For nearly seven years, the East Side Freedom Library has been a place for producing new knowledge and making connections. The link between African American history and labor history is one such connection. In collaboration with the University of Minnesota Department of History, the Ramsey County Historical Society, and the Labor and Working-Class History Association, ESFL is hosting an online conversation between the two leading scholars of Black labor in the United States: Dr. Joe W. Trotter, Jr., and Dr. William P. Jones. The conversation will take place on Wednesday, February 10 from 6:00-7:00pm. Please register here to get a link to join the program,

Dr. Joe W. Trotter, Jr. earned his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota forty years ago. Soon after, he published his first book, Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat (1985). Now the Giant Eagle Professor of History and Social Justice at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, he is a deeply respected scholar who has published more than ten widely read and taught books. These include Coal, Class, and Color: Blacks in Southern West Virginia, 1915-1932 (1990), and The Great Migration in Historical Perspective (1991). He founded the Center for African American Urban Studies and the Economy (CAUSE) and has mentored dozens of up-and-coming scholars.

Dr. William P. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Minnesota and the president of the Labor and Working-Class History Association. He has authored two award-winning books, The Tribe of Black Ulysses: African American Lumber Workers in the Jim Crow South (2005), and The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights (2013). He has been a guest on PBS NewsHour, NPR’s “The Takeaway,” and Democracy Now! His writing has appeared in The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Nation, and other publications. He is working on a book about public employees and the transformation of the U.S. economy after World War II. 

These two scholars will discuss Dr. Trotter’s new book, Workers on Arrival: Black Labor in the Making of America (2019). It is a timely complement to the national conversation surrounding the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans into North America in 1619, the topic of a series in The New York Times in 2019. It has added significance given the examination of institutional racism in America that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020.

This conversation will provide attendees with historical perspectives through which we can better understand the present – and the future. In a recent interview, Professor Trotter said:

“As in the past, people of African descent continue to contribute to the development of American society through their labor. Whereas the bulk of industrial-era blacks contributed to the growth and expansion of the United States as the world’s leading manufacturer of durable goods, the black working class today is finding its footing in the lower rungs of the food, health care, household service, transportation, and other human service industries of the digital age.”

He continued: “Black working people are by no means occupying the lower rungs of today’s evolving transnational economy quietly. Labor organizing remains one strategy for improving working conditions.”  In an article commenting on the 50thanniversary of the March on Washington, Professor Jones decried the “distorted historical memory” that fails to appreciate the centrality of the March’s emphasis on jobs and freedom. There is no doubt that African American history and labor history are deeply intertwined.

With white supremacy on the rise, the labor movement is struggling to cope with pandemic-related job losses and the reorganization of work, while movements for racial justice and equity are seeking to have a material impact on all workers’ lives. This conversation between these  two scholars will give us much to think about. Join us! 

Peter Rachleff and Kristi Wright

Peter Rachleff is Co-Executive Director of the East Side Freedom Library, and Kristi Wright works with ESFL as a labor consultant.

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