African Americans at Work
From enslaved workers in the 19th century to agricultural, industrial, and professional workers in the 20th and 21st centuries, African Americans have always been a vital part of the American workforce. The photographs from the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture below document African Americans at work from the 1860s to today.
Before and During the Civil War
Few photographic images of early American workplaces exist. After all, photography was not invented (in France) until the 1820s, was not introduced in America until the 1840s, and did not become an affordable amateur hobby until the 1880s. Most photographs of African Americans at work before and during the Civil War depict enslaved or recently emancipated workers on farms or plantations
Charleston Slave Hire Badges
From 1800 to 1865 in Charleston, North Carolina, slave hire badges were worn by enslaved individuals who were hired out by their enslavers to work for others. The enslaver paid an annual fee for the badge, providing revenue for the city of Charleston. Wages earned by the enslaved were often kept by the enslaver, but sometimes were shared with the enslaved. The badges served to identify those African Americans who were allowed to move about the city and to ensure that they only worked at jobs for which they were qualified, thus limiting competition with white workers. While some enslaved individuals learned skilled trades (“Mechanic”) useful to their enslavers in the plantation economy, a more common occupation was “House Servant.” These badges were public symbols of the hiring out system which allowed enslavers to allow their slaves a sense of autonomy, while maintaining control over them and profiting from their labor.
Civil War Soldiers
During the Civil War, approximately 179,000 African American men served in the Union Army as U.S. Colored Troops and over 20,000 in the Union Navy. Although Black soldiers were involved in forty major battles and hundreds of skirmishes—and 16 were awarded the Medal of Honor—a disproportionate amount of Black soldiers were assigned work as laborers, digging ditches, building fortifications, and burying the dead.
The Era of Jim Crow
The American nation was fundamentally changed—reconstructed—by three major social process in the century following the emancipation of four million enslaved individuals and the end of the Civil War. Each of these processes of change took decades to be completed and each changed the world of work for both Black and white workers.
First, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution—the so-called Reconstruction Amendments—abolished slavery across the nation, established the notion of “due process of law,” defined citizenship to include everyone born in the United States, extended voting rights to all Black men, and empowered the federal government to protect these rights for all citizens. Newly emancipated African Americans quickly understood that they needed to participate in both the federal legislative system and the court system to enlarge and protect their employment opportunities as integral to their civil rights. While some African Americans found success as professionals in the areas of law, education, and business, by far the great majority were forced into restrictive labor contracts as sharecroppers, while some were even forced into labor as convicts.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the United States houses more prisoners than any other country, of whom 38.5% are Black. Within these prisons, many are forced to work, contributing to a multibillion-dollar industry. Yet this form of labor is not included in official employment statistics of Black workers, causing a sector of Black labor to be heavily ignored.
After the passage of the 13th Amendment, involuntary servitude was abolished, “except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Soon after, states began passing laws, known as Black Codes, leading to mass incarceration of Black individuals. The system of convict leasing, where prisoners or prisons could legally be purchased to perform labor, began shortly after the Civil War. In some cases, this led to prisoners working on the same lands and for people that previously enslaved them. The impacts of these systems cannot be understated—in 1898, 73% of Alabama’s annual state revenue reportedly came from convict leasing. Many protested and spoke out against this system, calling it slavery under a different name.
Convict leasing was abolished in all states by the 1930s. However, with the fall of one form of prison labor came a new one—chain gangs. This form of incarcerated labor involved having chains wrapped around the ankles of multiple prisoners while they worked, ate, and slept outside of prison walls. These incarcerated workers labored at gunpoint or risked whipping—leading again to many protesting its use. By the 1950s, chain gangs were abolished in all states due to its violation of the 8th Amendment's “cruel and unusual punishment” clause.
Today, prison labor continues to be prevalent. In 1934, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order #6917 to establish the Federal Prison Industries, now called UNICOR. This program allows the use of incarcerated labor for the government. Incarcerated workers in prison, jails, and even immigration centers work to support their operations and maintenance of prisons. They also work in state-run prison factories, producing common goods and services.
The second fundamental change in African American labor came through the laws and social customs that reinforced white supremacy and a system of “separate but equal” segregation—Jim Crow society. This also created a new hierarchy of occupations: those that were reserved for whites and those open to Black citizens.
Pullman Porters occupied a coveted position in Black communities in the late 19th and early 20th century. These workers, typically Black men, would assist with luggage, maintain sleeping quarters, and serve passengers in the Pullman Palace Car Company’s luxury sleeping cars. The pay was higher than most other employers at the time, travel was possible, and many were able to move on to better jobs in hotels and restaurants.
However, the position did not come without discrimination and racism. George Pullman wanted Black porters, specifically those who were formerly enslaved, because he believed they would work under harsh conditions and would attend to every need of passengers. Porters were often called “boy” or “George” instead of their own names, and they were commonly berated or harassed by customers in the cars.
The Pullman maids were a lesser-known employee of the company: Black women who would clean Pullman cars and cater to guests. They typically worked with women, the elderly, and the infirmed. They often received lower wages from tips than Pullman Porters who worked in cars with businessmen and politicians.
Historically, a major sector of work for Black women was midwifery. This practice included caring for mothers and infants during childbirth. Black midwives often used tactics derived from African tradition and were seen very highly in their communities. Midwives were also incredibly important to enslaved communities, as they could keep records of ancestry and community ties. After the Civil War, Black midwives continued to be incredibly important, especially in rural Southern states. Notably, they did not just work for Black mothers, they also supported white mothers in their communities.
With the medicalization of childbirth, the practices of midwives began to be questioned and delegitimized. Maternal and infant mortality rates began to rise, and many blamed midwives. However, midwives had fewer instances of maternal and infant mortality than medical doctors. The passage of the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act of 1921 made traditional midwifing more difficult with increased regulations, mandatory trainings, and supervision necessary to continue working in the field. Black midwives were often being taught by nurses with less training than themselves.
While leading to better health outcomes of mothers and infants, these regulations led to increased barriers for Black midwives to work in professional maternal healthcare. In particular, requirements to receive state licensing became an obstacle for many. In 2021, only 7% of certified nurse-midwives and certified midwives were Black. Some believe that these historical systemic barriers to Black midwives have contributed to the prominent Black maternal mortality rate seen today
The third change in Black labor that came about during the Jim Crow Era was the Industrial Revolution. This transition from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one, was driven by new technologies in manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, and communication, that created entirely new occupations and work processes.
The United States Postal Service (USPS) plays an important role in Black labor history. As of 2022, almost 29% of the USPS was Black, making it one of the top employers of African Americans in the United States. The history of Black workers in the postal service can be traced to the institution of slavery, with many enslaved persons working as transportation contractors. However, rebellions in Haiti sparked fear in Southern whites, leading to Congress prohibiting African American mail carriers in the postal service until 1865. During the Civil War, the first known Black post office clerk was appointed, William Cooper Nell, in Boston, Massachusetts. He is also believed to be the first Black civilian employee of the federal government.
In 1914, the Civil Service Commission issued a new order requiring applicants for federal jobs to submit a photograph. These policies led to the founding of the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees (NAPFE) an independent, African American controlled labor union with a mission to eliminate discrimination and injustice in the federal service. The 1940s saw the passage of Executive Order #8802, which created the Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC) to oversee claims of discrimination. By the 1960s, Black representation in the Postal Service was seen at higher leadership levels, with the three biggest post offices in the country having Black Postmasters. In 1971, the Postal Service adopted an Equal Employment Opportunity policy, which aided in the recruitment of minority and female applicants to the organization. Today, the USPS has the highest median annual and hourly wage within the top ten occupations with the highest proportions of Black workers. The wage gap is also narrower among postal workers than in the private sector.
The Post-Civil Rights Era
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2019, 29% of employed Black Americans worked in education and health services. Another 10% worked in retail trade and 10% in leisure and hospitality. Less than 1% worked in mining, gas, and oil and barely 2% in agriculture, forestry, and fishing.
We still have much to learn about the world of work that African Americans have faced over the past four centuries and how it has changed. Until the 20th century, agriculture occupied over 90% of Black workers and now it occupies less than 1%. The causes are many: civil rights activism, affirmative action policies, educational opportunities, entrepreneurial energy, international competition, and the shift from industrial to digital and finance capitalism.
As these photos demonstrate, it is too easy to simply apply labels: “agricultural worker,” “domestic worker,” “skilled tradesman,” “unskilled labor,” “professional,” “union worker.” African Americans are and have been an integral part of the American workforce for centuries.
Written by Bill Pretzer, Senior Curator of History; Amira Dehmani, Summer 2023 Stanford in Government Afrofuturism Curatorial Intern; and Douglas Remley, Rights & Publications Manager.
Published on September 1, 2023