Black Americans have played an integral part in shaping the American workforce as we know it today. Whether it was fighting for higher wages, better hours, or striving for greater equity, Black workers have been at the forefront of innovation within the American Labor movement. In honor of Black History Month, Tandym Group is celebrating some of the men and women who played such a crucial role in these efforts. Here are three Black Americans whose efforts forever shaped the country’s labor force:
Nannie Helen Burroughs
Nannie Helen Burroughs was a Virginia-born educator, suffragist, and religious leader who was instrumental in advocating for more career options for Black Americans, and Black women in particular. Burroughs began her career with the National Baptist Convention (NBC) Foreign Mission Board, after racial discrimination prevented her from obtaining a teaching position in the Washington, D.C. public schools.
She would eventually relocate to work for the NBC in Louisville, KY. While there, she founded a club offering evening vocational classes, work that presaged her eventual career in education. This would ultimately lead her to founding the National Baptist Women’s Convention, which later morphed into the NBC Women’s Auxiliary, alongside Mary Virginia Cook-Parrish. Her leadership and organizing efforts helped the group became one of the largest and most influential Black women’s groups in the United States, with a membership of nearly 1 million women in 1903 and 1.5 million by 1907.
She later went on to establish what would become an annual celebration of the Women Convention’s National Woman’s Day, an event that honored sisterhood and served as a fundraiser for the group in 1908. That following year, Burroughs led the Women’s Convention in the establishment of the National Training School for Women and Girls, which was the first vocational school for Black women and girls in the country. The boarding high school and junior college provided academic studies, religious instruction, and technical training in multiple trades to prepare Black women for the workforce. The National Training School was unique in that it was staffed, managed, and funded by Black Americans. Burroughs herself worked as a teacher at the school and dedicated her life to the education of Black women.
In addition to founding the National Training School for Women and Girls, Burroughs also advocated for greater civil rights for women and Black Americans. At a time when Black women were limited to domestic work such as cooking and cleaning, she believed women should have the opportunity to receive an education and job training. She wrote about the need for black and white women to work together to achieve the right to vote. She believed suffrage for Black women was crucial to protect their interests in a discriminatory society.
Burroughs continued to lead efforts in furthering civil rights and education for Black women until she passed away in 1961.
Isaac Myers was a ship caulker who was active in the fight for equal opportunity and equity for Black workers in the mid-1800s. Born in Baltimore to free parents in 1835, he took an apprenticeship with respected Black ship caulker Thomas Jackson at the age of 16. Excelling in his apprenticeship, Myers was placed in charge of a crew that caulked large clipper ships by the time he was 20.
By the 1850s, Black caulkers were paid so well that white workers and immigrants who also operated in the shipyards began speaking out against Black workers, with riots beginning in 1858. This led to shipyard owners not hiring Black caulkers altogether. By 1865, these workers engaged in a strike that forced shipyards to fire Black workers, leading to more than 1,000 dock workers being fired.
In response to these strikes, Myers organized a group of both Black and white business owners to create a new shipyard that would function as a cooperative. Named the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company, the shipyard employed more than 300 Black workers. Myers served as a board member for the company and as an unofficial spokesperson.
By 1868, Myers became president of the Colored Caulkers’ Trade Union Society of Baltimore. He used this position to reach out to Black union members in other trades and cities to bring organizations that allowed Black workers to join into the National Labor Union, a new national federation of local unions. At the NLU’s National Convention in 1869, Myers said, “I speak today for the colored men of the whole country…when I tell you that all they ask for themselves is a fair chance; that you shall be no worse off by giving them that chance….The white men of the country have nothing to fear….We desire to have the highest rate of wages that our labor is worth.”
Ultimately, the NLU rejected Myers’ pleas. They offered him and others the opportunity for Black unionists to join an affiliated, but separate, organization. In response to this, Myers and other leaders formed the Colored National Labor Union, which unfortunately folded in 1873 due to impact from economic depression.
Despite the CNLU folding, Myers did not slow down his organizing efforts. He launched a new organization, the Colored Men’s Progressive and Cooperative Union, which was open to members of all occupational backgrounds. The new union not only allowed both white and Black members, but it was one of the few unions of the time to also welcome women. Myers continued to organize in the South before returning to Baltimore in 1880 to run a coal yard. He stayed active in Black community organizations and edited the Colored Citizen, a weekly newspaper until he passed away in 1891.
Dorothy Bolden served as the president of the National Domestic Workers Union of America (NDWUA) from 1968 to 1996. A fierce advocate for domestic workers’ rights, Bolden began her career in domestic work at a young age. At the time, domestic work was the only industry readily open to Black women. Since many people wrongfully assumed that this kind of work was unskilled, domestic workers suffered from low wages, long hours, and bad treatment.
In 1955, Bolden was watching TV when she witnessed Rosa Parks’ famous refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama. Motivated by this, she volunteered with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped build a strong local network. While she believed civic engagement was needed, Bolden knew from her own experiences that this was a luxury most Black women could not afford. Believing more civic engagement was needed, she then focused her efforts on building a network of domestic workers.
Bolden knew that the only time domestic workers had to themselves was when they were in transit between work and home. She realized that Atlanta’s bus system was the best place to organize and network with other domestic workers. She rode buses all over Atlanta, and by 1968 had recruited more than 70 domestic workers. In 1968, she was elected as President of the National Domestic Workers Union of America (NDWUA). It was one of the first formal organizations to support domestic workers in the country.
While the NDWUA trained members in skills such as cooking, child and elder care, and first aid, the organization also supported workers in the negotiation process for better wages and hours. Since it was impossible for NDWUA to negotiate on behalf of all members, they trained members to be their own advocates for better pay, better hours, and other necessities.
As Bolden predicted, once domestic workers received stronger workplace support, they would be more likely to invest time in other issues. She required every member of the NDWUA to register to vote, resulting in the NDWUA becoming a powerful voting bloc. Elected officials in Georgia knew they needed Dorothy and the NDWUA’s approval to gain votes from Black women.
Bolden retired in the mid-1990s, and the NDWUA remained a powerful organization during the entirety of her time as its President. She passed away in 2005.
Interested in learning more about the history of Black Americans in the American Labor movement? Learn more here.