In 1918, African American sociologist George E. Haynes was named director of the Department of Labor’s newest office, known as the “Division of Negro Economics,”[1] and charged with researching the state of African American labor in the United States, from wages and working conditions to promotion and career opportunities.[2] Haynes was the first African American to receive a PhD from Columbia University[3] and, prior to his service with the Division, had served as the first executive secretary of the National Urban League.[4]

Under Haynes’s guidance, the Division produced two significant reports and provided major research support for the publication of a third. The first, “Negro Migration in 1916-1917,” examined the acceleration of African American migration from the rural south to the industrial north during World War I. The second, “The Negro at Work During the World War and During Reconstruction,” offered statistical data on African American labor, including working hours and wages, and a short commentary on the work of the Division. The third study, by Emma L. Shields, examined the work and organizational status of African American women in manufacturing. That report, “Negro Women in Industry,” was published after the Division’s closure and was issued as a bulletin of the Women’s Bureau.

The collection includes correspondence and materials from various Division staff, including Michigan regional research supervisor William Jennifer, PhD.

These three studies were produced as part of the larger work of the Division and used to provide expert advice to the Department of Labor on issues of African American labor.[5] FRASER has recently digitized the complete remaining records of the Division held by the National Archives and Records Administration, and the collection, though fragmentary, provides insight into the work of Dr. Haynes and his colleagues. Many letters and clippings concern mundane topics such as Haynes’s speaking schedule, but some provide a glimpse into the issues of the day, including racialized opposition to labor unions and communism, race riots, and racial inequality.

The records and publications of the Division are a valuable resource for the study of early African American labor economics and the labor market during World War I. In addition to these digitized materials in FRASER, the St. Louis Fed’s economic education team offers the lesson “The Acceleration of the Great Migration, 1916-17,” which is written for high school history classes and based on one of the Division’s reports. The free lesson materials are available at

Note: FRASER gathers these and other historical materials on African American economic and financial history under the subject heading of “African Americans” and features selected materials in the curated theme “African Americans in the Economy.”

[1] For a look at how the federal government has referred to race and ethnicity over time, see this infographic from the Census Bureau:

[2] Debra L. Newman. Selected Documents Pertaining to Black Workers Among the Records of the Department of Labor and Its Component Bureaus, 1902-1969. Special List 40. Washington: National Archives and Records Service, 1977: 1.

[3] Sam Roberts. “Discovering a Grandfather’s Link to Civil Rights.” The New York Times. December 15, 2010.

[4] National Urban League. “Mission and History.”

[5] Henry P. Guzda. “Labor Department’s First Program to Assist Black Workers.” Monthly Labor Review. June 1982: 39-44.

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