A Strike at the Docks
The Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company lay powerless, while over 300 mostly black dockworkers armed themselves with any object they could find. Once organized, they forced their way through the barricaded doors of Pier 2. Now inside the docks, they struck out at the scabs, filling their jobs, and ravaged the offices, where they stole a barrel of whiskey. The effects of their new capture only further soured their demeanor, and resulted in them acting like demons. The dockhands' violence emerged as the culmination of a strike, led by a man named Kelly, a member of the Knights of Labor. Effectively organized, the workers had gone on strike for higher wages, but had received no promise from the Company's agent, Col. Bremond, who claimed to lack the proper wage authority. This disappointment prompted the reckless decision to break into the pier, and subsequently, a Warwick County judge's call for five companies of armed troops. The military unit, of both white and black companies, quickly restored order and forced the rioters to disassemble. Accepting failure, many of the dockhands hoped to eventually to return to work for the railroad company.
The Knights of Labor emerged in the early 1880's in response to the Industrial Revolution, opposing the increasing trend of concentrated corporate power and monopoly in American business. Though more popular in the North (Kelly hailed from New York), union leaders did travel throughout the South, organizing whites and blacks, and men and women. By 1886, the Knights could claim over 50,000 members, spread out over 10 Southern states. This particular strike resembled typical labor disputes led by the Knights, in that they usually demanded a combination of better wages, better working conditions, or shorter workdays. In fact, the Newport News strike existed as one of twenty-two different strikes by the Southern Knights during that decade, but like Newport News, few affected any measure of change.
Very unique to the Knights of Labor, blacks and whites were treated as equals, despite most leadership still remaining white. Yet, compared to other Gilded Age organizations, such as the Farmer's Alliance, the Knights appeared remarkably interracial. Blacks of the Farmer's Alliance would actually comment on the differences when the two unions formed a tenuous alliance in 1889. An Era of Good Feelings existed for the black and white workingmen in the organization, as interracial solidarity and democratic idealism were fearlessly proclaimed. Sadly, this feature contributed to the union's downfall, as newspapers, across the country, attacked the group for blurring the color line. Coupled with failed strikes and uncooperative economic conditions, by the turn of the century, the Knights had faded out of sight. In their place, though, would emerge the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and its leader, Samuel Gompers. Hoping to organize resistance to affect the same types of changes, this union chose to exclude blacks, preferring that they form their own organization.