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Jacobin - December 4, 2019

In an important new book entitled Workers on Arrival, historian Joe William Trotter Jr charts the dynamic history of black workers in the United States, revealing how the labor of African Americans helped build the nation — and the world. His research highlights the unique challenges black workers have faced in the United States as well as their remarkable historical contributions.

Historian Keisha Blain recently spoke with Trotter about the “golden age” of the black artisan, the Great Migration’s role in reshaping the black working class, the various ways that black workers helped construct American cities, the forms of discrimination African-American laborers faced at the hands of racist employers (and at times racist unions), the composition of the contemporary black working class, and much more. Their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.


The timing of your book’s release is especially significant as we reflect on the four-hundredth anniversary of the arrival of an estimated twenty Africans in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. And this is where your narrative begins — what you describe as the “preindustrial beginnings” of the black working class. Tell us more about how black workers helped to “construct the colonial city.”


From the arrival of Europeans in North America, black workers, enslaved and free, helped build and maintain American cities as well as plantations and farms. They worked primarily as general laborers, household, and domestic servants. They not only helped clear land for both northern and southern cities, but also took a hand in the building and construction of early American cities themselves, including New York, Charleston, and New Orleans.

Enslaved preindustrial black workers and gradually increasing numbers of free people of color not only worked as general laborers, household, and domestic servants, but also as skilled craftsmen and women: carpenters, brick masons, blacksmiths, tailors, and seamstresses, to name a few.

In New Orleans and elsewhere, they built housing frames, plastered walls, and shingled roofs. They also forged the tools that made the barrels that stored sugar, tobacco, and other staple crops. The products were also frequently carried to market in wagons and carts fashioned by the hands of enslave people. Enslaved blacks from Barbados not only helped to build Charleston through their labor and craftsmanship, but also influenced the wrought iron works and aesthetics of the city’s architecture.

Some scholars suggest that late colonial, revolutionary, and early America represented a kind of “golden age” of the black artisan. Slaveholders encouraged enslaved Africans to learn trades. The nation’s leading newspapers regularly advertised for the purchase of enslaved craftsmen and skilled “needle women.” Preindustrial black artisans took pride in their specialized knowledge, expertise, and tools. 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.

As you point out in the book, the end of the Civil War radically transformed the experiences of the black working class, moving African Americans “from a predominantly enslaved agricultural proletariat into a rural, sharecropping, and wage-earning working class.” Tell us more about this process of proletarianization.


The war resulted in the emancipation of some four million enslaved men, women, and children. This set in motion the rise of a free black agricultural working class.

Some historians call this early process a “rehearsal for reconstruction” and emancipation. But it was also a rehearsal for another era of proletarianization involving the widespread and forcible incorporation of previously enslaved agricultural workers into the free capitalist wage labor system. And while northern whites aimed to impose free market capitalist labor relations on the South, former slaveowners fought to imbue labor contracts with as many of the coercive features of enslavement as northerners would tolerate and African Americans would bear. Thus, the state facilitated the transformation of enslaved people into workers and slaveowners into employers on highly unequal terms, subverting the liberating and democratic potential of this new working class.

During and following the Civil War, free blacks aspired to landownership over wage labor as the surest route to full freedom, citizenship rights, and empowerment. They believed that the capitalist, market-driven wage labor system deprived them of access to land and blocked their path to full emancipation. But the spread of unequal labor agreements, state-sanctioned violence, lynch law, and mob rule undercut their quest for landownership and set in motion a search for wage-earning jobs in the expanding rural industrial sector (coal mining, railroad building, and lumber works) as well as the industrial cities of the South, Northeast, and Midwest.


Tell us more about the impact of the Great Migration on the rise of the urban industrial black working class in the United States.


The Great Migration was deeply anchored in the volition, decision-making, and social struggles of Southern black workers. The numbers themselves are astounding. An estimated eight million African Americans moved from the rural and urban South to the North, West, and South from World War I through the mid-1970s.

The industrial sector offered a significant incentive to blacks in southern agriculture. African Americans who moved directly from a southern farm labor job to the urban North may have increased their earnings by as much as 300 percent in some cases. Even after adjustments for the higher cost of living in their new homes, a recent econometric study suggests that increases in migrant earnings ranged from a low of about 56 percent to a possible high of 130 percent.

The Great Migration not only helped fuel the transition of black men and increasing numbers of black women from general labor, household, and domestic service work into the higher paying manufacturing sector. The wages of massive numbers of black workers also enabled the rise of broader and more expansive African-American urban communities, described by some contemporary observers as the Black Metropolis, replete with an expanding range of institutions, including churches, fraternal orders, social clubs, and entrepreneurial pursuits.

The development of a black institutional infrastructure also underlay the rise of new forms of national and transnational social, political, civil, and human rights struggles that cut across class, ethnic, and racial lines. New social movements not only included organizations like the National Urban League and the NAACP but also the Garvey movement, the Communist Party, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids. These dynamic political developments culminated in aggressive demands for full citizenship rights during the March on Washington movement during World War II and the rise of the modern black freedom struggle during the postwar years. ...
Read full interview at Jacobin