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African American Office Workers

African American Office Workers

While African Americans accounted for a little over 10% of the US population during 1900-30, African Americans accounted for less than 1% of clerical workers throughout this period.  Racial segregation was pervasive.  The 1898 catalog of the Eastman Business College, Poughkeepsie, NY, and the New York Business Institute, New York, NY, stated that "These schools do not receive students of the Negro Race."  Bjelopera (2005, p. 23) states that, "At the turn of the twentieth century, it was standard practice for Philadelphia's white business owners to reject African Americans seeking employment behind office desks...Fully qualified black men and women who graduated from high school or college business programs simply could not find office work in white firms in the City of Brotherly Love."  Bjelopera (p. 24) further reports that "A 1912 study of black workers in Pennsylvania by R.R. Wright found that...[p]rivately owned white firms in Philadelphia almost never employed black office...workers.  Wright examined 600 white-owned firms in the city.  The only black clerical worker reported by the employers was a receiving clerk in a small department store."  Indeed, prior to World War II, virtually no African Americans were employed in offices of businesses owned by whites anywhere in the United States.  The small percentage of African Americans who held clerical jobs worked almost entirely for firms owned by African Americans and for federal and local governments.

African Americans, but few if any whites, were employed in offices of businesses, most of them small, owned by African Americans, including newspapers and magazines, insurance companies, and banks that catered to African American customers.  Bjelopera (p. 24) reports that in the 1890s, "W.E.B. Du Bois found that 'nearly all' black clerks...worked in establishments owned by African Americans."  Photographs below provide examples.  

In addition, according to Bjelopera, "Of the 130 black office workers that Du Bois found in his extensive study, 30 worked in city or federal government offices." Bjelopera also reports that Wright found that in 1912 "blacks who sought clerical work in the white world still found their best opportunities in civil-service jobs.  Philadelphia's post office served as both the city's and Pennsylvania's largest employer of black clerks."

Photographs of African Americans working in federal government offices in positions of equality with whites before the end of World War II are rare, but one from the late 1890s and another from1910, each with a single African American, are reproduced below.  Some African Americans were employed by the federal government in segregated offices during World War I and the 1930s.  The last photograph below, taken in 1949, shows an integrated workforce in a federal government office.

Bjelopera (p. 28) further reports that, "Unlike the white clerical workforce, its African American counterpart did not show a high degree of feminization by 1920.  Four-fifths of all black clerical employment went to men in 1920."

Image  Description Source
Private_Office_of_Cyrus_Field_Adams_Northrop_OM.JPG (96420 bytes) "Private Office of Cyrus Field Adams, Successful Business Man and Publisher of 'The Appeal,' Chicago, Ill.," very late 1890s.  The Appeal was an African American newspaper founded in 1885.  The African American Registry states that "the 'Appeal' became one of the leading Afro-American newspapers in the nation. At its high point in the 1880s, it was published in Dallas, Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Louisville, and Chicago. By December 1888, the 'Chicago Appeal,' under the editorship of Cyrus F. Adams, became the most read black newspaper in that city. The hey-day of the 'Appeal' would decline by 1901.

The College of Life (p. 20) states that "At the present time there are over 200 journals and magazines published by the colored people of the country." This book, which was copyrighted in 189_ (last digit not printed) appears to have been written in the very late 1890s. The back of our copy includes tables with 1900 Census data; perhaps these pages were added to later printings.
Henry Davenport Northrup et al., The College of Life or Practical Self-Educator, A Manual of Self-Improvement for The Colored Race, 189X, p. 116.

Navy_Dept_Strohmeyer__Wyman_NY_NY_3.jpg (37173 bytes)

This photo may show an office in the Department of the Navy, Washington, DC. The man sitting center rear appears to be African American. Early Office
Museum Archives
A_Negro_Magazine_Editors_Office_in_Philadelphia_Baker_Following_the_Color_Line_1908_p.138_OM.JPG (86776 bytes) "A Negro Magazine Editor's Office in Philadelphia," c. 1904-07.  Writing about employment conditions in Northern cities, the author states "A good many Negro printers, pressmen, and the like are now found in Negro offices (over 200 newspapers and magazines are published by Negroes in this country).  I know of several girls (all mulattoes) who occupy responsible positions in offices in New York and Chicago." Ray Stannard Baker, Following the Color Line, 1908, p. 138.
Office_with_African_American_Workers_American_Bible_Society.jpg (147222 bytes)
Office_American_Bible_Society_NYC_OM.jpg (103411 bytes)
Top:  Office with six men, five of whom are African American, and one woman, who is using an upstrike typewriter.  Bottom:  Office with two African American men.  These magic lantern slides show offices at the interdenominational American Bible Society (ABS), New York, NY, which still exists.  Its web site states: "From the American Bible Society's founding in 1816, we have been focused on translation, publication and the distribution of Bibles to as many people as possible. Our mission today is to make the Bible available to every person in a language and format each can understand and afford,..." John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was elected ABS president in 1821. Early Office
Museum Archives.

1910_Customs_Division_with_African_American_Nat_Archives.JPG (151459 bytes)

Customs Division, Washington, DC, 1910.  In this photograph of a federal government office, the man closest to the front of the photo on the left side is African American.  The remaining workers are white. National Archives
1917_Bookkeeping_Dept_Nat_Benefit_Assoc_Wash_DC_Progress.jpg (253548 bytes) "Bookkeeping Department, National Benefit Association, Washington, DC," c. 1911-1916. Kelly Miller & Joseph R. Gay. Progress and Achievements of the Colored People, 1913, 1917.
1917_Stenographers_Progress.jpg (254033 bytes) "Stenography in a Well Equipped Office," c. 1911-1916.  The two typists are using Oliver typewriters. Kelly Miller & Joseph R. Gay. Progress and Achievements of the Colored People, 1913, 1917.
1917_Lawyer_Presents_Case_to_Judge_Wash_DC_Progress.JPG (253094 bytes) "A Prominent Lawyer Presenting his Case to Judge R. H. Terrell, who is a Colored Judge of a Municipal Court in Washington, DC," 1911 or 1916.  Assuming the photograph was taken in the 1910s, it was taken in 1911 or 1916 because a wall calendar shows that September began on Friday. Kelly Miller & Joseph R. Gay. Progress and Achievements of the Colored People, 1913, 1917.
Bureau_of_War_Risk_Insurance_Clerks.jpg (105645 bytes) "A group of colored clerks employed in the Bureau of War Risk Insurance," Washington, DC, c. 1917-18.  The War Risk Bureau, an agency of the US government, provided marine war risk insurance and soldiers' and sailors' life insurance during World War I.  "Front Row, Left to Right---Miss V. L. Comer, Atlanta, Ga.; Mrs. F. Alston, Mobile, Ala.: Mr. W. Bernard Gardner, Philadelphia, Pa.; Miss V. B. Adams, Washington, D.C.; Miss F. M Botteese, Washington, D.C.; Miss B. Kebble, Waco, Tex. Second Row, Left to Right---Miss C. J. Tarby, Boston, Mass.; Miss E. M. Cameron, Birmingham, Ala; Mrs. H. L. Johnson, Washington, D.C.; Miss E. R. Nelson, Laurel, Miss.; Mrs. E. T. Albert, Washington, D.C." Emmett J. Scott, Scott's Official History of the American Negro in the World War, 1919.
African_American_office_workers_Hempstead_TX.jpg (152280 bytes) Four African Americans working in an office in Hempstead, TX.  In the center is a Burroughs Class 3 adding machine.  A candlestick telephone is on the desk. Early Office
Museum Archives
Office_with_three_African_American_workers.jpg (130538 bytes) Three African Americans working in the office of the Mosaic Guide Publishing Co., 9th Street, Little Rock, AR.  The Mosaic Guide was the newspaper of the Mosaic Templars of America, an African American fraternal organization.  The Mosaic Guide office was located on Ninth Street in Little Rock in 1913. "Ninth Street, beginning at Broadway and running west to Izard, was the heart of black commercial life. In 1919, Ninth Street was thriving. The offices of black physicians, dentists, and life-insurance executives sat next to the business establishments of black barbers, restaurateurs, and photographers. (Grif Stockley, Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919, University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, 2001, p. 94) At least today in the U.S. we no longer expect to find segregated offices in businesses owned by African-Americans or members of other racial groups. The office of a dentist South Jersey is as likely to be owned by an African-American dentist as a Caucasian dentist. Early Office
Museum Archives
Victory_Life_Insurance_Co_General_Office_Chicago_IL_OM.JPG (97562 bytes)

Office_Victory_Life_Insurance_Chicago_IL.jpg (151408 bytes)
"Partial View of Home Office, Victory Life Insurance Co., Chicago, Ill.," postcard. Reverse of top postcard states, "Began operating March 3, 1924. Operating in twelve states with sixteen branch offices. Employs more than five hundred persons."  Reverse of bottom postcard says the same, except that "more than five hundred" is increased to "more than six hundred."  The two views are nearly identical, except that there are more people working at more desks in the latter postcard image.  According to the Chicago Historical Society, "Beginning in the teens and continuing through the 1920s, African American entrepreneurs [in Chicago], denied access to the city's main business district, built a thriving business center of their own in the vicinity of Thirty-fifth and State Streets. This self-contained community included several new buildings constructed with black capital, like the Overton Hygienic/Douglass National Bank Building. Erected in 1922-23, the building housed several business enterprises owned by Anthony Overton [1865-1946], including the Overton Hygienic Company, which specialized in black cosmetics, the Douglass National Bank, and the Victory Life Insurance Company." Early Office
Museum Archives
Office_Pool_Colored_Civilian_Conservation_Corps_a95_OM.jpg (53140 bytes) Civilian Conservation Corps office. The Federal Government's CCC, which was segregated, planted an estimated three billion trees from 1933 to 1942. There are typewriters and adding machines. New Deal Network
Revising_Old_Records_j86.jpg (45208 bytes) Works Progress Administration, Office of Recorder of Deeds, Washington, DC, 1936. Clerical workers revising old records. New Deal Network
1942 Key-Punching Checks War Dept Wash DC OM.jpg (194521 bytes) Card Punching Section of the Finance Office, War Department, Washington, DC, 1942. In front of the diagonal white railing, approximately 60 seated women, all African American, are operating tabulating card key-punches. Two standing supervisors are white. The people in this office were preparing allotment checks for dependents of enlisted soldiers. These allotments were authorized under the Service Mens Dependents Act of 1942. Early Office
Museum Archives
1943_Office_Samuel_Plato_building_contractor_Nat_Archives.JPG (112564 bytes) Office of Samuel Plato, Washington, DC, 1943.  Samuel Plato was an African American building contractor.  All the office workers are African American. National Archives
1949_Div_of_Internl_Press_and_Pubs_State_Dept.jpg (149645 bytes) U.S. Department of State, Division of International Press and Publications, Wire Room, Washington, DC, 1949. Integrated work force. "A view of the wire room through which pass 150..... [fix] words a day.  The Wireless Bulletin of 7,000 words is sent out twice daily to New York City and San Francisco for broadcast to 50 U.S. diplomatic posts throughout the world.  The Division also supplies through these machines complete daily coverage of significant Washington news to the Voice of America Office in New York for broadcast in foreign countries. Early Office
Museum Archives

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