The years 1865-1940 were chosen for this project, as they coincide with most of the largest waves of labor activity within the United States, and the labor conditions of this span of time, perhaps apart from early reconstruction, were all impacted predominantly by the second industrial revolution.

Two separate stories within the Richmond working class persisted throughout this span of time; one of the black working class, and the other of the white working class. Into the 20th century, black and white workers were rarely ever seen working in the same settings, and white labor movements were often exclusive towards Richmond’s black population, even within organizations such the Knights of Labor that have been celebrated as places that both the black and white sections of the American working class could convene during its prevalence in the late 1800s. Due to both of these reasons, the black and white sections of Richmond’s working class each took up their own distinct forms of labor struggle during the second industrial revolution.

Upon the ending of chattel slavery, a vast array of measures was thrown at the American black population, including Richmond’s, to draw from them similar gains for the white ruling class as they had seen before the end of chattel slavery. Finding their way through the struggles of sharecropping, the sudden rapid growth of convict slavery, and general entry into society with no platform to build off of were the primary concerns for the black working class of Richmond. Consistently the worst off and most viciously exploited of Richmond’s working class population, labor struggle within the black working class often came abruptly and organically, all throughout the late 1800s and well into the mid-1900s. Richmond’s white working class saw large waves of labor organization throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, until the victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia saw the birth of the Red Scare in America, and labor activity among the white working class of America and Richmond soon dwindled. 

A Visual Gallery

As so much of our knowledge of labor history in America is limited only to newspaper archives with all their potential biases in play, oral histories which may be prone to inaccuracies, and otherwise, nothing else more than mere secondary sources, photographs prove vital in delivering clear views of the conditions that laborers worked under, the settings in which labor activities took place, and the events that shaped labor struggle to come and how we work today. Especially from 1865 to 1940, the range of years which this project concerns, there are no videos or audio recordings documenting labor experience or struggle. The below series of images may offer somewhat of a representation of events that took place and of history that occurred.

Above: Taken in 1886, this photograph depicts women delegates to the national convention of the Knights of Labor, held in Richmond, Virginia. While of course, social issues were a topic of heavy debate within the Knights of Labor, black workers and women workers were included in the organization and the struggles in which it took part, in its emergence in the late 1870s and through most of the following decade.
Above: Depicted in this illustration is black delegate within the Knights of Labor, from New York City, Frank Ferrell, introducing General Master Workman Terrence Powderly in the 1886 national convention of the Knights of Labor, held in Richmond. Ferrell had taken the opportunity that he had as a speaker at the convention to argue for the rights and for the inclusion of black people within the Knights of Labor, for the betterment of the organization and also for the betterment of the conditions of a people who just a couple decades ago in the American south, had been subjects of chattel slavery.
Above: Taken in 1899, this photograph depicts black “lumpers,” or workers who assemble cigarettes and cigars at tobacco plants. Working with very low payrates, and for maddening durations of time per shift, a series of strikes, involving 1000+ tobacco workers, occurred in 1937 in Richmond, and would inspire similar movements in the decade afterward.
Above: Also taken in 1899, this photograph depicts black women sorting tobacco at a T.B. Williams Tobacco company plant. In terrible conditions, and with the same grievances concerning hours and pay, black women’s workplaces were also a part of the series of tobacco strikes that occurred in 1937, then quite notably, in their case, in 1938.
Above: Taken in 1910, this photograph depicts a group of boys outside of their workplace at a spinning mill in Richmond. As there were no laws against child labor at the time, children from economically unstable backgrounds would leave school for jobs of lengthy hours and tedious, sometimes harmful work. The shortest boy in the image, at the front, has a bandage around his left middle finger. One can only wonder if that may have been an injury sustained in work.
Above: Also taken in 1910, this photograph depicts workers at a hosiery factory in front of their workplace. It is unclear who exactly within this image works in the factory, but it is a possibility that this photograph, like the one prior, captures child labor, which would be outlawed nearly three decades later, in 1938.
Above: This photograph, taken in 1911, depicts black child laborers outside of a glass factory, where they supposedly worked alongside white workers, which was very uncommon at this point in time in Virginia.
Above: This postcard, manufactured at some point in the mid-20th century, shows the at the time famous Model Tobacco. Provided by the VCU libraries, this postcard is still in circulation, depicting a symbol of a once extremely notable industry in Richmond that was also home to some of the most intense labor movements in Richmond of the first half of the 20th century.
Above: This photograph, taken at some point in the mid-20th century, depicts Tobacco Row, the area within Richmond in which the bulk of tobacco product manufacturing took place. As can be seen, it occupied quite a large segment of space alongside the James River.
Above: This photograph, taken in 2012, depicts a part of the contemporary labor movement in the United States. Here, Walmart workers can be seen on strike, joined by film director George Miller. In Virginia today, Walmart, Starbucks, and Sodexo locations, are all undergoing unionizing and organizing efforts, as are the workforces of an increasingly large number of other places.

*All of these images are in the public domain, or otherwise, have no known copyright restrictions, as according to wikipedia commons.

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