James William Trotter Jr, Workers on Arrival: Black Labor in the Making of America, (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2019)
Workers on Arrival is an unusual book, but that’s not a criticism. Trotter outlines a vast subject-matter in his nine page prologue. He hopes to restore the “broader historical context of African American workers as producers, givers, and assets.” He covers the lives and labor of black workers in the economy and politics “from the transatlantic slave trade to recent times.”
The book has only 183 pages of text, with a 25 page essay on sources and 67 pages of notes carefully documenting sources from the text. Part I has three chapters that covers the colonial period up to the twentieth century; Part II has the last four chapters covering the twentieth century, and finally a brief four page epilogue of the twenty-first century. The three opening chapters describes the work and lives of the black community of the early period, emphasizing their economic contribution, the varied status of free and enslaved blacks, the work they did, their skills and the troubles they encountered in both urban and rural settings. Troubles included the Fugitive Slave Act, colonization movements, urban segregation, mob violence and their chances and a few successes at owning property and becoming entrepreneurs.
The civil war comes and goes in chapter 3. The war gradually liberated four million blacks as many showed up in military camps or forts and northern cities like Washington. D.C. before the war ended. Some joined the northern armies and helped defeat the south, but these were dangerous times as blacks were attacked in draft rioting and pressured by colonization advocates, which black leaders firmly opposed. Trotter covers black efforts to organize protective leagues and join unions during reconstruction and after, but this was also a violent period punctuated with race riots and white efforts to find a substitute for slavery in the search for cheap labor.
Part II moves into the twentieth century. These chapters combine progress in time with topical material. Chapter 4 concentrates on the Great Migration in the early part of the century. Here Trotter takes 32 pages on a vast subject, but concentrates on the lives and work the black community found in manufacturing in northern cities, which was not nirvana. Chapter 5 looks at efforts to create safety and security in labor and social justice organizing.
Chapter 6 takes a 20 page look at Jim Crow as it evolved and changed from the 1940’s through the 1960’s and 1970’s. In these post war years the unemployment rate for blacks exceeded that for whites for the first time while the post war expansion did little for the black community. Here Trotter mentions and gives brief description from episodes of intimidation and violence and black efforts to organize against the prejudice they confront. Readers get a brief look at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Congress of Racial Equality, National Negro Labor Council, the Negro American Labor Council, Nation of Islam, the Black Panther Party, Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, a.k.a. DRUM, and a few more.
Chapter 7 outlines the decline in the manufacturing sector through the end of the century, its effect on black employment and changes in urban politics as many cities started electing black mayors to cope with the economic problems of a changing economy.
The epilogue characterizes the previous chapters as a “portrait of the black working class, enslaved and later free, changed dramatically during the twentieth century, when the Modern Black Freedom Movement toppled the white supremacist order, expanded the scope of American democracy, and created a new equal opportunity regime.” However, Trotter then concludes the epilogue by suggesting some ominous signs for the future.
I read the book as an invitation for others to develop and pursue research interests in further study. Discussions do not, and cannot, go into great detail given the concise text. Sometimes a topic gets only a sentence or two that serves to whet your appetite for more detail.
The essay on sources provides a thorough assistance for historical research. Brief discussions of a topic, or an era, are followed with names of historian authors, brief synopsis of their work, and sometimes conclusions and views. Chapter footnotes provide more help. Chapters typically have 40 or as many as 80 footnotes often with a list of sources.
As a research aide the book works well either for those who know what era or topic they want to study, or for undergraduate or graduate students looking for an era or a topic. For the latter group it might be useful to start with the essay on sources and then read the book while developing a bibliography.
Otherwise the book is well organized and reads easily, but not so much as narrative history. Sometimes sentences feel like a listing rather than a story. Black history remains an important topic for further study, as Trump reminds us too often, and this book serves that purpose well.