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More than a Century of Occupational Changes among African American Workers

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

There are many reasons people might wish to analyze occupational employment data, either for the national population as a whole or for any demographic group. African American sociologist, historian, and author W. E. B. Du Bois (a small part of whose work appeared in our own Monthly Labor Review) understood how data visualizations could tell a story and produced a chart showing occupational employment of Blacks and Whites in Georgia in 1900. As BLS celebrates our 140th anniversary this year, we are looking back at our history. After much debate, BLS decided to include the graphic from 1900 in this blog despite the use of outdated language. The graphic not only highlights early labor market statistics but also acknowledges the seminal work of W. E. B. Du Bois, whom we proudly recognize as a contributor to the early work of BLS.

Pie chart showing occupational employment of blacks and whites in Georgia in 1900 (W. E. B. Du Bois)

This chart, along with others, appeared in print and at an international exhibition in Paris. It is reproduced here courtesy of the Library of Congress. This may be the earliest graphical display of such data. Even though it focuses on just one state, it’s worth noting it shows that 90 percent of Blacks or African Americans were employed in just two occupational groups: agriculture, fisheries, and mining; and domestic and personal service. Although the proportion of Blacks in agriculture, fisheries, and mining is nearly the same as the proportion of Whites employed in those occupations, the proportion of Blacks in domestic and personal service occupations is five times higher than the proportion of Whites. Less than 1 percent of Blacks or African Americans were employed in the occupational category of professions. 

By 2023, more than one-third of Black workers had professional, management, business, financial operations or related jobs. Using the Du Bois chart as a starting point, let's look at how the occupational distribution changed over the years. To learn how occupational classification systems have evolved over time, see Historical comparability of occupation and industry data from the Current Population Survey.

In 1950, five decades after the publication of the Du Bois chart shown above, and still within Du Bois’s lifetime, more than 5 percent of Black workers were employed as either professional, technical, and kindred workers or managers, officials, and proprietors (not including those on farms). The occupational group with the highest employment among Blacks was operatives and kindred workers. This includes operators of motor vehicles and fixed machinery; assemblers, inspectors, packers, and related workers; and apprentices to craft workers as well as operators of horse-drawn vehicles. The second- and third-most common occupational groups for Blacks were laborers, except farm and mine, and private household workers. 

Editor’s note: Data for this chart are available in the table below.

The occupational mix reflects both changes in opportunities available to African Americans and general economic and technological changes. While these data pertain to all people classified as nonwhite, publications at the time mention that 95 percent of nonwhites were Black or African American. Another 50 years later, in 2000, more than one-fifth of Black workers were employed in professional specialty or executive, administrative, and managerial occupations. A larger share of Black workers were employed in service occupations (which include healthcare support, protective service, food preparation, building and grounds maintenance, and personal care) than in any other occupational group. Notably, private household service was no longer a separate category. Operators, fabricators, and laborers and administrative support occupations were the second- and third-largest occupational groups. 

Editor’s note: Data for this chart are available in the table below.

Looking at the BLS data for 2023, we see the highest employment of African Americans is in the professional and related, service, and management, business, and financial operations occupational categories. 

Editor’s note: Data for this chart are available in the table below.

Additionally, while the proportion of Blacks working in professional and management categories increased over recent decades, the proportion in service occupations decreased. Management, business, and financial operations and office and administrative support ranked third and fourth, in terms of the number of Blacks employed. Reflecting changes that have affected the entire country and much of the world, the percentage of Blacks employed in farming, forestry, and fishing occupations has continued its century-long decline. 

The years since W. E. B. Du Bois created his pioneering charts have brought significant changes for Blacks. BLS has documented those changes and will continue to document progress yet to come.

Percent distribution of employment by major occupational group, nonwhite, 1950
Occupational group Percent

Total, all occupations


Operatives and kindred workers


Laborers, except farm and mine


Private household workers


Service workers, except private household


Farm laborers and foremen


Farmers and farm managers


Craftsmen, foremen, and kindred workers


Clerical and kindred workers


Professional, technical, and kindred workers


Managers, officials, and proprietors, excluding farm


Sales workers


Occupation not reported


Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Note: From a table in BLS Monthly Labor Review, June 1953. Data are for April 1950.

Percent distribution of employment by major occupational group, Black, annual averages, 2000
Occupational group Percent

Total, all occupations


Service occupations


Operators, fabricators, and laborers


Administrative support, including clerical


Professional specialty occupations


Executive, administrative, and managerial occupations


Sales occupations


Precision production, craft, and repair


Technicians and related support


Farming, forestry, and fishing


Percent distribution of employment by major occupational group, Black or African American, annual averages, 2023
Occupational group Percent

Total, all occupations


Professional and related occupations


Service occupations


Management, business, and financial operations occupations


Office and administrative support occupations


Transportation and material moving occupations


Sales and related occupations


Production occupations


Construction and extraction occupations


Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations


Farming, fishing, and forestry occupations