Blair Kelley uncovers roots of Black working class
The Center for the Study of the American South director hopes to amplify the work ethic carried from enslavement to freedom.
Historian Blair Kelley wants people to expand their view of the American working class.
She reached that conclusion while researching her forthcoming book “Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class,” which will publish in June.
Last summer Kelley was named director of the Center for the Study of the American South and co-director of the Southern Futures Initiative. The Joel R. Williamson Distinguished Professor of Southern Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, Kelley wraps up a prestigious yearlong fellowship with the National Humanities Center in May.
The Well spoke with Kelley about her deep dive into the history of the Black working class.
How did you come to research and write about the Black working class?
I started working on “Black Folk” right before the pandemic after conversations with my literary agent and book editor. I started to think about the stories that my family had told about their lives as Southerners who then migrated north in the interwar period.
I present a human perspective on what work was like for African Americans, first as enslaved people and then coming out of slavery and into the 21st century. It’s about how Black workers were behind up-building the country, up-building communities and supporting one another — and how their work ethic should be amplified when we think about what America is.
I start the book with the earliest ancestor I can trace on my maternal line, an enslaved man named Henry, who chooses the name Henry Rucker in freedom. I find him being owned in a place called Elbert County, Georgia. I find him in slavery, and I find him in freedom. He’s mentioned in the will of the man who probably owned him. He is a blacksmith, and then he becomes an agricultural worker and a sharecropper after the end of slavery. I use his story to talk about the skills that enslaved people had, the knowledge that they had and the communities they built within slavery to survive. They carried those things with them.
Understandably, we think of slavery for its exploitation and things taken and lost. That’s important, and I talk a lot about that. But I also talk about the value that the enslaved saw in themselves and each other in spite of their circumstances. That is the ethic they carry with them. They aren’t given land or money or any thank yous for the work they do, but they have themselves and they have each other. And the way they see their work and each other is different than, I think, other working-class people. They carry that difference with them. They’re interested in supporting one another, interested in creating roots for survival that we see carried into the 21st century.
What types of jobs do you cover?
Most of the professions I highlight don’t exist to the same extent. I talk about laundresses or washerwomen who’ve been replaced by the automatic washer. At one time that was one of the largest job categories for Black women in the United States. I talk about Pullman porters, who worked on cross-country trains. They made travel luxurious and comfortable for first-class travelers. That ended up being the formation of the largest Black union in American history under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph.
When did Black unions first emerge?
They emerged right away. I found a group of washerwomen in Jackson, Mississippi, who organized in 1865 and asked for a certain amount of money. It’s a reminder that the principles of organization were already there within newly freed populations. They didn’t have to have their consciousness raised by outsiders to tell them what they should do. They understood how markets work and what power they had, because there was an exclusivity in the assumptions of race. It was perceived by many as being below the station of a white woman to do laundry. It really degraded her racially. So Black women were like, ‘Okay, if we’re the only ones who can do this, how about we do it when we want to do it? And how about you pay us a little bit more? And how about we get together and wedge some power out of this situation?’ They cannot change the overall circumstances and difficulties they’re facing, but they can support one another and set boundaries and limits and build community out of the struggle.
You mentioned the northward migration of Black workers. Did they find factory work in the first generations?
In the first generations they didn’t.
Was that because of discrimination?
Yes, absolutely. We think of Rosie the Riveter as the female version of the worker. During World War II, Rosie the Riveter’s house was cleaned by a Black woman, and her children were watched by a Black woman.
Even today, we’ll privilege the sort of liberatory story of a higher-class woman seeking work, and we forget about the women who enable that work to happen. The labor of the household is replaced some kind of way, and most of the time it’s replaced by a woman.
My grandmother worked as a maid in Philadelphia. She was part of the wider world of women who migrated away from the South to try and get away from those jobs or doing agricultural work or working in white households. Many ended up being shoved right back into those stereotypical roles after they had migrated, at rates that were surprising to me.
How does the civil rights movement fit within the history of the Black working class?
I write about postal workers, who are another amazing example of unionization and organization. Both the postal workers and the Pullman porters overlap into the civil rights movement. They become the leaders in many ways because they have a bit of independence. The Pullman porters aren’t employed in the small towns of the South, where they travel frequently. And postal workers are federal employees, so if you’re going to fire them, there’s more of a consequence. Many of them protest. And when they are fired, they take those claims to federal authorities, and they’re given back their jobs. There is a leadership cadre that’s built up both through their experiences in organizing in their workplaces and in organizing for the community as a whole. The community needs their resources, and they give them freely. They don’t think only about improving their own jobs but about how they can improve what everyone is going through.
What from your research most surprised you?
For me, what was most rich was having this opportunity to bring forth the stories of my ancestors and others who are amazing people, who did so much with so little and really thought deeply about what justice and fairness and support should look like. I feel like I was a vessel for being able to bring forth things that we don’t talk about that often from our past — things that matter and expand what we think of as the American working class.