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Southern Labor Archives: Work n' Progress - Lessons and Stories: Part II: "New South" Era

"New South" Era: Overview

The Civil War destroyed the South's infrastructure and the slave system that fueled the region's economy. In its place new industries grew in the years following the conflict. The region's cities expanded at unprecedented rates. Meanwhile, white and black residents of rural areas found themselves facing new and severe challenges. White farmers faced mounting debts and often lost their farms. Former slaves soon found their new freedoms being chipped away through a combination of debt peonage, crop liens, and lengthy incarceration for petty offenses. Thousands of whites and blacks in Georgia left the countryside for the emerging cities.

Early labor movements founded by the Knights of Labor, among others, and agrarian protests led by populist reformers spoke to the problems that urban workers and farmers faced in the years following the Civil War. In Georgia's cities, a fledgling trade union movement slowly emerged. By the turn of the century, unions had made major inroads in Atlanta and the rest of Georgia, despite fierce opposition from the region's new industrialists.

"New South" Era: Convict Labor

For former slaves, the initial years after the Civil War initially marked a time of freedom. But the region's new industrialists quickly made ties with the old planter class. They created a system of convict labor in the 1860s and 1870s designed both to keep former slaves in line on the region's plantations and to provide cheap forced labor to build a transportation infrastructure. They also constructed the system to allow industrialists to use convict labor to staff the South's industries.


Convict Labor Camp: c. 1900; courtesy of the Library of Congress (L1984-26/4).

Laws passed by state officials in the years after the Civil War allowed authorities to lease convicts to private industry. These prisoners, most of them black, were typically charged with crimes like breaking tenant farming contracts. The convicts initially went to work building railroads. They often suffered beatings and inhumane working conditions. On one railroad line, between Selma, Rome and Dalton, 16 out of 211 convicts died between May and December 1868.

Later, convicts went to work in other industries, like the Chattahoochee Brick Company near Atlanta and in Dade County coal mines owned by former Confederate governor Joe Brown. The fatality rates in these mines eventually reached twice the level of free miners in states like West Virginia. Often convicts faced beatings when they failed to meet production quotas.

After revelations of mistreatment emerged, the convict lease system fell out of favor. Eventually officials decided that prisoners could be better used on chain gangs and they put inmates to work building many of the region's roads until Depression-era reforms eliminated the practice.

The South's small farmers, both black and white, also faced economic peril in the years after the Civil War. In rural areas, particularly up country farming regions, small farmers found that their crops were not as valuable as before the war. More and more of them went into debt to try to make ends meet. Instead of banks, small farmers mortgaged their farms to merchants who furnished them goods on credit. Under this process, known as the crop lien system, merchants required farmers to plant cotton. Because of volatile cotton markets and currency restrictions, farmers debt loads increased. They often found it impossible to pay off their debts and merchants turned many of them into landless tenants. Thus, a system of tenant farming and sharecropping came to replace the pre-war labor system of slavery.

These changing economic conditions produced dramatic results in Georgia. In 1880, more than 90 percent of Georgians lived in rural areas. In 1920, only 75 percent did. The number of wage earners in Georgia increased by 428 percent between 1880 and 1925. The number of people who worked on farms dropped from 72 percent of the workforce to about 55 percent. Displaced farmers found work in a number of different industries and trades. They worked in textile and lumber mills, metal works, print shops, and in marble and stone quarries. All of these industries grew at unprecedented rates in the decades following the Civil War.

"New South" Era: Early Unions in Georgia

Workers in Georgia's growing urban areas formed early trade-union associations in the late 1860s. The groups, called "uplift" associations, worked to improve the status of working people. They labored to create libraries, schools and early credit associations for the urban working class. In April of 1869 Atlanta workers set up Workingmen's Union Number One. The group passed resolutions calling for more schools and urging officials to tax only property. The workers promised political support to candidates who incorporated their views. The Workingmen's Union eventually nominated candidates for city offices in Atlanta. Other similar organizations appeared in Augusta and Macon.

In many ways, the efforts in Georgia mirrored national trends. In the fall of 1869, Jeff Long hosted a "Negro Labor Convention" in Georgia. Long, a barber, hoped to organize black workers into a labor union. He listed price controls as his main goal. Despite Long's efforts, an organized labor movement among either blacks or whites, proved several years away.

"New South" Era: Knights of Labor

The efforts in Georgia in many ways mirrored national trends. The same year that Long held the Negro Labor Convention in Georgia, the Knights of Labor formed to try to stop the unchecked rise of industrial capitalism, which had resulted in a decline in the quality of life for urban workers. The Knights believed that the coming order would create a form of "wage slavery." The organization, led by Terence Powderly, fought for an eight-hour day, compensation to injured workers, payment of wages in actual money instead of company scrip, and compulsory arbitration between employers and employees.

By the mid 1880s, the Knights enjoyed a membership of 729,677 people. The organization also counted 90,000 black workers and 65,000 women workers among its members. They made no distinction between race and gender, preferring to bar only lawyers, doctors, bankers, stock brokers and professional gamblers from their ranks.

The first Knights assemblies in Georgia appeared in Rome and Atlanta; however, the organization had disbanded in Rome by the early 1880s. Though the Knights' record on interracial unionization in Georgia was mixed, black workers set up two Knights chapters in Atlanta. An assembly in Athens also welcomed both black and white members in 1885.

The Knights' President Powderly traveled to Atlanta and other Georgia cities in 1885. He received a warm welcome, as did other Knights officials who visited the state. Enough Georgia assemblies had formed for the Knights to hold state conventions in the late 1880s. Delegates to the 1889 meeting in Atlanta called for government control over railroads and telegraphs, supported an end to national banks, urged an elimination of child labor in factories, and advocated equal pay for men and women.

As with most early attempts to organize whites and blacks in Georgia, Knights members often faced threats and violence when they tried to breach the region's color barriers. Hiram Hover, of the Co-operative Workers of America (an organization loosely affiliated with the Knights), spoke to blacks in Milledgeville in 1886 urging them to demand higher wages. He faced continuous threats and eventually fled the area. Thugs burned the home of one of his supporters anyway. A group of Ku Klux Klan members later shot him in the face as he talked before a group of black workers at a church in Warrenton. Hover left Georgia for New York when his wounds healed.

Though the Knights professed an aversion to the use of strikes, members walked out of textile mills in Augusta over low wages in 1886. The strike idled the city's mills for most of the summer. When companies imported strike breakers from other states, the Knights convinced them not to cross their picket lines and then paid for their train rides back home. The strike turned into a stalemate and the mill workers returned to their jobs in November, however, without the higher wages they wanted.

At one time, the Knights boasted 25 assemblies and 9,000 white and black members in Georgia. By 1890, however, the organization had declined and only 15 assemblies, all of them made up of white members, remained.

"New South" Era: Populism

The Populist movement, which grew in Georgia during the 1880s and 1890s, began to reach out to urban workers. Congressman Tom Watson, who represented a district that included Augusta, sought votes from mill workers in the city. The Colored Farmers Alliance, an affiliated organization, appeared in the state and attempted to organize black agricultural laborers. Both organizations quickly declined in Georgia.

Women began moving into the mainstream, non-agricultural labor force in Atlanta during the 1870s, particularly in the growing textile industry. By 1880, almost 15 percent of millworkers were women. That percentage grew to almost 23 percent in 1900 and about 26 percent in 1919.

Nationally, workers resumed their efforts to organize into labor organizations. In December of 1886, Samuel Gompers, who had led an early national effort, joined with several other labor leaders to form the American Federation of Labor. The AFL counted 300,000 members and 25 unions among its ranks. The organization's opening statement read: "To protect the skilled labor of America from being reduced to beggary and to sustain the standard of American workmanship and skill, the trades unions of America have been established."

The trade union movement traces its roots in Georgia to the 1860s and 1870s, when the typographers began to set up local unions in the state. Only organizations in Atlanta and Augusta managed to survive into the 1890s, when other craft organizations sprang up in many of the trades.

Machinists and blacksmiths organized the first locals of their national unions in Atlanta in the late 1880s. Carpenters, printers, stone workers, dockworkers and molders also established a strong presence in the state. The railroad unions also set up reinvigorated organizations in Georgia. During the 1890s they engaged in several high profile strikes in Atlanta.

Nationally, early unionization efforts met with violent reaction from industrialists during the decade of the 1880s and 1890s. The most notorious occurred during a rally for locked out workers at Haymarket Square in Chicago. A bomb exploded killing several police and injuring many bystanders. The police fired on the crowd of protesters and killed many more. Eventually eight anarchists were arrested in connection with the incident and four of them were executed. The governor of Illinois later pardoned the rest, charging that their trial had been unfairly conducted.

In 1892 several striking workers were killed during a labor dispute at the Carnegie Steel Company in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Hundreds of Pinkerton detectives and strikers engaged in pitched battles. The company broke the strike after the state militia took over the town. Workers also lost a bitter strike at the Pullman plant near Chicago in 1894.

Union Members: ca. 1890's (L1984-23/8)

"New South" Era: Savannah Dock Workers Strike, 1891

Like workers in other parts of the country, Georgia workers were restless and they often engaged in strikes to increase their pay or improve working conditions. Between 1887 and 1894 officials recorded almost 100 strikes in the state. In 1891, workers walked out 22 times at different locations in a single year.

One of the most dramatic strikes occurred that year among black dockworkers in Savannah. Thousands of these workers had joined the Labor Union and Protective Association. They walked out for eight days to protest efforts by the Savannah, Florida and Western Railroad and the Central Railroad of Georgia to reduce their wages from $1.25 a day to $1.10 a day.

The strike proved orderly and quiet, despite attempts by employers to provoke the strikers. Public opinion sided with the strikers, and business groups pressured the railroads to settle their dispute. When the union rejected a brokered agreement, the business community deserted it and the strike was crushed. Most of the dock workers lost their jobs.

"New South" Era: Atlanta Federation of Trades and Georgia Federation of Labor

This setback failed to stop the growing labor movement in Georgia. Central labor bodies emerged in Atlanta and Augusta during the early 1890s. Workers formed the Georgia Federation of Labor in 1899. These bodies pushed for various types of progressive legislation, including child labor and compulsory education, the establishment of a state labor bureau and a state factory inspector, the eight-hour day, labeling of goods made by convicts, and equal pay for equal work among men and women. The groups affiliated with the American Federation of Labor.

In Atlanta a strong central labor organization emerged, called the Atlanta Federation of Trades (AFT). The Atlanta Typographical Union provided much of the early leadership of both the city and state labor federations. The organizations published the influential Journal of Labor.

Many members of the AFT gained elected office, increasing the organization's influence. Ed Sutton, a president of the AFT, served as mayor of nearby Clarkston. James G. Woodward, a member of the Typographical union, served as mayor of Atlanta four times between 1899 and 1916.

Many of the AFT's member unions worked to promote the city's virtues -- they even organized a "buy local" effort that lasted several years. They opted for conciliation and accommodation. In the short run, they managed to avoid the tough "open shop" crusades that swept other cities at the turn of the century. They often went on strike, but most of these strikes remained free of the personal animosities present in labor disputes.

Atlanta's labor movement grew rapidly in the early part of the 20th Century. In 1900, only four percent of the city's workers belonged to unions. Two decades later that number tripled. The union presence in turn-of-the-century Atlanta compared favorably with the U.S. average, which grew from 2.8 percent in 1900 to 12 percent in 1920.

Workers who joined unions in Atlanta and the rest of Georgia in the decades after the Civil War often lost their battles with industrialists, who eagerly fought almost all efforts at collective action. But by 1900, the seeds of a vibrant union movement had been planted. The working men and women helped build a firm foundation from which labor unions could begin to construct a movement and survive the often violent reactions that it inspired from the region's industrialists.

"New South" Era: "Tall oaks from little acorns grow:" The story of Thomas Wilson Talbot

Most people probably don't know it, but one of the largest national unions had its start in Georgia. Today, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers represents thousands of people across the country in a host of different industries -- from airplane makers to railroad employees.

The union was formed in Atlanta in May of 1888 by a small group of machinists under the leadership of Thomas Wilson Talbot.

Talbot was born in South Carolina in 1849. After years of working as a machinist, Talbot realized that an organization might help stabilize wages, which fluctuated wildly in the 1870s and 1880s.

After he was fired from a job for union activity, Talbot found a position with the Eastern Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia Railroad in Atlanta. He secretly worked throughout 1888 to organize machinists.

In May of the following year, Talbot and 19 other machinists became the charter members of the union, then called the Order of United Machinists and Mechanical Engineers of America.

By February of 1889, the organization began to publish a journal. In an early edition, Talbot predicted the union's success: "Tall oaks from little acorns grow," he wrote. Three months later, at its first national convention in Atlanta, the newly named National Association of Machinists counted more than 1,500 members in 15 states. The delegates elected Talbot "Grand Master Machinist" to lead them.

In July of 1890, Talbot abruptly resigned as the head of the union. A year later he returned to South Carolina, where he opened his own contract shop.

Talbot's life ended in tragedy in the spring of 1892 when two wealthy brothers from a prominent South Carolina family murdered him.
More than 50 years later, machinists unveiled a statue of Talbot in Atlanta's Grant Park. "Through whose efforts came light out of darkness and hope out of despair and that generations to come might exhort his greatness, this monument is dedicated to free men everywhere who solemnly toil for a livelihood," the monument reads.

Source: George Pearlman Papers, Southern Labor Archives, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia.

"New South" Era: Sources

AFL-CIO, "A Short History of American Labor," AFL-CIO American Federationist, March 1981.


Gary M. Fink, "'We Are City Builders, Too': Atlanta Typographers and New South Boosterism, Atlanta Style," Atlanta History, Winter 1993.


Matthew Hild, "Organizing Across the Color Line: The Knights of Labor and Black Recruitment Efforts in Small-Town Georgia," The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Summer 1997.


Gretchen E. Maclachlan, "Atlanta's Industrial Women, 1879-1920," Atlanta History, Winter 1993.

Julia Walsh, "'Horny-Handed Sons of Toil': Millworkers, Populists, and the Press in Augusta, 1886-1893," The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Summer 1997

Mark V. Wetherington, "The Savannah Negro Laborers' Strike of 1891," in Southern Workers and Their Unions, 1880-1975.

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