Black History and Culture is a special edition of 15 features devoted to the history and heritage of African Americans in Pennsylvania, from the American Revolution to World War II, published December 1977.


It is important to understand the relationship be­ tween Black and white labor from the time of slavery to the Civil War in order to understand the position of Blacks in the early labor movement. Since the early trade unions were primarily for skilled workers, the elimination of Blacks from the skilled trades helps explain their absence from the unions. In addition, the conflict between white and Black labor established a heritage which was difficult to overcome even when slavery was abolished.

Blacks in Pennsylvania had enjoyed a favorable position in the craft trades before the end of Pennsylvania slavery. As slaves, they had acquired certain skills. The advertise­ments for runaway Blacks suggest that a substantial number of slaves were purchased for iron work as skilled laborers. While many served as unskilled laborers, too, they even­tually became competent in the specialized tasks associated with iron production. Some of the slaves were described in advertisements as hammermen, liners and keepers, smiths, forge carpenters, and forgemen. These were highly skilled positions at the iron furnace.

In other aspects of Pennsylvania’s diversified colonial economy, Blacks performed skilled work. Since trained white craftsmen were in short supply in Pennsylvania as elsewhere in colonial America, slave labor was used in such crafts and trades as the building trades, coopering, milling and baking, sailmaking, barbering, silversmithing, tanning, skinning, and sailing. Sailing was especially appealing since privateers departing Philadelphia carried many Blacks fleeing slavery, and the shipmasters seldom heeded the admonitions of colonial administrators forbidding Black seamen.

Even after the colonial period, many Negroes continued to work as mechanics. In fact, between 1790 and 1820, a large proportion, and perhaps most, of the artisans of Philadelphia were Black. In many instances, employers hired Black rather than white laborers, since Negroes would work for lower wages.

Quite early, the use of Blacks in these skilled trades aroused some, but not serious, opposition. Some people argued that the skill required to fashion articles of culture or necessity could just as easily be used to fashion weapons that could be turned against the Blacks’ own masters and the entire white community. The major protest, however, came from white workers who complained of the de­pressing and demoralizing effect of skilled Black labor on white labor. As early as 1708, free mechanics in Phila­delphia complained of the “want of employment, and lowness of wages, occasioned by the number of Negroes … hired out to work by the day.”

After 1820, however, the combination of immigration and the hostility of white working men, especially the Irish, prevented many of those Negroes who possessed skills from using them, and kept most younger Blacks from gaining apprenticeships and learning a trade. Whites’ attempts to gain toeholds in the skilled positions drove Negroes out of employment. Niles’ Weekly Register of August 30, 1834, carried the following on its front page:

Though gatherings of large numbers of people at Philadelphia to commit acts of violence, had ceased after the third night – many excesses subsequently took place, and colored persons, when engaged in their usual avocations, were repeatedly assailed and maltreated, especially on the Schuylkill front of the city. Parties of white men have insisted that no Blacks shall be employed in certain departments of labor.

“P.O.,” a perceptive analyst of the Moyamensing area of Philadelphia, which housed Irish weavers and unskilled laborers, among them numerous Blacks, wrote that by 1849 the Irish had effectively driven the Blacks from the Schuylkill docks: “… where a few years ago we saw none but Blacks, we now see nothing but Irish.” Indeed, there was a dramatic decline in the number of Black steve­dores and hod carriers in Philadelphia County during the latter half of the 1840’s. Blacks were also driven from the skilled trades and limited to positions of servants and manual laborers, and even then were often deprived of the opportunity to work.

Between 1820 and 1850, Blacks not only lost their traditional means of employment but they also became the victims of violence. Eight major riots were directed against Black people in Philadelphia, and there were several in Pittsburgh. In each case, white mobs burned and looted Negro churches, meeting halls, and homes, and clubbed, stoned, and sometimes murdered Blacks.

There were various reasons for native-white and Irish intransigence in the 1830’s, 40’s, and 50’s. Even when Irish and native-white workers secured street trades (stevedores, etc.). or gained entrance into consumer industries or sweatshops, their economic position did not improve. In the sweatshops, for instance, vigorous routine emerged, wages declined, and opportunity for advancement was limited. All this made workmen reluctant to admit another source of cheap labor and more competition for wages. Early trade unions were designed as much to protect these exposed trades for white men as to win better working conditions and higher wages for their members. Blacks, naturally, were the scapegoats of the unions and not the new trends in mechanization.



Philadelphia proudly boasted that it was the birthplace of the American labor movement. The first authentic strike in American history occurred in Philadelphia in 1786; the first organization to maintain a permanent union was formed in the city in 1792; the first labor paper, the Mechanics’ Free Press, appeared in Philadelphia in 1827; in the fall of that same year, fifteen Philadelphia unions formed the Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations, the first city central labor body in America; and in 1828, the first labor party in this country was formed in Philadelphia.

But Black workers could take little pride in Philadel­phia’s reputation as a pioneer trade-union center, for although they were members of the city’s labor force. they were rigidly excluded from all of its trade unions. The National Trades Union, official organ of the labor body bearing the same name, and published in Philadelphia, explained in 1835 that Negroes could not belong to unions of white workers since they were inherently inferior to whites, and were actually employers’ tools to hinder the growth of unions and keep white workers oppressed. The short-lived Industrial Congress – a national organization of reformers and workingmen – did admit Negro delegates to an 1851 convention, but the Mechanics’ Assembly of Philadelphia was so resentful of the admission of Blacks that it voted to sever all ties with the Industrial Congress.

John Campbell, a British Chartist who had risen to prominence as a leader of the Typographical Union in Philadelphia, applauded the stand of the Mechanics’ Assembly. Indeed, in a book he published in 1851, with the flaming title, Negro-Mania, Campbell summarized the prevailing views of the trade unions in Philadelphia when he wrote:

Will the white race ever agree that blacks should stand beside us on election day, upon the rostrum, in the ranks of the army, in our places of amusement, in places of public worship, ride in the same coaches, railway cars, or steamships? Never! never! nor is it natural or just that this kind of equality should exist. God never intended it.

During the Civil War, anti-Negro sentiment in northern working-class circles grew even more bitter. Opposition to the presence of Black workers, who were accused of ac­cepting wages lower than those paid to white workers, expressed itself in strikes against employers who used Negroes, and often in violence against Blacks. Longshore­men in Philadelphia, as well as in other major northern ports, engaged in periodic clashes with Negro workers over employment on the docks.

Unfortunately, the leading labor paper of the era, Fincher’s Trade Review, published in Philadelphia, did nothing to help eradicate this racism from the ranks of white labor. The Review, edited by Jonathan Fincher of the Typographical Union, had on its editorial board rep­resentatives of the molders, printers, ship carpenters, stone cutters, cabinet makers, carpenters, hatters, and shoe­makers unions in Philadelphia. Between its first issue on June 6, 1863, and its last on August 18, 1866, the publica­tion appeared every Saturday. Yet not once did it call upon the unions of Pennsylvania to lower their barriers against Black workers and permit them to enter their ranks and work beside the white workers in shops and factories. Indeed, Fincher’s Trade Review paid no at­tention whatsoever to the fact that Black workers in Phila­delphia were deprived of the right to use the streetcars. Fincher’s Trade Review may have called itself “An Advo­cate of the Rights of the Producing Classes,” but either it did not believe that Black workers belonged to the “producing classes,” or it did not believe that they had rights.

Although they were excluded from white unions even after the end of slavery, Black workers in Pennsylvania were able, on occasion, to join forces with whites in com­mon struggle. In Philadelphia, the Black brickmakers struck jointly with whites in July, 1868, for higher wages. While the strike was largely a failure, it did stimulate the organiza­tion of Black workers in the city. By the fall of 1868, there was not only an active Colored Brickmakers’ Associa­tion, but also a large Hod Carriers’ and Laborers’ Associa­tion, and a Workingmen’s Union built by Negroes of Phila­delphia.

Elsewhere, too, Black workers were forming their own organizations and going out on strike. Even though some of these walkouts did not end in victory, they did mark the entry of the Black working class into the labor movement – albeit a separate movement of its own.

Meanwhile, a labor-Negro alliance was being discussed by some farsighted labor leaders, headed by William H. Sylvis, Pennsylvania-born head of the Iron Molders’ Nation­al Union, the outstanding labor leader of the era, and co­founder of the National Labor Union in 1866. Although Sylvis had been a Douglas Democrat before the Civil War, he had helped recruit a company of molders for the Penn­sylvania militia in which he served, and after the war he became convinced that either the newly emancipated Blacks had to be enlisted in the labor movement, or they would be used by employers against the white trade unions.

Sylvis warned those unions that excluded Negro workers that their “fanatical bigotry” jeopardized the future of the labor movement, for it was “impossible to degrade one group of workers without degrading all.” Besides, he said, labor must realize that as a result of the Radical Reconstruction program of the Republican Party, initiated in 1867, the Negro now had the suffrage in the South, would soon gain the ballot in the North, and even hold the balance of political power in the nation. “If we can succeed in convincing these people to make common cause with us … we will have a power … that will shake Wall Street out of its boots,” he declared. But, Sylvis continued, it was too much to expect the Negro to use his ballot in the cause of a labor movement that denied him not only membership, but even the opportunity to earn an honest living.

Sylvis was not completely free of racist views, and these marred his insight into the crucial issue of Black-white labor relations. But he did understand more clearly than most other white labor leaders the need to build a Black-white labor alliance. Unfortunately, both his advanced views and his organizing genius were lost to the American labor movement when he died suddenly on July 26, 1869. Yet before his death, Sylvis, as president of the National Labor Union, provided that organization’s forthcoming convention with a magnificent opportunity to achieve labor unity. In December, 1868, he and the Executive Committee of the NLU met in Washington, D. C., and, in a precedent-shattering action, made the organization’s first official overture to the Negro by extending a formal invitation to all persons interested in the labor movement, regardless of color or sex, to attend the organization’s annual convention in Philadelphia on August 16, 1869.

Nine Black delegates were present at the 1869 NLU convention, representing unions of Black workers in Mary­land and Pennsylvania. Chosen to represent the Black workers of Maryland were Isaac Myers of the Colored Caulkers’ Trade Union Society, Ignatius Gray of the Colored Moulders’ Union Society, Robert H. Butler of the Colored Engineers’ Association, and James W. W. Hare of the Colored Painters’ Society. The five delegates selected to represent the Black workers of Pennsylvania were Robert M. Adger and Peter P. Brown of the United Hod Carriers’ and Laborers’ Association of Pennsylvania, John H. Thomas and James Roane of the United Curriers Union No. 2 of Philadelphia, and Isiah Weir of the Workingmen’s Union of Philadelphia. It is difficult to determine whether there was communication between the Pennsylvania and Maryland delegates before the convention, but once they arrived in Philadelphia, the Black delegates acted as a group, and Isaac Myers spoke for the Pennsylvania as well as the Maryland Black workers in his magnificent address to the convention.

Myers opened by paying tribute to the delegates for their awareness of the need for unity between Negro and white workers: “Silent, but powerful and far-reaching is the revolution inaugurated by your act in taking the colored laborer by the hand and telling him his interest is common with yours.” White workers, he assured the delegates, had nothing to fear from Black laborers, for they desired just what the whites wanted, and were ready to join in a common struggle to achieve it. Cooperation had not always existed in the past because the workshops and trade unions had been barred to the Negro, and he had, therefore, been compelled to put his labor on the market for whatever he could get. Myers warned against the continuation of such rivalry; he stressed the desire of the Negro to cooperate in the future. Even though they were uttered more than a century ago, his words have lost none of their significance:

American citizenship is a complete failure if he [the Negro] is proscribed from the workshops of this country – if any man cannot employ whom he chooses, and if he cannot work for any man whom he will. If citizenship means anything at all, it means the freedom of labor, as broad and as universal as the freedom of the ballot.

Myers then asked pointedly whether “the minor or­ganizations throughout the country” would be influenced by the convention’s example in admitting Black delegates. As for the Blacks: “We carry no prejudices. We are willing to forget the wrongs of yesterday, and let the dead past bury its dead.”

The very presence of Black trade unionists at a white labor convention in the city of Philadelphia, notorious for its anti-Negro practices, did not escape national notice. The Philadelphia correspondent of the New York Times reported:

When a native Mississippian and an ex-confederate officer, in addressing a convention, refers to a colored delegate who has preceded him as “the gentleman from Georgia,” when a native Alabaman, who has for the first time crossed the Mason and Dixon line, and who was from boyhood taught to regard the Negro simply as a chattel, sits in deliberate consultation with another delegate whose ebony face glistens with African sheen, and signs the report of his colored co-delegate, when an ardent and Democratic partisan (from New York at that) declares with a “rich Irish brogue” that he asks tor himself no privilege as a mechanic or as a citizen that he is not willing to concede to every other man, white or black – when I say, these things can be seen or heard at a national convention, called for any purpose, then one may indeed be warranted in asserting that time works curious changes.

And all this was seen and heard in the City of Philadelphia during these August days in this year of grace 1869. Who shall say now, that prejudices, no matter how strongly they may have been implanted in the human breast, may not be rooted out?

The Chicago Workingman’s Advocate, official organ of the National labor Union, called upon the labor movement to follow the example of the 1869 convention and honor the memory of the great William H. Sylvis by putting an end to the exclusion of Negroes from trade-unions. But even the NLU did not go that far. Rather, the 1869 convention adopted a resolution encouraging the organization of separate Negro unions to be affiliated with the NLU. In addition, a special committee of five Black delegates was appointed to “organize the colored men of Pennsylvania into labor unions” and report their progress to the president of the NLU.

The Black delegates did not object to the policy of separate unionism. Robert H. Butler of the Colored Engineers’ Association of Maryland emphasized that Black workers were not looking for “parlor sociabilities, but for the rights of mankind.” Unfortunately, few trade unions were willing to accord Black workers “the right of mankind.” Typical was the action of the fifth annual session of the Carpenters and Joiners National Union in September, 1869. The Committee on Colored Labor reported the following resolution, which was adopted by the entire convention;

Resolved, that we are ever willing to extend the hand of fellowship to every laboring man, more especially to those of our own craft; we believe that the prejudices of our members against the colored people are of such a nature that it is not expedient at present to admit them as members or to organize them under the National Union.

This policy doomed the attempt to “organize the colored men of Pennsylvania into labor unions” and affiliate them with the National Labor Union. At the 1870 convention, the committee appointed to supervise this effort reported that the prejudice against Black workers among the white trade unions of Pennsylvania had rendered the organizing drive stillborn. This outcome came as no surprise to The Christian Recorder, the official organ of the A.M.E. Church, published in Philadelphia. While it had praised the actions taken at the NLU convention, it had warned that “the ineffable meanness as well as the stupidity of the American Trades-Unions in regard to color” was too deeply ingrained to expect action “consistent with common sense and the spirit of our American democracy.”

It was to take at least another decade, with the emergence of the Knights of labor, before these characteristics were to change to any important extent. But even during this development, and the organization of thousands of Black workers into the Knights of labor, “the ineffable meanness as well as stupidity” of too many trade unions “in regard to color” did not disappear, and the battle to eradicate racism in the American labor movement was to continue – and, indeed, is still being waged today.


Dr. Philip S. Foner received his M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University and is currently professor of history, Lincoln University, Oxford, Pennsylvania. Dr. Foner is a prolific writer, having edited or authored thirty-seven books in such diverse areas as the lives and works of Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois, Jack London, Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Thomas Jefferson, and Franklin Roosevelt; and the histories of various working-class, Black, labor, and socialist movements.