The Roots of the Black Working Class | National Humanities Center

Humanities in Class: Webinar Series

The Roots of the Black Working Class

African American History; African Americans; Labor History; Working Class; Oral History; United States of America

Blair L. M. Kelley (NHC Fellow, 2022–23; Director, Center for the Study of the American South; Joel R. Williamson Distinguished Professor of Southern Studies, Department of American Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

November 7, 2023

Advisor: Sarah Lynn Wiseman, NHC Teacher Advisory Council

There have been countless books, articles, and televised reports in recent years about the almost mythic working class. But that working class has been exclusively defined as white, obscuring the labor, and even the very existence of entire groups of working people, including everyday Black workers. Professor Kelley has mined the archive, oral histories, and her own family stories to explore the roots of the Black working class, to expand understandings of a broader past.

Exploring the jobs Black people held, from washerwomen to Pullman porters, and the organizing Black workers undertook, this webinar will help educators master the basic history of the Black working class in America, strategies to include this rich history in classroom instruction, and ways to think about expanding students’ understandings of race and class. By the end of this webinar, educators will be able to trace the development of the origins of Black working class, outline the limitations on Black employment, and the unique cultural legacy of the Black working class.

Webinar Resources

I selected two chapters of Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class as examples that complicate the lessons regularly taught in African American and American history courses. Topics like the Great Migration, labor movements, women’s work during the Second World War (Rosie the Riveter), and New Deal labor protections all shift in perspective when considering the labor of Black people, particularly Black women.

I’ll also be discussing the usefulness of oral history and, more broadly, storytelling as a tool in teaching history, so I am assigning the oral history of Minnie Savage Whitney that I cite in the chapter, so that participants can hear the original source for the Minnie narrative in the chapters.

  • Kelley, Blair L. M. “Minnie and Bruce.” In Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class, 161–83. New York: Liveright, 2023.
  • Kelley, Blair L. M. “The Maids of the Migration.” In Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class, 185–224. New York: Liveright, 2023.
  • Interview: Minnie S. Whitney, March 6, 1984.” Goin’ North, accessed October 26, 2023.


History / Education Studies / African American History / African Americans / Labor History / Working Class / Oral History / United States of America /


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