Colored National Labor Union

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National Colored Convention in 1869

Established in 1869, the Colored National Labor Union (CNLU) was formed by African Americans to organize their labor collectively on a national level. The CNLU, like other labor unions in the United States, had as its goal improving the working conditions and quality of life for its members.

African Americans were excluded from existing labor unions, such as when white workers formed the National Labor Union (NLU). William Sylvis, president of the NLU, made a speech in which he agreed that there should be "no distinction of race or nationality" within the ranks of his organization. In 1869 several black delegates were invited to the annual meeting of the NLU, among them Isaac Myers, a prominent organizer of African-American laborers. At the convention, he spoke eloquently for solidarity, saying that white and black workers ought to organize together for higher wages and a comfortable standard of living. However, the white unions refused to allow African Americans to join their ranks. In response to this, Myers met with other African-American laborers to form a national labor organization of their own, and in 1869 the Colored National Labor Union was formed with Myers as its first president.

The CNLU was established to help improve the harsh conditions facing black workers. Among the goals of the CNLU, which represented African-American laborers in 21 states, were the issuance of farmland to poor Southern African Americans, government aid for education, and new nondiscriminatory legislation that would help struggling black workers.[1]


Following underrepresentaton within the predominately white National Labor Union, the National Colored Labor Convention met in 1869. This convention resulted in the formation of the Colored National Labor Union in the same year.[2] The "Colored" National Labor Union was a post-civil war organization founded in December 1869 by an assembly of 214 African American mechanics, engineers, artisans, tradesmen and trades-women, and their supporters in Washington D.C. This organization was created in pursuit of equal representation for African Americans in the workforce. The labor union was organized by Isaac Myers, and elected its first president; civil rights activist Frederick Douglass was selected the president of the CNLU in 1872. Douglass' newspaper, The New Era was chosen as the official organ of this National Labor Union.[3]

Previously in 1866, a National Labor Union (NLU) met and was organized in Baltimore, with Isaac Myers in attendance. One of the coordinators of the NLU, A.C. Cameron, while speaking at a national convention focused on the issue of "colored" or Negro labor and declared "…interests of the labor cause demand that all workingmen be included within the ranks without regard to race or nationality…" However, despite this statement, the membership of this organization's exclusion of issues and interests of the African American workforce was cause to arrange a separate union. This new organization was perfected in 1869. According to its constitution, the official name for the organization was, The National Labor Union. The word "colored" was added to the previous name apparently by the public media of the time, thus labeling it the "Colored National Labor Union."[4]

Myers stated about the segregated groups: "…for real success separate organization is not the real answers. The white and colored … must come together and work together… The day has passed for the establishment of organizations based upon color…"

The CNLU welcomed all workers no matter what race, gender, or occupation. In the end, both the CNLU and the NLU began to decline because of new organizations like the Knights of Labor who promoted having a national organization which united workers "without regard to race or color." The Knights of Labor adopted the slogan, "An injury to one is a concern for all."

It was not until after World War II in the 1940s that the U.S. government stepped in and encouraged the development of the Fair Employment Practices Commission.[1][2]


  1. ^ Rondinone, Troy. "Colored National Labor Union." In Waugh, John, and Gary B. Nash, eds. Encyclopedia of American History: Civil War and Reconstruction, 1856 to 1869, Revised Edition (Volume V). New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2010. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc. ItemID=WE52&iPin=EAHV064&SingleRecord=True (accessed June 21, 2014).
  2. ^ OFARI, EARL (1974-01-01). "BLACK ACTIVISTS AND 19th CENTURY RADICALISM". The Black Scholar. 5 (5): 19–25. JSTOR 41066300.
  3. ^ Proceedings of the Black national and state conventions, 1865-1900 / edited by Philip S. Foner and George E. Walker. Philadelphia : Temple University Press, 1986.
  4. ^ The Black worker : a documentary history from colonial times to the present / edited by Philip S. Fonerand Ronald L. Lewis. Philadelphia : Temple University Press, c1978-1984. See volumes 2 and 3.