The 1919 Seattle General Strike
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African-American & Organized Labor Guide
By Jon Wright

In Seattle the African American population was small and yet the role they played in Seattle’s labor community was important. Their population in 1920 was 2,894 out of a total population of 315,312. Up until about 1916 the workers in the African American community were mainly employed in the more menial sectors, with the women working as domestics and the men working as porters or waiters.

After 1916 they started moving into other more ‘non-traditional’ sectors. This was due both to the Longshoreman’s strike in 1916 and the beginning of WWI. In the 1916 strike African Americans were brought in as strikebreakers, and during WWI their labor was needed for the war effort. After the war African Americans lost many of their gains and in 1921 there was a Ship Steward strike were blacks were again used as strikebreakers. Throughout this period it had been difficult for African Americans to get higher paying skilled work due in part to the attitude of organized labor.

The exclusionary nature of unions discouraged many blacks from attempting to join unions and turned parts of the community against unions. The racist attitudes of labor are not only to blame though, employers hold much of the responsibility for manipulating racial, ethnic and gender tensions for their own benefit.

Secondary Sources:

The following books give a good overview of relations between organized labor and the African American community in Seattle during the WWI period.

Primary Sources:

Below are three primary sources that would be of use of people researching the relationship between organized labor in Seattle and the African American community.

  • Roston, James Sr. Acc. # 1161
    This is a small collection of Mr. Roston’s personal papers. Included are clippings from Seattle newspapers concerning events that occurred relating to labor issues of the time. These clippings are not to be found in the regular newspaper collection, so therein lies their importance. Also included are several letters relating to Roston’s involvement with Seattle’s business community in relation to the Ship Stewards strike in 1921.

  • Cayton's Weekly
    The UW collection is from July 1917 to March 1921. This African American community weekly is a valuable source of information regarding this community’s view on labor. It discuses the Seattle General Strike, although it is missing the February 1 issue, an important one. Also included are thoughts of what the average person thinks, and in several instances report their thoughts on labor.

  • The Searchlight
    The UW collection is missing large parts of this paper; it has from May 1919 to Dec 1920 with several gaps in between. In spite of this, it still provides insight into what the African American community is thinking in regards to labor.
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