THE JOURNAL OF AMERICAN HISTORY
November 30, 1986
The Killing Floor
By James R. Barrett
Many of the important social conflicts tearing at the fabric of American society during the red summer of 1919 seem to have been concentrated on Chicago's South Side. The dramatic expansion of the meat-packing industry and the wartime labor shortage had created a new working class, bringing thousands of blacks from the Deep South to join earlier waves of Irish and Slavic migrants in the city's giant slaughterhouses. While racial antagonism grew with competition for scarce jobs, housing, and recreational facilities, rising labor militancy reached the boiling point. For a brief historical moment, Chicago became the focal point for racial and class conflict in the United States. Could organizers break the color barrier and create an interracial labor movement, or would racism triumph over class solidarity? The answer was by no means clear, and The Killing Floor brilliantly captures the drama of the moment as well as the historical forces that produced it. The film's success derives from its reliance on historical characters and situations that have been carefully developed through extensive research in primary sources.
The story follows Frank Custer, a young black man, from rural Mississippi to Chicago's Black Belt as he looks for work and a better life for his family. In the flush wartime economy, Custer hires on as a common laborer and saves enough to bring his family to Chicago. Like most of his fellow migrants, he is resistant at first to the Stockyards Labor Council recruiters but soon joins the union and throws himself into organizing, for reasons that are not entirely clear. With the armistice, unemployment and labor conflict become endemic, and on the killing floor itself, Custer senses "somethin' waitin' to happen."
The race riot of July 1919, one of twenty-five that occurred throughout the nation in that year, presented men and woman like Custer with a personal crisis. In the Black Belt Custer is denounced as a “white man’s nigger” for his affiliation with the union. At the Stockyards Labor Council meeting, in the heart of immigrant Packingtown, he is shouted down by Slavic workers who believe that blacks have burned their homes. In the end, Custer reenters the stockyards under military protection along with thousands of other blacks.
The Killing Floor's most important achievement may be its realistic description of the complex consciousness of black workers in that era. A variety of antilabor elements within the black community emerge clearly--institutions such as the Wabash Avenue YMCA, which received most of its support from the packers and other large employers, and “race men” such as Austin "Heavy" Williams who, whether for money or for principle, agitated constantly against "the white man' s union." But the Black Belt was also home to such man as Robert Bedford, a staunchly class-conscious, northern-born shop steward in the largely white gang on the killing floor. In the film, as in real life, Bedford and Williams represent ideal types; most black workers' attitudes were far more mixed. Above all, blacks valued their new homes, their jobs, and all that those meant for their families. In wartime, with the economy and the government on their side, some of them saw the value of organizing with whites.
Frank Custer was not alone. During the 1919 riot, however, race consciousness dominated thinking on both sides of the color line, and there was little room for those, such as Custer, who straddled that line. "Nigger," Williams shouts, "you done forgot where you come from!"
The film's central theme--the tension between race consciousness and class consciousness--transcends the situation of Chicago's workers during the summer of 1919 and represents a key theme in working-class history. The human drama of Frank Custer's personal dilemma will have a very broad appeal, while the film’s sophisticated analysis will make it a natural focal point for discuss any class dealing with modern American society.