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A Sweeping History of the Black Working Class

By focusing on the Black working class and its long history, Blair LM Kelley’s book, "Black Folk," helps tell the larger story of American democracy.

Like Right to Ride, Black Folk offers a unique take on a familiar history, in part because it includes the personal narratives of members of Kelley’s own family tree. Beginning with a chapter on an enslaved ancestor named Henry, a blacksmith, she then tells us about her great-grandfather, Solicitor Duncan, and her grandfather, John Dee. Through their stories, Kelley personalizes the history of three generations of Black working-class men as they went from slavery and sharecropping in the Deep South to trying to make a living in World War II–era Philadelphia. From Reconstruction to Jim Crow, the Great Migration, and the Depression and New Deal era, Kelley details what remained continuous within Black working-­class history and what did not.

Black history, Kelley notes, has not always been told as a story of the working class, but by doing so she reminds us of the centrality of labor to all of Black history. Charting the transition from slavery to freedom at the end of the Civil War and the formation of new labor regimes during the Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and New Deal periods, she also examines the ways in which the freedom to choose how and where one works was a central concern for Black Americans. While we tend to emphasize, in histories of the Reconstruction era, the political and social travails involved in extending voting rights to Black men, as well as the rise of Black politicians and the violent counterrevolution of the 1870s, Kelley also stresses that, on the ground across the South, the freedom most dear to Black Americans was the freedom to choose how to live their new lives—and that included how to make a living, too.

To understand Black religion, politics, and cultural creativity in the Reconstruction era, Kelley notes, one has to understand this struggle to find dignity and create the foundations of emancipation as one that was often centered on the labor Black Americans performed. No longer forced to work as slave labor for someone else, they now had to decide who they would work for—and how. That so many Black Americans saw their struggle for this more expansive understanding of freedom weakened—though not destroyed—by the rise of sharecropping helps explains why it remained such a defining issue for members of the Black working class.

As Kelley shows, Black working-class organizers and agitators, from railroad workers to those organizing within the US Postal Service, were on the front lines, pursuing not just higher wages or better working conditions but also civil rights reform. The rise of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters as an engine of social change is one of Kelley’s key examples. Formed by A. Philip Randolph in 1925, the union soon became a critical part of the Black struggle for civil and political rights in the 20th century, serving not only as the labor organization for railroad-car porters—one of the few decent-­paying jobs available to Black men in the early to mid-20th century—but also a conduit connecting Black Americans north and south, east and west, via America’s rail lines to advance a general program of emancipation and racial equality.