Posted on March 27, 2016
By John Leslie
Philadelphia, PA was the first major city in what was to become the United States. Early on, the city’s Black population, both free and slave, was substantial. Escaped slaves came to Pennsylvania, seeing the state as a refuge from southern slaveholders having outlawed slavery in 1780.
In the 100 years spanning 1790-1890, the Black population of Philadelphia rose to almost 40,000. A further increase in Black migration from the South was made possible by greater opportunities for work in the mines and mills of Pennsylvania. Black workers were consigned to the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs. The demand for workers was made more acute by the First World War, when the supply of immigrant labor from Europe was cut off. About 50,000 Black workers from the South and the West Indies came to Philly during the war. Afterward, many Black workers lost their jobs to returning white veterans.
Throughout the history of Philadelphia, the competition for jobs between white and Black workers led to tensions and, at times, violence towards Black workers. In 1917 and 1918, there were race riots directed at Black workers, in both Chester, PA and Philadelphia, which left two dead and many injured.
In 1911, a Black steel worker, Zachariah Walker, was lynched in Coatesville, PA. Black workers experienced systematic discrimination in the Philadelphia area. This discrimination was resisted by the NAACP, Black fraternal organizations and churches.
From 1913 to 1922, the Industrial Workers of the World, Local 8, organized a multiracial union of dock workers. Local 8 had an integrated leadership and won many gains for longshoremen on Philly’s docks. The union was smashed by the employers in 1922 in the midst of the Red Scare. The bosses played on racial prejudices of the workers to divide the union and weaken it.
The Second World War brought another surge of migration to meet the needs of war production. WWII opened the door to increased activity demanding civil rights and an end to job discrimination.
For example, the Transport Workers Union fought for the hiring of Black trolley operators during the war. The 1944 Philadelphia Transportation Company strike was a hate strike intended to stop the hiring of Black workers by the local transport company.
“In a desperate move to smash the CIO Transport Workers Union, the Philadelphia Transportation Company, acting in collusion with leaders of the former company union, last week inspired a six-day municipal transportation stoppage against the training of eight Negro workers for operating jobs on street cars and buses.
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