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Social Science History 26.3 (2002) 475-502

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Higher Places in the Industrial Machinery?
Tight Labor Markets and Occupational Advancement by Black Males in the 1910s

Thomas N. Maloney


The economic history of African American workers since 1940 has been marked by alternating episodes of progress and stagnation. Sharp gains in relative incomes during the 1940s were followed by little change in this measure in the 1950s. Renewed progress from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s was followed by a new period of stagnation and even decline in relative pay in the 1980s and early 1990s. The important episodes of progress were to a great degree driven by changes on the demand side of the labor market: [End Page 475] rapid growth in labor demand—especially for blue-collar workers—during World War II and the effect of new antidiscrimination policies on the demand for black labor after 1965 (Donohue and Heckman 1991; Jaynes and Williams 1989: 294–96).

This article examines whether the 1910s can be characterized as an early episode of demand-driven progress for black workers in the North. The years surrounding World War I are widely recognized as a watershed in the economic history of African Americans. Declining immigration from Europe combined with intense wartime labor demand certainly helped generate an increase in the migration of African Americans out of the rural South and into the urban North. But were patterns of occupational segregation within the North altered by these pressures? Gunnar Myrdal (1964: 409–10) suggests that the World War I era should have been a time of particularly rapid gains for blacks, as unemployment was low at the start of the war (unlike World War II), and the demand for less-skilled labor was particularly great. In addition, the growth of black communities in the North in the 1910s may have created new niches for black entrepreneurs, selling goods and services to this developing market. There were, however, countervailing forces that may have weakened the impact of tight labor markets on black workers' status during these years. As the northern black population grew, racial tensions clearly increased. Greater segregation in residence, schools, and public accommodations resulted. These increasing racial tensions may have limited the economic gains of African Americans.

Until recently, we have had limited ability to examine change in the economic outcomes of African Americans in the North during this decade. Published census data for these years use varying occupational coding schemes, making it difficult to track changes in black access to jobs. Further, tabulations of occupation disaggregated by race and region of residence in these years are quite limited, so the study of African American outcomes in the North specifically has proven difficult. The release of the new Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) sample for 1920 overcomes these problems by allowing analysis of economic outcomes by place of residence, place of birth, and race, using a consistent occupational coding scheme (Ruggles and Sobek 1997).

In this article, I examine change in the occupational attainment and self-employment status of black men in the North in the 1910s using the 1910 and 1920 IPUMS samples. The results indicate that occupational segregation [End Page 476] between black and white workers declined during these years, though this occupational progress was concentrated among northern-born black workers. Southern-born black workers became slightly more segregated from white workers, and from northern-born black workers, over this decade. Finally, the 1910s was not a period of increased entry into self-employment among blacks, either northern-born or southern-born. 1

The 1910s: Tight Labor Markets, Migration, and Growing Racial Tensions

As European immigration slowed and the U.S. economy geared up for the war effort, growth in the demand for industrial labor greatly outpaced growth in its supply. The number of workers employed in manufacturing rose from about 6.5 million in 1914 to 8.4 million in 1919, and new plants were thrown up at a rapid pace (Nelson 1975: 141–42). Firms...


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