Migrants, Reformers, and Pittsburgh’s Labor Movement

This post is part of our online roundtable on Adam Lee Cilli’s Canaan, Dim and Far.

Wylie Avenue with people sitting on sidewalk, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, July 29, 1935 (University of Pittsburgh)

On January 19, 1841, a meeting of the “Colored People of Pittsburgh”  gathered in Bethel Church on Front Street. J.B. Vashon and Martin Delany, African American leaders who called the city home, were in attendance. They met to discuss prejudice against color and condition, temperance, suffrage, and the necessity of a newspaper “conducted by the colored people.” As they debated issues that were not especially particular to Pittsburgh, convention attendees participated in a national movement of African Americans organizing for abolition and full equality. As Adam Lee Cilli’s Canaan, Dim and Far: Black Reformers and the Pursuit of Citizenship in Pittsburgh, 1915-1945 shows, these issues and organizing techniques would continue in the city into the next century as Pittsburgh reformers attempted to transform their city and change the nation in the process.

Those present at Bethel Church in the winter of 1841 understood the issue of civil rights activism to be one that had to be addressed in their own communities through uplift and mutual aid and against the forces of anti-Blackness at the level of the city, state, and nation simultaneously. Cilli’s Canaan, Dim and Far follows how activists in the early 20th century negotiated similar terrain as they fought for full citizenship in Pittsburgh. Cilli covers much ground, examining a full range of concerns for city organizers, from the condition of migrants, housing, healthcare, education, labor, and party politics, to police and state violence and Jim Crow segregation. Cilli recovers Black Pittsburghers’ vision of citizenship in the period as complex and enduring.

One of Canaan, Dim and Far’s strengths is how it portrays the layered nature of not just city activists’ demands, but also the community itself. By paying particular attention to the role migrants played in Pittsburgh organizing, as well as how reformers attempted to address their concerns and conditions, Cilli creates a vision of activism that cannot be limited to region, strictly divided between North and South, nor local versus national. In fact, it was this interplay that shaped the politics of Pittsburgh’s African American reformers and allowed for their politics to shape the nation.

In some ways this was inevitable, as migrants made up two-thirds of Pittsburgh’s African American community by 1930 (p. 3). As Cilli shows, they faced both racism from whites and class stratification in their own communities. Reformers played an important role as they attempted to bridge this divide and provide support for those living in the most dangerous of conditions. At the same time, they worked to address the underlying reasons for the poor living and working conditions of migrants by fighting against segregation and discrimination in the city (p. 20-21). It was no mistake that many leading activists in Pittsburgh had come to it from other places, nor that in pushing local organizations to address their most pressing concerns they helped to radicalize local politics.

However, in Canaan, Dim and Far these divides are handled ably. Cilli allows the complicated nature of these circumstances to guide his narrative, refusing to follow traditional divides between bourgeois reform and racial uplift and more radical working-class concerns. As he describes, all reformers in Pittsburgh were working to find “practicable solutions within a very restrictive political and social context” (p. 63). Sometimes they agreed on strategy and which alliances to make, but not always. As Cilli shows, city reformers made all manner of alliances– from those with state offices and national political parties, to radical labor organizers– as circumstances warranted. The end justified the means, which were constantly shifting and at play.

In a similar vein, Cilli deftly portrays the relationship between national organizations like the Urban League and the NAACP and activists on the ground in Pittsburgh who responded to the needs of the city’s African American community. Canaan, Dim and Far is thus not only a history of racial justice organizing in the city, but also a history of how Pittsburgh reformers shaped national organizations and politics. As with much of the history of African American activism in the United States, this was at once a local and national movement.

Local organizers—like William E. Hill, a labor organizer who worked with the Urban League of Pittsburgh (ULP) and helped to form a local chapter of the National Negro Congress, Homer Brown who worked with the NAACP Pittsburgh chapter (PNAACP) and would go on to serve as a State Representative, and Daisy Lampkin who worked for the Pittsburgh Courier and the PNAACP and who would later become a national field secretary for the organization and the first woman member of its board of directors—helped to reshape activism in the city and, in turn, influenced that of the organizations they worked for at the national level (p. 90-93). As Cilli convincingly argues, Pittsburgh activists were in a special position to influence national campaigns because of the city’s role as a crucial industrial center with one of the largest Black populations in the country and because of the far-ranging reach of activists through institutions like the Pittsburgh Courier.

The story of Robert L. Vann and the Pittsburgh Courier exemplifies just what kind of power Pittsburgh reformers could have to shape things at the national level. Both Vann and the Courier are central characters in Canaan, Dim and Far. The Courier was a crucial vehicle for Pittsburgh reform. The importance of Black newspapers was well understood by those who called for one to be published by and for African Americans at the 1841 Pittsburgh convention for many of the same purposes that the Courier would later serve. Vann used his platform to demand attention for African American concerns from the Democrat and Republican parties and shaped the course of national electoral politics in the process.

Through his concept of the “liquid vote,” Vann showed a “willingness to trade loyalty for empowerment, to change positions and alliances in order to extract concessions from white America.” When unsatisfied with the attention of Republicans to the concerns of African Americans during the Great Depression, Vann and the paper led the charge in flipping the Black vote for the Democrats and Roosevelt (p. 109-112). This would have a lasting impact on the power African Americans had in both state and national Democratic politics as Pittsburgh reformers continued to push on issues like racial discrimination in New Deal legislation and implementation and through the Double Victory campaign of WWII (p. 211-218, 229-231).

No book about Pittsburgh would be complete without considering the city’s industrial past. For his part, Cilli traces Black Pittsburghers’ long history of organizing for better labor conditions and access to more career options and positions across the period he covers. As with the other struggles that Cilli narrates, this is one in which the local context would again come to shape the broader movement in the United States. Labor activists in Pittsburgh navigated discrimination and exclusion from local union membership, helped African American workers understand the benefits of union membership from which they had so long been excluded, and organize around their interests as Black workers.

They forced the issue of interracial unionism for national organizations like the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. At times they used internal competition between the organizations to their advantage, as they did in getting the state legislature to pass the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Act (1937) with a nondiscrimination clause meant to stop unions from excluding African Americans. This was the first clause of its kind in the nation (p. 184-186). The history of Black labor organizing in Pittsburgh is also representative of the variety of networks and alliances reformers had to make to succeed. Reformers depended on communist organizers, state officials, the same union leadership who had long ignored or participated in the discrimination faced by African Americans in the locals, and even the Courier to educate workers to get the job done.

Along the way, Pittsburgh reformers made compromises and built coalitions, often out of sheer necessity, but they never lost sight of their goal of full equality for African Americans in the city and the nation. Unfortunately, Canaan, Dim and Far remains timely. Like so much scholarship on African American reform movements, it tells a history that reaches both backwards and forwards in time. As Cilli suggests, reformers in the period like those in Pittsburgh would shape African American civil rights activism for decades to come. Like those who came before and after, these reformers faced deeply entrenched enemies and new iterations of old battles. Yet Canaan, Dim and Far helps to reveal something of their lasting and determined vision which might help to guide us in our time.

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Julia W. Bernier

Julia W. Bernier completed her PhD in African American Studies in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department at UMass Amherst. She is an Assistant Professor of History at Washington & Jefferson College. Her work focuses on the lives of enslaved people, slavery, and abolition in the nineteenth century United States. She is also interested in studying and addressing slavery’s afterlife on university campuses and beyond. She is currently working on her book about self-purchase in the United States.