Mississippi's first labour union - Ken Lawrence

Washerwomen at work in 1910
Washerwomen at work in 1910

A short account of the first trade union in Mississippi, which was created in 1866 by African-American washerwomen.

Submitted by Steven. on September 10, 2016

The first labor union in Mississippi was formed by
black women on June 20, 1866. On that day their organization,
called The Washerwomen of Jackson, sent a resolution to
Jackson's Mayor Barrows which said in Part:

That on and after the foregoing date, we join in charging
a uniform rate for our labor...the statement of said price
to be made public by printing the same, and any one,
belonging to the class of washerwomen, violating this,
shall be liable to a fine regulated by the class.1

We don't know what became of this organization or its
demands, but their example did inspire others to organize. A
few days after the women met and passed their resolution,
the Jackson Daily Clarion and Standard reported that

a number of freedmen of Jackson held a meeting the
other day in the Baptist Church for the purpose of
regulating the price of wages, and if possible, to get up a
strike on the part of those employed for higher wages.2

According to the same article, the meeting was chaired
by a black ice cream vender. Just as we see so often today,
the editor reports this "agitation" as the work of "one or
two Northern adventurers." 3 An Alabama paper called the
washerwomen's demands "exorbitant."4

In reality these forms of struggle were not the creations of
outside agitators. They were a new development in a long
tradition of struggle waged by black people as plantation

The racist historian Ulrich B. Phillips wrote that occasionally
a squad of slaves

would strike in a body as a protest against severities...
Such a case is analogous to that of wage-earning laborers
on strike for better conditions of work. The slaves
could not negotiate directly at such a time, but while
'they lay in the woods they might make overtures to the
overseer through slaves on a neighboring plantation as to
terms upon which they would return to work, or they
might await their master's post-haste arrival and appeal
to him for a redress of grievances. Humble as their
demeanor might be, their power of renewing the
pressure by repeating their flight could not be ignored.5

Mark Oliver told how the slaves would strike on the
plantation where he had been a slave in Washington

Some of the slaves had a way of running off to the
woods when Master left, 'cause the overseer, who wasn't
nothing nohow, but poor white trash, would get a little
hard on them. When Master got back, they always got
back. When the overseer tell on the ones that been gone,
Master say "Well, well, I have to see about that.” He ain’t
going to see ‘bout nothing of that kind, so it drops
right there.6

Oliver's father later ran off and joined the Union army,7
"freeing himself," as W.E.B. DuBois would say.8

Phillips noted that plantation owners often found that
the slave women were "all harder to manage than the men."
men." 9 Annie Coley, another ex-slave, described a plantation
struggle fought entirely by the slave women.

But ole Boss Jones had a mean overseer who tuk
'vantage of the womens in the fiel's. One time he
slammed a niggah woman down that was heavy, and
cause her to hav her baby dead. The niggah womens in
the quarters jumped on 'im and say they gwine take
him to a brush pile and burn him up. But their mens
hollered for 'em to turn him loose. The big Boss Jones
came en made the womens go back to the Quarters. He
said, "I ain' whipped these wretches for a long time, en I
low to whip 'em dis evenin'." But all the womens hid in
the woods dat evenin', en Boss never say no more
about it. He sent the overseer away en never did hev no
more overseers.10

With traditions like these to draw on, it is not surprising
that black women organized Mississippi's first labor union,
even at the time when white planters and politicians were
trying to re-enslave them with the notorious Black Codes.

It was another three years before white workers organized
their first local union in Mississippi, the Brotherhood
of Locomotive Engineers in Water Valley.11 And twenty
years later the first interracial labor movement was organized
in the state,12 with some (perhaps most) of the local
unions under black leadership.13

The labor movement in Mississippi has had many ups
and downs in the past century. During that time, many
organizations have come and gone; many great
workers' struggles have been waged, some ending in
victory, others in defeat; and many lessons have been
learned. But the tradition of organizing begun by the
Washerwomen of Jackson is very much alive today.

Research for this article was made possible by a grant from the
Louis M. Rabinowitz Foundation.


1. Jackson, Mississippi, Daily Clarion and Standard,
Sunday, June 24, 1866. Emphasis in original.[return to text]

2. ibid. This event is placed into its historical context in
Herbert Aptheker, To Be Free, Studies in American
Negro History
(New York, 1948; second edition, p.
168. Aptheker's source is John H. Moore, "Social and
Economic Conditions in Mississippi during Reconstruction"
(unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Duke University,
1937), p. 357. The strike threat is incorrectly
attributed to the meeting of washerwomen.[return to text]

3. ibid.[return to text]

4. Athens Post, Saturday, July 7, 1866. The event and the
citation are incorrectly given as 1865 in
James S. Allen, Reconstruction, The Battle for Democracy (1865-1876)
(New York, 1937), pp. 166 and 221.[return to text]

5. Ulrich B. Phillips, American Negro Slavery, A survey of
the Supply, Employment and Control of Negro Labor
as Determined by the Plantation Regime
(New York,
1918)pp. 303-304. See also John S. Bassett, The
Southern Plantation Overseer As Revealed in His Letters

(Northampton, Massachusetts, 1925), pp. 63-4. For a
discussion of the significance of slave strikes see George
P. Rawick, From Sundown to Sunup, The flaking of the
Black Community
(Westport, Connecticut, 1972), pp.
105-7.[return to text]

6. Narrative of Mark Oliver, ex-slave, collected by the
Federal Writers Project of the Works Projects Administration
in 1937, deposited in the WPA collection, Mississippi
Department of Archives and History, Box 227Z.
For a discussion of the importance of this collection see
Ken Lawrence, "Oral History of Slavery" in Southern
, Volume I, Number 3/4, Winter 1974, pp.
84-86. This article discusses how, in some narratives,
dialect was imposed and text altered by WPA
interviewers and editors.[return to text]

7. ibid,[return to text]

8. W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America
(New York, 1935), chapters I and IV.[return to text]

9. Phillips, op. cit., pages ,276, 280-1, and 285. See also
Bassett, op. cit., pages 19-20.[return to text]

10. Narrative of Annie Coley, ex-slave, WPA collection,
Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Box
226Z.[return to text]

11. Donald C. Mosley, "A History of Labor Unions in Mississippi"
(unpublished Ph. D. dissertation, University
of Alabama, 1965), p. 58, and "The Labor Union
Movement" in R.A. McLemore (ed.), A History of
(Hattiesburg, Mississippi, 1973), Volume II,
pp. 251, 253. Mosley refers to this as "apparently the
first local union established in Mississippi."[return to text]

12. Federick Meyers, "The Knights of Labor in the South" in
Southern Economic Journal, Volume VI, Number 4,
April 1940, pp. 479-87; Nollie Hickman, Mississippi
Harvest, Lumbering in the Longleaf Pine Belt 1840-1915

(University of Mississippi, 1962), pp. 235-8.[return to text]

13. For a discussion of sources concerning black leadership of
interracial unions, see Ken Lawrence, The Roots of
Class Struggle in the South
(Jackson, Mississippi,
pp.3, 7-8.[return to text]

Written in 1975. Taken from http://www.sojournertruth.net/mississippisfirst.html