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Race, Gender, and More in the AFL Records

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This is a guest post by Mills Pennebaker, who participated in the fall 2021 Archives, History, and Heritage Advanced Internship in the Manuscript Division. Mills received a master’s degree in history from the College of Charleston in May 2021.

Two women on standing side by side on the New York City streets in 1910 wearing sashes that say "Picket Ladies Tailors Strikers"
Strike pickets, New York City, New York, 1910, Bain News Service, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was among the leading voices representing workers during the Progressive Era. The AFL’s digitized records provide important insights into organized labor’s relationships with various social, political, and economic global forces. Recently, as part of the Archives, History, and Heritage Advanced Internship, sometimes referred to as AHHA, I had the opportunity to analyze portions of the AFL Records, and gave careful consideration to documents regarding race, gender, immigration, regionalism, and class. In a few short months, I examined more than 6,000 pieces of correspondence and identified nearly 100 letters that related to these topics.

The collection spans the years 1883-1925, a period rife with dynamic change, including social movements, political reform efforts, large-scale domestic migrations, and increased immigration. Notable events that occurred during that period served as starting points for this project: the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) strike (September 1909-March 1910) led by tens of thousands of women, many of them immigrants, which established better working conditions and wages in New York City’s garment industry; the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (March 11, 1911), in which nearly 150 garment workers perished in a lower Manhattan factory, leading to the passage of the nation’s earliest labor legislation; and Red Summer (April-November 1919), a series of race riots carried out by white urban residents against their African American counterparts in several cities across the nation which resulted in the destruction of Black communities and the deaths of hundreds of predominantly Black Americans. These events created a strong foundation for this project analysis, yet it was nevertheless frustrating to witness AFL’s predominantly white male leadership write about those most impacted by these events instead of talking to them.

Women, including those involved in and impacted by the ILGWU strike and Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, emerged as one of the quietest groups in the collection based upon my review. Young immigrant and Jewish women workers were busy organizing marches and demonstrations; however, their voices are frequently silent in the records. Their male union president, Abraham Rosenberg, or the secretary-treasurer, John Dyche, appealed to the AFL on their behalf. It is possible that language barriers and a gendered power structure prevented immigrant laborers’ from expressing themselves directly to AFL leadership through written correspondence.

Portrait group of African American Bricklayers union, Jacksonville, Florida,1899. The group consists of men all wearing dark suits and hats.
Portrait group of African American Bricklayers union, Jacksonville, Florida,1899, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Compared to the ILGWU’s workers, Black Americans reeling from the violence of the Red Summer wrote to the AFL more often. Although Black laborers were certainly aware of the AFL’s paternalistic attitudes toward their communities, African Americans recognized the importance of attaching their segregated unions to national and international labor bodies during the Jim Crow era in the hopes of achieving a greater degree of recognition and support. African Americans also wrote to the AFL to obtain information about organizing Black laborers and to demand leadership’s support in fighting racial discrimination in the workplace.

Many individuals corresponded with the AFL to request assistance in finding employment or joining hospitable unions. Private Archie Lee, for example, sent a letter to AFL President Samuel Gompers in June 1919. Lee’s letter illustrates the racial discrimination endured by many Black veterans returning home following World War I. In requesting information on railroad employment and union opportunities, Lee attempted to demonstrate his worth as a reliable worker. He stated his qualifications as “an experienced fireman,” asserted his strong moral character as “an American Negro soldier,” and seemed to voice subtly an apprehension about reencountering white supremacy in Jim Crow America with his acknowledgment of prior employment “on southern railroads” and current interest in finding “work on some railroad operating out of Buffalo, N. Y., if it is nothing more than a yard engine job.”

Photo shows four African American men in striped prison suits and hats holding picks and shovels.
African American prisoners leased to harvest timber in Florida, 1915, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The ILGWU strike, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and Red Summer provided helpful starting points for scrutinizing the AFL’s records, but there is still much work to be done with this collection. Additional topics traverse a number of issues and movements domestically such as the fight for prohibition, establishing Mother’s Day as a national holiday, and combating the spread of venereal disease, while also demonstrating the organization’s transnational influence as evidenced by several examples of correspondence pertaining to participants in the Mexican Revolution and the AFL’s continued communication with European leaders and labor advocates. Opportunities to investigate gender, race, and class through a transnational lens abound in a series of correspondence involving the women of Puerto Rico’s tobacco strippers’ unions who demanded recognition and respect from male union leadership and supervisors. Of additional interest is correspondence condemning convict labor. According to Gompers, the use of convict labor “result[s] not only in injury to the Farmers [living and farming in proximity to prisons], to the labor movement, but to our citizenship in general.” Further research into AFL’s relationship with convict labor is crucial to gaining a better understanding of the historic exploitation of incarcerated individuals.

Comprised of more than 172,000 items, the AFL collection is a potential treasure trove, yet the work has only just begun. The field of labor history has much to gain by continuing to analyze these records through an intersectional lens. Centering groups that have been traditionally excluded from the historic record is of utmost importance in future investigations of the American Federation of Labor and its records.

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