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Colored National Labor Union

Date: 1869–1872  
From: Encyclopedia of American History: Civil War and Reconstruction, 1856 to 1869, Revised Edition, vol. V.

Established in 1869, the Colored National Labor Union (CNLU) was the first major attempt on the part of African Americans to organize their labor collectively on a national level. The CNLU, like other labor unions, had as its goal improving the working conditions and quality of life for its members. Unfortunately, in its short life span, the CNLU made precious few inroads for its black constituents.

African Americans had traditionally been excluded from existing labor unions, but when workers sought to capitalize on organizational opportunities created by the Civil War and formed the National Labor Union (NLU), black laborers wanted to participate as well. William Sylvis, president of the NLU, made a speech in which he agreed that there should be "no distinction of race or nationality" within the ranks of his organization. In 1869 several black delegates were invited to the annual meeting of the NLU. One of these delegates was a man named Isaac Myers, a prominent organizer of African-American laborers. At the convention, he spoke eloquently for solidarity, saying that white and black workers ought to organize together for higher wages and a comfortable standard of living. But Myers's plea fell on deaf ears. The white unions refused to allow African Americans to enter their ranks. In response to this, Myers met with other African-American laborers to form a national labor organization of their own. In 1869 the Colored National Labor Union was formed, with Myers as its first president.

The CNLU was established to help improve the harsh conditions facing black workers. Exclusionary white unions and uncooperative employers prevented African Americans from getting highly paid, skilled labor jobs in the North. In the South, the emancipation of the slaves did not result in social or economic equality. Among the goals of the CNLU, which represented African-American laborers in 21 states, were the issuance of farmland to poor Southern African Americans, government aid for education, and new nondiscriminatory legislation that would help black workers who struggled to make ends meet.

The CNLU ultimately made few economic gains for African Americans. A hostile and prejudiced business and labor environment prevented the CNLU from making much headway, and in 1872 the union went under. The CNLU did, however, help raise awareness among many people in the labor movement that all workers deserved adequate representation.


William H. Harris, The Harder We Run: Black Workers Since the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).

Text Citation (Chicago Manual of Style format):

Rondinone, Troy. "Colored National Labor Union." In Waugh, John, and Gary B. Nash, eds. Encyclopedia of American History: Civil War and Reconstruction, 1856 to 1869, Revised Edition (Volume V). New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2010. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc.
ItemID=WE52&iPin=EAHV064&SingleRecord=True (accessed May 1, 2016).

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