Employment Options for African American Residents of Harrisburg from 1900-1930

Although present day Harrisburg’s African American population accounts for 48% of its citizens, from 1900 to 1930 these residents were a vast minority. Despite being a progressive, fast-growing city, for most of the minority population, employment options remained very limited during the time period. While similar jobs were filled by the majority of both populations in 1900, by 1930 the white population was filling more specialized positions while the African American population as a majority still had mostly the same occupations. I used Microsoft Access to analyze the census data from the four decades. We can see the top occupations among Harrisburg’s different populations, white to Black unemployment ratios, and the number of different occupations available to each demographic over the decades.

In 1900 the top five jobs held by Harrisburg’s African American residents were laborer, domestic servant, waiter, barber, and cook. In the population as a whole, the top job was also laborer, with brakeman, domestic servant, machinist, and dressmaker following behind. To every thirteen white people, one Black person was unemployed. The city’s Black population held a total of 350 unique occupations while Harrisburg’s population as a whole held 4,010.

In 1910, Harrisburg experienced a population increase and the top two jobs held by Black residents remained the same: laborer and domestic servant. Third, fourth, and fifth were cook, waiter, and driver respectively. The total population shared the top occupation of laborer but the job of clerk made its way to second. Servant, brakeman, and engineer were the following three. The decline of dressmakers and brakemen as well as the increase in engineers could point to an increase in industry between 1900 and 1910. The number of unique occupations for Harrisburg’s Black citizens declined to 235, but the city’s unique occupations as a whole experienced a greater decline to 1,876. The Black to white unemployment ratio was 1:20.

1920 saw little change in terms of the most common occupations. Laborer, clerk, machinist, brakeman, and stenographer were the most common occupations in Harrisburg. For Black residents, the most common jobs were laborer, domestic servant, cook, waiter, and janitor. While the laborer remained a common job across the board, the job of domestic servant was no longer prevalent except among the Black population. While the population as a whole moved towards more specialized careers, there was very little change in the top Black jobs save for the increase in janitorial positions. 3,938 unique jobs were available to Harrisburg citizens, but only 428 of them were available to Black residents. The unemployment ratio actually narrowed however to 1:17.

Ten years later, the top five jobs for Black citizens remained exactly the same while the top job in Harrisburg became clerk (laborer fell to the second place position). The next three were salesman, stenographer, and machinist. The ratio of Blacks to whites unemployed again decreased to 1:13 and while the number of unique jobs raised to 4768, the number of those accessible to Black residents only rose to 510.

The presence of systematic employment bias and segregation in Harrisburg in the early 20th century is undeniable. While Harrisburg grew as a hub with movements like City Beautiful and the subsequent increase in commerce, many Black citizens were left behind in the midst of the growing class divide. With that said, the investigation of census data does reveal some hints of progress. The job of Teacher for example was only filled by four Black people in 1900, by but 1930 that number had risen to 22. There were only two Black individuals listed as musician in 1900 compared to 11 in 1930. This is a small increase, but it is still technically a growth of over 500%. Most impressive is the clerk position which rose from six Black employees in 1900 to over 30 in 1930. Although examinations of overall social mobility can be demonstrative of great injustice, it is important not to lose sight of the few who acquired jobs that were outside of the norm, and who paved the way for more equitable workplaces in the future.

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