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Black Comedy: Racial Controversy at the Richmond Convention

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. The white citizens of Richmond and elsewhere in the country were fascinated and horrified by repeated reports of “race mixing” in press accounts about the Knights of Labor convention, typified by these three items from the Richmond Dispatch of October 6, 1886.

Last night just before the performance of “Hamlet” began at the Academy of Music sixty members of District Assembly 49 of New York, the negro member (Ferrell) being one of the party and twenty other Knights of Labor, delegates to the General Assembly, went in a body to that place of amusement, and, marching up to the box-office, the foremost man bought eighty tickets, for which he paid $40. These tickets admitted the party to reserved seats on the left-hand side of the body of the house, about eight rows from the stage. Thither they wended their way, the negro sitting between two of his white confreres, near the end of one of the rows. Here he remained undisturbed during the whole performance. A good-sized audience of ladies and gentlemen was present. Only a few left the hall. In fact, it was not generally known through the audience what had occurred and who the strange visitor was.

There was last night among those citizens who knew of the affair severe criticism of the management for allowing this violation of the long-established customs of this part of the country, but Ferrell having been seated, no doubt the management thought it wiser and better for all concerned not to make any move which might possibly result in a disturbance.

It was to presume that “Forty-nine” went to the Academy in a body last night, and was ready to make a “test case.”

Later on the manager of the Academy, stated that he knew nothing of the presence of the negro until after his entrance into the hall. Mr. Castine then consulted some of the men as to the best course to take and on their advice, rather than cause any excitement, he took no action, and allowed the man to remain.


Situated on Broad street between Sixth and Seventh is the Central Hotel, a colored boarding-house, of which Fry is one of the proprietors. Yesterday morning a Dispatch [reporter] had occasion to visit this place with other business, and while there asked guests, “are you any delegates to the General Assembly?”

I have only one, a white northern man from Maine. There is a colored man from the same State stopping here but he is not a delegate.

What is the delegate’s name?

I will get you the register.

He went to a back room and brought out a black book in which the list of guests is kept; also, the colored female who does the clerical work of the house. She opened the book and pointed to the name registered “Joe Burns, Hallowell, Maine,” as the white delegate, and directly under it was “C. D. Freeman, Augusta, Maine.” who, she said, was the colored visitor.

The reporter asked: Do these men room together?

Yes, sir.

And sleep in the same bed?

Yes, sir.

The conversation ended here, and the reporter left.


Secretary Turner says there are about twenty colored delegates in the Assembly. Three are from Richmond, members of District Assembly N 92—Richard Thompson, W. W. Fields, and—Mitchel.

A young colored woman named Scott was appointed as a delegate from this city, but for some reason she will not act.

Colored members also come from Augusta, Ga., Florida, Washington, Baltimore, Pennsylvania, Norfolk, Petersburg, Danville, Charlotte county, Va., Alabama, and North Carolina. Most of them are quartered with colored families.

The colored brother from Baltimore, James H. Edwards, is stopping at the St. Charles Hotel, where he arrived with eighteen other Knights from Baltimore on Monday. He eats in the dining-room with the other guests (although the proprietors say that a screen hides him from the general view) and sleeps in as good apartments. His fare is altogether the same as that given white people, and he pays the same price for it.

Mr. Gallaghan, the proprietor of the hotel, claims that he did not know at first that a negro was to be one of the Baltimore party, and that as soon as he found it out, he told the delegates that the negro could not be given the first-class accommodations. They said they were not willing to leave their brother, and so it was arranged they should eat and sleep with their friend.

Source: Richmond Dispatch, 6 October 1886. Reprinted in Philip S. Foner and Ronald L. Lewis, eds. Black Workers: A Documentary History from Colonial Times to the Present (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 212–214.

See Also:Knight Errant: Drawing the Line on Black-White Equality