World War I wartime production demanded the mobilization of thousands of workers to make steel and rubber, work in petrochemical industries, and build ships. Few immigrants left Europe for the United States, and workers were desperately needed to replace those who had left for military service. The following excerpts from African-American newspapers described the new opportunities and continuing struggles that black workers confronted, noting both interracial conflict and cooperation during wartime. “Organized Labor Not Friendly?” exemplified a widely held suspicion of unions among African Americans, who had previously been excluded from organized labor’s ranks. “Negro Workers Are Organizing” described one response: the formation of alternative unions organized for black workers on a city-wide basis. “Big Labor Day Celebration” reported on a parade and baseball game that included black and white unionists. In “The Negro and the War,” the writer found reason for optimism that President Woodrow Wilson’s war aims—“to make the world safe for democracy”—might also find expression in the realization of democratic ideals at home.
Rocky Mount, N.C.—Declaring that they would not work under the manager, every one of the female colored operatives at the knitting mill here left their work at eleven o’clock last Thursday morning. The trouble arose when the white floor manager cursed one of the girls and attempted to otherwise abuse her. When the superintendent learned of the trouble later in the day he immediately began to visit the homes of the operatives asking them to return to work. The offending white manager was discharged and the girls returned to their work with no loss of time.
This mill is owned and managed entirely by white people. They employ colored girls from some of the best families in the city. They have made good and the management has expressed its determination to see that they are treated with respect.
Norfolk Journal and Guide, March 3, 1917.
Organized Labor Not Friendly?
Race Workers Advised To Form their Own Organizations for Better Conditions
Birmingham, Ala.—The fact that union leaders in Birmingham were moving heaven and earth to organize the Negro workers in the steel and iron and coal mines in this district while they were counseling the white laborers to murder Negro laborers in other sections of the country led Dr. A. C. Williams during his sermon Sunday at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to advise strongly against affiliation with the labor unions. “There is nothing for the Negro in white labor unions,” said Dr. Williams. Continuing, he said:
"In its province the white labor union in inimical to the Negro laborer. We have our problems which we must work out for ourselves and by ourselves. If the Negro laborer must organize, let him organize himself, and then not to antagonize capital, but to work out his own peculiar problems, to promote efficiency, and to secure more benefits for himself and his family through co-operation and sympathy of the employer.
“The Negro will never gain anything through the white labor union. He will soon find that in them he can go so far and no further [sic]. If the Negro must organize, let the organization be purely a Negro one, officered by Negroes and working only to promote the Negro’s efficiency and welfare. Every Negro must be through a leadership that in one community stands the Negro and not accomplish much trying to follow a leadership that he neither loves nor respects, and in which he has had no confidence. Under the nature of things there is nothing in common between the Negro laborer and the white union leaders . . . .”
Norfolk Journal and Guide, July 28, 1917.
Negro Workers are Organizing
First American Union of Colored Toilers
Establishes Special Employment Bureau
The first step has been taken to organize the large number of Negro working men and women of New York and vicinity into an effective labor organization. The Associated Colored Employees of America, which began its work on July 1, three days before the East St. Louis riots [in which whites attacked black neighborhoods; 10,000 African American left the city afterwards], is the first Negro labor union in this country, and, although its aim primarily is to bring about a sense of solidarity among its own people, it seeks also to spread the feeling of class consciousness.
A bulletin already has been issued by the Associated Colored Employees, the purpose of which is to give “facts concerning conditions in the North compiled for the benefit of those who some day expect or desire to be actually free.” The booklet is called “A Message From the North for Negroes.”
The association is conducting a survey and census of all Negro workers in the city and vicinity. It already has collected a mass of information regarding the trades in which Negroes are to be found, and in what numbers. These facts it will use as a first-hand source of information for colored workers eager to come here from the South. In this work it is functioning as an employment bureau, making no charge to union members, who pay $1 to enter the union, and advising the members where their particular work is to be found.
Although the survey is yet far from completed, the union has found an amazing number of instances of misfit workers. It has found graduate engineers and electricians and experienced carpenters, painters and shipbuilders doing the work of porters, elevator men and janitors. To find the work which these men should really be doing, is one of the aims of the employment bureau of the union.
Branches of the union are to be established in all cities with a Negro population of 5,000. In all of the Northern cities the Negro workers are being taught that they have within their hands the power of the ballot and they are being instructed in that use of the ballot which will bid best for the interests of the working masses. To do this educational work in an efficient manner, the union has decided to issue the Industrial Bulletin, a journal of information and comment. F. Harrison Hough is the editor of the new magazine.
New York Call, August 9, 1917.
Big Labor Day Celebration
Thousands of White and Colored Laborers Paraded Streets of City.
Harmony Between Races
Day Ended With Big Celebration at League Park And Baseball Game.
If carrying the stars and stripes is a demonstrative evidence of patriotism and loyalty to the United States, the Norfolk colored labor organizations can be styled as true friends to their country. The organizations were out very strong on Labor day. Several thousands together with the white Labor unions marched the streets of Norfolk in celebration of the day designated as their day throughout the country.
Many of the large industries in and around the city closed down to give their employers a day to celebrate and this was done in great style. Citizens of this city expressed themselves surprisingly at the great number of labor unions among the colored people. That the Negro is awakening to the necessity of organization for protection was clearly shown as well as the fact that white unions and industries in this section are beginning to recognize the Negro as an important factor in the industrial world. It was indeed the first time in the history of Norfolk that colored and white unionists combined in one parade.
Perhaps no other city in the south witnessed a similar demonstration, which was in evidence in Norfolk. Monday, thousands of white and colored laboring men all lined in one great parade all with the same object in view, minds centered upon one great central fact: That organization alone can produce the effectuality of standardizing labor in this country. The whites led the parade. Following close behind them were the various Negro unions. Among them were the Carpenters and Joiners, Coal Trimmers, Stokers, Working Women’s union and many others. The colored aggregation, numbering more than a thousand, were escorted by three bands.
The great parade Monday clearly showed the prevailing harmony which exists among the white and colored working classes of this community and is an indication of a better understanding and more harmonious racial relationship in the future.
All day long the principal streets were crowded with surging masses. Many cheers went up when the various unions would pass, each man bearing proudly “Old Glory.” In many places the sidewalks were impassable on both sides. The streets were filled with curious people eager to see the greatest labor parade of the city.
After marching down the various business streets the whites disbanded on Main street and the colored marched back to Chapel street and some disbanded but the Coal Trimmers Local and the company of soldiers with the two hands marched down Church street to the League Baseball park where Field Day sports were indulged in until four o’clock when the baseball game was called.
Fine Ball Game
About 5,000 persons were within the enclosure of the park. Long before the game the grand stand was packed. It was a beautiful game and some very pretty plays were made by both the A. F. and L. [American Federation of Labor] Giants and Titus Town Red Stockings. It was anybody’s game from the start to finish. The Titus Town boys made the first score in the second inning and again another in the fourth, but the Giants made two also in the fourth. The Red Stockings made one in the sixth but failed to cross the rubber again, while the A. F. and L. boys made two in their half of the eighth thereby winning the game 4 to 3.
The Coal Trimmers ended up the day’s pleasure by having a Grand Ball at Midway Park which was crowded to capacity.
The Longshoremen’s Union took the afternoon for their parade. This is one of the strongest local Negro organizations and they made a formidable appearance.
Norfolk Journal and Guide, September 8, 1917.
Colored Men Denied Increase
Railroad Did Not Include Them In Raise Ordered By Government
Women Ask For More Pay
Tobacco Stemmers Declare They Are Not Receiving A Living Wage
Rocky Mount, N.C.—The colored laborers of the American Federation of Labor who have been working at the Atlantic Coast Line shops, but recently walked out, five hundred in a body, because the company gave 6–1/2 per cent increase of wages to everybody except the Negroes, are still insisting that the railroad company must consider them as entitled to the increase of wages ordered by the government to all railroad employees.
They cannot understand why it is that the Swede, Pole, Jew, Italian and all save the Negro get the increase and the Negro must meet the advanced cost of living just like the others, give a harder day’s work and yet must not be benefited by the increase of wages.
It is only through such papers like the “Journal and Guide” that we can circulate the true facts in the case of these men. Had they stolen chickens every white paper would have stamped it on the minds of the nation. But since they are demanding justice and showing that they have rights that must be respected the news is suppressed. However, their bold stand for better conditions for Negro laborers is a song that must be sung by the Negro race.
Rev. Talley said in his special sermon to the men, “God wants men with their heads perpendicular to heaven with a divine will and rights that must be respected and any creature ceases to be a man when he crawls around horizontally indifferent to wrongs committee against him.”
We pray that these men will get their rights.
Tobacco Stemmers Quit
About three hundred women employed as stemmers by the American Cigar Co., at their Norfolk factory went on a strike several days ago when the management refused to accede to their demands for an increased wage scale and shorter hours. The women have organized under the Transportation Workers Association of Virginia and declare that they will not return to work until their demands are met. Mr. J. J. Long, manager of the Norfolk factory was willing to deal with the women but declined to negotiate with the union and on that account no agreement has been reached. The factory is closed down there, being no labor to operate it.
Efforts on the part of citizens to mediate the troubles between the women and their employer failed.
Norfolk Journal and Guide, September 22, 1917.
The Negro and the War
There has been much speculation as to how the American Negro will be affected by the outcome of the war. Many indulge the hope that America’s entry in the conflict to “make the world safe for democracy,” will result in giving a new meaning to democracy in America. All of which remains a matter of speculation as the war progresses. There are however, some practical and tangible benefits that are already accruing to the Negro as a result of the war. Benefits that the race is reaping as a result of circumstances the making of which seem to be providential. There is the labor situation. Nothing has occurred in fifty years to so modify the attitude of union labor toward the race as have the conditions brought on as a result of the war. The agents of the American Federation of Labor were never so active among Negroes of the South as they now are, and never before, in this section at least, have Negro labor organizations been invited to participate in a Labor Day parade with the white organizations as they were on September 3rd. On the surface[,] interest upon the part of white labor in the affairs of colored labor does not seem important, but to the far-seeing it portends the eradication of the double-standard of wages and working conditions in the South. For years it has been customary in the south to pay white and colored unequal wages for performing equal tasks, upon the assumption that a Negro was not worth as much as a white man, even if he performed the same amount of work. This policy not only made the Negro’s economic standards lower than the white man’s but kept them so. The present tendency among leaders of organized labor is toward standardized wages. And at the rate that labor is being unionized there will be a very little non-union labor available in the South in a short while.
Another significant change in conditions that will greatly improve the economic status of the race is the willingness of factory and mill owners to use colored labor in places where it has never been used before. Our Elizabeth City correspondent noted last week the action of several knitting mills in that city, that on account of the scarcity of white labor opened their doors to Negro young women and boys. Such an opening would hardly have occurred if it had not been for the war.
Not the least of the benefits that the race will derive from the war will come as a result of having white officers in Negro regiments, most of whom will come from the South. This will occur to some as a blessing in disguise. It is practically certain that no Southern white man can go to the front with a Negro regiment and come back without a changed viewpoint on all questions affecting the race. Every such officer that returns and takes up his residence in the South may be counted upon as being a safe friend of the Negro after the war.
“Making the world safe for democracy” has reference to doing away with kaisers, czars and princes; to the disillusion of Kaiser Wilhelm of his world-empire dream. But in attaining this fundamental desire the by-products of the conflict will go a long way toward lifting the burden of social and economic oppression under which the negro labors.
Norfolk Journal and Guide, 24 September 1917.
Source: Articles reprinted in Philip S. Foner and Ronald L. Lewis, eds., The Black Worker. A Documentary History from Colonial Times to the present. Volume V, The Black Worker from 1900 to 1919 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980), 431–432, 433, 433–435, 435–447.