Minority Participation in the Local Economy

An Enduring Chamber Commitment

Merrel Chemical mosaic
The 1931 Union Terminal Worker Concourse murals (now at the airport) recognize the contributions of the region’s industrial workers. Only one African American appears in that series 14 murals, in the Merrell Chemical mural. All of the murals are based on photos. This worker did not appear in the original photo but was inserted later by the artist, Winold Reiss.

In recent years the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber has developed two major initiatives promoting fuller participation by minorities in the regional economy. In 2003 as a result of the recommendations of the Cincinnati Community Action Now Commission, the Chamber established the Minority Business Accelerator (MBA). Committed to reducing disparity by driving economic activity for African-American and Hispanic-owned firms, MBA portfolio companies employ 3,360 people (creating more than 1,800 jobs in the last decade) and generated $29 million of revenue in 2012.

In 2012, the Chamber also took the lead in creating Diverse by Design, an initiative to set a high bar for diversity and inclusion for the regional economy.

Berry, Theodore M.Concern about the role of minorities in the local economy is not new. In 1930 the Chamber and the Department of Public Welfare commissioned Theodore M. Berry to undertake a study entitled “The Status of the Negro in Industry and Occupational Opportunities in Cincinnati” providing a detailed look at the economic status of African Americans at a critical moment.

Four decades later Berry would become Cincinnati’s first African American Mayor, but in 1930, he was just 26 years old and a law student at the University of Cincinnati.

Using mailed surveys and personal interviews, Berry gathered data from 234 companies. Of those, 127 (54.2%) employed approximately 7,000 African Americans. The other 107 (45.8%) employed no African Americans.

1922 Domestic Help sm
Two African American domestics who worked at a boarding house on Clifton Ave. in August 1922. (Photo courtesy of the Cincinnati Historical Society Library)

The trigger for undertaking this study was the explosive growth of African American population in Cincinnati over the previous 20 years. Between 1910 and 1930, the number of African American grew from 19,339 to 48,000 within the City limits. Starting at 5.4% of the population in 1910, African American was almost doubled at 10% by 1930. This stream of newcomers was part of a larger migration out of the South to the northern cities. In Cincinnati’s case, most came from Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Despite the fact that 67% of African Americans above the age of 10 [which is an interesting comment in itself] were employed in 1930, Berry concluded that they were “marginal workers” who occupied “traditional unskilled menial jobs from which the machine has not yet displaced him, or jobs for which white workers have not yet begun to compete.”

Almost all African American women, and 19% of the male workers, were trapped in domestic work as maids, cooks, laundresses and chauffeurs.

Beyond domestic work, African American men made up 19% of the workforce in the building trades, but were limited to the lowest ranks of unskilled common laborers. Although 50% of the men had jobs in with manufacturing firms, they too were largely restricted to the unskilled ranks. In meatpacking plants, for example, they were confined to the slaughtering floor.

1930 Laborers sm
African American laborers digging a trench in the 1930s. (Paul Briol photo courtesy of the Cincinnati Historical Society Library)

African Americans employed in factories earned an average of $23 per week, but since they got an average of only 40 weeks a year of work, their effective pay, was $18 per week.

A report in1925, had identified a lack of skilled labor to support industrial growth in Cincinnati, but Berry noted in his report to the Chamber that “there appears to be little disposition to train or engage this type of labor in the skilled departments of various industries.” As a result, Berry concluded, “future opportunities for Negro workers do not appear favorable.”

But the biggest impediment to African Americans improving their situation was that most unions, including the bricklayers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, stone-masons as well as ornamental and structural steel workers, were closed to African Americans. Segregated locals did exist for hod carriers, plasterers and cement finishers.

“The attitude of white workers was tolerant,” Berry found, only if African Americans remained confined to unskilled jobs. Employers feared that if they moved African Americans into skilled positions, they faced disturbances on factory floors and strikes.

Berry concluded his report with a list of recommendations for the Chamber. Most importantly, he urged the Chamber to resist the temptation to repeat prejudices and, in its communications with its members, “impartially present facts as to the extent of the usefulness of this class of labor.” He also called on the Chamber to communicate “the social and economic waste resulting from unemployment, lack of stabilized work and low wages of Negro workers.”

One curiosity of this report was that Theodore Berry cited what he referred to as the “depression of 1929-30” only once, in passing. In 1930 it was still impossible to see the magnitude and depth of the depression that was about to sweep across the United States and all industrialized economies. As well intentioned as this survey might have been, in the face of the onrushing Great Depression, the weakness of the African American labor force described in 1930 was only compounded in the next ten years. In the depths of the next decade, African American unemployment and underemployment rates in Cincinnati soared to consistently twice the level of the overall averages.

Hurley, DanBy Dan Hurley, local historian, host of the weekly “Local 12 Newsmakers” program and former director of Leadership Cincinnati for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.

This is the fifth in a series of 12 essays about the history of the Chamber and Cincinnati business, to commemorate the Chamber’s 175th anniversary.

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