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Race and Racism at the 1886 Knights of Labor Convention

The annual convention of the Knights of Labor that convened in Richmond, Virginia, on October 4, 1886, took place in a region riven by racial and political conflict. The convention and the Knights, the most powerful labor organization in late 19th century America, were quickly plunged into conflict over the organization’s attitudes toward the question of social equality between the races. A major controversy erupted over whether or not Frank J. Ferrell, a black representative of the Knights’ powerful District Assembly #49 in New York City, should introduce the governor of Virginia at the opening session. This excerpt from Knights’ leader General Master Workman Terence V. Powderly’s 1890 autobiography detailed the tense moments leading up to Frank Ferrell’s appearance at the podium, where he agreed to introduce Powderly and the Grand Master Workman in turn would introduce the governor.

We see religion’s conflicts and war’s terrible munitions—

See advances and repulses, see contentions and transitions,

And Humanity’s great struggles toward loftier conditions—

For man is marching on

During the session of the General Assembly in Richmond, Va., an episode occurred which caused a great deal of excitement in that city, and came near resulting in bloodshed. Previous to the convention, William H. Mullen of Richmond requested Hon. Fitzhugh Lee, Governor of Virginia, to tender an address of welcome to the representatives of the Order on the assembling of the convention. The Governor kindly consented to do so, and made preparations accordingly. When D. A. 49 of New York elected representatives to the convention, one of the number chosen was a colored man, Frank J. Ferrell. In making arrangements for hotel accommodations for the New York delegation, the agent of D. A. 49 did not state that there would be any colored men among them, and when the representatives arrived in Richmond, and appeared at the hotel selected, they were told that Mr. Ferrell would not be admitted because of his color. Without hesitation the representatives of D. A. 49 withdrew in a body, and secured quarters where there would be no objections to any one of their number. J. E. Quinn, then Master Workman of that District, stated the facts in the case to the General Master Workman, and requested that officer to assign to Mr. Ferrell the duty of introducing Governor Lee to the General Assembly. The General Master Workman did not favor the proposition and urged that it be abandoned. In the discussion which took place at the hotel where the General Officers were staying, the General Master Workman said to Mr. Quinn:

I do not believe that it would be an act of courtesy on our part to violate any recognized rule of this community, and it would not be pleasant for either the Governor or the convention to attempt to set at defiance a long-established usage. I know a man who feels that he is the equal of Governor Lee, and I think he is just as good a man in every respect; if Brother Ferrell will consent to introduce this man to the convention when the time comes, I think it will be as acceptable to him, in fact I believe he will esteem it a greater honor than to introduce even the Governor of Virginia

When asked to name the person of whom he spoke, the answer which Mr. Quinn received was: “The General Master Workman of the Knights of Labor.”

With the understanding that the Governor was to be introduced by the General Master Workman, and that officer in turn introduced by Mr. Ferrell, the convention was called to order. The program was carried out to the letter, and, when the very excellent and well received address of welcome was delivered by Governor Lee, Mr. Ferrell mounted the platform and said:

It is with much pleasure and gratification I introduce to you Mr. T. V. Powderly of the State of Pennsylvania, who will reply to the address of welcome of Governor Lee of this State, which is one of the oldest States in the arena of political influence of our country. He is one of the thoughtful men of the nation, who recognizes the importance of this gathering of the toiling masses in this our growing Republic. As Virginia has led in the aspirations of our country in the past, I look with much confidence to the future, in the hope that she will lead in the future to the realization of the objects of our noble Order. It is with extreme pleasure that we, the representatives from every section of our country, receive the welcome of congratulation for our efforts to improve the condition of humanity. One of the objects of our Order is the abolition of those distinctions which are maintained by creed or color. I believe I present to you a man above the superstitions which are involved in these distinctions. My experience with the noble Order of the Knights of Labor and my training in the District have taught me that we have worked so far successfully toward the extinction of these regrettable distinctions. As we recognize and repose confidence in all men for their worth in society, so can we repose confidence in one of the noblest sons of labor—T. V. Powderly —whom I now take the pleasure of presenting to you.

The response to the address of welcome having been delivered by the General Master Workman, the convention was opened under the forms and usages of the Knights of Labor, and all visitors excluded.

On the boat which brought the New York delegation to Richmond was a dramatic company, which opened up for a week’s stay at one of the Richmond theatres on the evening of the first day’s session of the General Assembly. The leading man of the company extended an invitation to the representatives of D. A. 49 to attend the play, and it was accepted. The entire delegation, including Mr. Ferrell, went in a body to the theatre. When it became known that a colored man was admitted to one of the choicest seats in the theatre all interest in the play was lost, and many left the building vowing vengeance on the intruder who had so recklessly defied one of the rules of Richmond life. The next evening the attendance at the theatre was very slim, many theatre-goers having determined to boycott it while that particular company occupied the boards. Outside of the building an angry mob assembled, armed with revolvers and other weapons, for the purpose of preventing one negro from entering the theatre. Neither Mr. Ferrell nor any of the New York representatives went to the theatre for the reason that they were nearly all assigned to duty on some committee of the General Assembly, or to attend some of the Local Assemblies in session in the city that evening. The excitement ran high for many days, and on several occasions men who claimed to be residents of Richmond appeared at the hotel where the General Officers were stopping and threatened to do violence to some of the delegates. On Sunday, October 10, the information was conveyed to the General Master Workman that the armory building, where the convention held its sessions, was to be mobbed on the following evening. The information was made on good authority. The officers of the regiment, whose headquarters were in the armory building, held consultations with some of the General Officers and assured them that there would be no trouble. Sunday evening the General Master Workman sent a note to the Chief of Police informing him of the state of affairs, and requesting him to call at the hotel. After a consultation with the Chief of Police, it was resolved to pay no attention to the threats which were made each day as the representatives went to and from the armory. The Southern press was much exercised over the condition of affairs, and many unjust editorials were written on statements which were sent out from Richmond by sensational writers. On Monday the General Master Workman felt called upon to reply to some of the aspersions cast upon the General Assembly. He prepared a statement for publication and gave it to the Richmond Dispatch. It appeared in the issue of October 12, but no other paper copied it. Many extracts were taken from it, and garbled to suit the views of the editors of the papers who published them; but the whole of the article was never published outside of Richmond. It is given in full below:

RICHMOND, Va., October 11, 1886.

Much has been said and written concerning the events which have transpired in the city of Richmond during the past ten days. As I am responsible for a great deal of the agitation, it is but proper that I should be permitted to speak to as large an audience as that which listened to those who have criticised, misconstrued and distorted the words and the idea intended to be conveyed by my utterances of October 4, when Francis Ferrell introduced me to the meeting assembled in the armory. I stated to the meeting that it was at my request that Mr. Ferrell, a representative of the colored race, introduced me; it was left to me to make the selection, and I did it after mature deliberation and careful thought. I have not seen or heard an argument since then that would cause me to do differently to-day. Critics have seen fit to decide what I meant by selecting this man to introduce me, and they have asserted that my action must be regarded in the light of an attack upon the laws of social equality. A part of the press of the South has attacked, in a most unjustifiable manner, a man who, under the flag and Constitution of his country, selected another man, and a citizen of the Republic, to perform a public duty in a public place. In acknowledging his introduction I referred to the prejudice which existed against the colored man. If previous to that day I had any doubts that a prejudice existed, they have been removed by the hasty and inconsiderate action of those who were so quick to see an insult where none was intended.


My sole object in selecting a colored man to introduce me was to encourage and help to uplift his race from a bondage worse than that which held him in chains twenty-five years ago—viz.: mental slavery. I desired to impress upon the minds of white and black that the same result followed action in the field of labor, whether that action was on the part of the Caucasian or the negro. Two years ago, in an address delivered in this city, I said to the people of Richmond: “You stand face to face with a stern, living reality; a responsibility which cannot be avoided or shirked. The negro question is as prominent to-day as it ever was. The first proposition that stares us in the face is this: The negro is free; he is here, and he is here to stay. He is a citizen, and must learn to manage his own affairs. His labor and that of the white man will be thrown upon the market side by side, and no human eye can detect a difference between the article manufactured by the black mechanic and that manufactured by the white mechanic. Both claim an equal share of the protection afforded to American labor, and both mechanics must sink their differences or fall prey to the slave labor now being imported to this country.” I was not criticised for saying that, and yet it was as susceptible of criticism as my words on October 4. I did not refer to social equality, for that cannot be regulated by law. The sanctity of the fireside circle cannot be invaded by those who are not welcome. Every man has the right to say who shall enter beneath his roof; who shall occupy the same bed, private conveyance, or such other place as he is master of. I reserve for myself the right to say who I will or will not associate with. That right belongs to every other man. I have no wish to interfere with that right.


My critics have forgotten that personal liberty and social equality stand side by side. They would deny me the right to make my own selection as to which of the assembled representatives should perform a certain duty. Had I selected the colored man to introduce Governor Lee, it would have been quite another thing. It is, perhaps, unfortunate that our coming was at a time when political excitement ran high, and all things served as excuses for those who wished to use them. When I heard that there was a likelihood of trouble because Mr. Ferrell attended a place of amusement, I asked him not to subject himself to insult by going where he was not welcome, He told me that he had no intention of again going to that or any other place where his presence would give rise to comment. Until that time I did not know that colored men were denied admittance to theatres in this city.


While I have no wish to interfere with the social relations which exist between the races of the South, I have a strong desire to see the black man educated. Southern labor, regardless of color, must learn to read and write. Southern cheap labor is more a menace to the American toiler than the Chinese, and this labor must be educated. Will my critics show me how the laws of social equality will be harmed by educating the black man so that he may know how to conduct himself as a gentleman? Will they explain how a knowledge of the laws of his country will cause a man to violate the laws of social equality? Will they, in a cool, dispassionate manner, explain to me whether an education will not elevate the moral standard of the colored man? and will they tell me that such a thing is not as necessary with the blacks as with the whites?


Will it be explained to me whether the black man should continue to work for starvation wages? With so many able-bodied colored men in the South who do not know enough to ask for living wages, it is not hard to guess that while this race continues to increase in numbers and ignorance, prosperity will not even knock at the door, much less enter the home of the Southern laborer; and that country which has an abundance of ill-fed, ill-bred laborers is not, nor can it be, a prosperous one. Will my critics stop long enough to tell me why the United States Senate allowed a colored man to introduce, before the Vice-President of the United States, measures for the benefit of his State? Were the laws of social equality outraged when the House or Representatives permitted colored men to take seats in it? Why did other Southern representatives not leave and return to their homes when that was done?


There need be no further cause for alarm. The colored representatives to this convention will not intrude where they are not wanted, and the time-honored laws of social equality will be allowed to slumber on undisturbed, We have not done a thing since coming to this city that is not countenanced by the laws and Constitution of our country, and, in deference to the wishes of those who regard the laws of social equality as superior to the laws of God and man, we will not, while here, avail ourselves of all of those rights and privileges which belong to us. The equality of American citizenship is all that we insist on, and that equality must not, will not, be trampled upon.


Now a word as to hospitality. We are here under no invitation from any one. We came of our own free-will and accord, and are paying our own way; therefore, gratuitous insults, such as those offered by a few mischievous meddlers, are not in order, and do not admit of defense, even though given in behalf of the laws of social equality. I do not hold the people of Richmond responsible for the ill-advised, churlish action of a few who saw a menace in our every move. The treatment received at the hands of the citizens generally has been most cordial. If, during our stay, any representative shall conduct himself in an unbecoming manner, he alone will be held responsible for his action.


To the convention I say: let no member surrender an iota of intellectual freedom because of any clamor. Hold fast to that which is true and right. The triumph of noise over reason is but transient. Our principles will be better known, if not to-day it may be to-morrow; they can bide their time, and will some day have the world for an audience. In the field of labor and American citizenship we recognize no line of race, creed, politics or color. The demagogue may distort, for a purpose, the words of others, and for a time the noise of the vocal boss may silence reason, but that which is right and true will become known when the former has passed to rest and the sound of the latter’s voice has forever died away. Then it will be known that the intelligent, educated man is better qualified to discern the difference between right and privilege, and the unwritten law of social equality will be more rigidly observed than it is to-day.


After the publication of that letter the excitement died away, and the representatives met with no further annoyance. The General Master Workman received many insulting letters from residents of Richmond, who, evidently, scorned to read the truth, and drew for their information on the store of prejudice which they had treasured up against allowing the negro to avail himself of the rights of citizenship. One lady, wrought to a high pitch of anger, sent a postal card bearing the following amusing proposition:

T.V. Powderly:

Dear Sir: As you are so much in sympathy with the negro, will you please call over and fill our coachman’s place until he gets well? Inquire on Church Hill.

Miss _____.

Many similar missives were conveyed to him during his stay in Richmond. There were people in that city who were not in sympathy with the element which acted so discourteously toward the visiting strangers but they made no outward sign of their disapproval of the course pursued by those whose foolish prejudices construed an act with which it was none of their business to meddle into an insult to their noble blood.

Violation of the rules of social equality formed no part of the thought or intentions of the General Master Workman when he selected Mr. Ferrell to introduce him to the General Assembly. Neither was it his desire to cater to the sentiment of D. A. 49, or Mr. Quinn, the Master Workman of that District. His only wish was to do something to encourage the black workman, and cause him to feel that, as a factor in the field of production, he stood the equal of all other men.

It was not reserved for the coming of the General Assembly of the Knights of Labor to do violence to the laws of social equality in Richmond or the Southern States. That had been done years before the Knights of Labor ever gained a foothold in the South, but in a far different way. Social equality is recognized in the South by many of those who prate the loudest against it. The slave-owners of long ago leveled the distinctions between the races, and some of their children and children’s children honor the practice to the present day.

One has only to stand on a street corner, or at the door of one of the churches where colored people attend, to be convinced that Caucasian blood flows through the veins of thousands who, for certain reasons, dare not boast of pride of ancestry.

Had the laws of social equality been rigidly practiced in secret as they are boasted of in public by the aristocracy of the South, more of respect would be due to those who affect to scorn the man who would maintain the rights of a race whose crime is its color, and whose fault is that long years of slavery has transmitted the curse of ignorance to its children of the present day. The best evidence of the insincerity and hypocrisy of the Southern aristocrat is written upon the half-white faces of the hundreds of thousands of young men and women in whose veins flow, in mingled current, the blood of the former slave and that of the best families of the South.

It is not the negro alone who stands ostracised in the South by the remnant of the Bourbon element, which still exists to protest against the progress of the Southern States. The white man who works is held in no higher esteem than the black man, and his ignorance is taken advantage of when he is patted on the back and told that he “is better than the negro.”

No labor advocate seeks to interfere with the social relations of the races in the South, for it is the industrial, not the race, question we endeavor to solve, and the intellectual status of the black and white laborer must be improved if either one is to prosper.

Of the two races in the South at the present time, the negro is making the most energetic struggle for an education. If the whites would not fall behind in the race they must learn that moral worth, not wealth, is the true standard of individual and national greatness.

Source: Terence V. Powderly, Thirty Years of Labor, 1859–1889 (Philadelphia: T. V. Powderly, 1890).