Our niche in May Labor Day

May Day is almost upon us, an occasion that once called for people to romp around upright poles and everything that suggests.

In these more serious times, in most of the world May 1 is observed as Labor Day, aka International Workers’ Day – a custom that actually began in these United States but has since been largely forgotten in favor of goofing off the first Monday in September.

That beginning was in Chicago, but the story has a little niche for Durham – a niche not so much in the beginning but in what resulted three days later: the Haymarket Riot of May 4, 1886.

It came about in organized labor’s campaign for an eight-hour workday. Labor organizers, primarily the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, declared May 1 the day for a general strike for the cause. The first two days were peaceable, but on May 3 a striker was killed in a scuffle with police and a rally was called the next day to protest police brutality.

When police tried to break up the rally, someone tossed a bomb, and after the ensuing melee seven officers and four men from the crowd lay dead with dozens of others hurt.

In the investigation that followed, Chicago police raiding an anarchist office found a letter from one Junius Strickland, a Durham tobacco worker and member of the Knights of Labor union. The letter was addressed from the Knights of Labor’s Durham office, and besides proclaiming “Vive le commune,” it predicted that the workers’ red flag would fly over Durham.

Labor unrest had come to Durham in 1875, when some employees at the Bull Durham plant struck for higher wages and were promptly replaced by new hires from out of town. Cigarette rollers attacked rolling machines when they were installed at the Duke factory in 1884, and that same year the Knights of Labor began organizing in North Carolina.

When detectives questioned Strickland about the Chicago letter, he claimed he had only taken dictation and the real culprit was John Ray, who had organized the first North Carolina local Knights assembly, in Raleigh. Ray denied Strickland’s charge, Strickland took it back, the Knights kicked Strickland out and, after their own investigation, found Ray innocent of any misbehavior.

Ray maintained he had never held “socialistic” ideas and, even before the Haymarket riot, Ray had been warning of phony Knights of Labor organizers who were in North Carolina spreading “communistic and revolutionary doctrines … dangerous to the people of our common country.”

Not that he wasn’t radical for his time in other ways – the Knights of Labor organized both whites and blacks, who occasionally met together. Nevertheless, racial tension within the union was a factor leading to its rapid decline in North Carolina.

Curiously enough, one of Durham’s most active labor organizers, and publisher of the Knights’ Durham Workman newspaper, was Hiram Paul: a writer who had come to Durham in 1884 to write a history of the town and profile its leading businessmen on commission from tobacco tycoon Julian Shakespeare Carr.

As for May Day, at its 1889 meeting in Paris the Second International – a congress of left-wing organizations – called for May 1 demonstrations on the anniversary of the Chicago protests and the idea gradually spread and was made official in scores of countries. In the U.S., state “Labor Day” observances began in 1887, with various dates; Congress made it a national holiday in 1894, picking September to avoid association with the Haymarket unpleasantness.

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