Collection Spotlight: African-American Labor Oral Histories

Horace Sheffield, Shelton Tappes, Robert "Buddy" Battle

In late 1967 Herbert Hill, labor director for the NAACP, traveled to the campus of Wayne State University in Detroit to conduct a series of oral histories with African American men and women that centered around their experiences in the labor movement. Hill, along with fellow local interviewers Roberta McBride, Jim Keeney, and Norman McRae, produced 34 separate oral history interviews between 1967 and 1970. 28 of the interviews took place in Detroit, with Hill traveling to New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Berkeley to complete an additional six interviews.

McBride was a librarian attached to the Labor History Archives at Wayne State University, McRae worked for the Detroit Public Schools and had just developed the first African American history class to be taught at Wayne State, and little is known about Jim Keeney. Hill was nationally known and respected as the labor director for the NAACP and was outspoken on issues dealing with African Americans and employment. He excoriated American unions and union officials for their poor record in unionizing and promoting African Americans. He was equally critical in his assessment of the record of American businesses in the treatment and employment of African Americans.

The project, which became known as the “Blacks in the Labor Movement Oral History Project,” centered primarily on the experiences of male African American men in the automobile industry in and around Detroit. Several women were interviewed and such disparate experiences as those of garment industry workers and Pullman workers were recorded as well.

Among the most interesting of the oral histories were those conducted with Shelton Tappes, Horace Sheffield and Robert “Buddy” Battle, all pioneering African Americans in the automobile industry and in the United Automobile Workers in Detroit. These oral histories are rich in documentation of the experiences of African Americans on the shop floor as well in the union halls around Detroit. Of particular interest is discussion of internecine conflict within the UAW on issues dealing with race.

The oral histories that comprise this project have been used extensively by researchers and appear in Thomas Sugrue’s “The Origins of the Urban Crisis,” Heather Thompson’s “Whose Detroit” and many other works. The oral histories may be accessed in the Reading Room of Reuther Library. A complete list of oral histories available to researchers at the Reuther can be viewed at our Oral History page.

The Reuther Library is open to all researchers. Appointments are required for access to audiovisual materials, and encouraged but not required for visitors to our Reading Room. Reference hours are 10:00 AM - 4:00 PM, Monday through Friday, and reference questions can be directed to .

William LeFevre, CA, CRM, is the Reference Archivist for the Walter P. Reuther Library. Pictured above, from left to right: Horace Sheffield, Shelton Tappes, Buddy Battle.