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June 1982, Vol. 105, No. 6
Labor Department's first program
to assist black workers
Henry P. Guzda
Sixty years ago, the Division of Negro Economics, one of the great, yet virtually ignored experiments in the history of the Department of Labor, ceased operation. Long before equal employment opportunity became a priority, this division promoted the concepts of that philosophy. The largest demographic shift of blacks in this Nation occurred between 1915 and 1920, and the division assisted many of these migrants in obtaining employment and in finding suitable housing, advised them on business and financial matters, encouraged racial harmony in the workplace, and even devoted attention to the issues of female workers.
Born amidst the feverish demand for workers during the first world war, the Division of Negro Economics was dismantled as part of an alleged return to prewar "normalcy." But, prejudice played a significant role in the division's demise. Despite its generally conservative approach to racial issues, the division made enemies during a period which historians agree was not conducive for promoting black aspirations. Subsequently, officials of the Labor Department did not accomplish all they set out to do. They did, however, plant the seed, and although slow in slow in developing, the dream of the 1920s finally started to bloom in the 1960s and 1970s. A pioneer in the civil rights movement succinctly evaluated this noble experiment stating: "This division, though handicapped by the turnmoil of transition general in the federal government and by the past Congress, has made an excellent beginning [in fostering economic and social justice]."1
The Department of Labor's novel and progressive program to assist black Americans, juxtaposed against that of most other cabinet-level agencies in the administration of Woodrow Wilson, was the result of the enlightened leadership of Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson and his Assistant Secretary, Louis Post. Post, in particular, had a great interest in the civil rights movement as a cofounder of the National Negro Conference of 1909 (the forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored PeopleNAACP). An admirer commented on Post's devotion to justice stating, "He dared in a trying time, to defy the forces of madness, hatred and greed."2
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1 T.J. Woofter, "The Negro and Industrial Peace," The Survey, Dec. 18, 1920, p. 421.
2 Clark Wilhelm, "William B. Wilson: The First Secretary of Labor," (Ph.D. diss., Johns Hopkins University, 1967) p. 180; Henry Mussey, Louis Post, Americans," Nation, June 12, 1920, p. 793.
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