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VINTAGRAPH • WPA • WWII • FLY TO THE CARIBBEAN BY CLIPPER, c. 1950s

Banana Boat: 1903

Banana Boat: 1903

Circa 1903. "Unloading bananas at New Orleans, Louisiana." An alternate view of this scene. 8x10 inch glass negative, Detroit Publishing Co. View full size.

 

Lots of Work

New Orleans is and has always been a different place. It's a city in the South, but not a "Southern city" in the sense of the often fairly accurate stereotype.

There were businesses and organizations composed entirely of blacks, others that were white, and a few that were integrated. The groups dealt with one another fairly freely but didn't mingle as individuals, and while black and mixed groups were somewhat lower-status than those of whites it wasn't by much. There were many wealthy and middle-class blacks, who held their own in the general society. This arrangement survives today, at least somewhat, visible in the "crewes" who set up the Mardi Gras floats and extravaganzas.

As ajlcary notes, before the general unrest and union consolidation of the Thirties, the New Orleans waterfront was organized along those lines. There were many small Unions, each represented on the Council of Union leaders. As recently as the late Sixties, there were groups continuing the tradition within the overall subhead of the ILA. Union leaders tended to assign them to work as groups, rather than as individuals.

It is never wise to judge events in New Orleans by the standards of, say, Atlanta or Birmingham, especially on the basis of a vignette. Unloading a banana boat in the days before useful mechanization involved several different tasks, some nastier than others, and during the unloading the groups involved would trade off after the breaks. It's entirely possible that, at the moment the photograph was taken, there was a black Union "diving" in the hold (the nastiest job) and a white Union "passing", that is, on deck transferring fruit along the deck (the easiest work), while the mixed group we see "docks", loads the freight car. An hour or so later we might well have seen the white group docking, the blacks passing, and the mixed group down in the dark, dirty, tarantula-infested hold. Another hour might have produced another tradeoff, and most of the people we would see on the gangplank and dock would be black.

Wooden Railroad car...and more

As a railroad historian, the wooden reefer car grabbed my attention- Arched bar trucks, outside body hung brake beams - outside of the airbrake line this car could have been built in 1880. The Fruit Growers Express and Continental Growers Express were owned by Armour & Co. and they operated until the early 20th century when they were broken apart in a nasty monopoly case.

As a labor historian, I was bemused by the relatively few African-Americans unloading fruit. The New Orleans water front was controlled by a number of unions, mostly segregated (hey! it was 1903! That any at all were integrated is amazing), but a set of agreements had been setup by the Port's Council of Unions which set quotas for the workers supplied by the 'black unions' and 'white unions'for any particular job- the work gangs should have been more mixed up if it was a normal crew.

This workforce is largely European. This leads me to suspect that this may be an image taken during one of the fairly common labor strikes. The companies (Railroad and Fruit shippers) would hire strike breakers among the recently arrived immigrants to replace the union workers during the strike.

These jobs were very desirable. The union wages for longshoremen was 40 cents an hour in 1903 New Orleans compared to that of railway cargo handlers at around 30 cents an hour. Both groups would work unloading and loading fruit.

This was a good wage in 1903 (a beer was 20 cents) and a blue-plate dinner was 75 cents (no payroll taxes either) and these jobs were in high demand.

This photo (and its other view) lead me to believe that these are at the Thalia Street Wharf just down river from the Garden District in New Orleans.

The loafers are a mixture of foreman, a coat watcher (who apparently likes bananas (look at the peels), and probably a few stevedores (labor brokers)..

Note the thickness

of the doors of the refrigerated rail car in the foreground. Also note that all the longshoremen are white. Southern cities generally had competing black and white longshoremens' unions.

Union Jack

The ship being unloaded is flying the Civil Ensign of Great Britain. This merchant flag has the Union Jack in the canton and a red field.

Reminds me of my former office

I counted 57 people in the scene around the "reefer", 17 of them were leaning, posing, smoking pipes, and watching all the others doing the actual work, nothing has changed.

 
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