Workers on Arrival: Black Labor in the Making of America

Workers on Arrival: Black Labor in the Making of America

by Joe William Trotter Jr.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520299450
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/08/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 339,948
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Joe William Trotter, Jr., is Giant Eagle Professor of History and Social Justice and Founder and Director of the Center for Africanamerican Urban Studies and the Economy at Carnegie Mellon University. He is the author of Black Milwaukee and Coal, Class, and Color and past President of the Labor and Working Class History Association.

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Genesis of the Black Working Class

BY THE LATE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, the enslaved African population had increased to well over a thousand in each of five cities: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston, and New Orleans. In the wake of the American Revolution, the free wage-earning black population had also expanded alongside the enslaved black working class. These black workers, both enslaved and free, fueled the rise of the early American city as they also enhanced the wealth and power of urban slave-owners and employers. Working as general laborers, domestic servants, building and construction laborers, deckhands, sailors, ship pilots, artisans, and factory workers, African people were indispensable to the growth and development of the new nation. Despite their crucial contributions to the rise of preindustrial America, however, free workers of color were not rewarded with increased opportunities and rights. In the first half of the nineteenth century, they encountered sharp competition from rising numbers of European immigrants, mostly from Germany and Ireland. At the same time, they lived and worked under the burden of racially restrictive labor legislation; a vigorous, white-led African recolonization movement; and mob violence. As a result, free blacks lost access to increasing numbers of jobs in the skilled crafts as well as the most coveted general labor and household-service occupations. Still, they were active participants in the making of their own lives as well as the New World social order.


The first urban black workers and their children cleared and leveled land, cut firewood, and prepared ground for the erection of buildings, for crop cultivation, and for burying the dead. In 1723, among 88 survivors of one slave voyage to New Orleans, 50 enslaved men dug drainage ditches along the Mississippi River and constructed levees; 35 raised buildings on the company's plantation; and another 3 returned to work in the seafaring transatlantic trade system. France may have founded New Orleans and Louisiana, "but it was slaves from Senegal to Congo who laid the foundation," historian Lawrence Powell concludes in his study of the city's history. Similarly, within months of Charlestown's founding in 1670, the demand for enslaved blacks became so intense that buyers sometimes came "very nearly to Blows" wrangling over "who should get the good Slaves." Enslaved people toiled "in the streets of Charles Town, in the Anglican church and in the market, and in gentry dining rooms, kitchens, and stableyards." For their part, early Afro–New Yorkers worked on the establishment and maintenance of the Dutch bouwerys (farms), Fort Amsterdam, and public roads. They also burned limestone and oyster shells for use in outhouses and for interring the dead. Only "a great deal of money," promises, and "bribe[s]," the Dutch West India Company declared, would induce white workers to perform such labor on behalf of the colony's survival and development.

In Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Gazette regularly advertised for slaves suited for both rural and urban labor, including household service. As indentured white servants increasingly "reneged on their contracts" and searched for "less restrictive employment" opportunities, one of Philadelphia's most active slave traders vigorously urged the "more general use of Slaves" over free white workers. Bostonians, too, hoped to recruit "slaves sufficient to doe" all their general labor and household work. In 1740, an English visitor observed the use of black men as servants: When the Boston "ladies ride out to take the air in a chaise or chair ... they have a negro servant drive them. The gentlemen [also] ride out here as in England ... with their negroes to attend."

African people helped to build and service the colonial city not only as general laborers and household and domestic workers but also as skilled craftsmen and craftswomen. Wealthy European merchants, artisans, and diverse business owners purchased, trained, and employed Africans as brick masons, carpenters, cabinetmakers, sailmakers, bakers, coopers, and tailors, among other trades. By the eve of the American Revolution, slaveholders encouraged black Philadelphians to learn trades and placed a large "share of the ordinary trades of the city in their hands." The New York Gazette as well as the Boston News Letter, Boston Chronicle, and Boston Gazette regularly carried ads for the purchase of slave coopers, carpenters, joiners, tailors, bakers, blacksmiths, and sometimes printers. In 1719, when a New York colonial court sentenced an African American blacksmith to death for theft, his owner, also a blacksmith, asked the court to spare the slave's life, arguing that he himself was a "very poor Lame and Antient man" and that he had "nothing whereby to sustain himself but what is procured by the Labour of the said Negro man."

Blacks worked in an even broader range of skilled crafts in the urban South than in the North. New Bern, Petersburg, Richmond, and other smaller southern towns and cities employed significant numbers of enslaved craftsmen, but skilled blacks found their greatest opportunities for artisan labor in New Orleans, Charleston, and later to some extent Baltimore. Between 1750 and 1779, Charleston probate records revealed that no less than 73 percent of the city's artisans owned slaves upon their death. White artisans worked and cooperated "with slaves on a daily basis as blacks and whites learned their trades together." On one occasion, a carpenter, Thomas Bennett, sought "immediately a handy white lad and two negro boys as apprentices to carpenter's trade." Between 1770 and 1799, Charleston's white artisans placed twice as many newspaper advertisements for black as for white workers. In 1728, the governor of Louisiana reported "placing negroes as apprentices with all the workmen who we think are good and honest men, and if the same practice had been followed when they were first sent to the colony, we could at present do without several white men." By 1732, numerous New Orleans tradesmen and merchants owned blacks "whom they housed and trained in their shops." An estimated 15 percent of the city's enslaved people resided in artisan households, and some 25 percent of all the city's tradesmen "lived with slaves." Enslaved African people not only cultivated the land and built the levees, but also "framed the houses, plastered the walls, and shingled the roofs. As well they forged the tools that made the barrels that stored the tobacco and indigo, which were then carried to market in wagons and carts that their hands built and kept in repair."

In 1790, Baltimore's craftsmen and craftswomen accounted for one quarter of the city's slaveholders as well as a quarter of all enslaved blacks. Two decades later, Baltimore's artisans and manufacturers had increased to 35 percent of slaveowners, with 30 percent of the city's enslaved population. Significant numbers of Baltimore's enslaved blacks had gained skills as carpenters, blacksmiths, and lumber-mill hands in surrounding rural areas before moving to the city. At the turn of the nineteenth century, historian Charles Steffen notes, two-thirds of Baltimore's wealthiest fifty-two craftsmen owned one or more slaves. Enslaved skilled workers stood at the "top of the slave occupational hierarchy," and shipbuilders claimed the lion's share of enslaved blacks, "with a mean average" of about six slaves per firm among them.

Artisans deployed a wide range of skills and know-how within the context of specific crafts. They took pride in their specialized tools, higher earnings, greater autonomy in the workforce, and "mastery of the expertise required to produce material objects their communities needed and valued." Before the advent of woodworking machinery of various types, especially planing machines, African American carpenters performed this work by hand much like their West African kinsmen. In precolonial West Africa, canoe builders had carved out "massive tree trunks, larger even than the giant cypress that boat slaves would hollow in South Carolina." According to historian and urban sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois and his coauthor Augustus Dill, in the American colonies these artisans could thus take a "single-tree" from the forest and carve out "a hundred other things too numerous to mention." The African American carpenter "in those days was also the 'cabinet maker,' the woodturner, coffin maker, generally the pattern maker, and the maker of most things made of wood." Similarly, the African American blacksmith "in the days of slavery was expected to make any and everything wrought of iron. He was to all intents and purposes the 'machine blacksmith,' 'horseshoer,' 'carriage and wagon ironer and trimmer,' 'gunsmith,' [and] 'wheelwright.'"

Before their forced migration to South Carolina, some enslaved Africans had worked on the construction of the Barbadian city of Bridgetown. African artisans not only constructed the city's buildings but also "crafted their ornamental embellishments." More than those of any other North American city, Charleston's eighteenth-century buildings showed the distinct imprint of West African–influenced Barbadian culture, including intricate "wrought ironworks" on the galleries of buildings, gates, and "garden walls flanking the street." While some contemporary observers described black artisans as "tolerable good," other observers used such terms as "first rate" and "excellent," especially in advertisements for the return of runaway craftsmen.

While most black artisans were men, women also worked in the skilled trades. As early as July 1763, the Providence Gazette advertised for the return of a 38-year-old runaway named Dinas, described as a "skilled seamstress." The owner of another runaway female slave described her as a skilled "needlewoman." In New York, according to historian Leslie Harris, enslaved African American women, "like the white women of artisan families, assisted the men in their skilled tasks as necessary." Free black women were also prominentamong the hardworking "artisans and tradespersons who lived above their own shops" in Charleston by the late eighteenth century. Moreover, similar to male migrants from surrounding farms and plantations across the early American North and South, large numbers of black women (some fugitives) migrated to cities from the countryside, where they had learned to spin thread, weave cloth, and sew. In Georgia, the state not only mandated that landowners plant five hundred acres of mulberry trees for every five hundred acres of land for the development of the silk culture but required that black slave women be sent to Savannah "at the proper season every year" to gain training in the craft of "reeling and winding silk." According to one scholar, revolutionary and early America represented a kind of "golden age" of the black artisan, including to some extent women as well as men.

Able-bodied adult men and women carried out the bulk of slave labor, but colonial cities quickly incorporated enslaved children into established work routines. In 1721, one New York slaveholder, Cadwallader Colden, instructed his agent to buy two "well made" black males "about eighteen years of age" and "a negro Girl of about thirteen years old." Colden wanted the young men for general labor and the female to assist his wife, "chiefly to keep the children & to sow." In 1730, the New York Gazette advertised "a Likely Negro Girl about 18 Years of Age, and a likely Negro Boy about 16 Years, both born in this City, they can speak good English and Dutch and are bred up to all sorts of House-work." When Phillis Wheatley arrived in New England during the early 1760s, she also embarked upon a well-worn path of domestic slavery for young children in the household of a Boston family. And in 1766, the South Carolina Gazette described one 12-year-old as a "handy" girl with experience "waiting in a house and attending children." By hiring young people out, their owners could also earn more than enough to cover their keep. General and household labor of enslaved people, young and old, men and women, freed white men and, to some extent, white women for engagement in alternative professional, skilled, and entrepreneurial activities.

Although poor and working-class whites also labored in such general and household service jobs and buoyed the wealth of colonial elites, enslaved people enriched cities through both their labor and their sale as commodities on the open market. Slaveowners used this distinction to help discipline the enslaved labor force and sharpen the divide between free and slave labor. As historian Daniel Walker notes, the threat of sale was one of the most effective "social-control mechanisms available to slave regimes throughout the Americas, both rural and urban." Enslaved blacks themselves would later recall how some owners "used to say that if we didn't suit him he would put us in his pocket quick — meaning he would sell us."

While their numbers would remain small, the free black population nonetheless slowly increased by the beginning of the American Revolution, rising to 600 in Charleston and to just over 1,000 in Philadelphia and New York. Compared to their plantation counterparts, urban black workers gained substantial access to long-distance travel, informal commercial networks, wage labor, and opportunities for emancipation. At the core of this cluster of forces was the "hiring-out" system, including the Dutch system of "half freedom" in New Amsterdam. This arrangement enabled some enslaved people to find their own jobs, negotiate wages, and, through overwork, earn their own money to purchase their freedom and the freedom of loved ones. This system of labor was by no means limited to the city. Historian Dylan Penningroth estimated that 6 percent of enslaved rural blacks and 31 percent of urban slaves worked under hiring-out agreements by the late antebellum years, and "over a lifetime, their chances of being hired out increased."

Sailors and river pilots figured prominently among the gradually expanding free black population. By the mid-eighteenth century, black men, slave and free, constituted as much as 25 percent of the muster for vessels departing Atlantic port cities for the high seas. Black and white sailors endured an exceedingly hierarchical, violent, and repressive shipboard environment. They weathered the same storms, shipwrecks, and "the same infernally leaking ships." But black sailors worked disproportionately as cooks and stewards and encountered frequent day-to-day assaults on their persons. One sailor, John Jea, later recalled how his white shipmates "used to flog, beat, and kick me about, the same as I had been a dog." Another free black sailor, John Dean, related to Thomas Clarkson, a young British scholar and social activist, how the captain of one ship punished him for a "trifling" infraction "for which he was in no-wise to blame." The captain "fastened him with his belly to the deck, and that in this situation, he had poured hot pitch upon his back, and made incisions in it with hot tongs." Yet despite this context of violent inequality, the open sea nonetheless offered enslaved blacks opportunities to breach the racial divide emerging in the urban Atlantic world, including engagement in interracial working-class mutinies and piracy.

The sailor Olaudah Equiano spent the bulk of his life "either in ports or on ships sailing between ports." Equiano not only learned to read, write, and cipher while still enslaved but obtained permission to hire himself out as an experienced sailor on the high seas. He soon took advantage of the "working" and hiring-out system to accumulate sufficient funds to purchase his freedom. Somewhat similar to Equiano, the enslaved Charlestonian Thomas Jeremiah learned the pilot's trade and obtained his freedom by the eve of the Revolution. All oceangoing vessels appearing in Charleston Harbor depended on skilled pilots like Jeremiah, "who guided vessels over the bar through the harbor's narrow ship channel." Jeremiah became an experienced pilot, thoroughly acquainted with "the time and direction of the tide, knowledge of the reigning winds; of the different depths of the water." He became a stellar example of how one enslaved African not only became a free wage earner but also transformed himself into an influential member of the free black elite. On one occasion, he was convicted and sentenced to the stocks to receive ten lashes, but he appealed his sentence and received a pardon from the lieutenant governor and commander in chief.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Prologue: Foregrounding the Black Worker xv

Part 1 Preindustrial Beginnings

Chapter 1 Genesis of the Black Working Class 3

Chapter 2 Building the Early Community 27

Chapter 3 Prelude to the Modern Age 47

Part 2 The Twentieth Century

Chapter 4 The Industrial Working Class 77

Chapter 5 African American Workers Organize 110

Chapter 6 Demolition of the Old Jim Crow Order 140

Chapter 7 Demise of the Industrial Working Class 161

Epilogue: Facing the New Global Capitalist Economy 179

Appendix: Interpreting the African American Working-Class Experience, an Essay on Sources 185

Notes 211

Index 279

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