The Negro As An Industrial Factor

If the war has taught us anything, it has given us new respect for labor. There may once have been a time when great plantation owners despised workers in fields; but that time is past. Under the stress of new conditions, our richest captains of industry value the man who can raise cotton or make a shell or fix rivets in a ship.

The Negro has importance in America to-day as a working-man; and, aside from all questions of philanthropy or sentiment, he asks for consideration in this capacity. Some of our greatest businesses are becoming dependent upon him. In turn he asks if it is unreasonable for him to expect a man’s chance to earn a living, fair wages for fair work, and such working conditions as make for general health and social betterment.

In 1910, of 3,178,554 Negro men at work in this country, 981,922 were listed as farm laborers and 798,509 as farmers. That is to say, 56 per cent. of the whole number were engaged in raising farm products either on their own account or by way of assisting somebody else. The great staples were of course the cotton and corn of the Southern states, and the new importance given to these crops by the war no one can gainsay. That is not all, however. If we take along with the farmers those engaged in the next occupations employing the greatest numbers of men—those of the building and hand trades, saw and planing mills, as well as those of railway firemen and porters, draymen, teamsters, and coal mine operatives—we shall find a total of 71.2 per cent. engaged in such work as represents the very foundation of American industry. What of the women? Of these, 1,047,146, or 52 per cent., were either farm laborers or farmers, and 28 per cent. more were either cooks or washerwomen. In other words, a total of exactly 80 per cent. were doing some of the hardest and at the same time some of the most necessary work in our home and industrial life. These are the workers for whom we ask consideration; and we make the request not on the basis of what they did fifty or a hundred years ago, but what they are worth now, to-day, as an important asset in the industrial life of the United States.

It has sometimes been said that these people are not reliable as workers, that they are migratory, that they fail to appear on Monday mornings, etc., and hence that it is hardly advisable to give them a chance in American industry on a large scale. Hear the testimony of Homer L. Ferguson, described as “the most human shipbuilder in America—and one of the ablest,” fully half of whose 7,800 men and boys in his great Newport News shipyard are Negroes. Mr. Ferguson was born in North Carolina and he was talking to a Northern reporter: “Don’t you dare come down from the North to this yard and tell us that the black man in the South is an industrial failure—you who only use him as an elevator boy or a parlor-car porter or a chauffeur and refuse to give him an equal industrial opportunity with white labor. How long would one of our expert machinists last at Taunton or at Paterson or at Schenectady? What opportunity would the unions give him? Can one of our good riveters go north and join the union? He can not. And otherwise he can not drive a single rivet.”

What would the unions do in fact? What have they done already? We learn from the very valuable study by Mr. Abraham Epstein, “The Negro Migrant in Pittsburgh,” in the publications of the School of Economics of the University of Pittsburgh, that an official of a union which has a membership of nearly five thousand, said that it had about five colored members. An official of an even more powerful union was “greatly astonished when he learned that there are white people who take an interest in the Negro question. He absolutely refused to give any information and did not think it worth while to answer such questions, although he admitted that his union had no colored people and would never accept them.” To be thoroughly concrete, however, let us consider the Negro plasterers of Pittsburgh. On January 1, 1917, about thirty of these men, discriminated against by the local white union, wrote to the national organization in Middletown, Ohio, asking formally to have a local body of their own. Headquarters sent back reply to the effect that a charter could not be given without the consent of the older organization. Then followed a meeting in which the Negro secretary was given five minutes before the white local at its regular meeting. Nothing resulted. Under such circumstances is it any wonder that Negroes adopt a canny attitude when labor unions are concerned? More than this, can not organized labor itself realize the dangers for all in this hostile attitude toward the black race?

In spite of the labor unions, however, the Negro has gone North. The war, suddenly putting an end to the great immigrant stream from Europe, brought a sudden demand for unskilled labor undreamed of five years ago. Nobody knows how many Negroes have gone from the South to the North within the last three years. Perhaps 500,000; perhaps even 200,000 more. We do know, however, that they have gone in amazing numbers; and the thing of really vital importance is that these people shall be adequately adjusted to their new environment. Some opportunity should be afforded them to rise from the ranks of unskilled into those of skilled laborers. It is moreover of the highest importance that these newcomers to our large cities shall be adequately housed. Thirty persons are known to have lived recently in a seven-room house in Philadelphia; and in Pittsburgh 57 out of 390 rooms investigated have shown over six persons using the same room. In many cases the paper is torn off the walls, plaster sags from the laths, windows are broken, and the ceiling is low and damp. The whole question is of course closely connected with disease and mortality. In many places, and even in some of our training camps, there is too little opportunity for wholesome refreshment for the Negro. When will our cities learn that tuberculosis and typhoid fever are no respecter of persons? It is not enough to isolate bad cases after they are found out. The conditions of home sanitation, or lack of sanitation, that lead to these should be made impossible. I recall a section of pleasant homes in the West End of Atlanta. Suddenly, in the midst of clean, comfortable little cottages for white people there yawned before me an alley in which Negroes lived, with its dilapidated two-room dwellings, general lack of cleanliness, and its unwholesome air. From these places came the cooks and the washerwomen for the white families in the neighborhood; and this condition in one section of Atlanta can be duplicated in any city in the South, and in many in the North.

In 1910 the death-rate in 57 representative cities was 27.8 per 1,000 for Negroes and 15.9 for white people. The rates for both white people and Negroes were higher in the South than in the North, but not a great deal more so. Among the Negroes the diseases that overwhelmingly outnumbered the others in their victims were tuberculosis and pneumonia. Can any one doubt that this is due to the unsanitary conditions under which these people are in many instances forced to live?

To argue, however, that the Negro should be looked after in order that white people should be protected is to be guilty of a fallacy. All should be protected because all should have the best chance at life that their city or their state can afford them. All the more important is the question since it involves the welfare of three million men and women upon whom so largely rest the burdens of our farming, our mining, our railroading, our planing industries, and our home life.

The war has already taught us many things, and among the most important is the need for a new adjustment of social and economic values. If we are to be together in a crisis we must be together in times of peace, with the broadest sympathy one for another. Especially must we give due consideration to those who have the hardest work to do. Too long have some few become rich by exploiting the poor, the unprotected, the ignorant. True democracy does not mean that any one race or any one class shall be on top or at the bottom, but that all shall advance together to the height of human attainment. Only thus can we finally be secure. Only thus can our country be the country of our dreams.


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