Frederick Douglass, Champion for Unions

Celebrating Black History Month: A House Divided: African American Workers Struggle Against Segregation

Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, the labor movement struggled to overcome racism in the midst of a society divided by race. In 1866, the National Labor Union declared it would admit members regardless of an individual’s color or nationality believing unity was key to union strength. However, its affiliated unions continued to exclude or segregate workers by race, as white members tried to limit competition from African Americans for jobs. In response, Frederick Douglass and other progressive leaders supported the creation of new union organizations, such as the “Colored” National Labor Union, to organize against discrimination by employers and the labor movement.

In the 1880s, a new national labor organization arose, the Knights of Labor. The Knights vowed to admit workers of all races and nationalities, but this principle did not prevent the organization from tolerating segregated assemblies in the South. After the Knights were decimated by an employer backlash, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) revived the labor movement by organizing skilled workers. At its founding convention, the AFL required all affiliates to pledge that their members would never “discriminate against a fellow worker on account of color, creed or nationality.”  Unfortunately, by 1895, the AFL reversed this position and allowed new affiliates to prohibit African Americans from joining their ranks. In many unions that had no color barrier, African American members continued to be segregated into local unions which limited their membership rights and employment opportunities.


Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was one of America’s most important champions of equality and the right to organize a union. In 1872, Douglass was elected president of the “Colored” National Labor Union, and the publication he edited, The New National Era , became the union’s official newspaper. Portrait, circa 1880s-1890s.AFL-CIO Still Images, Morris B. Schnapper Collection.

Many thanks to University of Maryland Libraries for sharing this moment in history.

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