north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 

 
 
 

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Essay:
     The Knights of Labor (KOL) had a meteoric rise and fall in North Carolina in the 1880s with the first locals (or assemblies) established in the Raleigh-Durham area in 1884. Early KOL success in the area included election of KOL leader John Nichols to Congress in 1886 from the Fourth District and establishment of KOL Cooperative Tobacco Company on East Davie Street in Raleigh.

     From that beginning the group, representing a wide range of occupations, black and white, men and women, spread from Asheville to Wilmington. KOL membership increased between 1887 and 1889 among African American farm workers in northeastern North Carolina, such that the state assembly became a majority black group.

     The rise of the KOL in Edgecombe County was key, as Edgecombe was the unofficial center of the “Black Second” Congressional District. Edgecombe, along with bordering counties Wilson and Pitt, each listed eighteen or more local assemblies, more than any other North Carolina counties except Wake.

     Nathanuel Marriott, a twenty-six-year-old black farm laborer from Swift Creek Township, wrote a letter on November 7, 1887, to KOL Grand Master Workman Terence V. Powderly appealing for a charter for farm workers that Marriott had organized at New Hope Church. Marriott wrote, “I have called the peoples together in my community and reasoned with them about the labor union and have temporary organized a small crowd of about 80 members and we have been together meeting every Friday night for about two months waiting for someone to organize us . . .”

     Marriott made his appeal in a meeting at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, one of the oldest African American churches in the county, organized in 1874, and located on what was the Dunbar Farm between Rocky Mount and Tarboro.

     Black farm laborers began organizing local assemblies across Edgecombe County in 1886. In March 1888 black assemblies of the KOL in Edgecombe under county leader Frank U. Whitted of Conetoe secured the Republican Party nomination for Congress for Henry Cheatham, who became the third black Congressman from the “Black Second.” After his election to Congress, Cheatham secured the appointments of several local African American KOL leaders as postmasters.

     A strike on the cotton plantations in 1889 lasted about three weeks and did not succeed. Following the strike, hundreds of farm workers and KOL members left the county to work in other states.

     The group’s fifth annual statewide convocation was held at the Opera House on Main Street in Tarboro on January 28-29, 1890. The state assembly voted to endorse the coalition with the Farmers' Alliance that led to the formation of the Peoples (Populist) Party on the national and state levels in 1892.

     The Alliance, created in 1887, drew away from the KOL much of the support formerly offered by white farmers. The black assemblies of the KOL were a grassroots forerunner of the Republican-Populist fusion that took power in North Carolina from 1894 to 1898.


References:
Melton A. McLaurin, “Knights of Labor in North Carolina Politics,” North Carolina Historical Review (Summer 1972): 298-315
Deborah Beckel, Radical Reform: Interracial Politics in Post-Emancipation North Carolina (2011)
Proceedings of the Fifth Annual Session of the State Assembly of North Carolina Knights of Labor (1890)
Robert Hinton, The Politics of Agricultural Labor (1997)
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