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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

Perceptions of Race in the Seattle Union Record

By Chad Seabury
Above is the lead article from the Seattle Union Record from Wednesday April 24th, 1918.  It is a 'mission statement' of sorts that lays out the intentions and goals of the publishers of the paper. Photo courtesy of UW Libraries Special Collections.

The construction of race in the United States has been a long process of redefining and reaffirming the ideas of whiteness and citizenship.  This racialized form of thinking was by no means a forgone conclusion from the creation of our country, but was a thought process that was created and perpetuated over hundreds of years, continuing through today.  The process of organizing labor was certainly not immune to these habits of perception.  In fact, by studying union newspapers such as the Seattle Union Record, we can clearly see a reflection of racial thinking (at times even a propagation of the legacy) inherent in the ways and actions of unions and their organizers.  In taking on this subject it is important to remember that my intention is not to paint a picture of racist Seattle unions, or to generalize that they are in some way bad.  What I will do is show first, how, as much as any group, they were victims of prevailing early twentieth century thought, and second that organized labor took on this persona often in contradiction to their preaching.           

To accomplish this, I will approach the subject in two parts.  First, in order to establish the historical pattern of racial thought processes, I will briefly discuss the construction of race and racial thinking in the United States.  The second portion of this effort will be focused on how that pattern of thought extended in to and shaped ideas surrounding the organization of labor as it is reflected in the Seattle Union Record from 1910 to 1918.  This is an important time in labor organization leading up to the Seattle General Strike, and is a sufficient length of time to prove an ingrained way of thinking

It is important to first understand that race, and the system of racialized thinking, was not a forgone conclusion, rather, it was something created over time.  Physical difference, while playing a large role, is not a sufficient explanation to account for what happened.  In the 1620’s, a black man named “Antonio a Negro” entered Virginia, marrying his wife, “Mary,” in 1625.  Antonio and Mary were likely indentured servants in the slave trade, and eventually bought their freedom.  At one point, Antonio owned land, had livestock, and even had some indentured servants of his own.  This is an important event considering he and his wife were black and free, and begins to break down the idea that the color barrier always existed.[i

By the end of the 17th and early 18th century, however, perceptions began to change quite rapidly.  Regardless of their color, slaves had always been looked down on.  Then, during this time, laws began to be passed that started to define who was a slave and who was free.  Those laws began to define differences between blacks and whites, often making the distinction between Christian and black, and eventually equating Christian with white, and savage with a vague and undefined “other.”[ii]  When America finally declared its independence from England in 1776, the idea of freedom was largely attached to land ownership.  Due to the fact that the majority of the people in the country did not own land (and those who did were white), it made for a narrow definition of “free”.  Following this was the Antebellum period and the domestic slave trade in America that solidified the differences between white and “other.” 

The Naturalization Act of 1790 is particularly important in institutionalizing racial thinking.  The act stated that any “free white person” could be naturalized as a citizen.  The real problem with this was that it never defined what the law would consider to be “White.”  Whiteness was defined by what it was not, instead of what it was.  The process of enjoying freedom as a “free white person” in America therefore became an extremely subjective one.  The ways to decide who was considered “white” became a matter of common knowledge and scientific evidence.  The courts were extremely inconsistent in their judgments, however, often times ignoring scientific evidence (which was really only a matter of a consensus among anthropologists, not necessarily what we would consider unequivocal scientific evidence today) when it conflicted with common knowledge. [iii] 

In the period between the Civil War and the early twentieth century, the marginalization of people of color continued in many ways.  Black people suffered the worst wrath through periods of lynching and segregation.  These were largely the White Southerner’s backlash to the effects of the Civil War.  The way of life that many wealthy, slave-owning families had enjoyed was destroyed by the war, and by the loss of their slaves.  The continuing process of defining “white” and “other” is also reflected in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, when white workers were concerned about their jobs being taken by Chinese immigrants.  One of the best examples of defining racial lines during this period, however, is seen in the period of American Imperialism in the early 20th century.  During this time, there was an underlying theme of expanding our markets and civilizing other parts of the world.  This form of politics was seen strongly in our approach to Cuba, the Philippines, and China, where we were not only “chosen” to help steer these people in the right direction, but it was our duty as the superior race to take on this task.  This idea further solidifies the correlation between “American” and “White.”  The period was filled with the consistent demonetization of other races.  The “others” were made out to be lesser people who did not show the fitness for self-government that Anglo Saxons so convincingly displayed.  Teddy Roosevelt expressed significant concern about the ideas of eugenics and race suicide, that could potentially undermine our country and the way of life that had been so carefully built. [iv

This is, admittedly, a very brief history of an extremely complicated process.  The main idea is that racialized thinking took root over roughly a two-hundred year period as a result of a combination of laws (some specifically drawing lines and others remaining extremely vague and open to interpretation), social changes, economic expansion, and labor concerns.  This historical process of creating racialized thinking is very important in understanding how whiteness is portrayed in the Seattle Union Record.  Understanding this history puts the plight of organized labor into a very different perspective, as I will show.  The examples that I have gathered are from the Seattle Union Record, generally from around Independence Day.  This is done purposefully, as a point of irony, because of labor’s fight for freedom and because of  the questions over who exactly, in this country, at that time, were to be considered both citizens and free to appreciate independence?  I have made a fairly extensive use of quotes directly from articles because the choice of words is so very important in seeing implied answers to these questions and understanding the thinking behind what is written

One very important recurring idea in organized labor is that of the agitator.  It is an underlying theme meant to relieve fear and encourage people to stand against something.  On June 25th 1910 there was an article discussing the role of the agitator.  After making references to certain biblical figures (including Jesus Christ) as agitators, it ends by saying, “Thank God, reader, that you live in a land where the agitator is a possibility.  Do not forget that agitation is an unfailing indication of life.  Where there is no agitation there is death.”  There are several things occurring in this excerpt, one being the assumption that we all have the right to this freedom.  History tells us, however, that we have that right only as long as we are White, or of a background considered to be White as dictated by common knowledge.  The other overriding idea is the use of Christianity, which I have already discussed historically as a way to separate classes or races of people, this is simply a continuation of the past. 

A week later, the July 10th, 1910 issue ran an article titled “The Progress We Have Made” that defined three groups with seemingly incommensurate ideas and goals.  In an address to the Modern Woodmen of America, who were celebrating Independence Day in Bellevue, Washington, Judge John E. Humphries discussed three main issues: what was called “the Oriental question,” the state of labor, and capitalism.  Obviously, it is significant that there are three separate issues, and race is one of them.  The “Oriental question” was in reference to admitting and naturalizing Chinese and Japanese people, and enfranchising them “like the white races of Europe.”  The idea of race suicide is very strong throughout this article, at one point stating “the Mongolian races would capture the Pacific Coast and the United States without the firing of a gun or the forming of  a line of battle,” and “…it would not be many generations until the white race on the Pacific Coast and elsewhere in the United States would become extinct.”  Then, to confirm labor’s stance on this issue, Humphries states, “Now is the time to agitate these questions, and see that no man is placed in the United States Senate or in the national House of Representatives who favors such monstrous doctrines…”  These three quotes are good examples of the exclusive and inclusive nature of labor.  They want to organize the workers, but carefully exclude any unwanted groups.  The last quote also revisits this idea of agitation, calling on unions to stand together, ask the difficult questions, and make a stand for itself

The following week, in the July 9th, 1910 edition, there is a very long article giving the history of the Chinese expulsion from Seattle almost twenty-five years earlier.  Again, the word “agitation” comes up in the article, which seems appropriate since this historical reference is clearly meant to continue agitation toward the Chinese and cheap labor.  In fact, this idea of cheap labor was an important reason for expulsion, and is an obvious and continual threat to organized labor.  The danger of Chinese labor, and one of the articles more blatantly racist statements, are represented in the following selection, “White men were compelled to compete with Asiatics for a chance to live, and any protest against working with the yellow man was met with the command to go to the office, and two more Chinks would take his place.  Having been born in this country, and my ancestors having fought in all the battles for freedom and for this government, the fact of being forced into competition with the Coolies was rather humiliating.” 

Within one week in either direction of Independence Day in 1910, it is plain to see that labor strongly supports the European, or White, working class.  It has left little room for those that do not belong to that group.  By the next year, there is a strong sense of a movement toward continued solidarity, with a focus on Socialism.  These examples continue to build on racial thinking and whiteness, but begin to show the contradiction that is inherent in labor’s approach. 

In three consecutive weeks, there are articles in the Seattle Union Record discussing Socialism, its benefits, and describing it as labor’s ultimate goal.  The first on July 1st 1911 states, “When Socialism supplants capitalism, poverty will disappear, and ignorance and sin will pass into history.”  From this we can see the painting of a utopian society.  This article attacks wage-slavery and capitalism for creating a system that basically allows a worker to earn enough to survive until he is able to, “regenerate his labor power.”  The term wage-slavery has connotations of the Antebellum South and was a very powerful and common term used mostly in reference to White laborers.  The following edition, July 8th , 1911, carried an article entitled “Socialism, Hope of the World.”  It says, “Jesus promised us the kingdom of God on earth.  Surely were socialism ruling this earth today, would not that indeed be the kingdom of God, i.e. all good?”   Again, here is another Christian reference (with all its implied inclusions as well as exclusions to the group).  Then, on July 15th 1911 there is an article on the minimum wage that ends by saying, “The workers’ final goal, the abolishing of the wage system, the extracting of the workers from the category of merchandise and the building of an industrial republic is our aim, our purpose, our mission.”  These last two quotes help clarify the utopian ideal set forth in the first one. 

From these ideas of Socialism, however,  we can begin to draw contradictions.  Going back to the article, “Socialism, Hope of the World” there is an interesting definition of the term “Socialism.”  “Socialism, or the co-operative commonwealth, means union, organization, mutually arranged activity, equality, love, brotherhood.”  The utopian ideal here sounds good, but given labor’s staunch disapproval of cheap labor sources and racialized thought processes of the previous year, should we really assume that equality is part of the goal?  Could it be that the qualifier of “whiteness” is missing from this definition?  The July 15th, 1911 paper also featured an article by Rev. Charles Stelzle called “Getting a Right Start” which had a very strong eugenic appeal.  Stelzle writes, “When a boy starts out handicapped by weaknesses and vices which were inherited, it means a hard pull if he is going to win.”  The article deals with the issue of trying to give your children a better life than you had by “giving them a healthy body and a strong character.”  Eugenics, along with the concern over race suicide, were popular ideas in the early twentieth century, as I mentioned earlier.   Believers in these theories thought character traits (both good and bad) were genetic and could therefore be passed on (as opposed to being learned behavior).  This idea was most commonly tied not necessarily to people of color, but to those that were not considered “white,” and who were seen as lesser people.  This article is important because, to a degree, it continues the subjugation of an unnamed group of people in the same newspaper that is promoting equality and the removal of the worker from the category of merchandise.  It is interesting and important to note here that “labor as merchandise” was not a problem when it was in the form of racialized slavery, but became a problem as the country rapidly grew and white people became the merchandise. 

The rhetoric picks up again very strongly in the June 21st 1913 Seattle Union Record in an article by Charles Perry Taylor, the Secretary of the Washington State Federation of Labor.  This article discusses literacy tests as a protection to labor by making it a requirement for immigration to the United States.  Taylor argues that if we can make it a requirement to vote (which ultimately resulted in the disenfranchisement of a very large number of African-Americans), we should make it a requirement for immigration as a matter of defending “the quality of American citizenship.”  He felt that “the most feasible measure is the educational test, because it will exclude about one-third of those particular classes which are most a menace to the institutions of the United States - in other words, the most undesirable class of immigrants.”  So what would constitute a desirable class of immigrants?  Taylor offers those from Great Britain, Ireland, Scotland and the Scandinavian countries, Germany, Holland and France, “all of which was of the same basic stock as that of which the population of America is so largely made up,” and “represents one of the strongest and best elements in American citizenship.”  Noticeably absent from that list are any countries from which we might consider the people to be “not white.” 

Following this article on June 28th, 1913 was an editorial article from a waiter, Ed Levi, in which he claims, in regard to exploitation, that “he knows the meaning of that particular word perhaps better than the rest of humanity.”  He finishes by saying the waiters are finally waking up to the fact that there is strength in numbers and if they organize, they may be able to overcome this obstacle.  Mr. Levi has clearly overlooked the specter of racialized slavery which would be a much greater example of exploitation.  This serves as another example of how certain conditions were not necessarily a problem until they really hit the white working class

In 1914 immigration restriction came up again in the June 13th edition in an article outlining an interview with H. H. Wheaton, an assistant labor commissioner in Pennsylvania.  Reiterating the importance of literacy and education as a requisite for admittance to the United States (as Charles Taylor had done about a year earlier), Wheaton says, “organized labor could depend upon the alien from Europe to support its principles after proper education.”  He also classified the immigration of people from the East as a more serious problem than the immigration from Europe.  By classifying immigrants from the East as a problem, the implication is that the lesser capable people from the East will most certainly bring down the lifestyle that has been created. 

This sentiment is followed up two weeks later on June 27th, 1914 with a short article on unionizing the Japanese.  This very cautious article posits this possibility in lieu of continuing to fight.  The hope here was that they could be “made the allies of the organized workers rather than permitting them to be used to defeat the ends of the organized workers.”  It is important to point out, however, that the article also states “The idea will not be received with great favor at this time.”  We should also consider that this was a very short article placed on the bottom corner of page four.  Certainly not something one would put on the center of the first page

With perfect timing for Independence day, the July 4th 1914 edition ran an article entitled “Oregon Editor is Opposed to Chinese Labor.”  This article carefully defines the lines between races and is a strong continuation of eugenics.  There are two statements that stood out in this article.  The first is, “Wherever a white man or woman went to seek labor, they had to compete with and labor by the side of the Chinese.”  Again the idea of cheap labor and competition for work continues to play a role.  Then we read, “He also ought to know that if one race is required to labor with an inferior race in morals or intellect, that the superior race will suffer and degenerate like the poor whites of the South did from the competition of African slave labor, the effect of which is still seen in the descendants of those poor whites of the Southern states.”  The stance here, as well as the reflection of whiteness, could not be more clear

This attack continues with an article about the liberation of “white slaves” from the cotton mills in the South.  At one point it even says “neither tongue nor pen is adequate to describe the awful wretchedness of their existence.”  Right next to this article was another one about a resolution put forth by the American Federation of Labor that would help pass a bill limiting immigration.  The irony here is so great that I will not even venture to comment other than to repeat that some issues were not even considered issues until they were “whitened

July 3rd, 1915 brought an article from Seattle where the Butler Hotel fired all the girls working there, and hired Japanese workers in their place.  “This action came as spite work against the recent enactment of a minimum wage provision for female hotel employees by the Industrial Welfare Commission in Olympia.”  This is yet another example of cheap labor as a threat, and the willingness of businesses to take advantage of it.  Two weeks later on July 17th, 1915 an article appears which rectifies the situation entitled “Butler Hotel Fires Japs Hires Girls.”  Apparently the manager of the Hotel was going to lose his position as “Seattle Booster.”  According to the article he would be reinstated “without being accused of being a member of that secret society called ’The Milky Dows,’ a Patriotic Order of American Citizens for the Advancement of Oriental Ideas and the Enrichment of the Sunrise Kingdom.”  He obviously did not want to be seen as a sympathizer

Having thoroughly set the pattern of thought since 1910, my next few examples are from 1917 and 1918, and are from later in the year instead of the weeks surrounding Independence Day.  The purpose for this is to show that the racial thinking I have proposed did not just occur around the Fourth of July, but was always prevalent in the Seattle Union Record, and continued through the nine year period of my research. 

The September 1st, 1917 Union Record had an article about employers that ignore race and color.  The article is about the anti-Negro riots that took place in St. Louis and maintains that “our captains of industry systematically pull wires to maintain a surplus of labor.”  Black people in this case represent the threat of cheap labor.  In an attempt to magnify the difficult situation of labor, Harry Kennon wrote, “For white men have been as freely exploited for surplus labor material as Negroes - more so, since Negro labor is not particularly prized by the northern captains of industry.”  That is a difficult and inaccurate statement to make, since only fifty years earlier African Americans were still being forced to work in fields in the South.  To say specifically that white men have been exploited to the same extent is a stretch by any means.  In the same sentence that Kennon makes the case for abused White labor, he also denigrates Black labor. 

Later that year, in the December 8th, 1917 newspaper, we read an article about the “Dangers of Suppression.”  This goes back to the idea of agitation I presented near the beginning of this paper, and the following excerpt is an example of the aim of organized labor as well as whiteness.  “When officialdom, whether state or national, rushes imperiously into suppressions of individual liberties, it exposes itself to reasonable suspicions of over-eagerness to seize opportunities for exercising despotic power and thereby creates democratic undercurrents of distrust.”  The suppression here is in reference to the government limiting certain freedoms during times of war.  The question, however, is who exactly is it that enjoys these freedoms to their fullest when we are not at war?  The examples I have given from the past articles would mean that they are generally enjoyed by white people

Samuel Gompers addresses freedom a year later on August 31st 1918.  He says, “Win the War for Freedom!”  “The working people of America are conscious of their vital part in making victory possible and they will do their part, not as a task, but as a right - a right to share in the work for securing forever that freedom which they prize above all things.”  Going back to the previous paragraph, as an example of whiteness, I ask who really enjoys that freedom

To close out 1918, there are two examples of continued racial thinking that tie into examples I first presented from 1910.  Combined, they show that there has been virtually no change in the approach to human difference in this nine year period.  The first is from November 18th and is titled “Coolie Labor Not Wanted in This Country.”  At a Pacific Coast District Metal Trades Council meeting, they went on record “as strongly opposed to letting down the bars to coolie labor.”  As was the case in 1910, and even in the 1880’s, Chinese labor remained a threat to organized labor, and as a result, the Chinese people continued to be “outsiders.”  The final example is from two days later on November 20th.  “Seventy-five per cent of Seattle’s hotels and rooming houses are controlled by Japanese, is the startling statement made by officers of the Hotel Maids Local No. 528 after summing up reports made by members.”  Even more startling than the fact that the Japanese had that much control over Seattle’s hotels, is the fact that it is considered “startling.”  The wording is very important because it seems subtle, but carries all the racist connotations, eugenic fears, and genuine concerns of labor that I have been talking about throughout this effort

The many examples I have given may, to some degree, seem painfully repetitive, which is the point.  The habits of perception that were formed hundreds of years ago continued to change, but continued with great strength nonetheless.  They shaped the approach of labor, as well as its contradictory stance on equality and humanity.  From 1910 to 1918, sentiments toward those who were not white remained more or less static, allowing organized labor to create a group to work against (in addition working against capitalism) to help solidify their ideals.  As I said before, I do not want to condemn labor for this, but to show that it was simply a victim of a mode of thought that had been in place since the beginning of our country.  It used race to reinforce its control and position, much like businesses used hiring practices to find cheap labor to advance their standing.  Both sides are guilty of exploitation in some way.      

This history is extremely important to understand because of the light it sheds on the current state of thinking. The habits of perception from the past must be understood in order to change the perceptions of the present and the future. If we take a closer look at the structure of unions today, we see that an impressive change has taken place. No longer are unions the overt breeding grounds for racialized thinking that we have seen in this paper.  However, we must understand that the process for altogether eliminating this thinking is ongoing. While many immigrant and minority groups are clearly represented in unions today, they are noticeably few in union management. This is arguably a continuation of racialized thinking of the past. The contradictions we once lived with and thought processes that I have outlined from the early twentieth century must not continue if organized labor is to survive into the early twenty-first century. Unions are just as much victims of prevailing thought as they are responsible for redefining and reaffirming new ways of thinking.   

As a final thought provoking idea (and somewhat of a bonus selection), I am reproducing a poem entitled “What is Slavery” in its entirety.  The poem is written by Percy Bysse Shelley, and appeared in the Seattle Union Record on September 1, 1917.  This piece sums up many of the ideas I have presented, including agitation, slavery, whiteness, and the plight of labor in general.  In the context of this paper it should seem more ironic, perhaps even a little appalling, than if read otherwise.


What is Slavery

‘Tis to work and have such pay

As just keeps life from day to day

In your limbs, as in a cell,

For the tyrant’s use to dwell. 

‘Tis to be a slave in soul

And to hold no strong control

Over your own will, but be

All of others make of ye.


So that we for them are made,

Loom and plow and sword and spade,

With or without your own will, bent

To their defense and nourishment.


‘Tis to see your children weak

With their mother’s pine and peak,

When the winter’s winds are bleak -

They are dying whilst I speak.


‘Tis to hunger for such diet

As the rich man in the riot,

Casts to the fat dogs that lie

Surfeiting beneath his eye.


And at length, when you complain,

With a murmur weak and vain,

‘Tis to see the tyrant crew

Ride over your wives and you.


Men of labor, heirs of glory,

Heroes of unwritten story,

Nurslings of one mighty mother,

Hopes of her and one another,

Rise like lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number;

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which, in sleep, has fallen on you!

Ye are many, they are few.


[i] This information was attained from Prof. Stephanie Camp, a Professor of African American History at the University of Washington. 

[ii]   Information gathered from Prof. Stephanie Camp. 

[iii] The ideas from this paragraph are a summary of ideas from Ian F. Haney Lopez’s book White by Law (1996).  His study includes an extensive use of court cases that show the ambiguities in the Naturalization Law of 1790. 

[iv] This collection of ideas is from Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Barbarian Virtues (2000). 

©2003 Chad Seabury