Today is the first Monday in September, Labor Day. The holiday began in 1882, originating from a desire by the Central Labor Union to create a day off for the “working man”. It is still celebrated mainly as a day of rest and marks the symbolic end of summer for many. Labor Day became a federal holiday by Act of Congress in 1894.

Labor Day has been celebrated on the first Monday in September in the United States since the 1880s. The form that the observance and celebration of Labor Day should take were outlined in the first proposal of the holiday — a street parade to exhibit to the public “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” of the community, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families. This became the pattern for the celebrations of Labor Day. Speeches by prominent men and women were introduced later, as more emphasis was placed upon the economic and civic significance of the holiday. Still later, by a resolution of the American Federation of Labor convention of 1909, the Sunday preceding Labor Day was adopted as Labor Sunday and dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.

Today Labor Day is often regarded simply as a day of rest and, compared to the May 1 Labor Day celebrations in most countries, parades, speeches or political demonstrations are more low-key, although especially in election years, events held by labor organizations often feature political themes and appearances by candidates for office. Forms of celebration include picnics, barbecues, fireworks displays, water sports, and public art events. Families with school-age children take it as the last chance to travel before the end of summer. Some teenagers and young adults view it as the last weekend for parties before returning to school. However, of late, schools have begun well before Labor Day, as early as the 24th of July in many urban districts, including Nashville and Atlanta. In addition, Labor Day marks the beginning of the season for the National Football League and NCAA College Football. The NCAA usually plays their first games the weekend of Labor day, with the NFL playing their first game the Thursday following Labor Day.

The Knights of Labor organized the original parade on Tuesday, September 5, 1882 in New York City. In 1884 another parade was held, and the Knights passed resolutions to make this an annual event. Other labor organizations (and there were many), but notably the affiliates of the International Workingmen’s Association, many of whom were socialists or anarchists, favored a May 1 holiday. In 1886 came the general strike which eventually won the eight-hour workday in the United States. These events are today commemorated as Labor Day in virtually every country in the world, with the notable exceptions being the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. With the Chicago Haymarket riots in early May of 1886, President Grover Cleveland believed that commemorating Labor Day on May 1 could become an opportunity to commemorate the riots. Thus, fearing that it might strengthen the socialist movement, he quickly moved in 1887 to support the position of the Knights of Labor and their date for Labor Day.

A recurring Labor Day event in the United States, since 1966, is the annual telethon of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, hosted by Jerry Lewis to fund research and patient support programs for the various diseases grouped as muscular dystrophy. The telethon raises tens of millions of dollars each year.

Labor Day weekend also marked the annual running of the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in Darlington, SC. The race was run at any time during the weekend from 1950-2002. In 2004, NASCAR began racing on Labor Day weekend at California Speedway in Fontana, CA. This dropped the race to November in the schedule for 2004 which became a night race and was dropped altogether in 2005 in favor of a Mother’s Day weekend night race.

An old custom eschewed wearing white after Labor Day. The custom is rooted in nothing more than popular fashion etiquette. In actuality, the etiquette originally stated that white shoes were the taboo while white or “winter white” clothes were acceptable. This custom is fading from popularity as it continues to be questioned and challenged, particularly by leaders in the fashion world. “Fashion magazines are jumping on this growing trend, calling people who ‘dare’ to wear white after Labor Day innovative, creative, and bold. Slowly but surely, white is beginning to break free from its box, and is becoming acceptable to wear whenever one pleases. This etiquette is comparable to the Canadian fashion rule against wearing green after Remembrance Day. In the world of western attire, it is similarly tradition to wear a straw cowboy hat until Labor Day. After Labor Day, the felt hat is worn until Memorial Day.

Labor Day (United States) will fall on the following dates in the next few years:

  • 2007 – September 3
  • 2008 – September 1
  • 2009 – September 7
  • 2010 – September 6
  • 2011 – September 5

Many prominent figures of the labor movement who come to mind are white men, and a few white women. White men such as Samuel Gompers, Walther Rueter and even James “Jimmy” Hoffa. Of women who come to mind, Emma Goldman is one. But, when people think of black people and the labor movement some of them think of Asa Phillip Randolph, he of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters fame for better labor conditions for black Pullman porters, to name one well-known black labor leader. But, when it comes especially to black women, so many draw a blank. Black women left an indelible and enduring mark upon the labor movement, and they should no longer be disregarded nor unheralded for their many accomplishments.

-Lucy Parsons. What can I say, a woman to be reckoned with. I wrote an essay on her impact upon the labor movement,, and she contributed a huge array of achievments to the labor movement.

-As much as black women after leaving slavery demanded the rights of motherhood and family, they also insisted on the right to redefine their work. This put them at odds with whites intent on reinstating black subservience. Black women sought a new level of dignity as wage earners. Women hired to work as field workers refused to do “double duty”, or domestic production—work like spinning or weaving, butchering and preserving meat—for their white employers.  (1)

To make this point, women of the Allston plantations in South Carolina put an end to after-harvest wool production by slaughtering and eating the sheep (1).   Freedwomen also rejected particularly demeaning work like washing white women’s menstrual rags, and especially arduous work like ditch digging and repair in knee-deep mud.  (2)

 -In 1866, black washerwomen in Jackson, MS, announced that they were heretofore going to charge a standard rate for their work. They informed Jackson’s mayor that anyone in their group who did not insist on the agreed-upon wage was subject to a fine. Their demand was the “first known collective action of free black workingwomen in American history,” and, “the first labor organization of black workers in Mississippi.”  (3)

-In 1933, in St. Louis, Missouri, 900 black women employed in seven pecan factories owned by the same proprietor walked out, demanding higher pay, better working conditions, and the elimination of differentials between black and white women workers. The determination of Connie Smith, a middle-aged black woman who led the workout, brought cooperaton from the community, her fellow white workers, and such organizations as the Unemployed Councils. The owner of the factories tried to divide the women, offering white women an increase in wages if they returned to work. The answer was returned by 1,500 women of both races marching on City hall, and the proprietor gave in. Wages were increased (one black woman who had worked there for 18 years was pleased when she received $9 per week instead of $3); conditions improved, and white and black women got equal pay and working conditions. The successful resolution of the strike spurred the formation of eleven locals of the Food Workers Industrial Union by 1,400 members, the majority of them black.

-A few months later, black women joined whites in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) strikes in New York, New Jersey and Connecticutt, helping to guarantee their success. And throughout the thirties, the Domestic Workers Union had made strides in organizing black women in the Bronx slave market (see my post on “Slaves on the Block”, ) and in other cities. Black women led the organization of workers in the laundries, and in the cleaning and dyeing establishments. With help from the National Negro Congress, black women, through the women’s auxilliaries, became important allies in organizing the steel industry. A white colleague noted:

“the swiftness with which Negro women have taken the leadership in our chapters. There is not one auxilliary where the staying power of those courageous women has not carried the organization over some critical period, especially in the first days of unseen and unsung organizing drudgery before the body took form. They were undaunted and gave great moral strength with their persistence.” (4)

-In 1937, 400 black women walked out of the I. N. Vaughn Company in Richmond, Virginia, protesting wages and working conditions. Previous appeals to the AFL had been met with the response that the women were “unorganizable”. But with the help from the Negro Congress and the Southern Negro Youth Congress, an independent union was set up, and the women were able to negotiate contracts resulting in over $300,000 in pay increases, in addition to rates for overtime and holiday pay. The union eventually joined with the CIO. Emerging as a leader was Mamma Harris, a tobacco stemmer, who became  known as “Missus CIO Richmond”. In the following year she led a strike of Vaughn workers in the Export Department—some 700 of them. The women, aided by the ILGWU and other unions, won their goals in 18 days.

-In 1943 it was Reynolds Tobacco Company’s turn. In that year, a black worker fell dead in the Winston-Salem plant after a supervisor had refused him permission to leave work and go home. Black women workers led a spontaneous sit-down which led to a strike involving 10,000 employess; they succeeded in shutting down the plant, and organizing Local 22 of the CIO’s Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers of America (FTA). Eventually the workers won a more amenable contract regarding pay, working conditions, and benefits. When the contract expired four years later, another round was fought. This time Reynolds was able to get help from the government, more specifically from the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which sought to make an example of Local 22. Led by a then young Congressman Richard Milhous Nixon, HUAC investigated the local on the grounds that it was a “Communist-dominated union”. Nixon eyed the investigation as a possible first case involving the anti-Communist provisions of the Taft-Hartley Bill, which required trade union officials to sign an anti-Communist oath. Although the strike received broad-based support from the white liberal and black communities, the UAW, and notable figures such as Paul Robeson, who spoke at a mass rally of 12,000 people, the strikers did not get the kind of contract they wanted. However, as labor historian Philip Foner notes, what they did get—a 12-cent-an-hour pay raise, maternity leave, wage and job classifications—was a testament to the women’s strength and determination.  (5)

-According to the historian Harvard Sitkoff, the idea for a March on Washington to redress discrimination in the defense industries came from a black woman! Representatives of civil rights organizations were mapping out strategy at a meeting in Chicago when a  black woman said:   “Mr. Chairman, we ought to throw 50,000 Negroes around the White House—bring them from all over the country, in jalopies, in trains, and any way they can get there until we can get some action from the White House.” A. Philip Randolph was said to have seconded the proposal, adding:   “I agree with the sister. I will be happy to throw [in] my organizations resources and offer myself as a leader of such a movement.” The result of the march was the famous Executive Order 8802 in 1941, which forbade discrimination in hiring workers in the nation’s defense industries on the basis of race, creed, color, or national origin. The Federal Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) was also established to act as a watchdog over the execution of the order. Though black women were concerned that the executive mandate did not include the word sex it was generally taken for granted that the race provision would protect them.  (6)

-In 1949, Moranda Smith became the FTA’s southern regional director, the first woman to serve in that capacity for an international union in the South. She organized CIO unions throughout the region, and political activities in Winston-Salem, which resulted in the election of the first black alderman in the South since the turn of the last century. But the constant traveling, confrontations, and continuing harrassment took its toll.

In 1950, at the age of 35, Moranda Smith was dead. The cause, a colleague charged was the “strain of her activities”.  (7)

Black women have had a tremendous inpact on the labor movement. They have been there when the abolition of child labor was eradicated. They have been there when the lobbying for the end of the 10-12 hour workday gave way to the 8-hour workday. They have been in the forefront of the creation of the sit-down strke, the strengthening of unions, the increase of better wages, safer working conditions, and equal pay for all workers, regardless of race, gender, creed, national origin or religion.

Black women have contributed so many numerous acheivements and advancements for the cause of labor.

So, today, when you sit down to partake of your barbecue, your fried chicken, your watermelon, your corn-on-the-cob, your tossed salad, your potato salad, your red soda, and you look to the skies for the brilliance of fireworks display, remember the many black women who helped made this day possible.

Remember their labors of love, their labors of sorrow, their labors of triumph.

For they have contributed so much to the betterment of labor.

Without their preseverance, persistence and dogged determination, we would not be able to celebrate this labor day.


1.   “Sweet Dreams of Freedom: Freedwomen’s Reconstruction of Life and Labor in Low Country, South Carolina”, Leslie Schwalm,  Journal of Women’s History (Spring 1997), 9(1): 9-38.

2.   “A Hard Fight for We: Women’s Transition From Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina”, by Leslie Schwalm, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

3.   “Women and the American Labor Movement: From Colonial Times to the Eve of World War 1”, by Philip S. Foner, New York Free Press, 1979, pg. 119.

4.   Foner, ibid, pg. 344.

5.    “When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America”, by Paula Giddings, William Morrow & Company, 1984, pg. 243. (Foonotes 1-4 are primary sources from the book, “When and Where I Enter,” by Ms. Giddings.)

6.   Harvard Sitkoff, “A New Deal for Blacks”, Vol. I (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), pg. 180.

7.   Giddings, op. cit., pg. 244.



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2 responses to “LABOR DAY

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