The history of work in America is a long and complex one. From the industrial revolution onward, work has shaped every aspect of our lives, including housing, education, economic mobility and food security.
A significant, but often overlooked, population in this history are the Black workforce activists. People who fought for opportunities and equality for all workers, regardless of race. In honor of Black History Month, we’re celebrating just a few of the men and women who played a part in this crucial work.
A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979)
By 1935, A. Philip Randolph was at the forefront of the Black labor movement. He was the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), the first predominantly Black labor union granted a charter by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and soon expanded his efforts to other industrial areas.
Through his labor and civil rights activism, Randolph was able to influence both President Roosevelt and President Truman’s policies, including Executive Order 9981, which ended segregation in the armed services. In 1950, Randolph was one of the founders of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), which has served as a major civil rights collation. In the 1960s, Randolph partnered with Bayard Rustin to support Martin Luther King’s work and organized several marches on Washington. In 1965, he and Rustin established the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which continues today in the struggle for social, political and economic justice for all working Americans.
Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)
Rustin fought for more than four decades to promote civil and labor rights for Black people. He was particularly known for organizing marches through the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s as a leader with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). Through this work he was able to influence President Roosevelt’s issuing Executive Order 8802, which created the Fair Employment Practices Committee.
Rustin also helped organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, an event that advocated for the civil and economic rights of African Americans, and later the March on Washington where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. He became a close advisor to Martin Luther King and partnered with A. Philip Randolph throughout the 1960s to promote justice for Black workers. He continued participating in non-violent activism for both race and sexual identity equality until his death in 1987.
Dorothy Height (1912-2010)
In the 1930s, Height worked for the New York City Welfare Department before becoming assistant executive director of the Harlem Y.M.C.A. Both of these positions helped prepare Height for her appointment as president of the National Council of Negro Women in 1957, which she led for 40 years. As head of the Council during the most critical years of the civil rights movement, she instituted a variety of social programs aimed at improving the quality of life of Blacks in the South.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Height served on a number of committees, including the President’s Committee on the Employment of the Handicapped, and the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. Throughout her work, Height emphasized the intersectionality of gender and race and worked to improve the lives of all female workers.
Russell R. Lasley (1914-1989)
Lasley started his career working at a meat packing company where he joined his local branch of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA). He went on to serve as vice president for the international union for more than 20 years and became a central figure in the American civil rights movement.
The UPWA began pursuing anti-discrimination activities in 1949 and formed an anti-discrimination department in 1950. The UPWA required every union local to have an anti-discrimination department, and the national union headquarters made certain that the local departments had their own programs in the meatpacking plants and communities. These were revolutionary measures at the time. In addition to fighting for equality among workers, Lasley also fought against housing discrimination.
Addie Wyatt (1924-2012)
Wyatt began working in the meatpacking industry in 1941 and joined the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) shortly thereafter. In 1953, she was elected vice president of UPWA Local 56 and a year later became their first woman president. She continued to work for women laborers and went on to serve as an international representative for UPWA.
Wyatt held this position until 1974, when she became director of the newly formed Women’s Affairs Department. In 1974, she was also a founder of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), the country’s only national organization for union women and a founding member of the National Organization of Women (NOW). Her work was crucial in redefining women’s roles within the general labor movement. In 1984, Wyatt retired as Vice President of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
Dorothy Lee Bolden (1923-2005)
Bolden spent many years as a domestic worker and often talked about the importance of the role. But domestic workers were never considered a part of the labor force; they were often treated unfairly and had little protection. Using techniques she learned as a part of the civil rights movement, Bolden helped form the National Domestic Workers Union of America (NDWUA) in 1968. It was not a formal union, but an education and advocacy group that she led for nearly three decades and that served more than 10,000 members around the country. Through the NDWUA, Bolden was able to help provide domestic workers with better wages and working conditions. Bolden also required all members be registered to vote and the group became very influential in Georgia state politics.
Shirley Chisholm (1924-2002)
Representing New York’s 12th district, Chisholm was the first Black congresswoman ever elected and served from 1969-1983.
During her tenure, she served six years on the Committee on Education and Labor. The committee holds jurisdiction over many areas, including worker health and safety, equal employment opportunity, health care, wages and pensions. She also served on the Committee on Organization Study and Review (known as the Hansen Committee) in 1971.
From 1977 to 1981, Chisholm served as Secretary of the Democratic Caucus. She eventually left her Education and Labor Committee assignment to accept a seat on the Rules Committee in 1977, becoming the first Black woman—and the second woman ever—to serve on that powerful panel. Chisholm also was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in 1971 and the Congressional Women’s Caucus in 1977.
Alvin Ailey (1931-1989)
After years as an acclaimed dancer and choreographer, Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958, a multiracial troupe that provided a platform for talented Black dancers. The troupe traveled around the world, preformed for several dignitaries and U.S. Presidents and elevated many Black artists.
Among his accolades, Ailey was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degree from Princeton University, the NAACP Spingarn Award, the United Nations Peace Medal, and the Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime contribution to American culture through the performing arts. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater continues operating today, highlighting the importance of celebrating culture and heritage through art.
Clayola Brown (1948-)
Currently serving as the president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, Brown has a long history of labor activism. As a teenager, Brown joined her mother in a successful campaign to bring the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA) to the Manhattan Shirt Factory in Charleston. In 1970, Brown was hired by TWUA and went on to play an organizing role in the nearly two decade long struggle to unionize the textile giant, J.P. Stevens.
Brown continued her work as international vice president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and in 1994 was appointed to the National Commission on Employment Policy by President Bill Clinton. Becoming president in 2004, Brown is the first woman to serve in the role for the A. Philip Randolph Institute and continues the effort for equality among workers.
Mae Jemison (1956-)
Jemison graduated from Stanford University before obtaining a Doctorate in Medicine from Cornell Medical School in 1981. She has a long history of serving others, through her practice and through the Peace Corps, but you may know her best as one of the astronauts aboard the space shuttle Endeavor.
That voyage made Jemison the first African American woman in space. Since her retirement from NASA, she founded The Jemison Group, a technology consulting firm which works across many areas of tech, science and social change. Through the Jemison Group and her other appointments, Jemison has worked to promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers for women and racial minorities.