In response to my post the other day about New York City in 1916 and the price, for example, of a room at the Waldorf-Astoria ($2.00 to $3.00 per night), some readers were wondering about the wages people earned in those days.

Pullman Porter in Chicago

Unidentified Pullman Porter in Chicago.

In particular, what were the average wages of Negroes?

So I put together a few points from various historical surveys to help gain some perspective.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1917:

  • organized unskilled laborers earned on average $1.65 per day;
  • unorganized “common laborers” could earn from $1.85 to $2.25 a day;
  • railroad workers could earn 19¢/hour for 12 hours of work on the tracks, or about $2.00 a day;
  • rent was about $2.00 to $3.00 per week for African Americans
  • some Pullman Porters could earn up to $150 per month from a base salary and tips;

Macon, Georgia, 1916:

  • Negro common laborers could make $1.25 per day;

Hartford, Connecticut, 1917:

  • Colored workers on tobacco farms could earn about $14.00 per week during the harvest season;
  • the rest of the season, these workers could earn 12¢ per hour or around $8.00 to $12.00 per week

Birmingham, Alabama, 1917:

  • Negro coal miners could earn $4.65 per day for 12 hours of work;

Iboden, Virginia, 1915:

  • African American coal workers could get 60¢ a car for loading coal into freight train cars that held about 4 tons each;
  • after factoring in the cost of their own supplies, these workers cleared about 10¢ per car;

Houston, Texas, 1918:

  • a Negro records clerk could earn $60.00 per month;
  • an office porter could earn $45.00 per month;

Washington, D.C., 1918:

  • Colored female workers who inspected rooms could earn $3.50 per day;
  • the Negro supervisor of such women could earn $1,400.00 per year;

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1918:

  • Black women working in the hosiery trade could earn $4.50 per week;
  • Female sewing machine operators could earn $24.00/month;
  • Colored girls feeding the picker machines in a textile mill could earn $11.00 per week.

We have to interrupt this summary of Philly by pointing out something that W.E.B. DuBois observed in 1900:

Without doubt there is not in Philadelphia enough work of the kind that the mass of Negroes can and may do, to employ at fair wages the laborers who at present deserve work. The result of this must, of course, be disastrous, and give rise to many loafers, criminals and casual laborers.

The first class Negro ditcher can seldom become foreman of a gang; the hod-carrier can seldom become a mason; the porter cannot have much hope of being a clerk, or the elevator-boy of becoming a salesman.

This was pretty much how it was everywhere in the 1910s and the trend continued into the 1920s:

Harlem, New York City, 1920s:

  • the average Negro family in Harlem earned $1,300.00 per year, which translates to about $2.50 to $3.50 per day;
  • Negro men, even those with college educations, typically worked as longshoremen, elevator operators, waiters, porters, janitors, teamsters, and chauffeurs, while Negro women were domestics and seamstresses;

So, it’s no wonder that playing basketball for pay was attractive for most African Americans who had any level of talent:

  • players with top semi-pro or pro African American teams could get from $25 to $75 per game
  • at large venues like the Manhattan Casino in Harlem or the Labor Temple in the Hill District in Pittsburgh held up to 6,000 spectators at 50¢ per ticket, which could net several thousand dollars in revenue, split between both teams, so after paying for the facility, referees, transportation, and related costs, each player could easily cop $25 or more for a single game;
  • smaller venues and less formidable teams could still achieve several dollars per game per player in revenue; these funds from basketball typically would have been in addition to whatever monies were earned at their regular jobs;
  • in the 1930s, some New York Rens players under contract earned $125 per month with a $1.25 travel per diem for food;
  • Rens players also split tournament prize money, such as for the annual Rosenblum Tournament in Cleveland or the World Pro Basketball Tournament;
  • most basketball players played for more than one team;
  • top players earned considerably more; for example, Clarence “Fats” Jenkins, the captain of the New York Rens, reportedly earned $10,000 per year.

When put into the context of the fact that professionalism in sports was seen as “evil,” then it becomes clear that wanting to make a living in basketball wasn’t exactly easy, even if one had the talent.

(Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.)