Virtual Bookshelf: Labor Day

Virtual Bookshelf Labor Day
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Photo: Unsplash

(August 18, 2023)

First celebrated in 1882, Labor Day became an official U.S. federal holiday in 1894, when an act of Congress designated the first Monday of September as a day to honor the achievements of American workers and the U.S. labor movement. For more on the history of Labor Day, visit the U.S. Department of Labor website. Celebrate Labor Day 2023 with this selection of NEH-funded projects and resources examining the contributions of labor activists and the evolution of the American workforce.

NEH-Supported Projects on Labor History:

9to5: The Story of a Movement  
Before it was a song by famous country singer Dolly Parton or a 1980 Hollywood film, 9to5 was a was a women’s labor movement that began in the early 1970s with a group of female office workers in Boston who organized for better wages, advancement opportunities, and an end to sexual harassment in the workplace. This NEH-funded film examines this key period in both labor and women’s history, covering the 25-year, nationwide movement and its lasting impact on labor today.

Lewis Hine Collection
Investigative photographer Lewis Hine helped galvanize national support for child labor reform through his work photographing children engaged in backbreaking work in mills, factories, mines, farms, and canneries for the National Child Labor Committee from 1908 to 1930.  An NEH grant to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is helping preserve an important collection of Hine photographs. Read an interview with the project director about the UMBC collection and NEH-supported preservation project.

California Dreamin': Migration, Work, and Settlement in the "Other" California
This summer 72 teachers from around the country were able to participate in an NEH Landmarks of American History and Culture workshop at California State University, Bakersfield, on the long history of migration and agricultural labor in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Two cohorts of K–12 educators participated in week-long residential programs of intensive study of the region’s rural history and of the historical sites associated with the farm workers movement.

Courage in the Hollers: Interpreting Coal Miners’ March and Battle on Blair Mountain
With an NEH Historic Places grant,  the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum is planning a multi-format interpretive tour to engage visitors in the history of the 1921 Coal Mine Wars, which culminated in the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest labor uprising in U.S. history. The tour will guide visitors through a 50-mile trail marking the route marched by coal miners in 1921 with a series of interpretive installations, a website, and a digital history tour within Clio—an app designed with NEH funding to provide a platform for historical tours. Other NEH grants to the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum have supported the digitization of the museum’s collections to expand public access, and research for an NEH Public Scholars book on the history of labor activism in the West Virginia coal mining region between 1902 and 1921. Learn more about the history of the Mine Wars with this NEH-funded PBS American Experience documentary.

Capital Entertainment: Stage Work and the Origins of the Creative Economy, 1822-1916
Historian Rachel Miller at the College of Idaho is using an NEH Summer Stipend to research and write a history of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century entertainment industry in the United States focusing on the stage workers, artisans, and non-star performers. Her book will look at how stage workers attempted to assert control over working conditions as show business evolved from locally based and self-organized groups of artisans in the beginning of the nineteenth century to one of the largest global industries by the beginning of the twentieth.

Chinese Railroad Workers in North America
An NEH Collaborative Research grant  helped researchers at Stanford University convene a scholarly conference on the impact of Chinese railroad workers in the United States, at which thirty scholars presented their research. The subject of many news articles and a recipient of the Committee of 100 Common Ground Award for Advancement in U.S.-China Relations, the completed Chinese Railroad Workers in North America project also culminated in a photography exhibition, documentary films, and an online archive.

The Samuel Gompers Papers
NEH is a long-term funder of the Samuel Gompers Papers project at the University of Maryland, which has collected, edited, annotated, and published 12 volumes of the personal papers of Samuel Gompers, the nation’s leading trade unionist and labor spokesman in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As founder and president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) from 1886 to 1924, Gompers was a passionate advocate of shorter hours and higher wages for workers, safe and sanitary working conditions, and collective bargaining with employers. The collected papers contain his many speeches, records documenting the founding of AFL, and letters to figures such as Woodrow Wilson and Ida Tarbell.

Preserving the Jewish Labor and Political Archives at YIVO
NEH grants are supporting the preservation and digitization of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s Jewish Labor and Political Archive, documenting Jewish political, labor, and social movements in the United States and Europe from 1870 to 1992. The project will put online some 3.5 million pages of correspondence from major Jewish labor leaders such as David Dubinsky and Emma Goldman, along with manuscripts of speeches, flyers, sound recordings, and ephemera relating to the Jewish Labour Bund. Read about the Bund archive and the NEH-supported digitization project at the Forward.

Deploying Latinidad: The Politics of Contemporary Media Activism
Film and media studies scholar Arcelia Gutierrez-Velazco at the University of California, Irvine, is using an NEH Awards for Faculty grant to research Latino activism in the media industries from the end of the twentieth century to the beginning of the twenty first. The resulting book examines numerous protests, including those against harmful stereotypes on screen and for the inclusion of Latino Americans in the film and broadcast industries.

Indexing the Iowa Labor History Oral Project
With the help of an NEH Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant, the University of Iowa is working to transcribe oral histories and complete a digital index for the Iowa Labor History Oral Project. Launched in the 1970s by the Iowa Federation of Labor, the Iowa Labor History Oral project has, over the span of five decades, recorded 1,500 interviews with Iowa’s workers, making it one of the most comprehensive labor oral history collections in the world. NEH funding will provide for the transcription of 363 of these oral history interviews and completion of a comprehensive digital index to the collection. The oral histories represent laborers from 75 different occupational groups in Iowa, ranging from barbers, letter carriers, rubber workers, machinists, and teachers to those employed in the state’s manufacturing, meatpacking, grain processing, railroad, and construction industries. Listen to some of their fascinating stories in the “Speaking of Work” series on this Soundcloud page, which uses digitized interview footage from the project. The online archive can be found here.

Lineages of the Deportable Labor State: Migrant Workers and the Law in American History
Gabrielle E. Clark, a professor of political science at California State University, Los Angeles, will explore the relationship between migrant work and the U. S. legal system in this book project funded by an NEH Awards for Faculty grant. With a scope spanning from the nineteenth century to the present day, her research will look at the experience of migrants from the Caribbean, Mexico, India, and China, as well as their efforts to win rights and protection from the United States.

The Homestead Steel Strike & the Growth of America as an Industrial Power
In the summer of 2024, the University of Pittsburgh will host two weeklong NEH Landmarks of American History and Culture workshops for K–12 teachers on the history and impact of the 1892 Homestead Steel Strike, one of the deadliest labor-management conflicts in U.S. history. Participants will visit historical sites associated with Pittsburgh’s steel industry and immerse themselves in primary source materials relating to the steelworkers’ union and worker conditions at Carnegie Steel, the business practices of industrialists Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, and the aftermath of the battle. The workshop was offered previously in 2022.

A Labor History of African American Artisans in Nineteenth-Century South Carolina
Historian Anne Kerth of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, received an NEH Summer Stipend to work on a book on the history of African American artisanal labor in South Carolina in the era of slavery and emancipation.

Labor Day Bookshelf
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Photo: Unsplash

Lost Labor of Love: The CETA Art and Humanities Project
City Lore, the Delaware Art Museum, and Artist Alliance Inc. are using an NEH Exhibitions grant to developing a traveling show on the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) of 1973, a federal jobs program that created public service employment opportunities for artists and cultural workers. Amidst the economic downturn of the 1970s, CETA provided full-time employment for more than 10,000 artist and an additional 10,000 support staff in the arts. The final traveling exhibition will be accompanied by publications, performances, and panel discussions.

LGBT Workers in the Shadow of Civil Rights, 1945-2000
Margot Canaday’s 2023 book Queer Career: Sexuality and Work in Modern America was made possible by funding from an NEH Fellowships for University Teachers grant. The book takes on the concept of a straight workplace and argues that the modern workplace and labor market played an important role in LGBT culture and identity. Using oral histories and other primary sources to conduct the research, Canaday claims that “avoiding exposure/fear of job loss” was an ever-present concern in the lives of queer people in the twentieth century.

Maine Digital Newspaper Program Proposal: 2022-2024 NDNP Cycle
NEH’s National Digital Newspaper Program provides funding for the digitization of historical American newspapers published between 1690 to the present for inclusion in the Chronicling America online database, housed at the Library of Congress.  With support from an NDNP grant, the Maine State Library, the state’s hub for the Maine Newspaper Project, is currently digitizing 100,000 pages of historical Maine newspapers with a focus on Franco American newspapers that document the labor movement in Maine.

Adios Amor: The Search for Maria Moreno
In the documentary Adios Amor, the discovery of lost photographs sparks the search for a hero that history forgot—Maria Moreno, a migrant mother driven by the hunger of her twelve children to speak out. Years before Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta launched the United Farm Workers, Maria picked up the only weapon she had—her voice—and became an outspoken leader as the first woman farm worker in America to be hired as a union organizer. This NEH-funded 2018 documentary by Laurie Coyle uncovers Moreno’s forgotten legacy.

Organizing the Convicted Class: The Historical Struggle to Reclassify Penal Labor on the Eve of Mass Incarceration, 1967–1979
In the 1970s, American prisoners embarked on a historical push to unionize penal labor and reclassify their work as formal employment. Sociology professor Michael Gibson-Light at the University of Denver is using an NEH Summer Stipend to research and write a book on the history of the Prisoners Union and the fight for the legal rights and protections of incarcerated individuals at work in light of mass incarceration.

Purchased Lives: The American Slave Trade from 1808 to 1865”
This NEH-funded traveling exhibition from the Historic New Orleans Collection brought together 75 historical artifacts, including period broadsides, paintings, prints, ship manifests, and first-person accounts to examine the lives of individuals intertwined in the domestic U.S slave trade.  The exhibition considers New Orlean’s role as antebellum America’s largest slave market, focusing on the period between the U.S. abolition of the international slave trade in 1808 to the end of the Civil War, during which an estimated two million enslaved people were forcibly moved among the nation’s states and territories. Media coverage on this project can be found here.

Shop Girls to Show Girls: Teaching Resources on New York's Working Class for Community College Students
The Fashion Institute of Technology is creating a labor history curriculum specific to areas of fashion design, retail services, and advertising and marketing using funding from an NEH Humanities Initiatives at Community Colleges grant. This project aims to prepare students for employment after college and builds upon a previous NEH-supported interdisciplinary curriculum project.

The Crusades of Cesar Chavez
In the first comprehensive biography of Cesar Chavez, Miriam Pawel offers a detailed account of the charismatic migrant farm worker who launched a movement and became one of history’s most prominent labor leaders. Researched and written with support from an NEH Fellowship, the book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Read more about the book in the Los Angeles Times and in NEH’s Humanities magazine.

Slavery by Another Name
This NEH-funded PBS documentary based on Douglas A. Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book reveals the history of forced labor of African Americans in the United States after the Emancipation Proclamation. Its title speaks to the de-facto continuation of neo-slavery despite the ending of chattel slavery in 1865. Supported by an NEH America’s Media Makers grant, the film received awards from the Sundance Film Festival and from the Pan African Film Festival. Slavery by Another Name was among a handful of NEH-supported documentary films featured in NEH’s Created Equal national community film discussion program between 2013 and 2015. Watch the 90-minute film streaming online at PBS.

Syrian Textile Workers in the Arab Atlantic, 1890-1934
Stacy D. Fahrenthold, historian of the modern Middle East at the University of California, was awarded an NEH Fellowship to research the development of working-class identity among Syrian textile workers in the Americas from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, and the ways in which the Syrian American experience in this period was influenced by labor activism.

Transcendental Rhetoric and Domestic Labor at Brook Farm
Michelle C. Smith’s NEH Summer Stipend research investigated the “gendered utopias” of the nineteenth-century Americas. Her research led to publication of her book Utopian Genderscapes, which examines the division of labor and approaches to “women’s work” within the experimental utopian communities of Brook Farm, Harmony Society, and the Oneida Community.

NEH’s educational website, EDSITEment, offers resources for teaching the history of labor, including these lesson plans on César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farm Workers (UFW) and the Industrial Revolution’s shaping of labor practices in the United States.

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