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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

Organized Labor and Seattle’s African American Community: 1916-1920

By Jon Wright
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, to which these men belonged, was the first successful union controlled by African Americans. When it was founded in 1925, black workers were barred from membership in many trade unions. Photo Credit: Webster & Stevens, May 26, 1934. Courtesy of MOHAI.

Seattle’s labor community saw many developments in the late teens and early twenties, and one small but important group that played a part in these developments was the African American population. Organized labor in Seattle was very active and was seen by many people as even radical, with the Seattle General Strike of 1919 being given for evidence. In relation to the African American community though, the labor movement was anything but radical. Seattle unions were often racist and excluded Blacks from their ranks. At other times they voiced support for Blacks, but in actuality they did little to erase the color bar in unions.

African Americans experiencing these racist attitudes developed an ambiguous relationship with labor, with some supporting and others opposing labor unions. Those who did support unions tended to see unions as an opportunity for economic advancement. Others, who were influenced by local Black leaders, saw unions as a hindrances and strikebreaking as a means to create an open shop, and more job opportunities. Still others opposed unions for the basic reason that they had experienced union exclusionary practices. Also very important to this relationship was the employer. They often exploited racial tensions, heightening fears that African Americans would take union jobs and setting African Americans against unions, ensuring that the two would find it difficult to join in solidarity.

The relationship between Blacks and labor has been researched by a number of authors, and I would like to quickly acknowledge three works. The earliest, Robert Pitts’s Organized Labor and the Negro in Seattle, provides information on the Black migration to Seattle, and most importantly, detailed information concerning Black relations with the Longshoremen, and Musicians. Of equal importance is Quintard Taylor’s The Forging of a Black Community. He provides valuable insight into the economic condition of the African American community and points out that the tension between labor and the Black community was due to the attitudes and actions of Labor, Blacks, and Business. This is a conclusion that after my research I have not been able to refute. The latest research, Dana Frank’s Race Relations and the Seattle Labor Movement, 1915-1929, presents valuable data, and argues that when unions did admit African Americans, they did so to lessen the chance that independent Black associations would threaten their bargaining position. These three have been helpful in guiding my research into the African American experience during this period.

At the turn of the century Seattle witnessed the emergence of an African American community. Just three years previous in 1897, Seattle acted as the departure point for the Alaska Gold Rush. The gold rush created an economic boom in Seattle that led to a huge expansion in shipbuilding and a large increase in trade with Asia. The increase in shipbuilding also helped other small industry related to it to start.

These developments brought many people to Seattle looking for new opportunities, and among these were several thousand African Americans. As a result of Seattle’s booming economy, the African American population grew from 406 in 1900 to 2,206 in 1910 with a total population in Seattle at that time of 237,194. This 465 percent increase was the largest increase that the African American community would have for several decades, and enabled a small but vibrant African American community to form.

The African Americans arriving at this point took jobs in the service industries with the men working as waiters, cooks, elevator operators and bellboys, and the women either working as domestics or homemakers. These jobs unfortunately became known as their "traditional work". The expansion of the Seattle economy, which went through cycles of boom and bust, was very important for Black workers who’s economic survival depended on a good economy. With the types of jobs that they held in the service industry, they were susceptible to any downturns in the economy that would make their jobs expendable if the economy went bad. The reason for this being that as the higher paid white industrial workers were laid off, they would have less money to spend on the local economy. The expansion of the Seattle economy, which went through cycles of boom and bust, was from 1897 with the beginning of the gold rush to the end of World War One (WWI) in a boom period.

As Seattle’s economy was expanding with the discovery of gold, increased trade and shipbuilding, the Seattle labor movement was also expanding and becoming more powerful. The dominant labor organization was the American Federation of Labor (AFL), with the Seattle Central Labor Council (SCLC) as its local body. The Seattle SCLC was made up primarily of craft unions that were composed mainly of skilled middle class white men. These unions were "craft unions in the building trades, joined by metal trades workers, skilled printers, and craft workers from the service sector, such as musicians, barbers, and butchers".

In competition with the AFL were the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies). They were much smaller than the AFL, and they were more radical, presenting a much different type of unionism. They encouraged industrial unionism that would include all, and create as they called it ‘one big union’. As part of this all-inclusive ideology they did not discriminate on the basis of race or gender. An African American, Fred Woodson, who was involved with the Wobblies during this early period remembered that "they were without a question not prejudiced, providing entertainment and food to any that wanted it every Saturday night". Although small, the IWW continued to influence the Seattle labor movement and offered an alternative to the conservative and closed craft unionism of the AFL.

The start of WWI in 1914 led to further changes in the Seattle economy and labor market. Although the United States did not enter the war until 1917, it was a major provider of shipping to the warring parties, and Seattle became one of the nation’s biggest producers of shipping. By 1916 the European war had disrupted U.S. shipping enough for the federal government to construct an independent merchant fleet and due to this profitable contracts were sent to the nations shipyards. In Seattle by war’s end the shipyards according to historian Dana Frank, "employed between 30,000 and 35,000 workers and had produced one-fourth of all tonnage manufactured for the government during the war".

This increase in shipyard jobs and related industries led to an increase in the number of people coming to Seattle for work. Although there was a boom in the shipyards and related work though, the number of African Americans coming was relatively small, with an increase of 688 between 1910 and 1920 out of a total increase of 78,127 during the same time period. This may have been due to the fact that the work was not in the service sector and therefore not in their ‘traditional work’ areas as had been the case during the previous decade.

Even though there was not a large increase in the African American population during this period, it was in 1916 that the Black community and labor really came into contact. The International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA) in 1916 struck on the West Coast in response to an announcement by the Waterfront Employers Association (WEA) that there would be a pay reduction. In response to the strike by the Longshoremen, the WEA stated their intent to use non-union labor to break the strike. In order to find worker to replace the strikers, the WEA looked to the African American community. This was a new phenomenon because in the past immigrant labor had been used to break strikes, but due to the war in Europe, the employers had to look for other sources.

In 1914 James A. Roston Sr. had moved to Seattle after serving in the military as a lieutenant in the all Black 10th U.S. Calvary. He became a prominent African American citizen and was involved in various business ventures. One of those ventures focused on the ILA strike in 1916. Mr. Roston placed ads in papers around the country looking for African Americans to come west and replace the striking longshoremen. In co-operation with the WEA, 1,400 non-union workers, of whom 400 were African American, were brought to Seattle.

This was the first time Blacks had been used to break a strike in Seattle and it caused much racial conflict and violence. According to Matti Harris an African American who lived in Interbay, a neighborhood near the docks, there were roving bands of white strikers going around not far from her house near the docks harassing Blacks. This type of violence was not uncommon against Blacks near the waterfront. Horace Cayton, an African American who was working as a strike breaker recounted this story of strikers entering a street car and confronting a number of Black strike breakers who at this point are not responding. "Still the man did not move. With that the striker swung his cargo hook and caught him just below the ear, pulling him to his feet like a half of beef. The pinioned man gave a muffled scream…".

This type of treatment by ILA strikers was by no means conducive to eventual cooperation between whites and Blacks. Yet the violence during the strike was not one sided. In retaliation for these actions, African American strike breakers according to Ms. Harris, "went into the Longshoremen Hall…and they beat (the strikers) up and…gave as good as they got". These actions were not condemned by the employers and only furthered to divide the two sides.

In order to better protect the interests of the African Americans strike breakers Mr. Roston set up what was called the Benevolent Protective Association. This organization was supported by both the Employers Association and the Chamber of Commerce, and acted as a company union. Its goal was to hire new workers, and protect current employees. Another aspect of this association though, was to create better relations between the African American workers and the ILA. An article in the Searchlight, an African American weekly that will be discussed in more detail later said, "Its first step was to organize workers and erase the false impression of the Unions, that the colored man was their enemy and did not believe in organization…".

In October of 1916, meetings were also held at various Black churches like Mt. Zion Baptist Church to discus the problems on the waterfront. One poster advertising the event stated, "Can the Negro hold his own as Longshoremen? Each Afro-American of this city should be interested in the outcome of this important question, because of what it means to him or her from an economic standpoint". Mr. Roston’s desire for a better relationship between African Americans and the ILA came to fruition at the end of the strike.

In 1917 when the United States entered WWI, pressure from the federal government brought the strike to an end. Due to the weakness of the ILA after the strike, large IWW support within the ILA for racial inclusiveness, and the relatively large number of Blacks working as longshoremen, conditions were then conducive to allowing African Americans to join the union. Mr. Cayton was one of those who joined the union. He encouraged other Blacks to join, and he said that, "others followed, so that within a short time we did have a Black and white union, a closed shop, and a union dispatching office".

This was a win for the African Americans, and yet they still faced discrimination. According to Frank Jenkins a long time African American member of the ILA, "the employer was able to keep the work crew separated in order to cause division in the ranks. When this occurred, tension did tend to develop and discrimination made it hard for African Americans to stay in, let alone join the union. As Cayton states, "we noticed that the dispatchers were beginning to discriminate against Negro longshoremen on the pretext of union seniority. When work was slack, (we) were frozen out." In this situation, the union was unfortunately returning to the status quo and the common practice of discriminating against people of color.

In the 1916 strike, African Americans had taken advantage of an opportunity to move out of their ‘traditional work’ and move into higher paying jobs. In doing so they were forced to cross a picket line and displace striking workers, thereby breaking the strike. After the violence of the strike the union recognized that it had to absorb the African American workers or they would continue to be a threat. The WEA manipulated the situation further by playing on the racial tensions and encouraged discrimination based on race. This along with continuing racist views in the union led to a decrease in the number of Blacks working as Longshoremen in Seattle during the time period being examined.

The beginning of WWI also brought opportunities beyond the waterfront to African Americans, and gave them the possibility of moving into other ‘non-traditional work’ areas. As white service men enlisted in the military, Blacks were given an opportunity to work in the shipyards and allied industries. This gave them access to better paying jobs, and on occasion union jobs that during normal times would be blocked to them.

During these war years there was disagreement in the African American community over the importance of labor unions. Cayton’s Weekly was one of those voices that held a strong opinion. This paper was started in August 1916 by Horace Cayton Sr., a prominent figure in Seattle’s African American community. Previous to this he had published the Seattle Republican which closed in 1913 and had catered to a white and Black audience. The Cayton family was well known in both the African American and white communities during this time period. They had lived in an upper-class neighborhood on Capital Hill for many years, until they ran into financial trouble and moved to the central district in 1909. Mr. Cayton was involved in the Republican Party and well connected with the local state business and political communities were he was well respected. Because of this, his views tended to be pro business, with a ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ mentality. After falling into financial trouble, he had to find a way to support his large family that ranged from babies to teenagers. To this end he started Cayton’s Weekly.

This publication, four pages in length, was focused towards Seattle’s African American community. It contained political news from across the country that would be interesting to a Black audience, as well as editorial observations on national and local politics. With a maximum circulation of 1,500, and 400 subscribers, it was distributed to a good percentage of the African American population. The content though reflected the views of the editor, and when it came to labor issues, he opposed unions as corrupt and backward institutions. An example of the newspapers harsh treatment of labor was during a streetcar strike when an editorial said, "…the strike for official recognition of the union, which we reiterate is not only tyrannical, but damnable and should receive no moral support from the great rank and file of this community". Although Mr. Cayton had fallen on hard financial times, he maintained a loyalty to business and a dislike for labor, as will be seen again later in relation to the Seattle General Strike. 

The other major African American publication of the time was The Searchlight, published and edited by Samuel Debow another prominent African American. Not as much is known about The Searchlight as Cayton’s Weekly, although we do know it was a weekly, started in 1902 and was published specifically for the African American community. The Searchlight, as opposed to Cayton’s Weekly, was more of a community paper and did not deal as much with national political issues. Instead, it dealt more with events occurring in the Black community in relation to personal and church events. That is not to say though, that it did not deal with issues of politics or economics. In the cases when it did so, it was a more pro labor and working class paper than Cayton’s Weekly. In one editorial concerning a strike at the gas works (Gas Works Park?), with African Americans involved, it stated, "The capitalists are struggling in the last trench to keep the Negro and the laboring white man from joining forces for their mutual benefit." From this editorial it is clear that the paper sees business as what is keeping Blacks and unions apart.

The Searchlight also advocated in a December 1919 editorial for the formation of a local chapter of the Railway Association. There were a large number of African American railway men in Seattle and this was seen as a good way of getting them organized. Another clear difference between the two papers is seen in their stance on the 1920 mayoral election. The Searchlight endorsed James Duncan, head of the SCLC saying, "…he is a representative candidate of the working people, he advocates the ideals that are of vital importance to the laboring masses." Cayton’s Weekly on the hand endorsed Caldwell saying, "From a commercial standpoint, it is to the cities best interest that Caldwell…be elected in preference of Duncan."

The difference between these two papers can be partially attributed to their different editors, with Mr. Cayton being more business oriented, and Mr. DeBow favoring the working class and labor unions. Their audience though, would have for the most part been working class, since the African American population was small and could only have supported a small middle class, if at all. Therefore the views within the community regarding organized labor must have differed greatly based on job experience, education and economic opportunities that were available to them.

One example of an individual who was supportive of organized labor was Mr. Jenkins. As we saw, he was a longtime member and activist in the Longshoremen’s union, and believed strongly in labor. He said that during this period when he was working on the docks, the hiring done at the union hall on the waterfront was much more evenhanded than that done by the employers. He went on to say that, "the discrimination was rampant by the Waterfront Employers Association…". He was one of those who had done well in the union and saw the employer as the enemy of both labor and the African American.

In 1919, the Seattle General Strike occurred. The strike occurred for three main reasons; first, out of sympathy for the striking shipyard workers, second, due to Marxist ideas circulating within the labor movement at the time, and third, out of a desire to preempt industry and keep union wartime gains. In the African American community the feelings toward organized labor remained mixed. In Cayton’s Weekly an editorial before the strike stated, "we can hear the din of the strikers and in our mind’s eye we can see Seattle being torn into shreds and the cold hungry hordes eating grass like so many cattle". The writer, it is obvious, does not support the strike, and seems rather concerned about it. Chances are that his audience has similar feeling about the strike.

Although Cayton’s Weekly came out against the strike we know that at least some African Americans supported it. Of the 65,000 people that went on strike, at least 300 were African American men who were members of the longshoremen’s union. This is important because it shows that some part of the Black community felt enough loyalty to the union cause to go out on strike. Yet, too many African American workers and other people of color were at this point still bared from entering unions to make this a truly all-inclusive general strike.

Shortly after the failure of the general strike, an article appeared in Cayton’s Weekly again ridiculing the strike. It stated that, "The very idea of distressing the capitalistic class for not granting the shipyard workers their demands was ridiculous and absurd from the outset". He went on to say that he thought the shipyards would remain closed, but when they reopened he hoped that they would operate as an open shop. Again, this demonstrates the low opinion that some in the African American community had for labor unions.

On the other hand, some African Americans like Mr. Jenkins did seem to support the concept of unions. An example of this is James Roston Sr. who we saw earlier involved in the 1916 longshoremen’s strike. Several weeks after the Seattle General Strike he along with D.A. Graham, a fellow African American, sent a letter to the SCLC concerning race relations. They requested that the color bar for all unions that were affiliated to the SCLC be removed, saying, "(Blacks) are refused membership in most of the unions of the city simply on account of race, and consequently are denied the privilege of earning an honest living". This request was endorsed by the Seattle Union Record, and agreed upon by the SCLC.

The SCLC stated, "The unanimous sentiment expressed was that if organized labor was to have union organization it should take in all the workers". Unfortunately, the detail of bringing African Americans into the unions was left to a committee to be appointed later. This committee was never formed and the exclusionary policies stayed intact. Labor’s relationship with African Americans seemed to follow this pattern. They would voice support or approval, but equality within the union did not often come. In August 1919, the Seattle Union Record ran an article saying that, "the Negro was half free and that politicians and employers used the Negro against the whites." This was true and it is important that they recognized it, yet the solution they offered was for Blacks to join unions. Unfortunately, African Americans were for the most part excluded from joining unions, which makes the solution impossible.

Several days later, they published a letter from James Roston, asking national newspaper publishers "to play fair with the Negroes". In other words, to treat them with the same respect given to whites. By printing this letter, they were recognizing the need for equality between Blacks and whites, and yet concrete means for addressing and solving the problem were never implemented.

Other segments of the labor community were more radical in their outlook towards African Americans. The Forge, a radical Seattle newspaper stated that, "If a Negro is good enough to work for an employer he is good enough to organize with…" and went on to say, "Together we win is a slogan which must include the Negro as well as the white worker." This segment of labor, identifiable mostly in the IWW, may have implemented their beliefs if they had more power, but this is something we will never know.

Not all union publications printed articles speaking of the need for equality. The newsletter for the musicians union often ran racist Black jokes of all nature, including Ku Klux Klan jokes. African American musicians, it should be known, were in competition with white musicians, and were interested in unionization. The derogatory nature of the union may have been one of the reasons for local African American musicians to feel that they would not be treated equally in the musicians union. So, feeling alienated from the white local, they formed their own union in 1917, affiliated with the American Federation of Musicians.

However, any small economic or unionization gains that African Americans had made during the war were lost as WWI came to a close. African Americans were laid off from their war-related jobs as well as menial and domestic jobs they had held before 1917. This was due to number of reasons; first, returning service men taking over industrial jobs, second, employers exploiting race differences, and third, a general hardening of racial lines. White women took some ‘traditional jobs’ of Black men, and Black women faced competition from Japanese and Filipino men. By 1920, job expansion for African Americans had stopped.

In the postwar year, a few unions announced the elimination of the color bar, such as the Pacific Coast Metal Trades. In 1920 they announced that they had "abolished the color line". The Longshoremen’s union proudly replied that they had already done so. Unfortunately, at this point they only had 100 African American members left, out of 15,000 Longshoremen working. The vast majority of Seattle’s unions though, continued to exclude African Americans. These craft and industrial unions continued to promote the idea of exclusion, to the detriment of themselves, African Americans and the labor community as a whole.

In closing, the relationship between organized labor and the African American community was very much shaped during and the five years between 1916 and 1920. This period witnessed much change in Seattle, starting with the Ship Stewards strike in 1916 were African Americans clashed with labor, gaining higher paying jobs and in the end a union. The start of WWI supplied more jobs and opportunities to Blacks, and was a time when organized labor was able to make large gains. For all of these developments though, the opinions within each community did not really change, and remained divided within each. The majority of labor remained bigoted, and unwilling to change, with a few minor exceptions seen in the Longshoremen and other radicals. The African American community remained divided depending on a number of variables. The employer was also responsible, playing of racial tensions, and manipulating them to their own advantage. Leaders in both communities saw and recognized this, and yet they were not able, at this point, to overcome the divisions. That would have to wait many decades.

©1999 Jon Wright 



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.