When the American Federation of Labor (AFL) first took shape in the latter half of the nineteenth century, it did so as waves of immigrants from Europe, Asia, and Latin America washed over the United States’ shores, bringing increasing ethnic, racial, and religious diversity to the nation. However, immigration intersected with large scale industrialization, and the AFL sought to organize an increasingly diverse set of laborers into one federation to protect and expand workers’ rights, and thereby often bumped against issues of race, gender, and ethnicity in their work. This struggle to balance labor rights and civil rights, a balancing act the AFL sometimes got wrong, emerges clearly in the correspondence contained in the collection.
With this in mind, beginning on April 26, the Library of Congress is launching a new campaign for its crowdsourcing/transcription project, By the People, “American Federation of Labor Records: Letters in the Progressive Era.” Since 2018, the Library of Congress has invited virtual volunteers to transcribe pages from history through By the People. To date, volunteers have completed over 630,000 pages. These transcriptions enhance collection discovery and access on loc.gov. You can see earlier examples here.
In 2021, Archives, History and Heritage Advanced Internship Program intern Mills Pennebaker focused on the International Ladies Garment Workers Union Strike (1909), the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (1911), and Red Summer (1919) as datapoints around which to document AFL engagement, or lack thereof, on issues of gender, race, and ethnicity. Pennebaker examined over 6,000 pieces of correspondence and discovered numerous incidents of the AFL wrestling with these and other issues. You can read more about her efforts here. Pennebaker’s work served as the catalyst for this project.
Volunteers can expand upon Pennebaker’s work by transcribing selections from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) Records held at the Library of Congress. The selections highlight some of the key labor events of the twentieth century, which also add insight into urban history: the International Ladies Garment Workers Union Strike, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, and Red Summer. AFL Records provide a window into the political issues and trends driving the Progressive Era (1890-1920), nationally and internationally. Volunteers will be able read first hand about labor issues animating small towns such as Denton, Texas, and Parsons, Kansas, as well as booming metropolises across the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia. Click on the link below and let your labor transcribe away.
By the People — American Federation of Labor Records: Letters in the Progressive Era
Featured image (at top): “Delegation from American Federation of Labor, White House, Washington, DC,” Ewing and Harris, ca. 1921-24, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.