Black Working-Class Political Activism and Biracial Unionism: Galveston Longshoremen in Jim Crow Texas, 1919-1921

Article excerpt

J. V. BELL, A FEDERAL AGENT WHO INVESTIGATED THE 1920 LONGSHOREMEN'S strike in Galveston, Texas, expressed alarm over the militancy of the island's black and white workers, which had prompted Governor William P. Hobby on June 7 to declare martial law on the island. It was the expression of class and racial assertiveness by black unionists that particularly disturbed Bell. He attributed this militancy to their long association with white trade unionists, even though Galveston's longshoreman locals, like other southern locals of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA), were racially segregated. In a report from Galveston on August 21, 1920, Bell complained, "The negroes in Galveston, through their long association on an equality basis with white Union Labor, have about arrived at the time where they think they should be accepted on a par or equal with the white race." He warned that "the insolent manner" of local African Americans "toward the white race will, in time, lead to serious disorders between the races." In fact, he reported indignantly, "I have never been in any city where the negroes are so impudent and insolent as they are in Galveston." (1)

Bell's racism notwithstanding, he did put his finger on an important source of the black longshoremen's assertiveness. Despite the degradations of Jim Crow and institutionalized racism at the time, including in the labor movement, biracial unionism--that is, the organization of black and white workers into segregated locals--had given longshoremen a sense of empowerment. Of course, this was not what the architects of racial segregation had anticipated, but as Bell suggested, cooperation with white unionists on the docks generated a militancy that reached its fullest expression during the strike. The crushing defeat inflicted on the striking longshoremen, after months of martial law, suspension of Galveston's entire police force and city government, and occupation by the Texas militia, was a major setback for the Texas labor movement and those who had used biracial unionism to promote organized labor and civil rights in the South.

Racial cooperation on the waterfront extended to politics as well. Although the militancy of Galveston's black longshoremen was part of a national pattern in the First World War era, black working-class participation in city politics provided another vibrant source of empowerment. (2) Black longshoremen formed an important activist bloc in a prolabor, reform-minded political coalition that captured power in the 1919 city elections and again in 1921. At a time when many African Americans and poor whites in the South were being disenfranchised through poll taxes, the white primary, and other devices, black unionists in Galveston asserted themselves on the waterfront, joined the struggle against Jim Crow, and engaged in the formal political process. The failure of the strike of 1920 strained race relations and led to the collapse of the ILA locals by mid-decade, but black and white longshoremen continued their cooperation after the strike, including an attempt to form an independent labor party in the elections of 1920. The dockworkers' political and union activism did more than strain race relations, however; it also sharpened intraracial divisions in Galveston's black community.

The literature on the longshoremen's strike to date has not examined the role of black, or even white, working-class politics before, during, and after the strike. Until recently, in fact, black labor activism and the experiences of black urban workers, including those on Galveston's waterfront, had remained largely hidden, ignored, or marginal at best in studies of southern labor and black history. Eric Arnesen has pointed out that "just as labor history has had something of a 'race' problem, African-American history too has had its own 'class' or 'labor' problem." (3) Due particularly to works by Arnesen, Michael K. Honey, Tera W. Hunter, Robin D. …