Skip to main content

books Building America

This new book offers a history and analysis of the contributions of black workers to our society. It shows just how key a knowledge of black workers' history is to an understanding the working class's fortunes and history overall.

Workers on Arrival
Black Labor in the Making of America

Joe William Trotter Jr.
University of California Press
ISBN: 9780520299450

Four hundred years ago, “about the latter end of August,” an English pirate ship called the White Lion landed at Point Comfort in the Virginia Colony carrying “not anything but 20 and odd Negroes,” wrote colonist John Rolfe. Though this is often viewed as the starting point of slavery in what would become the United States, the anniversary is somewhat misleading. Africans, both enslaved and free, had lived in St. Augustine, in Spanish Florida, since the 1560s, and since slavery was not legally sanctioned in Virginia until the 1640s, early arrivals would have occupied a status closer to indentured servants. But those ambiguities only point to how essential people of African descent were to the establishment and development of the imperial outposts that became the United States. It was their work, as much anyone else’s, that helped build the world we live in today.

In his new book, Workers on Arrival, the historian Joe William Trotter Jr. shows that the history of black labor in the United States is thus essential not only to understanding American racism but also to “any discussion of the nation’s productivity, politics, and the future of work in today’s global economy.” At a time when mainstream political rhetoric and analysis related to economic change still tend to center on white men displaced by job loss in manufacturing and mining, similar challenges faced by black workers are often examined through a distinct lens of racial inequality. As a result, Trotter contends, white workers are viewed as the victims of “cultural elites and coddled minorities,” while African American workers suffering from the very same economic and political conditions are treated as “consumers rather than producers, as takers rather than givers, and as liabilities rather than assets.” Reminding us that Africans were brought to the Americas “specifically for their labor” and that their descendants remain “the most exploited and unequal component of the emerging modern capitalist labor force,” Workers on Arrival provides an eloquent and essential correction to contemporary discussions of the American working class.

Trotter acknowledges that he is not the first to offer this critique and cites generously from “nearly a century of research” and prominent African American scholars in order to demonstrate “the centrality of the African American working class to an understanding of U.S. history.” These include W.E.B. Du Bois’s studies of black working-class communities in Philadelphia, Memphis, and other cities during the turn of the 20th century, as well as Sterling Spero and Abram L. Harris’s 1931 book The Black Worker. But Trotter’s achievement is to synthesize this rich body of historical scholarship into a single volume written with an eye to a general audience.

Trotter’s analysis adds to this scholarship as well: While emphasizing the breadth of black workers’ contributions to economic development and growth, he is particularly interested in their roles building American cities. Extending an analysis developed in his 1985 book on black migration in early 20th century Milwaukee, he depicts cities as spaces of economic and political opportunity not available in rural settings. They are places where people of color—and in particular black communities—have been able to thrive. Without minimizing restrictions on jobs, housing, and civil rights, he describes how Africans established important employment niches, formed religious, civil and labor organizations, and connected with the burgeoning resistance to slavery in colonial cities from New Orleans to Boston. Enslaved and free black workers built the roads, buildings, fortifications, and other infrastructure, performed essential household and service labor, and toiled in a wide variety of crafts.

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of black workers in colonial America was their skill. Newspapers in Boston, New York, and Charleston carried ads for the purchase of enslaved carpenters, seamstresses, bakers, and blacksmiths, and Philadelphia slave owners turned a large “share of the ordinary trades of the city” over to black craftspeople. Some Africans arrived with canoe building, carpentry, blacksmithing, and navigational skills, but owners and employers had obvious incentives to train enslaved workers in other artisan fields, too. Skills gave these black workers a modicum of independence, providing in some cases independent sources of income, and increased their ability to escape or purchase freedom for themselves and their loved ones. The skilled trades also helped connect them to local and international political movements, especially those opposed to slavery. Once the Northern states abolished slavery after the American Revolution, free black communities, often centered on artisan work, became hotbeds for the Underground Railroad and the growing abolitionist movement.

In his discussions of the 19th century, Trotter’s tendency to focus on cities can have its limitations. Highlighting Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and others who escaped from bondage to the cities, at times he loses sight of the economic and political power wielded by those who remained behind in the rural and agricultural parts of the United States. As Du Bois observed in his 1935 book Black Reconstruction in America and as more recent studies by historians Sven Beckert, Edward Baptist, and others have confirmed, the productivity of plantation labor drove urbanization and imperial expansion on both sides of the Atlantic in the 19th century. Rejecting the prevailing view of his generation that enslaved African Americans were helpless bystanders in the conflict between Northern and Southern whites, Du Bois insisted that as a result of plantation labor’s importance, the black worker was the “founding stone of a new economic system in the nineteenth century and for the modern world, who brought the civil war in America.” As much as free and enslaved urban artisans, enslaved agricultural workers helped make the 19th century world what it was; their refusal to continue to do this work, Du Bois added, helped end the war that liberated them and created the America we know today.

In addition to discounting the significance of plantation slavery, Trotter’s emphasis on the liberatory nature of urban life also overlooks the degree to which many African Americans found power and autonomy in rural settings and remained committed to agriculture well into the 20th century. That commitment prompted the people emancipated from plantations not to move to the cities after the Civil War but rather to demand “40 acres and a mule” and to view sharecropping as preferable to wage labor. The historian Nell Painter reminds us that the first great migration of African Americans after Emancipation was not to Northern cities but to homesteads in Kansas, Oklahoma, and other states to the west. It is true, as Trotter claims, that black men sought seasonal employment in mines, lumber camps, and railroad construction as their “dreams [of] landownership” faded in the face of racist violence, theft, and exploitation in the Jim Crow era. Yet even then, most viewed rural wage work as a seasonal supplement to farming. Only when the boll weevil and the collapse of international markets killed Southern agriculture did the majority of African Americans head to the cities.

The differences between urban and rural life for black workers were, in the early 20th century, only sharpened by the New Deal’s labor legislation, which excluded agricultural and domestic employment from Social Security, collective bargaining, and the minimum-wage regulations that transformed industrial work in the 1930s and ’40s and made work in the cities all the more desirable. By the beginning of World War II, roughly 3 million African Americans had moved to cities in the North and the West; by 1980, an additional 5 million had followed, turning a largely rural population into an urban working class.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

Even with the Great Migration, urban black workers still had to fight their way into industrial jobs. Black women primarily supported themselves and their families through domestic and personal service work, taking in laundry and sewing, and running beauty salons, bars, and other small businesses. Men sought industrial work but often ended up working in the service sector as redcaps, porters, janitors, garbage collectors, and waiters. Like the migration itself, moving into industrial work became the focus of a social movement. Trotter points out that black women had more success in industrial Southern cities, where they came to dominate low-wage labor in tobacco factories, industrial laundries, and canning plants. Black men pushed into the lowest-paid, most dangerous jobs in meatpacking, steel, automaking, and other Northern industries, but it would take the early organization of trade unions and civil rights activists to finally begin to open up other levels of industrial work to black Americans.

World War II marked a turning point in this struggle, as the demand for industrial employment formed a central plank of the emerging civil rights movement. Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work boycotts erupted in Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, DC, setting the stage for the 1941 March on Washington Movement against racial discrimination in the defense industry. Led by A. Philip Randolph, who headed the predominantly black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids, the movement grew large enough that Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order banning racial discrimination by defense contractors.

With that victory, Randolph canceled the march but called for continued protests to demand a federal law banning discrimination by all employers. A few cities and states passed fair employment laws in the 1940s and ’50s, but it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that this became federal law. Along with demands for voting rights, open housing, and equal access to public accommodations, the ability to secure well-paid union jobs formed the core of black political objectives well into the 1970s.

Tragically, Trotter notes, the substantial realization of those demands “coincided with the decline of the manufacturing economy, the resurgence of conservatism in U.S. politics, and the fall of the black urban industrial working class by the turn of the twenty-first century.” While the general trend is well known, the speed and extent of the change were shocking. Between 1967 and 1987, New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia lost 50 to 65 percent of their manufacturing jobs, with the steepest losses affecting black workers. Many black workers moved back into service and retail positions, but lower wages and weaker unions led to sharp increases in poverty across urban America.

Unfortunately, the experiences of black workers are largely absent from contemporary analysis of the economic and political effects of deindustrialization. In the wake of the 2016 election, when political analysts scattered across the South and the Midwest in search of Donald Trump’s blue-collar base, many uncritically accepted his assertion that rural white men and a dislocated white working class were the principal victims of the globalization of manufacturing and fossil fuel extraction.

It was not just Republicans who claimed to champion the white working class, as Joe Biden garnered an early lead in the Democratic primary race by emphasizing his roots in Pennsylvania’s mostly white coal country while rarely mentioning the multiracial working-class communities in Delaware that had been his political base for half a century. The journalist Henry Grabar points out that the majority of voters in Youngstown, Ohio, a frequent destination for journalists’ “heartland safaris” after the 2016 election, are black or Latino. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild mentions in passing that African Americans are half the population of Lake Charles, Louisiana, yet she treats their experience as secondary to white workers’ in her best-selling ethnography of conservatism in a refinery town. “The collapse of manufacturing in the Mahoning Valley may have provoked a white identity crisis that the national media can’t get enough of,” Grabar notes of the area surrounding Youngstown, “but the upheaval was more severe for black Americans.”

This oversight is not just academic, given that a decline in black working-class turnout could be as decisive in the 2020 presidential election as the conservative views of some white workers. Grabar asked a black union leader why only 10 percent of registered voters participated in a recent primary election in Youngstown, summing up her response as, “Poverty…was crushing people’s will to participate in the political process.” The pollster Stanley Greenberg, who coined the term “Reagan Democrat” to describe the white working-class voters who shifted right in the 1980s, insists that a similar phenomenon was only part of the story in 2016. In places like Youngstown and Lake Charles, frustration with the economic policies of both parties has led more workers of all races to drop out of the political process altogether than to shift from one party to another. “The Democrats don’t have a ‘white working-class problem,’” Greenberg has argued. “They have a ‘working-class problem,’ which progressives have been reluctant to address honestly or boldly.”

Trump’s election placed the economic challenges faced by American workers at the center of political analysis, albeit in ways that distorted the racial diversity that has always defined the nation’s working class. If progressives want to understand how central African Americans have been to that history, they might start by reading Workers on Arrival.