Hello everyone, you will find a list of black labor leaders and their contributions to advancing workers’ in America. I first must say, this list we have does not include all of the black labor leaders, it is a very small section but we do promise to add more leaders and you are welcome to contact us or leave a comment below so that we can add someone else on this list. Don’t be shy.
Table of Contents
What is Labor day?
Labor Day is a U.S. federal holiday observed on the first Monday of September. It pays tribute to the American labor movement and acknowledges the efforts and accomplishments of workers in shaping the growth and successes of the United States.
The holiday was first proposed by Peter J. McGuire, a labor union leader, in 1882. The first Labor Day celebration was held in New York City on September 5, 1882. By 1894, 30 states had officially adopted Labor Day as a holiday. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill making Labor Day a federal holiday.
Black Labor Leaders
Isaac Myers (1835–1891) was a pioneering African American labor leader and entrepreneur who played a significant role in the labor movement during the post-Civil War era. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Myers began his career as a caulker in the shipyards but faced racial discrimination which led him to establish the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company, a successful black-owned shipyard. Recognizing the need for collective action, he co-founded the Colored National Labor Union (CNLU) in 1869, becoming its first president. The CNLU was the first labor union for African Americans, and under Myers’ leadership, it advocated for equal rights, fair wages, and employment opportunities for black workers. Throughout his life, Myers remained a staunch advocate for the rights of African American laborers, emphasizing the importance of vocational training and economic self-sufficiency.
“The white and colored … must come together and work together… The day has passed for the establishment of organizations based upon color…” – Isaac Myers
Mary Mcleod Bethune
Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1955) was a prominent African American educator, civil rights advocate, and government official who dedicated her life to improving opportunities for African Americans, especially women. Born in South Carolina to formerly enslaved parents, Bethune founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls in 1904, which later merged with Cookman College to become Bethune-Cookman University. In the realm of labor and civil rights, she served as the president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and founded the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) in 1935. Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she became a trusted member of his “Black Cabinet,” advising on minority affairs and working to dismantle employment discrimination in government and the armed forces.
Studying goes deeper than mere reading. There are surface nuggets to be gathered but the best of the gold is underneath, and it takes time and labor to secure it.” – Mary Mcleod Bethune
A. Philip Randolph
A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979) was a visionary African American labor leader, civil rights activist, and social reformer who played a pivotal role in the fight for the rights of black workers in the United States. Born in Crescent City, Florida, Randolph co-founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) in 1925, the first significant labor union for African American railroad workers. Under his leadership, the BSCP fought against racial discrimination by the Pullman Company and secured a landmark labor agreement in 1937. Randolph’s advocacy extended beyond labor rights; he was instrumental in pressuring President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802, which banned racial discrimination in the defense industries during World War II. He also organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.
“Freedom is never given; it is won.” – A. Philip Randolph
Velma Hopkins (1909–1996) was an African American labor activist known for her pivotal role in the labor movement, particularly in the tobacco industry of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Born in South Carolina, Hopkins moved to Winston-Salem and began working at the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Recognizing the racial and gender discrimination prevalent in the industry, she became a leading figure in the 1943 strike against the company, demanding better wages and working conditions for black female workers. As a key organizer and spokesperson for the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers of America (FTA-CIO) Local 22, Hopkins played a crucial role in bringing attention to the plight of black female workers in the tobacco industry. Her activism and leadership not only led to improved conditions for workers at R.J. Reynolds but also inspired a generation of labor activists to challenge discriminatory practices in workplaces across the South.
“I know my limitations and I surround myself with people who I can designate to be sure it’s carried out. If you can’t do that, you’re not an organizer.” – Velma Hopkins
Bayard Rustin (1912–1987) was a visionary civil rights activist, strategist, and key adviser to Martin Luther King Jr., known for his unwavering commitment to nonviolent protest and his pivotal role in shaping the American civil rights movement. Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Rustin was an early advocate for civil rights, participating in one of the first Freedom Rides in 1947. While he is best remembered for organizing the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, Rustin’s contributions to the labor movement are equally significant. He believed in the deep connection between civil rights and economic justice, leading him to collaborate with major labor unions and advocate for the rights of marginalized workers. Rustin also played a key role in founding the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which aimed to break down barriers between the civil rights and labor movements.
“We are all one, and if we don’t know it we will learn it the hard way.” – Bayard Rustin
Dorothy Lee Bolden
Dorothy Lee Bolden (1923–2005) was an African American labor activist and domestic worker who dedicated her life to improving the rights and working conditions of domestic workers across the United States. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Bolden began working as a domestic worker at the age of nine. Recognizing the unique challenges faced by domestic workers, she founded the National Domestic Workers Union of America (NDWUA) in 1968. Under her leadership, the NDWUA advocated for better wages, job security, and respect for domestic workers, many of whom were African American women. Bolden’s efforts led to significant improvements in labor rights for domestic workers, including the establishment of a minimum wage for many. In addition to her labor activism, Bolden was also involved in the civil rights movement, working alongside leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.
“We aren’t Aunt Jemima women, and I sure to God don’t want people to think we are. We are politically strong and independent.” – Dorothy Lee Bolden
Curt Flood (1938–1997) was an influential African American baseball player who played a pivotal role in challenging Major League Baseball’s (MLB) reserve clause, ultimately paving the way for free agency in the sport. Born in Houston, Texas, Flood enjoyed a successful career as a center fielder, primarily with the St. Louis Cardinals, earning seven Gold Glove awards and appearing in three All-Star games. However, his most lasting impact came off the field. In 1969, after being traded to the Philadelphia Phillies, Flood refused the trade and sued MLB, challenging the reserve clause that bound players to their teams indefinitely. Although he lost his case in the Supreme Court in 1972, his courageous stand against the system sparked significant changes. By 1975, the reserve clause was effectively dismantled, ushering in the era of free agency and forever altering the dynamics of player contracts and mobility. Flood’s sacrifice and advocacy for players’ rights solidified his legacy as a transformative figure in the labor movement within professional sports.
“I’m a human being I’m not a piece of property. I am not a consignment of goods.” – Curt Flood
Chris Smalls (1988– ) is a labor rights activist known for his advocacy on behalf of Amazon warehouse workers. Originally from New Jersey, Smalls began working at an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, where he rose to a supervisory position. In March 2020, he gained national attention when he organized a walkout to protest the lack of protective measures against COVID-19 at the facility. Following the walkout, Smalls was controversially terminated by Amazon, a move that was widely criticized and led to increased scrutiny of the company’s labor practices. Smalls’ activism did not stop there; he went on to co-found the Congress of Essential Workers, a collective advocating for better working conditions, pay, and protections for essential workers, especially during the pandemic. His efforts have spotlighted the challenges faced by warehouse workers and have catalyzed a broader conversation about workers’ rights in the age of e-commerce giants.
“If I can lead us to victory over Amazon, what’s stopping anybody in this country from organizing their workplace? Nothing.” – Christian Smalls
Hattie Canty (1934–2012) was a formidable African American labor leader known for her tireless advocacy for workers’ rights, particularly in the hotel and casino industry of Las Vegas. Born in Alabama and later moving to Las Vegas, Canty began her career as a maid in the city’s hotels. Recognizing the need for better working conditions and wages, she became actively involved with the Culinary Workers Union Local 226. Under her leadership as president of the union from 1990 to 2001, Canty championed several successful strikes and negotiations, leading to significant wage increases, improved working conditions, and comprehensive health benefits for thousands of workers. Her efforts played a crucial role in transforming the Culinary Union into one of the most powerful labor unions in Nevada.
“No contract. No peace.” – Hattie Canty
Addie Wyatt (1924–2012) was a pioneering African American labor leader, civil rights activist, and women’s rights advocate. Born in Brookhaven, Mississippi, and later relocating to Chicago, Wyatt began her career in the meatpacking industry and quickly rose to prominence within the labor movement. She became the first African American woman elected to an international office in the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) and played a significant role in merging the UPWA with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen. Wyatt was a co-founder of the Coalition of Labor Union Women and was instrumental in advocating for equal pay and against workplace discrimination. Her activism extended beyond labor rights; she worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement and was a staunch advocate for women’s rights, serving on the advisory committee for the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW).
“Each of us is a link in this great union chain that stretches around the world. I will try every day to keep my link united, active and strong.” – Addie Wyatt
Why is black labor important in America?
The foundation of U.S. global dominance has been built on Black labor. Starting with the enslaved individuals who arrived in Virginia in 1619, to the surge of industrialization propelled by Black workers migrating from the South, and the ongoing use of mass incarceration to source an inexpensive labor force for businesses and governments to capitalize on, the economic exploitation of Black individuals has been a recurring theme in America’s quest for profit.
Lyman Jackson is the founder and editor-in-chief of BlackBusinessData.com - He enjoys watching basketball, anime, reading comic books and following the latest trends in business. He is also a passionate learner and dreamer who believes anything is possible as long as you envision it first.