinos from the Caribbean migrated to New York throughout the 20th century; by 1950, the city’s population was 7.8 million. After 1980, the population began to climb again with new waves of immigration from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. For more than four hundred years, the processes of conflict and cooperation have been animated by schisms and tensions of religion, ethnicity, race, and class. As groups and individuals competed for resources and power in the city, politics and governance confronted conceptual issues such as calibrating the extent of public services, the role of religion in public life, the rights of workers, and the value of living in a multiethnic and multiracial society.

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Organized Labor and the Civil Rights Movement  

Alan Draper

The relationship between organized labor and the civil rights movement proceeded along two tracks. At work, the two groups were adversaries, as civil rights groups criticized employment discrimination by the unions. But in politics, they allied. Unions and civil rights organizations partnered to support liberal legislation and to oppose conservative southern Democrats, who were as militant in opposing unions as they were fervent in supporting white supremacy. At work, unions dithered in their efforts to root out employment discrimination. Their initial enthusiasm for Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed employment discrimination, waned the more the new law violated foundational union practices by infringing on the principle of seniority, emphasizing the rights of the individual over the group, and inserting the courts into the workplace. The two souls of postwar liberalism— labor solidarity represented by unions and racial justice represented by the civil rights movement—were in conflict at work. Although the unions and civil rights activists were adversaries over employment discrimination, they united in trying to register southern blacks to vote. Black enfranchisement would end the South’s exceptionalism and the veto it exercised over liberal legislation in Congress. But the two souls of liberalism that were at odds over the meaning of fairness at work would also diverge at the ballot box. As white workers began to defect from the Democratic Party, the political coalition of black and white workers that union leaders had hoped to build was undermined from below. The divergence between the two souls of liberalism in the 1960s—economic justice represented by unions and racial justice represented by civil rights—helps explain the resurgence of conservatism that followed.

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Racial Inequality and Its Remedies in the US Labor Market  

Randall L. Patton

Active social movements and the changes they wrought both through direct action and indirectly through pressure campaigns dismantled racial exclusion and diminished racial discrimination in employment, like racial apartheid in public accommodations and other aspects of American life. Social movement pressure fostered voluntary actions from the business community, government action on equal employment, and a changing climate of public opinion. Voluntary, quasi-voluntary, and regulatory (compulsory) approaches combined to improve labor market outcomes for African Americans. The term segregation as used here denotes the system of formal and informal exclusion from and discrimination in employment aimed at persons of African descent. The dismantling of exclusionary barriers and the diminishing of discriminatory practices combined with general economic growth to improve living standards for African Americans through the late 20th century. Regional variation was significant, with Black workers in the Northern states benefiting somewhat less than might have been expected. The effects of neoliberal reform, deindustrialization, and lingering discrimination, however, revealed the limits of reform and left significant economic challenges in the early 21st century.

Article

Railroad Workers and Organized Labor  

Paul Michel Taillon

Railroad workers occupy a singular place in United States history. Working in the nation’s first “big businesses,” they numbered in the hundreds of thousands, came from a wide range of ethnic and racial groups, included both men and women, and performed a wide range of often esoteric tasks. As workers in an industry that shaped the nation’s financial, technological, and political-economic development, railroaders drove the leading edge of industrialization in the 19th century and played a central role in the nation’s economy for much of the 20th. With the legends of “steel-driving” John Henry and “Cannonball” Casey Jones, railroad workers entered the national folklore as Americans pondered the benefits and costs of progress in an industrial age. Those tales highlighted the glamor and rewards, the risks and disparities, and the gender-exclusive and racially hierarchical nature of railroad work. They also offer insight into the character of railroad unionism, which, from its beginnings in the 1860s, oriented toward craft-based, male-only, white-supremacist forms of organization. Those unions remained fragmented, but they also became among the most powerful in the US labor movement, leveraging their members’ strategic location in a central infrastructural industry, especially those who operated the trains. That strategic location also ensured that any form of collective organization—and therefore potential disruption of the national economy—would lead to significant state intervention. Thus, the epic railroad labor conflict of the late 19th century generated the first federal labor relations laws in US history, which in turn set important precedents for 20th-century national labor relations policy. At the same time, the industry nurtured the first national all-Black, civil-rights-oriented unions, which played crucial roles in the 20th-century African American freedom struggle. By the mid-20th century, however, with technological change and the railroads entering a period of decline, the numbers of railroad workers diminished and with them, too, their once-powerful unions.

Article

Southern Textile Worker Struggles in the 20th Century  

Joey Fink

The rise of the southern textile industry in the early 1900s shifted the center of American textile production from the northeast to the Piedmont and created a new class of southern industrial workers: the “cotton mill people.” Throughout the 20th century, larger economic and political forces changed the industry and its people. Technological innovations, wars, and the diversification of the southern economy affected how textiles were made, the consumer demand for them, and mill workers’ wages and working conditions. The labor, civil rights, and women’s movements produced federal laws and legal victories that desegregated the mills, drew attention to the particular vulnerabilities of women workers, and provided protections for all workers against exploitation and poverty. Continuity, however, was as significant as change for mill workers. Women’s labor was always crucial in the mills, and women were key leaders in strikes and organizing drives. Unionization efforts were consistently undermined by technological innovations that replaced human labor, the global movement of capital, and the united power of mill owners and political leaders. Throughout the 20th century, cotton mill people struggled to resist the dehumanizing aspects of industrialization and insist on the dignity and value of their labor. The story of their struggles reveals important dimensions of 20th-century southern labor and life. With the movement of textile manufacturing from the American South to the Global South, their 20th-century struggles offer insights into the 21st-century struggles of textile workers worldwide.

Article

Spatial Segregation and Neighborhoods  

Carl Nightingale

During the 1890s, the word segregation became the preferred term for the practice of coercing different groups of people, especially those designated by race, to live in separate and unequal urban residential neighborhoods. In the southern states of the United States, segregationists imported the word—originally used in the British colonies of Asia—to describe Jim Crow laws, and, in 1910, whites in Baltimore passed a “segregation ordinance” mandating separate black and white urban neighborhoods. Copy-cat legislation sprang up in cities across the South and the Midwest. But in 1917, a multiracial team of lawyers from the fledgling National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) mounted a successful legal challenge to these ordinances in the U.S. Supreme Court—even as urban segregation laws were adopted in other places in the world, most notably in South Africa. The collapse of the movement for legislated racial segregation in the United States occurred just as African Americans began migrating in large numbers into cities in all regions of the United States, resulting in waves of anti-black mob violence. Segregationists were forced to rely on nonstatutory or formally nonracial techniques. In Chicago, an alliance of urban reformers and real estate professionals invented alternatives to explicitly racist segregation laws. The practices they promoted nationwide created one of the most successful forms of urban racial segregation in world history, rivaling and finally outliving South African apartheid. Understanding how this system came into being and how it persists today requires understanding both how the Chicago segregationists were connected to counterparts elsewhere in the world and how they adapted practices of city-splitting to suit the peculiarities of racial politics in the United States.

Article

The Urban League  

Adam Lee Cilli

White and Black progressives established the National Urban League (NUL) in October 1911 to meet the growing social service needs of inner-city African Americans. Under the leadership of the league’s first executive secretary, George Edmund Haynes, the NUL established its core mission and tactical posture while developing league affiliates in cities across the country. Urban League staff committed themselves to building alliances across racial and class lines to promote Black economic advancement and ensure that African Americans had access to adequate housing and health care. These services became all the more imperative as hundreds of thousands of rural Black southerners made their way to cities during the Great Migration. Urban Leaguers welcomed migrant newcomers, helped them find lodging and employment, provided vocational training courses, sponsored programs to improve health and hygiene, and performed a variety of other functions that collectively provided a social safety system in Black neighborhoods. While retaining the league’s core social service mission, Urban Leaguers broadened their civil rights goals over time as new possibilities emerged. During the mid-1930s, as the Congress of Industrial Organizations formed with the goal of unionizing all industrial workers, regardless of race or ethnicity, the league developed workers’ councils across the nation to facilitate the entry of Black workers into the labor movement. Urban Leaguers joined the March on Washington Movement during World War II to protest discriminatory hiring practices at industrial firms with defense contracts. Later, the league served as one of the “big five” civil rights organizations orchestrating the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Through these eras and up to the early 21st century, the Urban League has retained its original commitment to expanding economic opportunities for Black Americans and improving health and wellness in inner-city neighborhoods.