In Plain Sight: The Power of the Black Working Class

Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class (Liveright, 2023) By Blair LM Kelley

Perhaps more than in any other period in living memory, we are witness to a wide-scale assault on the humanities. Funding has been slashed; admissions and enrollments are down; positions are being eliminated; and, most alarming of all, Republican-led state governments have begun attempts to completely transform syllabi and curricula across the educational spectrum, from elementary schools to universities.

Race and U.S. reckonings with our past have been at the heart of these ideological battles. This is not new. As Robin D.G. Kelley has recently documented, both the U.S. Right and ostensible liberals have viewed Black history and studies with great suspicion as either a means of engendering radical political movements and beliefs or disrupting the pre-existing social order. Attempts to stifle the humanities in order to counter this “threat” are thus not new, though the scale of current efforts is grave.

It is in this context that Blair LM Kelley has released her incisive and accessible new work, Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class. An award-winning public historian focusing on social history and the African American experience, Kelley describes various dimensions of the travails of the Black working class throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Largely focusing on Black history from the era of Reconstruction until the end of the Second World War, Kelley reconstructs the lives of Black workers whose stories have often gone untold or ignored in general accounts of the U.S. working class. 

Through their lives, she reveals the importance of telling working-class history in the United States more generally. Rather than seeing the story of the working class as one of white factory workers, Kelley challenges our fundamental assumptions about labor. As she reminds the reader in the introduction, “The distinctiveness of the Black working class is manifest today. Black people are not only more likely to be the working class than white Americans, but Black workers are also more likely to be union members than people in any other group.”

In other words, the struggle of Black people has always been inextricably linked with the question of pay, employment, housing, labor organizing, and more, and the struggle of the U.S. working class at large cannot be told without highlighting African American experiences. In making this case, Kelley strikes a delicate balance between telling a generalist history of Reconstruction, the various waves of the Great Migration, and early struggles for civil rights, with a deep dive into different–and often overlooked–slices of Black working-class life, ranging from train porters to washerwomen. 

Throughout, Kelley expertly weaves in a wealth of information regarding individuals whose experiences were emblematic of these various working-class lives, including the lives of some of her own ancestors and family members. This is a startlingly intimate work that also remains applicable to the broader Black working class, the “Black folk” of the book’s title. What emerges is a story of class struggle and conflict that is both inspiring and sobering. Kelley pays great attention to the ways in which her historical actors would have seen the world through the prism of the society in which they lived and the contradictions that defined their era. 

For example, the first chapter follows one of her earliest traceable ancestors, an enslaved person named Henry. Born in Georgia, enslaved people like Henry were crucial to the great wealth that landowners in the state began to accumulate in the 18th and 19th centuries. They had a range of indispensable skills that empowered them to participate in the economy on new terms once slavery came to an end. A blacksmith, Henry would have been part of a generation of Black workers that attempted to ensure that their new legal status afforded them the opportunities and dignity that they deserved. They organized for better wages, established schools, gathered in churches and religious communities, and ran for office. Thus, even in the face of escalating violence as the federal government and state elites rolled back Reconstruction-era policies and protections, Henry registered to vote, risking his life at a time when organizations like the Ku Klux Klan were more than willing to kill to suppress Black political action.

Setting the scene with the failure of Reconstruction and the tidal wave of restrictions, violence, and oppression that followed–in the South and North alike–Kelley turns our attention to members of the Black working class whose labor has often been dismissed in its importance and whose radical political impulses have likewise been left out of conventional histories of the period.

Two chapters focus on the experiences of Black washerwomen whose work, while seen as menial both at the time and by subsequent historical memory, formed a significant and complex part of the U.S. economy. As Kelley notes, if taken as a single industry, by 1900 “laundry would have been the country’s third largest employer of Black women behind agriculture and domestic work.” Indeed,  Kelley notes, no story of the Black working class would be complete without considering the experiences of Black women, who remain more likely than their white equivalents to be part of the U.S. workforce today.

In the immediate aftermath of the failure of Reconstruction, with employers discriminating against Black men and women alike and white workers often refusing to allow their Black counterparts to compete with them in fields such as blacksmithing or bricklaying, Black workers had little choice but to take on employment seen as lesser. They did not see themselves as lesser.  Kelley explains that washerwomen made soap, invented ways to dry clothes more effectively, extracted starch for pressing white shirts, and tended and maintained charcoal, while also organizing for their own betterment. They went on strike, fought targeted tax proposals, joined makeshift unions to set collective pay rates, and boycotted industries that enforced segregation, such as streetcars in Virginia. Not all such struggles were successful, certainly. But Black washerwomen sought to use whatever independence and flexibility they could find to their own benefit, gravitating toward the work as a means of finding community with one another and fostering safe environments for their children and neighbors.

As members of the Black working class migrated from the countryside of the South to its urban centers–and thereafter to cities in the North–they were faced with changing restrictions, but restrictions all the same. The other segments of “Black folk” that Kelley examines–such as porters, domestic workers, and postal workers–were in many ways shaped by these patterns of migration, aspirations for better lives, and conflict with new regimes of control and terror. Domestic workers, particularly Black women maids and cleaners, did not benefit from New Deal legislations that aimed to raise the status of workers. They were barred from other industries and looked down upon, and yet they continued to organize and build communities. 

Socialists like A. Philip Randolph agitated to organize railway porters and to foster unity between Black and white labor, eventually pressuring Franklin Roosevelt to desegregate the defense industry. Though disregarded by their white clientele, Black porters fostered transportation and communication networks necessary for facilitating the Great Migration, providing dignity for migrants from the South. Black postal workers, many of whom had served in armed forces and thus benefited from preferential hiring for military veterans in the aftermath of the Civil War, fought hard for Black workers to be hired across the board, especially in more senior positions, and eventually played a major role in helping the NAACP and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the early years of the Civil Rights Movement. 

Throughout this work, Kelley makes it clear just how integral these Black experiences were to the shaping of working-class culture and solidarity in the United States. At the same time, she also reminds us how such solidarity and struggle shaped generations of Black folk throughout the country through references to her own family members. 

In her conclusion, Kelley notes that even today, despite continuing focus on the supposed realignment of the white working class, Black people remain a significant political force, not only making up a substantial chunk of so-called “essential workers”–and thus suffering heavily during COVID–but also at the forefront of new political struggles and campaigns. No history of the working class can be told without attention to both struggles that Black folk shared with other workers, and to the particularities of their challenges.