history of labor

Britain’s Biggest Secret - The Black Victorians

Pictured above is the Higdon family. This photograph was taken in the year 1898 in Britain. That is all we know about them.

Who were the Black Victorians? Mainstream history has virtually erased them from our minds and history books. We have been filled with images of slavery in America and across the world, but why is it that this chapter in black history was skipped? Why isn’t it equally common knowledge that in the midst of all of that darkness there was light, also.

Never before seen photos were uncovered, giving us over 200 images of glances into our past. Many of the photos did not include names or any details whatsoever, cloaking these people in mystery for all of time.

At one point in history, people of color were included in high society and walked the cobbled streets of Britain. The women wore intricate, voluminous gowns and wore their hair in curls and chignons. The men in suits and fair business. This may not have been the case for all black people in Britain, but for some it was. 

The Victorian Era was ruled under Queen Victoria, an era that is described as an opulent culture, although there were underlying bouts of poverty and child labor. History would like you to believe that black people didn’t arrive in Britain until 1948 during “The Empire Windrush”, when many Jamaican descendants entered the country, but that is not so. There has been proof to suggest otherwise. There is documentation that proves that it wasn’t uncommon to see black faces at a Shakespeare show. We’ve been there all along, humming softly in the background.

These images prove that you can’t take mainstream history at face value. Take the time to look behind the curtain and uncover OUR history. It’s as if our ancestors are just waiting for us to seek them out.

Who were the Black Victorians?

To see more of these images check out this video reel. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=08mwrYUzPqI

Happy Black History Month.

At 87, Dolores Huerta is a living civil rights icon. She has spent most of her life as a political activist, fighting for better working conditions for farmworkers and the rights of the downtrodden, a firm believer in the power of political organizing to effect change.

And yet, her role in the farmworkers movement has long been overshadowed by that of Cesar Chavez, her longtime collaborator and co-founder of what became the United Farm Workers of America union. That’s true even when it comes to credit for coining the movement’s famous slogan, Sí se puede — Spanish for “Yes, we can” — which inspired President Obama’s own campaign battle cry and has often wrongly been attributed to Chavez. (Obama acknowledged Huerta as the source of that phrase when he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. She talks about its origins below.)

Dolores, a new documentary from director Peter Bratt, aims to finally set the record straight.

Dolores Huerta: The Civil Rights Icon Who Showed Farmworkers ‘Sí Se Puede’

Photo: George Ballis//George Ballis/Take Stock/The Image Work

Trackwomen, 1943. Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company

Series: Women Working In Industry, 1940 - 1945. Record Group 86: Records of the Women’s Bureau, 1892 - 1995

March is Women’s History Month! Women have shaped this country’s history in more ways than we can count. Long before Rosie the Riveter joined the war effort in the 1940s, women earned wages to support themselves and their families. This series of posts celebrates the diversity of women’s labor, ranging from industry to agriculture to folklore and beyond. 

This archival series (Women Working In Industry, 1940 - 1945) contains images depicting women and their contributions to the war effort during World War II. The photographs show women for the first time on a mass scale and from every social and economical background preforming jobs that have been traditionally considered as men’s work. In addition to the clerical and secretarial fields, women are seen working in the aircraft industry, the metal industry, ordnance, the railroad, the shipyards, as well as the military services. There are approximately 94 different occupations shown in this series where women were performing the work.


This month’s Women’s History series comes via Nora Sutton, one of our interns from the Department of State’s Virtual Student Foreign Service (VSFS) program. Nora is finishing her Master’s in Public History at West Virginia University this semester.

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“While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Eugene Victor Debs was born on November 5, 1855, in Terre Haute, Indiana. Hailing from a working class background, Debs became a locomotive fireman at 16 years of age, and for the rest of his life identified unwaveringly with the workers of the world. He joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in 1875 and quickly rose through the union’s ranks. Active in the community, Debs was elected to the Indiana Senate as a Democrat in 1884, but served only one term, jaded after his bill to provide railroad workers with benefits was gutted. This ended a promising career in Democratic politics.

An early pioneer of industrial unionism, Debs wrote constantly about the need for what he called “federation” of the disparate railroad brotherhoods, and his efforts bore fruit with the establishment of the American Railway Union in 1893, one of the largest unions of its day and one of the first industrial unions in America. Despite a promising start, with a decisive victory in the Great Northern Railroad strike, the ARU was crushed in the Pullman Strike of 1894. Debs was imprisoned for contempt (he had violated a federal injunction to keep the strike and boycott going), and in prison he was exposed to the writings of Karl Marx, emerging a committed socialist.

Debs was a founding member of the Socialist Party of America (as well as the Industrial Workers of the World), and served as its presidential candidate five times. The last of these campaigns, in 1920, was conducted from behind bars, as Debs had been imprisoned once again, this time for violating the Espionage Act through a speech he had given in 1918 opposing the United States’ entry into World War I. Despite being imprisoned, Debs received nearly one million votes.

Equal parts beloved and reviled by the American public, Debs was variously referred to as “America’s Conscience” and “the most dangerous man in America.” He was a talented orator, a compassionate soul, and a committed radical, and his legacy of dedication to the working class is an inspiration to leftists into the present day.

Happy 162nd birthday, Eugene Debs!

Chicago Police open fire on striking steel workers and their families killing 10 and wounding around 100. Anarchist Dorothy Day, who was present at the March and massacre, is quoted “On Memorial Day, May 30, 1937, police opened fire on a parade of striking steel workers and their families at the gate of the Republic Steel Company, in South Chicago. Fifty people were shot, of whom 10 later died; 100 others were beaten with clubs.”

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The Battle of Blair Mountain

 Around the turn of the century in West Virginia, the coal companies controlled everything. They owned the towns, had their own private militias, and even paid local law enforcement officers and politicians.  However, the coal companies control over the state began to wane when the miners started to unionize. One of the last counties to unionize was Logan Country, located in the southwest of the state. In 1920, agents of the Baldwin Felts Detective Agency arrived in the independent town of Matewan to evict several miners families and arrest the local police chief, Sid Hatfield.  Hired by the coal companies, the men were essentially there to strong arm the town, which was staunchly pro-union. Days before, the coal companies had tried to bribe the local mayor into placing 5 machine guns on the roofs of the town buildings "in order to maintain order" among the coal miners.  The agents threw out several families from their homes at gunpoint.  They were met by Chief Hatfield and his deputies, who told them to get out of town.  A gunfight ensued, resulting in the deaths of ten men, 7 of which were Baldwin Felts agents, including two of the brothers of the company’s founder, Albert and Lee Felts. The town mayor, Cabell Testerman, was also killed.

Police Chief Sid Hatfield

Sid Hatfield was cleared of murder charges, which was seen as a great victory against the coal companies.  Bolstered by the victory, Sid Hatfield and a union organizer named Bill Blizzard organized the miners of Logan County into a union, which quickly went on strike.  The coal companies responded by hiring scabs and strike breakers.  On August 1st, 1921 Sid Hatfield was called to McDowell County to stand trial for sabotaging a mine. While walking up the courthouse steps with his friend Ed Chambers and their wives,  a group of Baldwin Felts agents opened fire, killing Hatfield and Chambers.  Chambers, who was only wounded, was executed by one of the agents with a gunshot to the back of the head.

 Enraged, the miners took up arms and organized to forcefully break the power of the coal companies. They were joined by thousands of miners from other counties who were sympathetic to their cause.  Altogether, the miners formed an army consisting of around 10,000 men.  Its is no exaggeration that they were an army, many of the miners were World War I veterans who had seen combat in Europe.  Armed with hunting rifles and shotguns, they organized battalions and regiments, assigned commanders, set up command posts, set up hospitals and mess tents, dug trenches, and did everything that a well organized army would do. Their opposition, a eclectic group of coal company militias, guards, state and local police, and Baldwin Felts agents, only numbered around 3,500, however they were well armed with machine guns and other military weapons.

On August 25th, the two sides met, and a battle raged in the West Virginia mountains for almost a week.  In the ensuing battle, 50-100 miners were killed, around 30 men on the side of the coal companies were killed.  Hundreds more were wounded on both sides.  The battle ended when Federal troops arrived on September 2nd.  985 miners were indicted for treason and murder, but in the end none were charged.  Overall the battle was a victory for the coal companies in the short term, who clamped down even harder on the miners.  In the long term, the battle was a victory for the miners, as the battle rose awareness of the coal miners plight.

NAFTA was not symbolism. With this deed, Clinton was not merely insulting an important constituency… With NAFTA he connived in that constituency’s ruin. He assisted in the destruction of its economic power. He did his part to undermine his party’s greatest ally, to ensure that labor would be too weak to organize workers from that point forward. Clinton made the problems of working people materially worse.

It is possible to regard this deed as fine or brave, as so many New Democrats did, if you understand the struggles of workers as a cliche you’ve grown sick of hearing. However, if you understand those workers as humans - humans who contributed to Bill Clinton’s election - NAFTA starts to appear like betrayal on a grand scale as well as a sizable political blunder. By making it clear to labor, his party’s strongest combatant, that he did not care about them or their issues, Clinton essentially encouraged them to stay home on election days. To this day, for working people, the lesson of NAFTA glares like the headlights of an oncoming locomotive: These affluent Democrats do not give a damn about inequality except as an election-year slogan.

—  Thomas Frank, “Listen, Liberal”