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December, 1986

THE JOURNAL OF AMERICAN HISTORY
Vol.73 No.3
The Killing Floor
By James R. Barrett

The race riot of July 1919, one of twenty-five that occurred throughout the nation in that year, presented men and woman like Custer with a personal crisis. In the Black Belt Custer is denounced as a “white man’s nigger” for his affiliation with the union. At the Stockyards Labor Council meeting, in the heart of immigrant Packingtown, he is shouted down by Slavic workers who believe that blacks have burned their homes. In the end, Custer reenters the stockyards under military protection along with thousands of other blacks.

The Killing Floor's most important achievement may be its realistic description of the complex consciousness of black workers in that era. A variety of antilabor elements within the black community emerge clearly--institutions such as the Wabash Avenue YMCA, which received most of its support from the packers and other large employers, and “race men” such as Austin "Heavy" Williams who, whether for money or for principle, agitated constantly against "the white man' s union." But the Black Belt was also home to such man as Robert Bedford, a staunchly class-conscious, northern-born shop steward in the largely white gang on the killing floor. In the film, as in real life, Bedford and Williams represent ideal types; most black workers' attitudes were far more mixed. Above all, blacks valued their new homes, their jobs, and all that those meant for their families. In wartime, with the economy and the government on their side, some of them saw the value of organizing with whites. read more>>
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