Historian Blair LM Kelley writes, “Our national mythos leaves little room for Black workers, or to glean any lessons from their histories. . . . Never mind that from slavery to the present, Black workers have been essential to the nation’s productivity, and indeed . . . to its basic functioning.” The director of the Center for the Study of the American South and co-director of the Southern Futures initiative at the University of North Carolina, Kelley gives a sweeping narrative of 200 years of American history in her engaging and well-documented Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class.
Kelley also uses events in the lives of some of her ancestors to tell parts of the larger story. The overwhelming impression throughout is of great tragedy combined with an amazing abundance of courage and resourcefulness in the face of impossible barriers. The author gives primary attention to “a critical era, after southern Emancipation and into the early twentieth century, when the first generations of Black working people carved out a world for themselves.”
Readers will especially learn about Black workers who united to gain political influence. For example, “Washerwomen, or laundresses, occupied a central place in Black life, history, and culture,” Kelley writes. Their work was hard and required great skill. After the Civil War, many laundresses had the independence to work alone and were able to spend more time with their children. They were also able to use their earnings to help support their families and communities by buying houses, building churches and opening businesses—and some were able to organize to improve their situations. In 1881, for example, laundresses in Atlanta, Georgia, and Charlotte, North Carolina, went on strike for better pay and working conditions. Some washerwomen even joined labor protests for other industries, such as the successful streetcar boycott in Richmond, Virginia, in 1904.
Kelley also traces the development and importance of the Pullman porters, Black men who performed a variety of services for railway passengers beginning in 1867. The author writes of their significance, “Easily the most well-traveled Black folks in America, the Pullman porters provided assistance to people seeking opportunity in the North and West, connecting porters’ home folks with jobs, and offering their knowledge about the cities where migrants planned to settle. . . . They bore witness to the violence of lynchings and racial massacres, and also carried copies of Northern Black newspapers to sell to Black residents in the South.”
There is so much more here to interest history lovers. This fine book illuminates the intelligence, sense of community, hard work (often done under deplorable conditions) and resilience of Black workers, who have made crucial contributions to American history.