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Did you know that there was a time in our country, after the Civil War, when white unemployment was higher than black unemployment? It seems almost unfathomable now, but that was the case in the early decades of the 20th Century. This was intentionally changed after Congress enacted the first federal minimum wage law: the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931.
As most of us remember from history class, the 1930s saw a plethora of public works projects introduced to combat the unemployment associated with the Great Depression. (Whether or not this worked is a topic for another day.) But during that time, many impoverished blacks left sharecropping to come north in search of such jobs. The Davis-Bacon Act was created specifically and explicitly to prevent blacks from “taking” these jobs from local white workers.
Congressman Robert Bacon of New York began crafting various pieces of legislation to discriminate against black workers when a black construction crew from Alabama was brought to his state to build a hospital for veterans in 1927. Because most blacks lived in the South, any laws restricting the use of migrant labor discriminated against them. Since blacks were not admitted to trade unions, any law that favored union labor automatically excluded blacks. Bacon submitted 13 such bills over the next four years, culminating in the Davis-Bacon Act.
Davis-Bacon mandated that federal contracts must pay their workers the “prevailing wage.” As innocent as this might sound, records of the debate over the bill reveal that everyone understood that the “prevailing wage” meant the union wage, and that this meant there would be no blacks working on federal projects. In fact, when testifying before the Senate in favor of Davis-Bacon, AFL union president William Green complained, “Colored labor is being brought in to demoralize wage rates.”