An examination of the role and struggles of enslaved dockworkers prior to emancipation
Working on the Dock of the Bay explores the history of waterfront labor and laborers—black and white, enslaved and free, native and immigrant—in Charleston, South Carolina, between the American Revolution and Civil War. Michael D. Thompson explains how a predominantly enslaved workforce laid the groundwork for the creation of a robust and effectual association of dockworkers, most of whom were black, shortly after emancipation. In revealing these wharf laborers' experiences, Thompson's book contextualizes the struggles of contemporary southern working people.
Like their postbellum and present-day counterparts, stevedores and draymen laboring on the wharves and levees of antebellum cities—whether in Charleston or New Orleans, New York or Boston, or elsewhere in the Atlantic World—were indispensable to the flow of commodities into and out of these ports. Despite their large numbers and the key role that waterfront workers played in these cities' premechanized, labor-intensive commercial economies, too little is known about who these laborers were and the work they performed.
Though scholars have explored the history of dockworkers in ports throughout the world, they have given little attention to waterfront laborers and dock work in the pre–Civil War American South or in any slave society. Aiming to remedy that deficiency, Thompson examines the complicated dynamics of race, class, and labor relations through the street-level experiences and perspectives of workingmen and sometimes workingwomen. Using this workers'-eye view of crucial events and developments, Working on the Dock of the Bay relocates waterfront workers and their activities from the margins of the past to the center of a new narrative, reframing their role from observers to critical actors in nineteenth-century American history. Organized topically, this study is rooted in primary source evidence including census, tax, court, and death records; city directories and ordinances; state statutes; wills; account books; newspapers; diaries; letters; and medical journals.
Michael D. Thompson is a UC Foundation Assistant Professor of American History at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He earned his B.A. in history from the University of Michigan and his M.A. and Ph.D. in history from Emory University. Thompson's manuscript for Working on the Dock of the Bay was awarded the 2011 Hines Prize from the College of Charleston's Program in the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World (CLAW). He resides in Ooltewah, Tennessee, with his wife, Melissa, and children, Benjamin and Lily.
"Thompson's meticulously researched book is an outstanding work of social history. His moving of urban workers from the periphery to the center of Charleston's story is a role model for discovering the lives of those often ignored in histories of the Old South. He describes brilliantly the activities and activism of black and white waterfront workers, indicating clearly the vital nature of their contribution to the antebellum southern economy. Ultimately, he highlights that to understand the successes of failures of post-Civil War Reconstruction one must begin in the fluid race and class relations of the pre-War era."—David Gleeson, professor of American history, Northumbria University
"Meticulous research, lively writing, and balanced interpretations distinguish Michael Thompson's original and revealing history of Charleston's antebellum dockworkers, black and white, enslaved and free. At the intersection of Atlantic commerce and harvests of rice and cotton, the city's dock workers funneled goods, ideas, and hopes into and out of the antebellum South, as this fine work of historical craftsmanship discloses."—Michael P. Johnson, professor of history, Johns Hopkins University
"A uniquely illuminating antebellum study, Thompson's exploration of Charleston's waterfront culture shows the complex mosaic of working class life. In this important and highly contested sliver of the urban landscape, various struggles between masters, slaves, employers, and working class whites unfold with far-reaching implications for every aspect of life. Thoughtful and deeply researched, this work is essential for anyone interested in the nineteenth century urban South."—Bernard Powers, professor of history, College of Charleston
"Offering a worker's-eye view, Michael D. Thompson skillfully guides readers through a maze of cotton bales and rice barrels to discover the social geography of Charleston's busy waterfront. With empathy and insight, Thompson reveals the potent interplay of race and class in the functioning of the port. The book is a testament to the power of diligent archival research to recover America's working-class history."—Seth Rockman, associate professor of history, Brown University
"Michael D. Thompson brings the antebellum Charleston waterfront to life. His book meticulously reconstructs the worlds of slave and free black laborers, their white employers, and new immigrants; it also highlights attempts of state legislators and municipal officials to restrict black freedom through law and showcases black workers' relentless efforts to exercise autonomy and evade slavery's inhuman strictures. This is an important and original work of southern, labor, and African-American history."—Eric Arnesen, professor of history, The George Washington University