On Tuesday, July 24, 1877, African American laborers employed to dig Louisville’s sewer system left their jobs in protest. That morning, “some idle negroes, including a strange one from Cincinnati” known as Buffalo Bill, reportedly urged the workers to demand a wage increase. When the supervisor refused their demands, the contracted workers—“mostly colored men”—left the work site and paraded through town. With this action, the black workers joined thousands of striking laborers across the country in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. The marching strikers gathered workers from other construction sites until the group numbered approximately four hundred black laborers. After traversing the city and commanding the attention of startled white townspeople, the group eventually dispersed in the late afternoon without incident.1
The actions of Louisville’s black workers were significant for several reasons. Four years into a national depression, and more than a week into the railroad strike, it was not surprising for laborers to protest low wages. Undoubtedly inspired by the working-class solidarity [End Page 1] that prompted a near-nationwide general strike, Louisville’s African American workers made public demands for fair pay consistent with that of white railroad workers engaged in unskilled labor. In Louisville, as in other southern cities, black workers demanded wage equality as vigorously as they sought civil rights. Over the next several days, black strikers were joined by hundreds of white men and women from the city’s tobacco factories, foundries, paper and woolen mills, furniture and plow factories, saddleries, and breweries, culminating in a general strike across the city.2 But unlike the railroad workers who led the strikes in cities across the country, Louisville’s white railmen adamantly refused to join the strike. Instead, they sided with the city’s white business and political leaders by joining the militia that helped to protect railroad property. In an industrializing border city, white railroad employees established their most important identities as protectors of “law and order” rather than joining in working-class action with other laborers. The perceived threat of black militancy led to the creation of an all-white militia that further disrupted possible class collaboration between black and white workers. White men used militia service to reinforce their own economic power and to ensure that black workers did not challenge long-standing class and racial boundaries. Through their actions, the men of Louisville contested who had the right to organize, by what means they could assert themselves publicly, and who was denied those rights—in short, who could lay public claim to being a citizen and a man.3
It is difficult to piece together the story of a strike, even more so [End Page 2] when it is accompanied by violence. Few eyewitness accounts remain from most riots, and police and military records are often scarce. No sources are more valuable than newspapers, yet they present their own challenges. News reporters did not interview the striking black workers to ask about their demands, so African American voices are limited. Nineteenth-century newspapers typically framed class conflicts as wars in which strikers threatened the forces of law and order. Such framing made “violence itself the story” and distracted readers from criticism of the system that created the conflict. Editors and reporters offered politicized viewpoints to their target audience and engaged in heated exchanges with competitors. Through interviews and relaying of selected events, news editors shaped citizens’ attitudes toward each other and a city’s vision of how best to preserve law and order. But newspapers were also beholden to advertisers and readers, and could not risk alienating either. Out of the challenges and confusion of strike coverage, newspapers became participants in molding the perceived reality of an event. Competing Democratic and Republican news reports of the Louisville strike must be interpreted carefully, but they still provide insights into the aims of striking black workmen, white workers who joined their ranks, and the employers who sought to re-establish control.4
The railroad strike in July 1877, the first nationwide industrial strike, began with railroad workers protesting wage cuts. For four years wage laborers had suffered the effects of a countrywide depression...