Durham historian Blair LM Kelley’s newly-published Black Folk: The Roots Of The Black Working Class is one of the greatest books I have read about labor in America.

The fascinating, revealing, at times heartbreaking—yet inspiring—319-page volume chronicles the role of the Black working class who contributed mightily to this country’s wealth and development as a global superpower.

Early on in the volume, Kelley—who is the incoming director of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for the Study of the American South and co-directs the Southern Futures initiative—points out that “in our current political culture, the white working class is synonymous with supporters of Donald Trump…but the notion that the American working class is white is an assumption that long predates Trump’s time in office.”

Black Folk renders clear what 19th-century historian Laura Eliza Wilkes described as “the missing pages of history,” Black workers who “from the slavery to the present … have been essential to the nation’s productivity, and indeed—as was demonstrated during the Covid pandemic—to its basic functioning.”

This national mythos, Kelley asserts, “leaves little room for Black workers.” 

“Rarely do we speak of how the nation’s racial hierarchy of segregation and discrimination sought to ensure that Black people would always labor in a stratum below white people,” Kelley writes. “When Black people are mentioned at all, the very idea of work is dropped entirely, and instead they are described as poor, and often implied to be unworthy and unproductive.”

Kelley’s assertion echoes an observation by the Triangle photographer Titus Heagins in the late 1990s: That it’s hard to talk about work in America and not talk about Black folk.

Kelley’s writing focuses on enslaved laborers, sharecroppers, washerwomen, maids, postal workers, and Pullman porters. And at the heart of her work, both literally and figuratively, are members of the author’s own family tree who take center stage to tell the story about the roots of America’s Black working class.

There’s the gripping story of her maternal grandfather, John Dee, who was 14 when his father, Solicitor Duncan, loaded his family and their belongings onto a horse-drawn wagon and stole away from Georgia to North Carolina one night to escape his lot as a sharecropper following a year of grueling work in which he still came out owing the white landowner. Dee passed in 1990. 

“As they made their way up the hilly dirt road, John Dee didn’t even look back at the tiny house where they had lived—a converted slave cabin just a few miles away from where generations of his ancestors had toiled in bondage,” Kelley writes. “He imagined what runaway slaves must have felt.”

While contemplating reparations for today’s descendants, Kelley chronicles the life of one of those enslaved ancestors, “a boy born sometime in 1822 named Henry,” who became a blacksmith. 

“Henry as a child probably began working—carrying water, gathering wood, working with child-sized tools—soon after he could walk.”

Meanwhile, the man who held Henry in bondage, Joseph Rucker, was the largest and wealthiest slaveholder in Elbert County, Georgia. Rucker’s land and property on the eve of the Civil War were valued in figures that today would equal more than $9.3 million.

But in spite of existence under such brutal conditions, the Black working class, even during slavery, created community. At the center of America’s enslaved ancestors’ community was the church, which Kelley describes as an “invisible institution” maintained behind  “brittle broken branches in the woods, a faith that would buttress a Black working class.”

Kelley chronicles the quiet resolve and resistance of the lowly washerwoman, who used her independence to organize and demand fair wages while taking care of their own homes and children away from the watchful eyes of white clients.

She points to the efforts of Callie Guy House, a formerly enslaved washerwoman who in 1898, the same year as Wilmington Massacre, “became the first Black woman to rise to national prominence as a leader in the fight for reparations.”

Two concurrent themes run throughout the pages of Black Folk: the fight by the Black working class to create better working conditions in the face of systemic injustice, and white outrage that often took the form of violence to attack Black enterprise and self-sufficiency. 

The former led to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, an all-Black railway union that became one of the most powerful organizations in the country, and the National Alliance of Postal Employees, the precursor to the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees.

The latter?

Two descendants of formerly enslaved people, James D. Uzzle, an educator, and Samuel L. Burton, owned a grocery store in Accomack County, Virginia. In 1907, the two men were targeted by local whites who feared that the annual agricultural fair the two men sponsored “was actually a movement center for Black working-class labor resistance.”

Following separate instances of physical attacks and charges of attempted murder after Burton shot one of his attackers in the leg, a mob descended “fully armed through Onacock, firing hundreds of bullets into Burton’s store” before torching it.

When neither Burton nor Uzzle  emerged from the burning building, “hundreds of white men set about terrorizing local Black farmers and shooting into the homes of Black sharecroppers.”

Kelley concludes her rich saga by considering the move of much of her family from Georgia to Thomasville, North Carolina, where they were denied skilled work in the furniture industry and instead “lived on its margins.”

“So they swept the floors and assembled the boxes in the dusty factories, cleaned the homes and did the laundry of the white factory managers.”

When the scholar considers the tuberculosis outbreak that killed members of her family, and how it “preyed on the bodies of the working poor, particularly Black people,” she notes its parallel to the COVID-19 pandemic and its disproportionate impact on Black Americans. 

“More than 28 percent of 42 million Black people in America today—the majority of the Black working class—are ‘essential workers,’” she writes.

Kelley concludes her work in praise of her ancestors and their descendants who have “an inheritance all their own.”

Their story, too, is the American story.

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com. Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com

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