The Economics of Inequality: A Look at Black Labor

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

“Justice is justly represented Blind, because she sees no Difference in the Parties concerned.” – William Penn


In this day, when slavery and legal segregation have long been abolished from American institutional life, most conscientious citizens would agree that racial prejudice and discrimination are morally destructive tendencies in human relations. At the same lime, modern-day scholars and Americanists have had to admit that racial discrimination has been a recurrent and influential factor throughout American history. Thus, as Pennsylvanians examine the past three centuries of their history, and reflect upon such ideals as “unity” and “diver­sity,” it is important that race relations during the life of the Commonwealth be weighed.

Despite today’s widely expressed re­pugnance to racial inequality, the most commonly held view of early Pennsyl­vania history remains one that obscures the actual history of race relations in the state. This view of Pennsylvania’s ori­gins is that the land was settled by a God-like, magnanimous William Penn who made peace with the Indian tribes already inhabiting the area when he ar­rived. Later, the state would become a hotbed of abolitionism where blacks would come to escape Southern bondage. There is some truth to this image of the “Peaceable Kingdom.” However, stand­ing by itself, this exaggerated picture of the birth or Pennsylvania sustains an unrealistic perspective on the experi­ences of black and red people in the growth of the Commonwealth.

The uprooting of the Indian tribes from Pennsylvania soil, for instance, was by no means a purely peaceful affair. It is true that Penn sought to deal justly with the Indians living in the terri­tories that would eventually grow into Pennsylvania. But scholars of American Indian life (such as Paul A. W. Wallace, William T. Hagan and Peter Farb) note that Penn’s egalitarian approach to the Indian population was abandoned rapidly by subsequent European settlers – this, despite the fact that many of the paths to natural and wildlife resources used by the new settlers, as well as sur­vival skills, had been provided by the In­dians. Coercion and manipulation of tribes into warfare against one another was often the tactic used by the new set­tlers to expel the Indians of Pennsyl­vania. Farb points out that by the middle-1700s Pennsylvania had set a bounty for a male Indian scalp at $134 and a female’s at $50. Although this bounty was later withdrawn, he notes further that “some white entrepreneurs simply hatcheted any old Indians that still survived in their towns.”

The original Indians of Pennsylvania were eventually resettled, some in out­lying states, others great distances from the mid-Atlantic region. Mohicans, some of the Delawares, and the so-called “Pennsylvania Moravian” Indians ended up in Canada. Other Delawares resettled in Ohio, Wisconsin and Oklahoma. The Iroquois, the tribe that planted the Tree of Peace in Pennsylvania before the charter for the state’s first land was granted to Penn, were decades later moved to reservations in Ontario, Quebec, New York and Wisconsin. When Penn was granted the land that would later become Pennsylvania, there were only about 500 white settlers but about 15,000 Indians. However, by 1800, there were close to 280,000 set­tlers, but onJy a scattering of Indian groups. Indeed, the Indian community of modern Pennsylvania is an unknown entity to most of today’s state residents.

Thus, a more accurate popular history of the origins of Pennsylvania must show that as European settlers spread throughout the territory, the Indian underwent social trauma – with violence begetting counter-violence and suffering of innocents begetting more suffering among these two peoples. Similarly, the introduction of blacks in the region, pri­marily for purposes of economic gain, gave birth to a dual political and legal system in colonial Pennsylvania based on color. However, unlike the Indians who were virtually obliterated from the region by their colonial experience, blacks were launched into a historic struggle to obtain equal status within the boundaries of the state.

Prior to 1729 blacks were introduced into Pennsylvania through the port of Philadelphia as slave cargo from the West Indies and South Carolina. The seminal research by modern-day histo­rian Darold D. Wax disclosed that from 1730 to 1766 the volume of black slaves arriving in Philadelphia and marketed throughout the outlying Pennsylvania countryside increased significantly. The was so high that large slave cargoes were shipped directly from the West African coast to Philadelphia. As for colonial western Pennsylvania, blacks were brought into areas such as Pittsburgh and expansive Westmoreland County as slaves and cheap labor to serve these regions’ first farmers, traders and towns­people. The vast majority of blacks in colonial Pennsylvania resided, however, in the southeastern counties.

Blacks in eighteenth-century Pennsyl­vania were systematically locked out of equitable political and legal participa­tion. During the pre-Revolutionary period, those blacks in Pennsylvania not legally slaves or indentured servants were still, in effect, non-citizens, for they had no fundamental rights. From 1700 through the American Revolution, law upon law was enacted to keep blacks tools for labor, not fully recognized men and women. Beginning in 1700 laws were established that created special courts for blacks, disallowed blacks from carrying guns except with special permits and established severe penalties for black men who assaulted white women. Other discriminatory laws dis­allowed the sale of liquor to blacks with­out permission from their masters, penalized free blacks for harboring or trading with slaves without permission from their masters, prohibited interra­cial marriages and restrained blacks from assembling in groups.

In addition to social and political re­strictions, blacks of colonial Pennsyl­vania were restrained in their economic activity to assure upward mobility for white labor. Masters often allowed slaves to acquire complex skills; so early in the eighteenth century, white workers petitioned the Assembly of Pennsylvania to prohibit employment of skilled black workers such as mechanics. In addition, a law forbidding masters from hiring their slaves out to others was passed in 1726.

The notion of black inferiority was so strongly entrenched in pre-Revolution­ary Pennsylvania that many colonial leaders deemed by conventional state history as the most high minded and lib­eral held slaves and often wantonly abused them. A case in point is Andrew Hamilton, perhaps the colony’s leading attorney up until his death in 1741. It was Andrew Hamilton who in 1735 traveled to New York and won the “freedom of the press” case of John Peter Zenger. The legal principle argued by Hamilton at this trial later became the basis for the First Amendment to the Constitution which guaranteed freedom of speech, right of assembly and the right to petition for the redress of griev­ances. However, Hamilton was a slave­owner and in his will called for the divid­ing up of the parents and children of a slave family he owned. Another example of the presence of the “peculiar institu­tion” in colonial Pennsylvania’s high political circles involves the master of Richard Allen, the pivotal black leader of the Revolutionary Era. Allen was owned by the Chief Justice of the Penn­sylvania Supreme Court, Benjamin Chew, before he was sold to another slaveowner in Delaware.

A significant minority of Pennsylvania’s colonial leadership was well aware of the egregious moral contradic­tion that slavery posed to their cause for freedom from the British. As historian Winthrop Jordan has stated, “Amidst the protests against British encroach­ments upon their liberties in the 1760s and 1770s, some Americans came to realize, in far sharper terms than ever before, that they had on their hands a color problem.” The anti-slavery im­pulse of colonial Pennsylvania resulted in the formation of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery (1775). In the meantime, blacks of Pennsylvania served both the col­onists and the British during the Revolu­tionary War. Most blacks chose the former course because they believed fighting for the Revolutionary cause would result in their eventual political freedom. However, a substantial number of Pennsylvania blacks had no such hopes and instead abandoned the United States with the British.

The work of the Pennsylvania Abol­itionist Society and the enactment of the state’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780 doubtlessly contributed to the slow ero­sion of legal slavery in Pennsylvania. The Gradual Abolition Act provided that all children born after 1780 were free; children of slave or mulatto mothers were to be servants until the age of twenty-eight; all slaves were to be registered by their masters and those not registered were to be set free; and that blacks, whether slave or free, were to be tried and punished in the same manner as whites. However, neither the society nor the Abolition Act effected enough drastic change to unfetter black com­moners from economic exploitation dur­ing the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

During the period between 1790 and 1820, many blacks continued to work in the skilled trades. In fact, the foremost labor historian Philip S. Foner estimates that perhaps most of the arti­sans in Philadelphia at this time were blacks. As in the early eighteenth cen­tury, opposition to the use of blacks in the skilled fields was a constant factor and they were blocked from joining the nation’s first trade unions which emerged in early nineteenth-century Philadel­phia. Moreover, as blacks populated areas of the state outside of Philadel­phia, race phobia among whites intensi­fied and barriers emerged which drove blacks out of community involvement and the governmental process.

One of the most dramatic nineteenth­-century movements to exclude blacks from full citizenship in the Common­wealth was the disenfranchisement cam­paign waged during the state Constitu­tional Convention of 1837-38. Over their vigorous protests, blacks were stripped formally of the right to vote during this political affair. This was a devastating blow to the patriotic morale of black Pennsylvanians, for they be­lieved such a measure was morally and democratically indefensible. As was stated in a memorial by leading Philadelphia blacks to the Constitutional Convention, disenfranchising blacks “would be a violation of the immutable principles of right, and justice, written on the hearts of all men.” It was not until after the Civil War and the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment that Penn­sylvania blacks regained the right to vote.

Throughout the Jacksonian period and up until the Civil War, two broad movements in American life upgraded significantly the status of working people. One was the growth of self-help and political organizations for laborers, and the other the spread of public schools. Blacks in the North, however, were ex­cluded largely from participation and thus benefited little from these move­ments. During these decades, blacks of Pennsylvania were driven from the skilled trades and victimized by violent attacks by working-class whites. Several anti­-black riots occurred in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in which white mobs burned and pillaged black churches, homes and assemblies, sometimes resulting in injury and death. White labor gradually ac­cepted Irish immigrants into its ranks but scorned blacks as evil competitors for their jobs. The early unions were a means of protecting whites in the skilled trades and improving their working con­ditions, but also a mechanism to out­muscle black workers in gaining jobs and economic stability.

During the mid-nineteenth century local communities and states took the lead in building public school systems. In 1854, however, the Pennsylvania legislature required all school directors to establish separate schools for blacks, resulting in unequal public systems. It was not until 1884 that this law was repealed.

The two most significant develop­ments that countered the racial caste prevalent in pre-Civil War Pennsylvania were the emergence of black social in­stitutions and the development of a sub­-community of abolition and Under­ground Railroad activists. By means of churches, mutual aid organizations and businesses, blacks nurtured literacy, vibrant cultural affairs and a modicum of economic independence in their com­munities. During the 1830s and 1840s dozens of such black self-improvement organizations were established through­out the state. For instance, in Pittsburgh and Carlisle, Juvenile Anti-Slavery Societies emerged which served as a means by which black youths collected money for the abolitionist cause. The Daughters of Temperance of Pennsyl­vania, headed by black women, had fourteen unions throughout the Com­monwealth with some fifteen hundred members. Within Philadelphia’s black community, referred to by many scholars as the capital of the entire free black community of antebellum America, there appeared such organizations as the Philadelphia Library Company of Col­ored Persons, the American Moral Reform Society (composed of influential black clergy, businessmen and abolition­ists), the Dorcas Society for aiding the poor and the Gilbert Lyceum.

Also during the antebellum period black leaders and common folk allied with white abolitionists to forge an anti­slavery network throughout Pennsyl­vania. The Underground Railroad reached into the community life of virtu­ally every county in the Commonwealth. Still, in some cases intrastate prejudice and the aggression of slave-catchers from neighboring slave states overwhelmed blacks and, consequently, they went at their defense virtually alone. The riot at Christiana (Lancaster County, 1851) in which blacks inflicted casualties on whites pursuing fugitives is a prime ex­ample.

A vital issue in the Civil War was slavery and the place of blacks in Amer­ica. The “General Strike” by the South’s slaves, as the esteemed scholar W. E. B. DuBois termed it, and the gal­lantry of blacks serving Union forces were key in the destruction of the Con­federacy. The General Strike during the Civil War was the spontaneous work stoppage and sabotage by hundreds of thousands of slaves against the South­ern aristocracy that paralyzed the Con­federate economy and war machine. Another feature of the General Strike was the estimated two-hundred thou­sand slaves who rebelled against working for their Southern masters and instead lent their labor power in direct support of the incoming Union military.

In Pennsylvania it was first necessary for blacks to enter the Union armies via Massachusetts regiments – the 54th and 55th – since Pennsylvania units would not accept them. The widespread racial prejudice in the Commonwealth at this time made it necessary for black recruits from Philadelphia to travel at night in small groups when going to join Massa­chusetts regiments. In 1863 at Camp William Penn (Montgomery County) black regiments were organized for the first time on Pennsylvania soil. In all, over 8,000 black Pennsylvanians served the Union cause.

After the Civil War, a gross discrep­ancy persisted in the economic and poli­tical status of blacks as compared with whites. During the Civil War, Northern whites, including President Lincoln, had fought for black equality more out of military necessity than moral enthu­siasm. However, as the events of the war and Reconstruction receded any preoccupation in Pennsylvania and other Northern states with equality for blacks receded as well. During the 1880s and 90s, blacks comprised only about 20Jo of the Pennsylvania population. In fact, the overwhelming majority of black Americans (about 90%) still re­sided in the South. Thus, after Recon­struction when the federal government and Northern political bloc mended rela­tions with the South, in Pennsylvania concern for the equal rights of blacks by and large evaporated. In the 1880s and 90s, discrimination against blacks in Pennsylvania prevailed in the electoral process, public school systems, public accommodations, employment and labor organizations.

The migration of Southern blacks to the Commonwealth that had begun during the Civil War and Reconstruction decades was a weak stream compared to the multitude of blacks settling in early twentieth-century Pennsylvania. It is clear that the rapid expansion of the state’s black community overstrained both public institutions and civic life which whites had come to traditionally control. Viewing the political and racial situation in Philadelphia during 1905, for example, DuBois was of the opinion that the Reconstruction trauma which the South had experienced was now be­ing repeated in the City of Brotherly Love. Those upstanding blacks (whom DuBois termed “the native Philadel­phian of Negro descent – member of an educated and well-to-do group of people”) had lost their interest in the political process because of prejudice and corruption. In the meantime, Phila­delphia’s 25,000 voters were floundering in the political system. DuBois stated:

There is no democratic government in Philadelphia. . . . There is an oli­garchy of ward politicians and busi­ness men using public office for private gain. Into this system a new mass of untrained Negro voters were cast. . . . [Now] we have an exact repetition here of the recon­struction difficulties in the South on a smaller scale. The brother thieves of the Credit Mobilier, the Tweed ring, and the other Northern trick­sters, began the looting of the Southern states. They used the ignorant Negroes for their tools.

DuBois despairingly urged those who controlled Philadelphia not to continue this pattern but to break it by expanding political education of the masses and eliminating political bossism.

Despite the harshness of life and em­ployment confronting most blacks in Pennsylvania, the South promised only near starvation and physical abuse. Thus, during the 1910s Southern blacks continued to move to Pennsylvania enthusiastically. Throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, the greatest number of these black new­comers settled in Philadelphia (which by 1920 had 134,229 blacks or slightly over 47% of the state’s black population); Pittsburgh (37,725 or 13%); Chester (7,125 or 2.5%); and Harrisburg (5,248 or 1.8%). These black migrants filled the menial and manufacturing job open­ings attendant with the state’s wartime industrial boom. Also around the time of W.W. I, Pennsylvania’s upper and middle classes were expanding, a fact which created greater demand for black restaurant workers, maids and other personal service workers. Yet in some cities, Like Philadelphia and Chester, competition between working-class whites and blacks for jobs and housing resulted in bloody race riots.

Prior to 1915, blacks in Pennsylvania and elsewhere had frequently been excluded from factory work; the industrial mobilization for W.W. I caused a his­toric reversal of this pattern. The mas­sive losses of youth to military service and the curtailment of European immi­gration left manufacturing employers with no choice but to hire the black American. In 1910 there were 23,797 blacks in Pennsylvania’s manufacturing and mechanical industries. By 1920 this number had increased over 151 0/o, to 59,774. Besides steel mm and factory work, other lines of employment which opened for the first time to significant numbers of blacks during W.W. I were transportation, mining, clerical occupa­tions and trade.

By the early 1920s employment of blacks in many Pennsylvania industries had peaked, and a substantial decline was evident in 1925. That year the number of blacks in manufacturing and the mechanical fields had dropped from the 1920 level by almost 20%, to 48,974. This shrinkage in black labor is indica­tive of the rigidity of a racial caste prevalent at this time. For as business ac­tivity experienced a post-war downturn and the availability of white labor in­creased, employers either ignored or sifted out under-utilized black labor.

Nor could Pennsylvania’s black workers rely on the growing union movement to protect or generate their employment gains. In 1927 a compre­hensive survey on the economic and social conditions of Pennsylvania blacks was conducted by the state’s Depart­ment of Welfare. It found that “Negroes were advanced much farther during the hectic days of the War than white labor would willingly accept after war time.” Their survey of black par­ticipation in unions throughout the state revealed that only a minority of black workers were union members. Only about 7,100 blacks in the state, for ex­ample, were members of the American Federation of Labor unions. The largest black membership was in the Interna­tional Longshoremen’s Association which manned the docks of Philadel­phia, while a scattering of blacks were in the Hod Carriers and the Teamsters and Haulers. The overwhelming majority of Pennsylvania’s black workers, however, were alienated from the AFL and had no representation in the unions of the machine workers and other highly skilled trades. “The Negro labor leader is a weak creature at the present time,” the Welfare survey stated, and ” … the more intelligent Negroes … will not ac­cept appointments as organizers because in most cases they are expected either to form [or join) segregated locals.”

Throughout the Depression decade, Pennsylvania’s black labor was static in terms of inter-occupational mobility. In Philadelphia, for instance, black men formed only about 12% of the city’s population but made up over 42% of its total unskilled work force. Also, black women in the city constituted about the same proportion of the total female population (i.e. 12%) but filled over one-half of the domestic servant jobs in Philadelphia.

The advent of W.W. II brought a repeat of the shift in the racial character of Pennsylvania labor that had occurred during W.W. I. Once again there was a heavy influx of Southern-born blacks settling to work in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and the industrial rings sur­rounding these two cities. However, unlike the 1910s, the discrimination against black workers of the 1940s was, first, less tolerated by blacks themselves and, secondly, more widely opposed by other public and government sectors.

The event which perhaps marked a historic turning point in the experi­ence of black labor in Pennsylvania was the Philadelphia Transit Strike of 1944. On August 1st of that year, the street­cars, buses and trolleys of the city were brought to a grinding halt when about 5,000 white workers walked out on strike. At issue was the plan by manage­ment (the Philadelphia Transportation Company) to upgrade eight black street­car operators. Blacks comprised less than 5% of P.T.C.’s employees and served as porters and other menial workers, while skilled occupations like operators, motormen and conductors, were traditionally restricted to whites. This work stoppage had a nationwide impact because Philadelphia was a lead­ing military production center for the nation, and the strike prevented hun­dreds of thousands of Philadelphia workers from reaching their employ­ment sites.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, act­ing in the interest of national security, organized federal intervention, including deployment of army troops to the city, which finally brought the strike to a halt. Moreover, the city’s NAACP, while agitating vigorously for the rights of the black operators, played a key peace-keeping role throughout this potentially explosive crisis. Thus, the massive racial bloodshed that seemed at hand in Philadelphia never materialized.

Most investigations into the Philadel­phia Transit Strike of 1944 concur that racial prejudice was the central cause of the crisis. As a petition by the white union membership to the P.T.C. man­agement had stated quite bluntly: “Gen­tlemen: We the white employees of the PTC, refuse to work with Negroes as motormen, conductors, operators and station trainmen.” But these studies also indicate that there were other factors underlying the strike, such as inter­-union competition, the lack of positive leadership by management and long­standing fears among Philadelphia’s whites about job losses.

The Philadelphia Transit Strike was indeed a turning point. It demonstrated to the black community that their campaign for equality in employment was most effective when it was two pronged. First, it was necessary for activist groups to mobilize the support of blacks and sincere liberals of the local community. Secondly, however, it was equally important for these civil rights groups to generate action by federal governmental bodies to eliminate local discriminatory practices. Indeed, immediately following the Transit Strike and other similar in­cidents that occurred in other pares of the nation during W.W. II, civil rights groups pressured the federal government to take the lead in eliminating employ­ment discrimination.

With the exception of segregation in public education, perhaps no other issue after W.W. II was attacked with more vigor by equal rights activists than dis­crimination in employment. As a result, between 1954 and 1964 not only was the legal basis for discrimination in public education destroyed, but racial barriers in employment fields and unions were also substantially reduced. Unfor­tunately, the Local, state and federal government regulations against employ­ment discrimination that emerged in the 1950s and early 60s did not prove a suffi­cient remedy for the profound despair and resentment of the impoverished black citizenry concentrated in the state’s cities. Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and smaller Pennsylvania communities were the scenes of some of the racial violence that rippled across the country from 1964 to the early 1970s.

Indeed, this snapshot of the experi­ence of black labor during the growth of the Commonwealth suggests that Penn’s vision of equality for all of the state’s residents has yet to be realized. On this issue at least, although inroads have been made over the past 300 years, the vision of total equality is yet to be made a complete reality.


For Further Reading

Blockson, Charles L. Pennsylvania’s Black History. Philadel­phia: Portfolio Associates, Inc., 1975.

____. The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania. Jackson­ville, N.C.: Flame International, Inc., 1980.

DuBois, W. E. B. The Philadelphia Negro, A Social Study. New York: Schocken Books, 1967 [reprint of 1899 edition].

Griffith, Cyril and Oblinger, Carl, eds. Pennsylvania Heri­tage, Special Edition: Black History and Culture. Vol. 4, No. 1. Harrisburg: PHMC, 1977.

Hagan, William T. American Indians. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Saunders, John A. 100 Years After Emancipation – History of the Philadelphia Negro. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Tribune, n.d.

Turner, Edward Raymond. The Negro in Pennsylvania: Slav­ery, Servitude, Freedom, 1639-1861. New York: Arno Press, 1969 [reprint of 1910 edition].

Wright, Richard R., Jr. The Negro in Pennsylvania: A Study in Economic History. New York: Arno Press, 1969 [reprint of 1912 edition].


David McBride received his Ph.D. from Columbia University, specializing in Afro-American, labor and quantitative history. He was formerly an associate historian with the PHMC and is currently the director of a community-based youth education and employment program in Philadelphia. One of his several publica­tions is The Afro-American in Pennsyl­vania: A Critical Guide to Sources in the Pennsylvania State Archives.