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10. In Search of New Labor

In 1916-1917 it was beginning to become clear that there was no one else. The war shut off the spigot of immigration; it was very difficult to migrate from Poland to the United States when there was a war going on and in fact some Eastern Europeans even returned to fight for their homeland. What we don't think about World War I is that for many people World War I was a struggle for independence. So you had Slavs, you had Poles, going back to Europe basically to fight a nationalist war.

The crisis hit the railroads first in terms of needing someone to do the work, and one of the things that's interesting is if you read the journals, the industrial journals, is you can actually watch the railroad managers first trying to find "that someone else." One company, for example, decided that it would start track work early in 1915 because, now I'm quoting, "The American hobo caught in the spring of the year will work," as opposed to other parts of the year.

In cities, employers began to think about what white women could do, what white women couldn't do. But ideas about gender were in many of these contexts even more powerful an ideology than race. So many industrialists decided that certain categories of white-man's work were at the very least men's work. And by the fall of 1916 it would become increasingly clear that black workers were the only available alternative in the heaviest industries, which required the largest armies of unskilled and semiskilled male labor. So the factory gates opened, black men walked in, many of them after a long train ride north.

To a lesser extent the experiment, and that was the term that was frequently used in these industrial journals, the experiment spread to black women who found industrial work here and there and even more jobs opened at the bottom of the hierarchy in female employment as white women found new opportunities.

So, as white women moved up, creating more room at the bottom for black women; in the packing houses for example, black women stuffed sausages, did the canning, and these are really the worst, in the way of I mean, probably in some ways the knife work on the killing floor is worse in the sense of the kind of motions that it required of your wrist and the amount of blood that you're standing in, but it's much better pay than being in the sausage rooms, and it's also actually light and the sausage rooms are in the basement. But the women got the absolute worst, worst and dirtiest of these paying jobs.

But on the other hand, for what it was worth, black women who wanted to move North could now relatively easily jobs in domestic service which not as many black women had been able to do before. Again the reason is because white women are no longer coming over from Europe.

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Learn more about opportunities in the north in the article “For blacks, going North meant better jobs and lives.”

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