Texas Black Labor Movement

By The Houston Black Pages Admin
   Monday, September 1, 2014
African American and Hispanic American workers on strike against Kellwood, wearing placards that encourage support for better wages.
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Small labor organizations in this country started forming before the civil war. The US Industrial revolution was in full swing and masses of workers were migrating from rural areas for the city to work in mills to take advantage of the earning potential from a booming economy.  Laws, then, did not even pretend to protect working class people. Health and safety laws were either nonexistent or unenforced.  It was during this time that workers began to realize that they were being treated unfairly and not given just compensation.  They begin to unite and organize to try and defeat the combination of private capital and government power in hopes of safeguarding jobs and increasing job safety [1].

African Americans are known to have participated in labor actions before the Civil War. Black workers found that the National Labor Union (the first national federation of unions) was reluctant to organize them, so they formed their own unions and carried on their own strikes to protest unfair treatment, like the strike of the levee workers in Mobile, Alabama in 1867 [1] and the strike by black caulkers at the Washington Navy Yard in 1835 [3].

After the civil war, newly freed blacks in Texas looking to improve their economic conditions were blocked by the Texas Homestead Act of 1866 which prohibited land sales to blacks[5]. The intent of the legislation was to reaffirm the inferior position that slaves and free blacks had held in <a href="https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/npa01">antebellum Texas</a> and to regulate black labor [4].  In order to escape rural violence and abuses of labor contracts, blacks in Texas migrated in mass to the cities of Galveston, Houston and San Antonio, only to be greeted by strict laws and curfews [5].  During this time, the Fourth Ward emerged as Houston's most prominent African-American neighborhood when thousands of freed slaves flooded into the city after emancipation. These newcomers settled on the fringes of the third, fifth, and fourth wards.  (TX State historical Association).

African Americans are known to have participated in labor actions before the Civil War.

As early as 1866 the white National Labor Union (NLU) sought to include blacks in its membership but the attempt touched off debates over social equality.  A compromise of sorts was configured, resulting in the formation of a Jim Crow affiliate in 1869, known as the colored national Labor Congress (CNLC).  However, repeated failures by the white national to address racial discrimination in hours and wages and in the work place led many in the CNLC to protest against the parent organization.  Some abandoned the CNLC altogether to join the more radical International Workingmen’s Associations(IWA) in 1871. [5]

In Texas, white affiliates of national unions viewed blacks with suspicion and sought to keep them out of the skilled trades.  Their failure to address racial discriminatory practices in employment and wages led blacks to form branches of the CNLC at Houston in 1871 and branches of the IWA at Galveston in 1872.  Both were formed in East Texas, in solidly black Republican districts.  African Americans formed separate labor unions in Austin and other cities by 1872 and concentrated most of their activities combating racial discrimination and unfair treatment in the work place.[5]

Arrival of new immigrants (German, Irish, Chinese, Swede, Italian, Mexican) created a decline in jobs customarily assigned to blacks.  Competition grew so severe that blacks formed cooperatives, started newspapers and held protest conventions.  The deployment of Chinese to replace black constructions crews on rail lines let to protests throughout the South. When Chinese workers were brought in to labor on the Houston and Texas Central railway Company lines in 1870, it led to a walkout by 150 black workers.  The arrival of cheaper workers displaced blacks and drove wages down across the state.[5]

Exclusion and discrimination affected blacks throughout the state.  Many tried to seek opportunities elsewhere or attempt..Some were encouraged to employ themselves and establish their own businesses in Houston, Fort Worth and other cities.  Afro-Texans established hotels, freight lines, construction companies and a variety of small shows and stores. Most applied skills obtained during slaver to earn a living as self-employed carpenters, wheelwrights, masons, barbers, blacksmiths, painters, plasterers, shoemakers, tailors and cooks.  The entrepreneurial spirits was as much an expression of protest as it was a desire to establish viable alternatives.  Their efforts attracted some resentment among whites. Enterprising black were often the target of white hostility. Many were assaulted, robbed or had their property destroyed.  Such attacks were aimed to frustrate and discourage desires to achieve economic independence.[5]

Black entrepreneurship in Texas received its greatest boost from Booker T. Washington. In 1900, he addresses a predominately black audience at the State Faire in Dallas.  In his speech he forged the idea of black support for black businesses as an expression of self-help and race pride.  Exploiting racial separation became the viable alternative and a surer means to profit and prosperity.[5] 

During the Great Migration of 1916-1930, over one million blacks moved from the south to the north in search of better lives. It is conservatively estimated that 400,000 left the South during the two-year period of 1916-1918 to take advantage of a labor shortage created in the wake of the First World War.<a name="goto10"></a> African Americans made significant gains in industrial employment, particularly in the steel, automobile, shipbuilding, and meatpacking industries. Between 1910 and 1920 the number of blacks employed in industry nearly doubled from 500,000 to 901,000 [3].

 The organization in 1935 of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which sought to organize industrial workers regardless of race or ethnic background, contributed to an alleviation of the historic conflict between African Americans and trade unions. Thousands of African American workers joined unions, and much of this growth is documented in the Records of the National Labor Relations Board (RG 25, approximately 5,140 cubic feet).<a name="goto18"></a>These records include formal and informal case files as well as transcripts of hearings and exhibit files.[3]

The 1940s would be a decade, however, when African Americans would achieve their greatest economic gains, in terms of real advances and in relation to whites, since the Civil War.  The advance of African Americans in American industry during World War II was the result of the nation's wartime emergency need for workers and soldiers. In 1943 the National War Labor Board issued an order abolishing pay differentials based on race, pointing out, "America needs the Negro . . . the Negro is necessary for winning the war."[3]

Black labor unionism became part of a wider campaign for civil rights after World War II. After the merger of the CIO and the AFL in 1955, it seemed that the AFL had placed a conservative pall over the entire organization, dividing white and black unionists. It was also the era of the civil rights movement, and black union officials such as Ed Nixon and A. Philip Randolph were among the leaders during the Montgomery bus boycott and the 1963 March on Washington. African Americans were to continue to press their demands for justice within unions in the 1960s and 1970s through internal union organizations such as the Ad Hoc Committee of Steel Workers and the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement. Confronting continued union and corporate discrimination, African American civil right groups sought redress through a number of court cases under Title VII, Equal Employment Opportunity, of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin[3]..
1.   <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Zinn" title="Howard Zinn">Zinn, Howard</a>. <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_People%27s_History_of_the_United_States" title="A People's History of the United States">A People's History of the United States</a>. New York:<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HarperCollins" title="HarperCollins">Harper Perennial Modern Classics</a>, 2005. <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:BookSources/0060838655">ISBN 0-06-083865-5</a> p. 264; See also Chapter 13, "The Socialist Challenge" pp. 321–357.
2.  “Gilded Age.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 22 Aug. 2014. Web. 1 Sept. 2014. <<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilded_Age">http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilded_Age</a>>
3.   Cassedy, James Gilbert. “African Americans and the American Labor Movement National Archives. Summer 1997. Web. 1 Sept. 2014. ‹ <a href="http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1997/summer/american-labor-movement.html">http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1997/summer/american-labor-movement.html</a> ›.
4.  Carl H. Moneyhon, "BLACK CODES," Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association,  June 12, 2010. Web 1 Sept. 2014  Published by the.< <a href="http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/jsb01">http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/jsb01</a>>
5.  <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Zinn" title="Howard Zinn">Mason,</a> Kenneth. African Americans and Race Relations in San Antonio, Texas, 1867-1937 Routledge, 1998. <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:BookSources/0060838655">ISBN 0815330766</a>.

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