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Finding Black Labor Organization In the 1820s and 1830s

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

Imagine knocking on the door of someone in The Black Metropolis on a cold day in late December in 1837.

Not only are you going to make them deal with a blast of cold air, but you're going to ask them something very very personal. Something that, if they didn't trust you, they definitely would not answer.

How did you become free?

Because this is such a loaded question and any answer that comes with it is so foundational to who that person is, I occasionally just reverently open the census and read the very brief answers.

I see the census taker asking the question - writing down the roots of it - with cold fingers - for posterity - or all of us to understand.

Like this one: I escaped to the English

How Nathanial Bishop became free

Nathanial Bishop took advantage of the English army's proposition to enslaved people during the Revolutionary War that they would be freed if they joined the Crown.

Or this one: she by self

How Sarah Ringold became free

Sarah Ringold escaped a life of her own power.

Or this one: "I took it by leave of the master above"

How James Gordon became free

James Gordon must have told the census taker to put it down exactly how he said it because this whole phrase is in quotes.

I took it....

We could make the argument that any enslaved person who self-liberated was a worker in active strike against the global slave empire. While it could feel strange to think of enslaved people as workers as the word 'worker' minimizes the horrors of enslavement, in some cases it helps us to remember that all Black people, free and enslaved, prior to emancipation were in danger of an encroaching legal system (the American South) that legally classified Black people as unpaid workers for life.

And thus all the work to fight that system - from supporting freedom seekers, to boycotting goods produced from slave labor, to just merely existing as a free person - was a form of courageous labor protest.

I took it....

There were Black Occupational Groups as Early at 1825 in Philadelphia

In the 1830s and 1840s, white labor unions in the city of Philadelphia excluded Black workers (see Laurie, page 66 and 81).

But that certainly did not mean that there was no Black labor organizing early in the 19th Century.

Abner Rolly was a member of the Coachman's Benevolent Society of Philadelphia.

How we picture Abner Rolly

Abner Rolly from the PAS 1838 Census. Courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

He was born in New Jersey in 1783 and eventually came to Philadelphia where he married and owned his own home on 112 N. 5th Street. He was a member of Mother Bethel AME, had children, went on to become a barber and died in 1860 at 73 years old. He is buried at Eden Cemetery.


We have found three members of the Coachman's Benevolent Society in the Census and included them on our Network Diagram. We believe that the census takers originally set out to capture the beneficial societies people belonged to but that they probably gave up on that because of how long it would take to write all that down. You'll see in the first few pages of the census that they wrote all that information but in later pages, they stopped.

While we have emphasized that there were 80 Black Benevolent Societies in Philadelphia is 1838, four of them seem to be centered around occupations and labor.

They are:

The Coachmen's Benevolent Society Founded 1825 (60 Members)

The African Porter's Benevolent Society Founded 1828(112 Members)

The Humane Mechanics Society Founded 1827 (65 Members)

Union Sons of Industry (55 Members)

But Did They Organize?

Was there free Black labor organizing in the sense that we know it today - persons of the same occupation coming together to fight for higher wages and better working conditions?

If we had the minute books from these organizations we could be more sure - so this is really speculation - but we have to consider it possible that coachmen meeting together on a weekly basis may have discussed their concerns about their occupation, would have shared knowledge about what was happening in the field, and may have planned to take collective actions.

We do have some hints that there were organized Black labor actions. In the committee report on the 1834 mob attack it's called out that:

"Certain portions of our community, prefer to employ colored people"

There was enough of a collective feeling about the merits of Black workers that the sentiment made it into the official government report. Black workers had a collective reputation here, in the way that an organized group of workers (like a union) is known for the quality of their work.

This picture from Dock Street in 1908 shows Black Carters (people who drove carts). We include it here because we think that this looked the same back in 1838. So this gives you an idea of what the work environment looked like then for Porters and Coachmen.

Photo courtesy OldPhillyPhotos.

Extending the union idea a bit further, Sociologist Bruce Laurie (page 64 in this article) suggests that there may have been an organized monopoly of Black workers in 'unskilled' trades. Note that Coachmen and Porter were considered 'unskilled' when compared to 'mechanical' trades like Blacksmithing.

This idea of monopolies led by Black workers is also echoed by historian Philip Foner.

Their Existence Should not Be Written out or Forgotten

When we are in the archives and we compare what we're reading with what's published, sometimes we get scared. Because we're seeing wrong information which could eventually turn into erasure if there's no new publishing with the correct information.

Like this one where the author says that the Coachmen's group started in 1868 when in fact there was a Coachmen's association in 1825.

What we do know for certain is that these occupational centered groups existed.

This many seem like a trivial fact but it's important because it could mean that there was free Black labor organizing two decades before very active free Black labor unions became a thing.

And yes there were free Black labor unions in the 1850s centered in New York City.

They collectively bargained for higher wages, and sometimes got them. But it's a complex story interwoven with class and race. We encourage you to read this very excellent book by Leslie M. Harris In The Shadow of Slavery; African Americans in New York City 1626-1863, that describes this incredible history in beautiful detail.

And we'll leave you with a few more Coachmen. This is a little later in the century. It's a picture of the Coachmen's Union League Society that started in 1864 in New York. The picture is from a 1925 Messenger.

We wonder if there was a connection from the earlier Coachmens group to this later group. 🧐

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