...Chapter XXVI

...Negro Labor in War Time


Organization for War Work---The Division of Negro Economics---Pioneer Work of Dr. George E. Haynes---Negro Representation in Council---Seeking to Improve Race Relations---Good Work by Negroes in the Shipyards---Attitude of Organized Labor---The Opportunities of the War.

Because of unsettled conditions among the Negro people migrating hither and thither during the World War, and still more disturbed conditions obtaining among them after the intervention of the United States in the great struggle, it. was deemed necessary to make a scientific study of Negro labor and establish an organization for its direction. After considering the available material, the Secretary of Labor decided, in June, 1918, to call as one of his assistants to take charge of this work, Dr. George E. Haynes, founder of the Urban League and Professor of Social Sciences at Fisk University. Dr. Haynes's work was that of a director of the Division of Negro Economics, around which the organization to carry out these purposes would be organized and from which it would receive its direction.

As no special effort had hitherto been made in this field, Dr. Haynes came to his task largely as a pioneer. His first effort was to arouse interest in his cause through personal interviews and conferences with public-spirited citizens of both races, North and South. He, therefore, approached school officials, State Councils of National Defense, Chambers of Commerce, the United States Employment Service, social welfare organizations, and educational societies.

Interest was soon manifested far and wide. The proposed work of the Department of Labor with reference to the Negroes was given careful consideration at a meeting of the Southern Sociological Congress held at Gulfport, Mississippi, July 12, 1918. Soon there followed a State conference of representative white and Negro citizens at Jacksonville, Florida, called by Governor Sydney J. Catts, who presided at a number of the sessions. On August 5, 1918, a conference was called at Columbus, Ohio, by the Department of Negro Economics with the cooperation of the Federal Director of the United States Employment Service and Governor James M. Cox.

In the meantime conferences of more satisfactory results were being held. The first of these was that called by Governor Bickett of North Carolina, on June 19, 1918. At this meeting the Governor appointed a temporary committee, which drafted a constitution providing for a State Negro Workers' Advisory Committee and for the organization of local, county, and city committees. This plan of organization, with slight modifications and adjustments for other States, served as a model for the development of voluntary field organizations for the Southern States and six Northern States.

An important conference was then held in Kentucky on August 6, 1918. There were both white and colored representatives in attendance. This conference was unique in that the plan of organization adopted was that of a united war work committee, with a special committee of white citizens appointed by the-State Council of Defense as cooperating members. This war work committee included representatives from the Department of Agriculture, the United States Food Administration, the Red Cross, the Council of Defense, and the Department of Labor. Governor A. O. Stanley of Kentucky attended the morning session and made an enthusiastic address to the delegates. Very soon thereafter the influence of the State conferences so proved their effectiveness and their usefulness as a means of forwarding the State movement and creating good feeling and a favorable sentiment that other conferences followed almost as a matter of course. The most important of these were held in Georgia, Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, and steps were taken for conferences or central organization of the work either in New York or South Carolina.

Improving Race Relations

The Division of Negro Economics also called upon the Information and Education Service to carry out the departmental plan for publicity and educational campaigns to improve race relations of workers and to increase the morale and efficiency of Negro workers. The Division also assisted the Bureau of Industrial Housing and Transportation in carrying out its purposes. It welcomed also the cooperation of the Public Health Service in its educational campaign among Negro workers, and maintained a similar cooperative relationship with the War Department through the office of the Special Assistant to the Secretary of War.

Good Work in the Shipyards

It has often been reported that the Division of Negro Economics withheld from rather than conferred upon the Negro the benefits resulting from the scarcity of labor during the World War. For example, Negroes were employed in large numbers in the shipyards, then undertaking to furnish the fleets adequate to the task of transporting American soldiers to France. In the early part of the war the Negroes as illustrated by the unusual record of Charles Knight, at Sparrow's Point, Maryland, exhibited the highest efficiency as riveters in the shipyards. But their increase in efficiency did not lead to an increase in the number employed in the various shipyards. The same condition of affairs, for instance, obtained in the employment of Negroes at Hog Island. After they had manifested the same evidences of efficiency, they suffered from most invidious discriminations while endeavoring to contribute their part to the winning of the war. These untoward conditions tended to continue, and while the number of Negroes employed by the United States Government increased, the Government did little to facilitate their entering the higher pursuits of labor.

It is unfair, however, to charge to the account of Dr. Haynes, the Director of the Division of Negro Economics, the shortcomings of the Department of Labor or of the United States Government. It is decidedly unjust and ludicrous that in the midst of all of these injustices to the Negro laborer there was no effort on the part of the Department to do anything to relieve the situation. A public official is not always in a position every time to divulge exactly what his attitude in a certain situation may be, or whether or not he has taken any steps leading to definite action in matters coming before him for consideration. It may safely be assumed that Dr. Haynes, at all times and in every way possible, did what he could to secure to the Negro laborer the recognition and the remuneration belonging to every man, and in some of these cases he succeeded. That he failed in materially changing the attitude of the Department of Labor or of the country toward the Negro, should not excite surprise. If reformers have bad, according to history, to labor for years to effect a change in public opinion it is ludicrous to expect that one colored man could, by holding office two years in a Department of the United States Government solve the economic problems of the race.

Attitude of Organized Labor

During these same years other forces were at work to assist in the solution of the same problems. Organized labor had become somewhat excited and finally concluded that because of a scarcity of labor it would soon need the. support of the Negro. During these, their trying hours, therefore, leading Negroes of the country were approached with a view to obtaining their support toward the end of organizing all Negro wage-earners.

This proposal did not generally appeal to the Negroes throughout the United States. Their attitude was rather, "Beware of the Greeks bearing gifts." Negroes had for so many years been barred by the trades unions and had suffered so much at their hands that they saw in this change of attitude only some advantage which the trades unions hoped to obtain thereby. Why was it that no effort had ever been put forth by white unions in all these years when the Negro was forced to work for starvation wages? Why is it that Negro laborers have been driven away and in some cases, as in East St. Louis, exterminated by the agents of the trades unions---and could now be received with open arms? "Believing that the need of Negro labor was absolute and imperative in unionized territory and that efforts to exclude the Negro from employment would be futile," said these Negroes, "great solicitude was then expressed for the Negro, at the very time that he was so well treated and so well paid and his prospects for even better treatment so much brighter." Some Negroes, therefore, advised that nothing could be hoped for but base betrayal, and that it would be a blunder to surrender their independence to accept work when they could get it, and on terms suitable to their own peculiar needs. They openly declared that trades unions were planning, not for the Negroes but for the whites, and Negro leaders were cautioned not to be induced thereby and advised the people not to accept these "gifts of the Greeks," who intended thereby merely to control the Negroes for their own good, having seen that they could no longer keep them down.

These leaders, however, did not oppose the organization of the laborers of their race in separate units primarily concerned with their own welfare, but maintaining their independence of the white unions. They were urged to unite among themselves, but not to connect with any movement which convenienced, encouraged, or incited lawlessness, or that sought to prevent men who desired to work from working because they did not wear the badge of an organization. Complying with such suggestions a number of Negroes' organizations were formed. Chief among these was that of the Associated Colored Employees of America, which aimed to bring about a systematic distribution of laborers.

The Opportunities of the War

The majority of the Negroes of this country, however, were not of this opinion. They felt that the time had come for the two races to unite and this was its greatest opportunity. As a step in this direction the American Federation of Labor at its meeting in Buffalo in 1917 passed a resolution to this effect. On the 12th of February in 1918, therefore, the Council of the American Federation of Labor met according to appointment a number of representative Negroes who were invited to discuss with that body plans for carrying out these resolutions. Among the persons invited were Dr. R. R. Moton, Principal of Tuskegee; Mr. Emmett J. Scott, Special Assistant to the Secretary of War; Mr. George W. Harris, Editor of the New York News; Mr. A. H. Grimke, President of the Washington Branch, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Mr. E. K. Jones, Executive Secretary 'of the League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes; Mr. John Shillady, Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Mr. Fred R. Moore, Editor of the New York Age.

These gentlemen, representing the colored people, set forth as a vital war measure the necessity for the removal of the barriers preventing Negroes from entering the higher pursuits of labor. They asked that the American Federation of Labor organize the Negroes in the various trades to include skilled as well as unskilled workmen, Northern as well as Southern; Government as well as civilian employees; women as well as men workers. They wanted Negro labor directed by the American Federation of Labor in the same way as white labor, when workmen are returning to work after a successful strike, when shops are declared open or closed, and when union workers apply for jobs.

When the American Federation of Labor held its meeting in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in June, 1919, it voted with only one dissenting vote, and that the Railway Postal Clerks Union, to give full membership rights to Negro wage-earners. The discussion of the question, and there were some seven hundred delegates in the convention, was very general, broad and fair, with few exceptions. For some time past Negroes have enjoyed membership privileges in the Federation, but in a restricted sense only. It now remains for them to make their standing in the American Federation what it should be. Several causes contributed toward this decision. The World War taught the American Federation and all others that Negroes were prepared, by the industrial and technical teaching and instruction they have been subjected to for the past twenty-five years, to do the highly necessary work required by the Government and the essential industry corporations; while the migration movement indicated that there was plenty of labor to be had for the asking.

The Case of Mrs. Douglass

As soon as the Special Assistant to the Secretary of War entered upon his duties in the War Department he found that there was need of building up a healthy morale among the colored people. Aside from what seemed to be a regular epidemic of racial disturbances culminating in riots, lynching, mob violence, and the like, be found many other conditions that were making for disquiet and unrest. Although colored men were being drafted and called to fight for their country on battlefields abroad, many of their relatives and dependents at home, even those upon the Civil Service register as eligible for appointment, were being denied employment and discriminated against in nearly every branch of the departmental service in Washington. One of the first cases brought to his attention was that of a cultured and refined young colored woman, a relative by, marriage of the late Frederick Douglass, the great Negro leader. She had met the Civil Service requirements, had been duly certified to serve the Government as "Index and Catalogue Clerk," but when she reported for duty and was found to have an admixture of Negro blood, she was told that a "MISTAKE HAD BEEN MADE." Manifestly the same racial discrimination was practiced in dozens of similar cases, and led to the author's taking up the matter with a number of the Government officials who were responsible for such injustices. While he always recognized the fact that his duties were primarily to look after the interests of colored soldiers, yet as far as was practicable, he endeavored to look after the interests of colored civilians as well, and the attached correspondence concerning the young woman above referred to is typical of his efforts in this direction, though he frankly admits that such cases of racial discrimination in the Government bureaus at Washington have been far too numerous for him to give to each of them the personal attention required:

December 13, 1917.

Memorandum-For Lieut. Ernest J. Wesson,
Officer in Charge, Civilian Personnel Section,
Administration Division, U. S. Signal Corps:

At the instance of Dean F. P. Keppel, Confidential Adviser, Office of the Secretary of War, I am writing you in the following matter which has been brought to my attention.

Mrs. Fannie H. Douglass, 910 T Street, N. W., Washington, D. C., has brought to the Office of the Secretary of War, a telegram received by her, dated December 7, 1917, which reads as follows:

"Mrs. Fannie H. Douglass, 329 You St., N. W. (which was her former address), Washington, D. C.

"Your name certified by Civil Service Commission for appointment Chief Signal Officer, twelve hundred dollars per annum.; if you accept, report as soon as possible, Room 826, Mills Building Annex, this city, for duty. Wire reply, Government, collect.

(Signed) SQUIRE, Chief Signal Officer."

Mrs. Douglass states that she telegraphed her acceptance of the offer, and reported for duty as requested; that she was given certain blank forms to fill out; that she filled out the forms given her, and that a detached portion, headed: "The appointee will detach this portion of the sheet and retain it for his information and guidance," was given her, which detached portion she has brought to the Office of the Secretary of War; and that, after these proceedings, she was informed that "there had been a mistake."

Inquiry at the office of the Appointment Division elicits the information that Mrs. Fannie H. Douglass was certified to the office of the Chief Signal Officer on December 6, 1917, as Index and Catalogue Clerk, grade of clerkship for which she had been examined, and to which position she has been certified.

Will you kindly let me have, for the Secretary of War, all the facts bearing on this matter?

Special Assistant to Secretary of War.

War Department, Washington, December 15, 1,917.

Memorandum----Mr. Emmett J. Scott,
............................Special Assistant,
............................Office of Secretary of War.

In reply to yours of December 13, 1917, you are advised from the investigation in this office it would appear that Mrs. Fannie H. Douglass has been the innocent victim of a series of unfortunate errors. The facts surrounding this case are as follows:

On December 6th the Equipment Division of the Signal Corps applied for certification of a large number of Index and Catalogue Clerks. This application was referred to the Appointment Division by telephone and this office was informed that all certificates covering the eligibles for this position were in the Ordnance Department, that these people probably being engaged in that Department, this office was authorized to make temporary appointments of that grade. The Equipment Division informed the undersigned that they had the names of persons at various points in the United States to fill these positions. Upon receipt of this authority to make temporary appointments they were to telegraph these persons to come to Washington, A C., and did so. Shortly afterwards fourteen certificates covering eligibles for the position of Index and Catalogue Clerks were received in this office from the Appointment Division, they undoubtedly having received these from the Civil Service Commission subsequent to our telephonic conversation.

In view of the fact that a large number of persons had been directed to proceed to Washington at their own expense from various parts of the United States to accept temporary appointments, the undersigned did not care to take any action on these certificates, knowing that vacancies would shortly occur in the Air Division in which the appointees covered by such certificates could be placed. Nevertheless, through clerical error, all of these persons were notified by telegram. However, Mrs. Douglass was the first person to report, and as no transportation had been involved in her case, and further, that upon questioning the clerk in this office, who handles these matters, it was found that Mrs. Douglass had not given up her position and would not suffer any pecuniary loss, the undersigned instructed this clerk to inform Mrs. Douglass that she had been notified to appear through error, this due to the fact that vacancies existing had been filled by temporary appointments and it seemed hardly just to displace these persons who had come to Washington at their own expense, and that the undersigned had full knowledge that further openings were to occur in the near future when the services of all Index and Catalogue clerks could be utilized.

At. a later date, which cannot be recalled, Mrs. Douglass called at this office and was voluntarily informed by the undersigned that vacancies were now existing and she would receive telegram in due time to report to this office for duty.

With reference to Mrs. Douglass filling out the blank forms, you are advised that the first impression in this office was that she had been certified as a Departmental Clerk, certain statements on her papers that she had taken the Departmental examination, being the cause of this error, and it was not until after these forms had been completed, was it determined that she had been erroneously summoned as Index and Catalogue Clerk.

Mrs. Douglass has been notified to appear for duty Monday morning next, as Index and Catalogue Clerk.

By direction of the Chief Signal Officer,

(Signed) E. J. WESSON,
1st Lt., Signal Corps, U. S. R.

It is worth while remarking that this young woman proved so capable and painstaking that she was afterward placed in charge of the group of young women who did the file-indexing in her division.

Chapter XXVII. Negro Women in War Work

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