William Dorsey's Philadelphia and Ours: On the Past and Future of the Black City in America

By Roger Lane | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
The "Unskilled" Majority

No complex analysis is needed to explain the economic situation facing the majority of Afro-Americans in Philadelphia. The problem was poverty, caused mostly by limited job opportunities, and resulting from simple racism openly applied. In a period of unprecedented expansion, black workers were simply shut out of the contemporary urban-industrial revolution. While it was sometimes slow work, in Philadelphia and across the country, to push them out of the older manual trades, it was much easier to keep them out of the newer ones from the very beginning, so that while a few carpenters or painters hung on, there were in 1900 no Afro-American boilermakers, locomotive engineers, streetcar conductors, or sheetmetal workers.

Most important, factory jobs were considered too good for blacks, in painful contrast to the European immigrants who competed with them. No single difference between Afro-Americans and the foreign-born is greater, according to the census figures shown earlier in the introduction to Part II, than the percentages of the two groups involved in manufacture of any kind. Nearly half of the immigrants worked in this vital new sector of the economy, more than five times the proportion of blacks, who were in practice hired only in the oldest, non-factory areas, such as brick making. Of the 90 percent of the Afro- American population who worked with their hands, as of 190 0, below the white-collar line, the great majority of those counted in the straight economy at all were then stuck in just two categories, "unskilled labor" and "domestic and personal service." And while not absolutely worse off than they had been in 1865 or 1870, the result of exclusion was that their relative position was continually eroding, as new opportunities lifted successive waves of immigrants up and past them. At the opening of the 20th century most blacks in Philadelphia were still doing the kind of jobs that had been done by the bottom layer of urban society in the Middle Ages.

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