How did you spend your Labor Day? Perhaps you attended a parade, or a cookout, or just enjoyed a relaxing day off. It seems like with most holidays on our calendars, we mostly get lost in tradition. We follow years of rituals in celebration without ever really accounting for the history behind the holiday or its origin.
If you asked a co-worker about what Labor Day really means to them or how it relates to them, would you get an answer beyond, “just a day off”? in relation to the African American community specifically, there are a couple of facts about how the history of Labor Day means more than just a day off.
Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday in September as a dedication to the social and economic stride of the American worker. It became a federal holiday in 1894. This day was birthed after the Labor Movement of the mid 19th century (around the 1880s). Most notably the Pullman Strike led by the American Railway Union became a turning point in the Labor Movement’s primary efforts to gain better general working conditions.
As great as the idea of an all-American revolution to protect its labor force may seem, a lot of sorted details seem to have gotten lost in the history, like the fact that black workers were not allowed into these same unions. Being freed from slavery, black workers were having trouble finding work at deceit rates in nondiscriminatory conditions. Additional burdens in stabilizing black labor came with the fact that white unions banned them from joining and collaborating with them. Even when black laborers formed their own unions, securing better working conditions and pay, white unions would then ignite feuds—demanding the firing of black workers (especially those getting paid a higher salary). This made it harder for black workers to sustain work, build wealth, and progress in their occupations at a natural rate. The history of Labor Day represents a greater struggle for equality, a struggle we can still see today.