Expanding your knowledge in the African American Experience


Labor Day and African Americans

National Colored Convention in 1869

American History books on most occasions don’t include African Americans. The Labor Day holiday became a Federal Holiday in 1894, yet many Americans don’t know much about this holiday. Labor Day was forged by the violent struggle of many Americans, especially African Americans for workers rights many workers enjoy today.

One reason American’s don’t know much about Labor Day is due to Newspapers back in those times till now who don’t publish much about America’s labor and unions. This is due to it’s silent partnership or ownership of wealthy companies who’s advertising dollars they depend upon. These days nothing has changed with the advent of television and newspapers who depend on the dollars of wealthy corporations who don’t want labor and the Union’s history to be known. Most elementary and high school text books give little mention of the history of labor due business and conservatives who don’t want this part of American history taught to children. On rare occasions, media will publish the aftermath of a protest which became violent blaming the Unions for the destruction.

During the birth of America’s industrial age in the late 1700s what would be known as robber barons worked American men, women and children on average of six days and 60 or more hours a week. Wages were low and children had to work to supplement family incomes to survive. Both adults and children worked under dangerous conditions, being exposed to chemicals and equipment without safety mechanisms.

Yet history speaks very little of free African American labor disputes during the times of US slavery. In 1835 free African Americans were involved in a strike at a Washington Navy Yard. African American workers played an important role in the caulking trade preventing Navy ships from leaking water.

In 1869 African Americans formed the “Colored National Labor Union” in Washington, DC. The Colored National Labor Union fought for African American’s workers rights. The Colored National Labor Union was very organized with Civil Rights leader Frederick Douglass as one of the Labor Unions first presidents. The Colored National Labor Union spoke of the need for Americans of all nationalities to come together to insure workers rights and safety.

In the same year of the Colored National Labor Union formation, the Knights of Labor answered the call and formed one of America’s first labor organizations that included African Americans and women. The Knights of Labor unfortunately didn’t except the Chinese into the Union. Knights of Labor demanded an 8 hour day, eliminating child labor and safer working conditions. The Knights of Labor used boycotts and protests to encourage better working conditions for American laborers. By 1886 the Knights of Labor had over 700,000 members.

On May 4, 1886 at Haymarket Square in Chicago workers were involved in a peaceful rally in support of striking workers who wanted an eight hour work day. During the rally police confronted demonstrators telling them to leave. An unknown person allegedly threw a bomb at police. Police then fired upon demonstrators attending the rally.

The gunfire resulted in the deaths of several police officers and demonstrators. Seven demonstrators at the rally were arrested and given a death sentence. Four demonstrators were hanged on Nov. 11, 1887, one committed suicide and two were released by the governor of Illinois. The demonstrators convicted had not thrown the bomb, but was only guilty of attending the rally.

In 1873-74 African American dock workers organized a Workingman’s association to successfully defend their employment against dock owners who tried to replace them with Canadian workers.

November 22, 1887 an unknown number of African Americans were killed during a sugar strike in Louisiana. This incident was known as the Thibodaux massacre. Approximately 9,000 African Americans who were members of the Knights of Labor organization were on strike to obtain pay in dollars instead of pasteboard tickets used at company stores as pay. Workers wanted to be paid bi-weekly on a regular basis.

State district Judge Taylor Beattie an ex-slave holder, ex-confederate soldier and sugar cane planter, declared martial law and organized a vigilante group in an effort to end the strike. Beattie told African Americans they would need to show a pass to enter of leave city limits. When African Americans resisted Marshall law three days of violence ignited by the vigilantes resulted in African American strikers and their families being killed.

An African American newspaper described the scene: “Six killed and five wounded’ is what the daily papers here say, but from an eye witness to the whole transaction we learn that no less than thirty-five Negroes were killed outright. Lame men and blind women shot; children and hoary-headed grandsires ruthlessly swept down! The Negroes offered no resistance; they could not, as the killing was unexpected. Those of them not killed took to the woods, a majority of them finding refuge in this city.” Others sources reported killings in other Louisiana Parishes.

The African American labor struggle is a major part of the foundation of the building of America. This article has only covered a brief portion of labor struggles, from 1835 to 1877, yet African American children and many adults these days don’t know this part of their history. Possessing no knowledge of how much we contributed to the Labor Day Holiday we enjoy today.


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