Charlotte T. Morgan


African-American workers have contributed to the economic development of the United States since the first group of them were kidnapped in Africa and sold into indentured servitude once they reached Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. As reliance on their services became a feature of American life, the status of Africans gradually was downgraded to that of slave. As such they came to perform whatever labor was needed, whether in field, home or factory. Their skills were in all categories: they were artisans, craftsmen, and ordinary laborers, with the latter being dominant. When slavery ended, the majority of black workers were still living in the South, which had continued to be dependent on their labor.

These newly freed workers did not make an immediate transition to wage labor. Instead, most of them fell into peonage by becoming sharecroppers. Their economic status was further depressed by the appearance of the boll weevil, which destroyed cotton, and by recurrent droughts. In addition, an oppressive racial climate existed. America entered into a period between 1877 and 1901 described by historians, Rayford Logan and Michael Winston (1970), as the "nadir" of race relations in this country. The protection promised the freedmen disappeared with the withdrawal of federal troops, the introduction by white supremacists of Jim Crow legislation throughout the South, the growth of lynching, and the formation of the Ku Klux Klan. For many, escape through migration was the key to a better life. Blacks began an exodus westward and northward. Those who moved west felt pressure from both native Americans and whites. The northern route appeared more promising: Overt legal restrictions were absent, industrial agents actively recruited southern workers, and the African-American press promoted migration. These new workers, however, did not find immediate acceptance by their white colleagues who feared competition for employment and acquiesced to the prevailing views of black inferiority. Subsequently, black workers were confined to the lowest economic positions: Wages were small, conditions intolerable, and opportunities for advancement limited. Ironically, as Newman (1976), remarks: "From being expected to do virtually everything until the mid-1800s, most black people were thwarted from doing anything but the most menial work during much of the next one hundred years" (p. 253).

The conditions described above were the impetus for the merger of three agencies--the National League for the Protection of Colored Women, the Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes, and the Committee for Improving the Industrial Conditions Among Negroes--and the subsequent formation in New York City in 1911 of the National Urban League (Parris & Brooks, 1971). Although originally committed to the purposes of its three forerunners, the needs of the black families migrating to northern cities during World War I forced the agency to concentrate on "survival services" (Parris & Brooks, 1971, p. 42). Since much of the work of the League during this early period extended to questions of manners and morals, one writer (Weiss, 1974) suggests that the League program attempted to mold migrants into the self-perceived bourgeoisie image of the host community which feared depression of its own tenuous status. League efforts in these early years focused on racial "adjustment"--for African-Americans this meant the development of acceptable behavior, dress, and language; cooperation, and the adoption of "a longer view of things;" for whites, it meant the development of a fairer attitude towards blacks and the acknowledgement of their contributions and potential (Parris & Brooks, 1971).

In the twenties the League began to emphasize its social work approach through the support of graduate education for its employees and the securing of employment for its disadvantaged clients. By this time locally based associations, known as affiliates, had been formed in major urban centers with substantial black populations. In fact, the growing pressures of the New York community had led to the organization of a New York affiliate, separate and apart from the National Urban League which continued to be based in Manhattan. All of the affiliates pledged to follow a standardized plan of work set forward by the national body. The policy pursued was gradualist: It emphasized an interracial approach and stressed the League's commitment to bring the "best elements" of the races together (National Urban League, 1935).

League efforts to upgrade the African-American economic position were enhanced by the establishment of an Industrial Relations Department in 1925, funded by John D. Rockefeller' for a three-year experimental period. This new program would: (a) standardize and coordinate the operation of the employment services administered by the League's numerous affiliates; (b) work directly with major industrial employers to hire blacks, to advance blacks already employed, and to encourage those workers to 'make good' on the job; (c) channel blacks toward locations offering opportunity and away from places already overcrowded; and (d) develop a social program for new urban families (Jones, 1925). In his report outlining the programs of the new department, the first national industrial secretary, T. Arnold Hill (1926), acknowledged the difficulties such efforts would bring to the League. He noted the need to inform migrant workers of the best opportunities wherever they might be "notwithstanding the difficulties and possible jeopardy of our [League's] southern connections" (p. 3).

Even when opportunities were found, League officials had to contend with trade union discrimination and the attitudes of white workers. Many employers justified discrimination by alleging that their white employees would object to a black presence. Some trade unionists believed blacks would bring down the standards of organized labor. Even Samuel Gompers, generally considered sympathetic to the race's cause, labeled black workers as "cheap men" because, in order to obtain work, they often accepted lower wages than whites (Logan & Winston, 1970, p. 51). Moreover, black workers distrusted unions. Experience had taught them that some leaders kept African-Americans out of jobs by using the "threat" of black employment as a bargaining chip in labor negotiations. Hill hoped to use the services of the Workers' Education Bureau to reduce this distrust and correct misconceptions about black people. (Originally an independent organization, the Bureau became affiliated with the American Federation of Labor in 1924.) At the Bureau's 1925 conference held in Philadelphia, Hill agreed to produce for it, under the auspices of the League, a publication dealing with the material and cultural contributions of African-Americans. This was a response to the unanimous passage of a resolution, introduced by League workers, recommending the inclusion in workers' education of the study of races and nationalities and their relationship to the labor movement. A draft of the proposed publication, to be based on research conducted by the League's Department of Research and Investigation, was to be submitted to the Bureau (Hill, 1926).

Ira De A. Reid (1927), industrial relations department secretary for the New York affiliate, planned an aggressive adult education program. He proposed the creation of study groups among black workers either in cooperation with the Workers' Educational Bureau or independently. Talks were held with officials of the Bureau, but nothing seems to have come of these contacts. Hill also spoke with union officials about the inclusion of black workers. However, Weiss (1974) suggests that the League was too closely identified with the business class, and its leadership feared that workers' education classes might offend business interests.

Hill and Reid, who would ultimately leave the New York affiliate to head up the National League's Research and Investigation Department, both held conservative views. They were apologists for black labor who worked to impress upon business the worthiness of blacks and sought contacts with white workers to educate them. During this period, improving the public image of black people became a major effort of the national League and its affiliates. As if to erase fears of radicalism, Reid (1927) wrote in his department circular, Industrial Newsletter: The Fly Leaf, that he did not plan to do what "Samuel Gompers described as 'hell-fare work. "' In this newsletter, sent to members of a newly formed Inter-racial Industrial Advisory Committee, Reid remarked that the League did not "expect a revolution in respect to the employment of capable colored workers," rather it hoped to see the start of "employers and employees on the right track" (p. 1). The committee was to assist by opening up new employment opportunities, facilitating adult education classes, devising new methods of dealing with "maladjustments" which limit employability of adults, studying relationship of blacks to New York's apprenticeship training, and conducting some educational programs with white workers to liberalize their points of view (New York Urban League, 1927).

In 1930 Hill once again offered an educational answer for the black workers' problems. He proposed that each affiliate be encouraged to develop an adult education program showing the needs of the community. As the Depression deepened, joblessness within the black community took on a new wrinkle; not only were blacks being denied access to employment, they were also being released from positions formerly secure. There was an "invasion of white workers" and the League saw its task as assisting blacks to hold onto the jobs customarily held by their group (National Urban League, 1929). Education of the Negro as worker became a key point. The League wanted blacks to know that economic forces were at work which diluted the black position and that joblessness was not simply the consequence of race prejudice alone. Thus, the inequities faced by black workers due to their continuing exclusion from employment opportunities and the growing labor movement among whites led the National Urban League to push for the recognition of African-American interests through study groups which it called workers' councils. In interoffice communications, Hill called these groups "kindergarten[s] of labor education and organization" (Hill, 1934, p.183). As described in a pamphlet, "ABC of Labor Problems" (1934), the workers' councils were not to be confused with labor unions; rather, they were units for aggressive action on the part of black labor for full recognition within the regularly organized unions. The specific educational objectives of the councils were: (a) handling of grievances within the ranks of Negro workers; (b) instituting efforts for the inclusion of Negro workers in organized bodies of workers representing crafts, trades, and occupations excluding Negroes; (c) studying problems and methods of discrimination and exclusion and planning ways to overcome them; (d) participating in labor programs that are current from time to time; (e) interesting Negro workers in the efforts for social legislation, old age pensions, unemployment insurance, minimum wage, sickness insurance, and legislation on hours and conditions of work; and (f) educating the Negro community, the white community, and white workers on the history of Negro labor and Negro workers (National Urban League, 1934).

Although the League was working to improve race relations, the councils were not integrated. The National Urban League's industrial secretary, T. Arnold Hill, saw the councils as vehicles "for self-determination." They were to be of black workers and for black workers. The national office did not see itself as setting up "Jim Crow" unions as critics charged. Its rationale was that white and black workers had to be together in their labor organizations and that the councils were simply preparation to that end (Hill, 1934). This apparent departure from the "best elements of both races" principle usually followed by the League was meant to develop leadership. Lester Granger, secretary of the League's Workers' Bureau, supported this approach. He argued as follows:

The real vital problems which face the Negro masses in America can never be solved by interracial action between simply the cultured groups of both races but must come about through closer cooperation of the "man at the bottom"—the workers who toil with their hands for weekly wages. ("Negro Workers," 1934, p. 1)

Granger was responsible for the growth of the councils. Under his administration more than 70 councils were established throughout the nation. A few of them were relatively short-lived; some became actual trade unions; and others remained loyal to the original purposes--that of being planning centers to inspire workers to organize and of being preparation to that end. There were misunderstandings about the role of the workers' councils. In personal correspondence to William Green, then president of the American Federation of Labor, Granger (1934) sought to assure Green that the League was not promoting dual unions and that council membership represented a cross-section of the labor leadership. In an early assessment of the work of the councils, Granger (1936) noted the support council members had given to organized labor and the eagerness with which members were expecting full union participation.

The workers' council established in Harlem in 1934 was unique because it was independent of the League. At the organizing meeting of the New York Workers' Council, the participants voted to permit workers of all races into the Council. The League resisted this idea to no avail ("Urban League Officials," 1934). Subsequent reports of the activities of the Council indicate the fear of a "red taint." By October 1935 Granger reported that the Council's leadership, which was definitely Communist, had alienated a good part of the community. However, Granger (1936) also claimed one concrete result of the Council effort--the organizing of workers' education classes under the federal government's Works Progress Administration (WP A). Other workers' councils also made significant achievements. A workers' council in Raleigh, North Carolina increased the number of skilled jobs available to blacks on WP A projects. Others worked actively to improve race relations and to strengthen black leaders.

The programs of the workers' councils generally followed guidelines established by the national office. Lectures and discussions were offered by government officials, labor leaders, and the workers themselves. Usually the program would have two ,parts. One-half dealt with a general problem facing the American worker and the other half with a special problem of the black worker. An information bulletin distributed by the National Urban League stated the specific objectives for all councils. They were to focus on education and action--". . . education [emphasis added] in the problems of workers, the objectives of labor, the principles of industrial organization, and action [emphasis added] on violations of principles. . . ." (National Urban League, 1934, p. 3). Mass meetings, classes, and institutes were held during the year to focus on labor history, problems of workers, white and black, the advantages and disadvantages of belonging to labor organizations, and general economic and occupational conditions. This curriculum was distributed through a series of memoranda circulated by the national office.

The workers' councils ceased to be an important part of League efforts by the late thirties. Granger, who had been an important force, was granted a leave to serve on a New York State Commission. To some extent, the councils had fulfilled their purpose. More and more, black workers were being drawn into organized labor and League sponsorship became less necessary.

In addition to promoting its own councils, the League actively supported the Federal Workers' Education Program offered through the WP A. In New York, for example, recruitment for classes located in Harlem was undertaken by Granger and a community committee; however, hostility to government support hampered enrollment. Competition with Board of Education classes and the suspicions of leftist labor groups created an unfavorable climate. In addition, workers' education classes never received the publicity accorded to other educational endeavors. Ultimately, workers' education programs were placed under the Board of Education. By the outbreak of World War IT, these programs were being gradually phased out. League interest also waned. Attention turned to vocational education for youth and defense industry jobs for adults.

The Urban League's direct involvement in workers' education is now past, as is its long-standing promotion of other aspects of adult education, such as job training, civic education, literacy education, arts appreciation, and liberal adult education. Its president, John E. Jacob, sees himself as a "services renderer who advocates," and his predecessor, Vernon Jordan, as "an advocate who provided services" (Rule, 1982, p. B11). Driven by a 50% drop in funding, changing priorities, and his own vision of the League's role, Jacob identified four issues which the League now targets: (a) pregnancy among black teenagers, (b) problems of poor households headed by black females, (c) crime in black neighborhoods, and (d) voting registration and education (Rule, 1982). As in the past, "survival services" have become the order of the day. As is well-known, adult education suffers from marginality, often dictated by institutional needs and individual commitment. Yet clearly, the response to the four priorities now set involve adult education's most essential dictum, that of perspective transformation. If optimism and past practice are harbingers, education will once again be central to Urban League efforts.




ABC of labor problems: A primer for Negro workers. (1934). Workers' Council Series, New York: National Urban League. In National Urban League Papers, Series 14, Box 35, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.


Granger, L. B. to William Green. (1934, August 13). National Urban League Papers, Series 14, Box 36, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.


Granger, L. B. (1936). The Negro workers' councils show progress. In National Urban League Papers, Series 4, Box 9, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.


Hill, T. A. (1926). Outline of work and activities of the Industrial Relations Department of the National Urban League, March 15, 1925 - May 31, 1926. In National Urban League Papers, Series 5, Box 10, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.


Hill, T. A. (1934). Workers to lead the way out. Opportunity, 12, 183-185.


Jones, E. K. (1925). The National Urban League. Opportunity,  Unpaginated reprint.


Logan, R. W., & Winston, M. R. (1970). The Negro in the United States: From slavery to second class citizenship - A history to 1945. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.


National Urban League. (1929). Annual Report of the Department of Industrial Relations. In National Urban League Papers, Series 4, Box 1, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.


National Urban League. (1934). Labour program of the National Urban League. In National Urban League Papers, Series 4, Box 5, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.


National Urban League. (1935). A quarter century of progress in the field of race relations: 1910-1935. New York: Author.


Negro workers must lead, Granger tells Baltimore group. (1934, October 31). Publicity release, National Urban League Papers, Series 4, Box 36, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.


New York Urban League. (1927). Annual Report. New York: Author.


Newman, D. K. (1976). The Black American worker. In M. Smythe (Ed.), The Black American reference book (pp. 251-283). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice- Hall.


Parris, G., & Brooks, L. (1971). A history of the National Urban League. Boston: Little Brown.


Reid, I. D. A. (1927, October). Industrial newsletter: The fly leaf. In National Urban League Papers, Series 5, Box 10, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.


Rule, S. (1982, February 9). Urban League now concentrates on 4 issues. New York Times, p. B11.


Urban League officials quit Workers' Council which admits both groups as members. (1934, October 6). New York News. Unpaginated scrapbook. National Urban League Papers, Series 14, Box 36, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.


Weiss, N. J. (1974). The National Urban League: 1910-1940. New York: Oxford.




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