Black Labor History

Negro History Week was celebrated for the first time in 1926 during the second week in February. This month was chosen because Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln celebrate their birthdays during the month. In 1976 Negro History Week became Black History Month and the rich history of African Americans began to receive special attention during the entire month of February.

As historians take a closer look at the many facets of black history in this country, they often find themselves documenting not only the struggle of an oppressed people but how that struggle was part of a larger social and economic movement to improve the lives of the working class.

In, “The Power of Remembering: Black Factory Workers and Union Organizing in the Jim Crow Era,” Michael Honey addresses this idea when he writes, “The black freedom struggle is a long one. It is inter-generational, multi-layered, and includes all classes of folk. More often than not, history tells us about educators, professionals, preachers, and others who we perceive as leading the movement for change. To really understand the freedom struggle, however, we must know about the life histories of ordinary people, the disinherited, working-class and poor people who rarely appear in the history books. To locate their stories, historians have increasingly shifted their research to the local level and to the years and the generations prior to the 1954-1965 period, usually considered the high point of the civil rights struggle in the South. Attention to these earlier years has begun to direct our vision toward connections between community, civil rights, and labor struggles, toward the crucial perspective and influence of women, and toward the role of ordinary people in creating the basis for change.”

Read about Michael Honey’s work here.

Additional Resources


Specialized Sites

Civil Rights and Labor:

Joint Struggles for Justice

by Corinne Geballe

The civil rights movement and the labor movement in the U.S. shared many significant similarities in their respective struggles for dignity and equality for all. This curriculum unit with its six lessons illuminates the key similarities between the two movements.

The A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum
The museum is located in the Historic Pullman District in Chicago. Its mission is to promote, honor and celebrate the legacy of A. Philip Randolph and contributions made by African-Americans to America’s labor history.

“I Am A Man,” Video of the 1869 Memphis Sanitation Strike.

“African Americans And The American Labor Movement,” By James Gilbert Cassidy.

This special issue is presented on the National Archives And Records Administration’s website. The paper is most helpful for anyone wishing to study this topic in detail using resources available through the agencies of the U.S. government.

Articles And Books

Black Feedom Fighters in Steel: The Struggle for Democratic Unionism by Ruth Needleman

Servitude to Service: African-American Women as Wage Earners: Rita G. Koman

For Jobs and Freedom: Race and Labor in America since 1865 by Robert H. Zieger analyzes the position of African American workers in the U.S. economy and social order over the past century and a half. It focuses on black workers’ efforts to gain equal rights in the workplace and deals extensively with organized labor’s complex and sometimes troubled relationship to African American workers.

Films And Videos

“Oh Freedom After While”
The story of the 1939 interracial sharecroppers strike in Missouri.

“For the better part of the century, Randolph was a major force spreading the civil rights and labor movements…An engrossing presentation of his life and times.” Washington Post

“A Phillip Randolph – For Jobs And Freedom”

“At The River I Stand,” An excellent film on the movement which drew Martin Luther King to Memphis and his death. It reveals how the black and labor movements both win by struggling together!” Julian Bond, Chair, NAACP

“Miles Of Smiles, Years Of Struggle,” “A moving account of the Pullman porters’ remarkable (and largely untold) history.” Washington Post

Coalition of Black Trade Unionists


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