The Dignity of Work - and the Workers Local Historian Charts History of Urban Black Labor in America

By McGinty, Patrick | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), January 27, 2019 | Go to article overview

The Dignity of Work - and the Workers Local Historian Charts History of Urban Black Labor in America


McGinty, Patrick, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


When asked last May by CNN about her socialist leanings, then candidate Summer Lee noted that capitalism hadn't done much for Pennsylvania's 34th District.

"Capitalism," countered the Democrat who went on to win the seat in the state House of Representatives, "works on the back of my community and communities of color and poor communities across this country."

In his new historical overview, Carnegie Mellon University professor Joe William Trotter Jr. reveals just how hard capitalism "worked on the backs" of urban black laborers as they attempted to reshape their economic identity during the nation's ascent to capitalist superpower. In "Workers on Arrival: Black Labor in the Making of America," Mr. Trotter has synthesized an eye-popping array of scholarship into a slim volume, one that should be read by Ms. Lee's supporters, by the general public, and especially by those whose bad-Twitter-argument-of-the-day calendar is turned to: "African-Americans have been superfluously aided by undue economic initiatives."

Mr. Trotter argues that black laborers have rarely been given the right descriptors, let alone initiatives. Too often, he writes, "popular, journalistic, public policy and academic analyses treat the black poor and working class as consumers rather than producers, as takers rather than givers, and as liabilities rather than assets."

This limited view undersells the historical precedence for the black working class as brilliant economic operators. From the slave trade through the Civil War, African-Americans "challenged capitalist control of their labor" not only by escaping but also through revolting, through entrepreneurial pursuits and, "most of all, [through] the creation of a plethora of community-based institutions."

Several anecdotes about community-based institutions occur in Pittsburgh. In the wake of the Great Migration, church-based social service organizations arose, such as Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in the Hill District, which "created a Home Finder's League during the early 1920s, while the nearby Homestead AME Church formed a real estate agency and sold or rented homes to African-Americans."

It is telling that in the Pittsburgh-centric sections, economic generosity is generally exhibited from within the African-American community, not toward it. Black laborers accounted for more than 65 percent of the nation's trade laborers in 1960, but in Pittsburgh, the explosion of postwar government investment did not result in an explosion of black tradespeople. By 1964, Pittsburgh tallied a single brick-laying apprentice, two sheet-metal apprentices and four apprentices in carpentry.

Stores such as Kaufmann's and Horne's hired blacks primarily as stockroom employees and janitors, "arguing that white customers would not conduct business with black salespeople. …

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