Today in Labor History January 1, 404: Saint Telemachus tried to stop a gladiator fight in a Roman amphitheatre, and the crowd stoned him to death. The Christian Emperor Honorius was so impressed that he issued a ban on all gladiator fights.
Today in Labor History January 1, 1781: One thousand five hundred soldiers of the 6th Pennsylvania Regiment rebelled against the Continental Army’s winter camp in Morristown, New Jersey in the Pennsylvania Line Mutiny. It was the most successful and significant insurrection of the American Revolutionary War. The soldiers had not been paid for most of the year. Over one thousand starving soldiers had deserted. The mutineers planned to march to Philadelphia where Congress met, to demand immediate pay. They spent several days foraging through the countryside, stealing any horses and food they found. Along the way, they met the legendary heroine Tempe Wick and tried to steal her horse. When a soldier was helping her down from the saddle, she whipped her horse and raced for home. Fearing for her horse’s safety, she hid it in a bedroom.
Today in Labor History January 1, 1804: Haitian slaves, led by Jean Jacques Desalines, declared independence from France, making Haiti the first free black republic in the world. The U.S. refused to recognize Haiti for the next 70. France extracted millions in restitution, destroying any hope of ever moving out of deep poverty. The slave revolt against the French began in 1791 with the call by Dutty Boukman, a vodou priest. Toussaint L’Ouverture led the revolution. (For a really great history of the Haitian revolution, please see the Black Jacobins, by H. L. R. James)
Today in Labor History January 1, 1808: The United States banned the importation of slaves. However, illegal smuggling of slaves continued unabetted. Many Americans continued to engage in the slave trade by transporting Africans to Cuba and Brazil. From 1808 to 1860, nearly 33% of all slave ships were either owned by American merchants, or were built and outfitted in American ports. Furthermore, smugglers imported roughly 50,000 slaves into the United States after 1808, in violation of the law, mostly through Spanish Florida and Texas. In 1819, South Carolina Governor Henry Middleton estimated that 13,000 smuggled African slaves arrived every year. In 1820, Congress made slave-trading a capital offense. Yet out of 74 total slaving-trading cases brought before the U.S. courts between 1837 and 1860, nearly all were acquitted. Only one man, Nathaniel Gordon, was ever executed for illegal slave-trading in the U.S.
Today in Labor History January 1, 1831: The first issue of “The Liberator,” William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist paper was printed on this date.
Today in Labor History January 1, 1832: The first meeting of the New England Anti-Slavery Society occurred on this date.
Today in Labor History January 1, 1863: President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves in all rebel states. However, this did not grant equality under the law. He said, “I am not… in favor of bringing about… the social and political equality of the white and black races… making voters or jurors of negroes… qualifying them to hold office… [allowing them] to inter-marry with white people.”
Today in Labor History January 1, 1875: Women weavers formed a union in Fall River, Massachusetts.
Today in Labor History January 1, 1879: Ben Reitman was born on this day. Reitman was a comrade and one-time lover of Emma Goldman, a doctor to hobos and prostitutes, and an anarchist organizer. He wrote the novel, “Boxcar Bertha.” Scorsese later made a film based on this book.
Reitman became a hobo at the age of ten, but returned to Chicago and got a job in a lab. In 1900, he started medical school. His first daughter founded the nudist Out-of-Door Club at Highland, New York. As a physician, Reitman performed many abortions when they were still illegal. In 1907 he founded the Hobo College for migrant education, political organizing and social services. The during San Diego Free Speech Fight in 1912-1913, vigilantes tarred and feathered him, burned “IWW” into his skin and raped him with a broom. In 1916, he served six-month in prison for breaking the Comstock Law by disseminating information on birth control.
Today in Labor History January 1, 1899: Spanish rule ended in Cuba. Revolutionaries had tried to expel the Spanish in 1868, leading to the Ten Years’ War. Jose Marti led another revolution after that. He died in the Battle of Dos Rios in 1895. The Spaniards began a violent campaign of reaction and suppression. They herded the rural population into “reconcentrados,” the prototype for 20th-century concentration camps. Between 200,000 and 400,000 Cuban civilians died from starvation and disease in these concentration camps.
Meanwhile, the U.S. sent the battleship USS Maine to protect its business interests on the island. Soon after arriving, it exploded in Havana harbor. The yellow press, led by William Randolph Hearst, blamed the Spanish and pressed heavily for U.S. involvement. Spain and the United States declared war on each other in late April 1898. While the U.S. easily won the short war, and Cuba won its freedom from Spain, it marked the beginning of decades of U.S. supported dictatorship and oppression of the Cuban people.
Today in Labor History January 1, 1934: The U.S. made Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay a federal prison. However, as early as 1859, Alcatraz the government was using the island to house soldiers convicted of crimes. During the Civil War, Alcatraz housed prisoners of war. And starting in 1863, the military imprisoned private citizens accused of treason on the island. They also used the island prison to house indigenous prisoners, including Hopis, in the 1870s, who had refused orders to send their children to Indian boarding schools.
Occupation of Alcatraz
In November 1969, Native American activists occupied the island for over 19 months. The protest was led by Richard Oakes, LaNada Means, and others. John Trudell served as spokesman. The group lived on the island together until the protest was forcibly ended by the U.S. government. Under the Treaty of Fort Laramie, the U.S. was supposed to return all retired, abandoned, or out-of-use federal land to the Indians who once occupied it. Alcatraz was closed as a prison in 1963. Therefore, the activists believe that the island qualified for under the treaty for their reclamation.
Eugenics in Nazi Germany & U.S.
Today in Labor History January 1, 1934: A “Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring” went into effect in Nazi Germany. The Eugenics research that Hitler used to justify torture and genocide was inspired by similar research from the U.S. The American eugenics movement originated in the 1880s, from the biological determinist ideas of Francis Galton. He believed that selective breeding could improve the human race and allow them to direct their own evolution.
The U.S. eugenics movement was heavily funded by the Carnegie Institution, Rockefeller Foundation and the Harriman railroad fortune. Biologist Charles B. Davenport founded the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) in 1911. The ERO trained field workers, who they sent to study people in mental hospitals and orphanages across the U.S. Davenport and others began to lobby for solutions to the problem of the “unfit.” They lobbied for immigration restrictions and sterilization. Some even promoted the idea of extermination, well before Hitler became known for it.
Some well-known eugenicists of the early 20th century included Alexander Graham Bell, Luther Burbank and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. The eugenics movement tended to target the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill and specific communities of color as “unfit” for society. Their solutions included forced sterilization, which continued in the U.S. until as recently as 2010. From 1997-2010, California performed nonconsensual sterilizations on roughly 1,400 women prisoners. From 1929-1973, North Carolina sterilized the third highest number of people in the United States, roughly 7,600 people, predominantly African American women.
Today in Labor History January 1, 1959: Fidel Castro’s forces overthrew Fulgencio Batista, dictator of Cuba. The revolutionary movement began on July 26, 1953. The movement later reformed along Marxist-Leninist lines and formally became the Communist Party of Cuba in 1965.
Today in Labor History January 1, 1989: The Montreal Protocol went into force, ending the use of chemicals contributing to ozone depletion. The main causes of ozone depletion are CFCs and HCFCs used as refrigerants, solvents and propellants. Damage to the atmospheric ozone layer increases the risk of skin cancer, sunburn, blindness and cataracts. As a result of the Montreal Protocol and the ban on ozone-depleting chemicals, ozone levels started to stabilized in the mid-1990s and began to recover in the 2000s. Consequently, the Montreal Protocol is the most successful international environmental agreement to date.
Today in Labor History January 1, 1994: The Zapatista Army of National Liberation began twelve days of armed conflict in the Mexican state of Chiapas. The Zapatistas are a libertarian socialist political and militant group made up of mostly Indigenous People that now controls a substantial amount of territory in Chiapas. They have been nominally at war with the Mexican state since 1994. However, in recent years, they have focused more on civil than military resistance.