Labor History in 2:00

August 8 First Black Labor Leader Elected in MN

August 8, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1902. 

That was the day more than 100 trade union delegates representing thousands of working people in St. Paul, Minnesota elected Charles James to be the president of the city’s Trades and Labor Assembly. 

Virtually forgotten by history, James is considered to be the first African American elected to a city labor council anywhere in America.

He was born in 1866 in St. Paul and began working as a leather cutter for local shoe manufacturers at age 15. 

This was at a time when most African Americans were excluded from skilled trades.

His biographer, Dave Riehle, asserts that it is unclear when James became involved in union politics and organizing. 

Shoe making was the largest mass production industry in St. Paul, employing thousands. 

Riehle notes the Knights of Labor had been active in the city during the 1880s and shoe workers were among the first to organize. 

By 1899, James had become the first president of a newly formed shoe workers union in Minneapolis and helped to found three more locals in St. Paul. 

By 1902, James was well known and well respected throughout the Twin Cities as a strong union leader. 

He served three terms as president of the Trades Assembly and then as secretary for seven more years. 

Riehle states that James continued as full time organizer and district business agent, traveling to cities across the Midwest to organize shoe workers. 

When he died in 1923, the Boot and Shoe Workers Union eulogized him in their national journal.  

Though James had been obscured from local labor history for decades, Riehle and others have worked to write Charles James back into the history books.

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