Philadelphia Labor: Joseph Fels and James Samuel Stemons

In the early 1900s, the Philadelphia labor movement struggled to overcome the obstacles of the city’s close alliance between politicians and businessmen. Through an analysis of a speech by James Samuel Stemons and a letter from Joseph Fels, students will gain multiple perspectives of business in the city.  Stemons addresses the ways that members of the African American community can increase their ability to be hired, while also acknowledging the responsibility of the business community to hire based on skill, not race. Fels, a wealthy Philadelphia businessman, defends his approach to treating his workers with honesty and fairness. After reading the documents, students should be able to compare and contrast the views and beliefs of these two leaders.

 

Essential Questions

How has social disagreement and collaboration been beneficial to Pennsylvania society?
What role does analysis have in historical construction?

Objectives

  • Students will be able to compare the roles played by Joseph Fels and James Samuel Stemons in the Philadelphia labor movements. 
  • Students will be able to evaluate the complexity of Philadelphia's labor problem based on race. 
  • Students will be able to debate the different viewpoints of the business owners, laborers, and the unemployed during the early twentieth century. 

Suggested Instructional Procedures

Primary Sources

Growing Antipathy and Antagonism between the White and Black Races: The Effect, Cause, and Cure, September 23, 1912

Letter from Joseph Fels to C. W. Post, October 5, 1909

Process

  1. Introduce the subject of labor rights and industrialism in the early twentieth century. Review the role race, skill, and wages played in the hiring practices of the business community. (include major names, events, and vocabulary words).
  2. Have the students take notes on the author, year, title, and possible audience for each document.
  3. Assign the readings either as homework or in class.
  4. Listed below are a few questions that maybe used as review of reading comprehension, student based discussions, or incorporated into an essay.
  • Have students create a Venn diagram to illustrate the similarities and differences between the two men and their positions. Draw a Venn diagram on the board to allow students to place their findings for the class to see. Discuss the reasons students selected certain similarities and differences. 
  • Have the students work in groups to develop their own questions about the content, tone, and audiences that both men were hoping to persuade with either a letter or speech. Example questions would ask: Is Fels a friend to labor? What role did segregation play in Stemons address? What could both the white and black communities do to increase a spirit of harmony between the two communities? In your opinion, would Fels and Stemons be in agreement or disagreement? 

 

Vocabulary

TThe unit and lesson plan complement Preserving American Freedom, featuring fifty of the treasured documents within the vast catalog of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The documents read online will contain annotations that define and explain many key terms, figures, and organizations.

Related Resources for Students

Preserving American Freedom contains contextual essays by eminent historians that elaborate on the documents and their historical period. For this lesson, "Labor, Suffrage, and Citizenship in an Age of Industry" may be particularly helpful.

The finding aids for both the Joseph and Mary Fels and the James Samuel Stemons Papers provide background information that is helpful. The links to both aids are posted below.