By Erika Winston
Labor Day invokes a variety of emotions. For students, it means the sad end of summer vacation with the exciting beginning of a new school year. For workers, it means a much appreciated day off, while the fashion conscious see it as the last weekend of the year for wearing white. Whatever the first Monday in September means to you, the holiday offers a valuable opportunity to consider the contributions of Black workers to American history.
Labor unions were the driving force behind the origins of Labor Day. In 1882, the first “workingman’s holiday” was celebrated in New York City when the Central Labor Union organized a day off of work. Over the next 10 years, the idea spread to include several states throughout the nation, with the creation of legislation to officially recognize the holiday.
During this time in history, the Pullman Palace Car Service was in full swing, offering railroad passengers a luxurious travel experience. African American men were hired as porters to serve the needs of customers. Pullman porters endured poor working conditions, making less money and working significantly more hours than their white counterparts, who were allowed to work as conductors. While Black workers expressed concern over their circumstances, they were not allowed to join the railroad labor union. As such, it was the white workers who first organized and formally walked off of their jobs.
The Pullman Palace strike hit a national nerve as it spread across the country, resulting in violence and the deployment of federal troops. The concerns of African American workers were not included in the list of demands and they were often encouraged to break the picket line, to work in place of the white workers. The strike was officially declared over on August 3, 1894, right before a national presidential election. While the white workers returned to the railroad jobs under better conditions, Black workers experienced no improvements. With the conflict of the strike hanging heavily in the air, President Grover Cleveland made one last attempt to appease American workers, by quickly signing the observation of Labor Day into federal law.
Observing the effectiveness of organized labor, Black porters began preliminary steps to form their own labor union. Their early efforts were sabotaged by management spies, who were strategically placed throughout company locations to recognize and stop any plans for worker resistance. It took more than 25 years before they successfully formed a labor union. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) was established in 1925, led by a young Civil Rights pioneer by the name of Asa Philip Randolph. Over the next ten years, BSCP fought for recognition by the American Federation of Labor and improved working conditions for porters.
The BSCP exemplifies the importance of organized labor in the nation’s history. As the country gears up to celebrate American workers, the contribution of the African American laborer is a significant part of the conversation.
Celebrating Labor Day In and Around Richmond
There is an array of Labor Day celebration options in and around the city of Richmond. Whether you enjoy a historical reenactment or a festival-like atmosphere, you don’t have to travel far to find Labor Day fun.
Start your weekend with the Chesterfield County Fair. Running through August 30th, the festivities offer plenty of activities for every age group. Music will fill the area on Friday and Saturday nights, with grandstand concerts. Foodies can enjoy all types of cuisine, including fried carnival foods and homemade recipe contests. There are amusement rides for the kids and even some educational opportunities with an agricultural focus. On Sunday, Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty” speech will be reenacted at St. John’s Church in Richmond. The event is free, taking attendees back to days of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Glen Allen is the place to go for a little relaxation on Labor Day, with a wine and cheese pairing. For $10.00, The James River Cellar Winery will offer various combinations of cheese, along with its award winning wines.
Don’t forget about Kings Dominion’s 40th anniversary celebration, which includes a concert by R&B artist Jason Derulo on Friday. Pair that with rides for all ages, from the kid friendly adventures of Planet Snoopy to the thrilling Intimidator. Visitors can also enjoy the Waterworks water park, which is included in the park admission price. Kings Dominion is open throughout the Labor Day weekend from 10:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The park closes at 8:00 p.m. on Monday.
Heading East to Celebrate
If you prefer to spend Labor Day basking in the sun, Virginia Beach is brimming with weekend activities. The Rock and Roll Half Marathon takes place on Sunday, and it includes a national recording artist on the main stage. The American Music Festival is also scheduled, filling the oceanfront with sounds of rock, R&B, and jazz music. With a combination of regional and national acts, visitors will be tapping their toes and snapping their fingers all weekend. Then, when you are ready for a good meal, head over to the Founders Inn, where the annual “Porkout on the Patio” is offering pulled pork and BBQ ribs in a relaxing environment.
You don’t have to fight the beach traffic though. Williamsburg is bringing awareness to Chesapeake Bay conservation with an annual crab race. In addition, The Taste Tradition starts Friday at the Williamsburg Lodge, where area chefs prepare contemporary dishes. You can end the night by enjoying a symphony under the stars. Starting at 8:30 p.m., guests can enjoy beautiful music while gazing at the nighttime sky.
Enjoying the Mountains and Valleys
If the mountains are more to your liking, the Bland County Fair continues through Saturday with good food, contests, and rides. Stuart invites visitors to a Labor Day gospel celebration. The foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains will be filled with sounds of praise on Friday, Saturday and Sunday as gospel bluegrass groups perform. The Shenandoah Valley is hosting the Patsy Cline Music Festival on Saturday, offering tours through the Patsy Cline Historic House and an outdoor concert at night. The Highland County Fair and the Shenandoah County Fair are also on tap for the Labor Day weekend.