On this day in history, the epitome of the Labor Union Movement and its’ clash with minorities reared its’ ugly head as a confrontation took place. There were a number of black men who were approached by a group of white Union Strikers, and out of fear of being assaulted, the black men fired shots into the air in order to alert authorities to ensure their safety.
Our movement is of the working people, for the working people, by the working people…. There is not a right too long denied to which we do not aspire in order to achieve; there is not a wrong too long endured that we are not determined to abolish.— SAMUEL GOMPERS, The Samuel Gompers Papers: The American Federation of Labor at the height of progressivism, 1913-17
On the corner of Hagan Avenue and North Basin lived the S.T. Alcus and Co. Box factory, manufacturing a major percentage of boxes that came out of Louisiana. The 1900s was a very profitable time for the manufacturing industry as global trade and production represented the overall mindset of the decade, one motivated towards economic expansion. New Orleans in particular witnessed a severe economic bloom, as railroad trade routes granted easy access to both the Americas and Mexico. This led to a higher demand for products, particularly packaged materials, allowing New Orleans to become fully immersed in the rise of economy.
Industrial capitalism brought about more integration in the workplace. Blacks were able to flee plantations, poor whites escaped their Louisiana farms, and they were able to seek refuge in factories. As industrialization increased, so did higher wages. At first glance, this may seem like a good thing for workers, but it proved to be detrimental. For former plantation workers, the working conditions and management seemed to be more horrendous than before. For former farmers and other lower working class citizens, the rate at which the factories needed to be ran became overwhelming for those who weren’t used to the rigorous workday. The pay was not worth the amount of labor done, nor how dangerous the work itself was. After a while, more and more people grew tired of the treatment they were being subjected to, accelerating the idea for more union movements and organizations throughout America.
Labor organizations have been around since the late 1700s and into the 1800s. Labor unions originated from the anger and frustration of the working class towards their labor institution. Many people were subject to harsh and dangerous working conditions, tedious working hours, and the fact that there was little pay for the amount of work done. This, alongside no true political representation, fueled the fire for laborers’ need to have their voice heard. Where other organizations may have failed, such as the National Trades Union and the Knights of Labor, the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Union, formed in 1881, was the first significant force of union recognition. In 1886, it was renamed the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Union membership began to increase in the twentieth century as the US was shifting from an agrarian society to a mass production economy where employment was no longer being given to anyone, but those with higher qualifications, angering the working class. Higher qualifications in partnership with an industrialized economy meant that more people were being cut to increase company profit, putting a large percentage of workers out of employment.
As mechanization increased and the US saw immigration uproar, many minority workers and immigrants were subject to harsh violence and homicide due to the criticism of white laborers on minorities impeding the working class. Between 1900 and the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, more than thirteen million immigrants arrived in the United States, pouring into industrial cities mainly from rural regions of central and southern Europe. This influx of people led to overcrowding in cities, and anger from the already unemployed working class. 1919 in particular saw an unprecedented amount of labor strikes in part of war aftermath. Violence erupted among race lines and mobs targeted African American communities in over twenty cities, invading homes and murdering individuals. Along with this was the introduction of a new Ku Klux Klan in both the North and South, not only terrorizing African Americans but Catholics, Immigrants, and radicals as well. In terms of the situation presented, it is plausible as to why the men shot their guns in the air. It seemed to be that no matter where you were, minorities always had to look over their shoulder just to ensure safety.
On this day in history, we were able to witness the built up animosity that plagued laborers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Though objectively this may seem like a terrible crime, through an investigative lens we are able to discover the events that manifested the near fatal incident, while also gaining the knowledge on what industrial life looked like in 1919 New Orleans.
- Helgeson, Jeffrey. “American Labor and Working-Class History, 1900–1945.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, June 8, 2017.
- Rodgers, Daniel T., “The Progressive Era to the New Era, 1900–1929,” Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
- “Packages.” Packages. January 1898, (via Google Books).
- “Fear Of Strikers Makes Negroes Fire For Police.” Times-Picayune November 6, 1919, p. 18.