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Knight Errant: Drawing the Line on Black-White Equality

The annual convention of the Knights of Labor convened in Richmond, Virginia, a region divided by racial and political conflict, on October 4, 1886. In the 1880s, Southern politics was split between southern Democrats who sought to “redeem” the old order and a progressive (and in some places interracial) political movement that sought to extend the gains won by ordinary black and white southerners during the Reconstruction era. As more than one thousand delegates gathered from across the country in the former capital of the Confederacy, the labor and political reform movements hoped the convention would be a launching pad for their message of racial peace and political reform. But the convention and the Knights of Labor were quickly plunged into conflict over the organization’s attitude toward the question of social equality between the races. Black Knight Frank J. Ferrell faced an uproar when he was invited to socialize with fellow white Knights at the convention. The attitude of an anonymous Knight of Labor, interviewed here, typified the not-in-my-neighborhood reaction of many white Knights to Ferrell’s crossing of the color line.

Q. What do you think of the attitude taken by Assembly 49, of New York, regarding social equality?

A. I regard the action of those persons who took Ferrell to the Mozart Academy as an outrage upon the people of this city, and an insult to the Knights of Labor. I feel confident that they do not represent anyone but themselves .

Q. How do the Knights of Labor of this city regard the action of their visiting brethren in this respect?

A. The Knights of this city are justly indignant, and their position of host only restrains them from an outburst of righteous contempt. Most of them earnestly hope that General Master Workman Powderly will avail himself of the first opportunity to administer to 49 the rebuke they merit and justly deserve. The action of 49 will cause a great many to leave the Order, and will in a large measure detract from the parade next Monday. I have yet to meet the first man, white or colored, Knights of Labor or otherwise, who had expressed anything but the severest condemnation of Assembly 49.

Personally, I have nothing but kindly feelings for the colored people. I wish them prosperity and success, and I will befriend them in any just claims they may have; but when the plea is put in for social equality, the line of demarcation is clearly and distinctly drawn, so far as I am concerned.

Source: Peter Rachleff, Black Labor in Richmond, 1865–1890 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press). © 1984 by Temple University.

See Also:Black Comedy: Racial Controversy at the Richmond Convention