Posts with the tag: William B. Wilson

The Archivist’s Nook: CU’s Labor Chiefs


Catholic University Faculty: Carroll D. Wright, first U.S. Commissioner of Labor (1885-1905), courtesy of the U.S. Labor Department, and Charles P. Neill, second Commissioner of Labor (1905-1913), University Photograph Collection, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

Several previous posts from The Archivist’s Nook explore the rich American labor history resources at Catholic University, especially those that have been digitized. Of course, labor history is intertwined with the history of business, economics, and government. One recent post focused on the first U.S. Secretary of Labor, William B. Wilson, who served 1913-1921 in the presidential cabinet of Woodrow Wilson (no relation). While not a Catholic, William B. Wilson was nevertheless closely allied with Catholic labor leaders John Mitchell and T. V. Powderly.  Remarkably, long before Catholic University held the collections of Mitchell and Powderly or was home of the ‘labor priest,’ its founding faculty of Economics were the first two federal labor commissioners, Carroll D Wright (1840-1909) and Charles P. Neill (1865-1942), who headed the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1885-1913, predecessor to Wilson’s U.S. Department of Labor.

Wright and Neill met at Catholic University where Neil was full time Instructor in Economics (later Professor) and department chair, 1896-1905, while Wright was a part-time Lecturer on Social Economics, 1895-1899, then honorary professor of Social Economics until 1904.[i] Among the early courses taught by Neill and Wright were Special Topics in Economics and several related to Statistics and Labor,[ii] many of which are still offered in 2019 in the Economics Department, part of the School of Arts and Sciences. Since 2013, Catholic University has also been the home of the Tim and Steph Busch School of Business and Economics offering a wide range of coursework in Accounting, Business, Entrepreneurship, Finance, Management, and Marketing.

McMahon Hall at Catholic University, home of the Economics Department where Wright and Neill taught classes. Year-Book of the Catholic University of America, 1898-1899. Washington, D.C., 1898, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

After the Civil War, amidst calls for a national labor agency, the first state bureau opened in Massachusetts in 1869. However, accusations that early officials promoted labor activism induced the governor to appoint Wright as new bureau chief in 1873. A war veteran, patent attorney, and former state senator, Wright‘s inexperience with statistics and labor problems was overcome by his renowned impartiality.[iii] In 1884, Congress created and the President approved a federal Bureau of Labor. President Chester Arthur passed over several candidates for commissioner from various labor organizations, most notably Terence V. Powderly of the Knights of Labor, and selected Wright in January 1885. Reappointed by successive presidents over the next twenty years, Wright built a reputation as a famous social scientist by focusing on factual investigation to create innovative reports on such issues as tariffs, unemployment, strikes, and wages as well as the condition of women, children, blacks, and immigrants. In 1893, he was also made Superintendent of the Census. Late in his career Wright taught at Harvard and was President of Clark College in Worcester, Massachusetts.

President Theodore Roosevelt, facing a major coal strike in Pennsylvania in 1902, appointed a commission to investigate, including Carroll D. Wright as Records, Charles P. Neill as Assistant Recorder. Another member was John Lancaster Spalding, Bishop of Peoria and a founder of Catholic University. Photographs courtesy of Raleigh DeGeer Amyx and Wikicommon.

The second Commissioner of Labor, Charles Patrick Neill, a child of Irish immigrants born in Illinois, graduated from Georgetown University in 1891, earned a doctorate in economics and politics from Johns Hopkins University in 1897, and, as mentioned above, was on the CU faculty, 1896-1905. In 1902, Neill was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt to serve as assistant recorder (Wright was recorder) of the Anthracite Coal Strike Commission addressing a major strike in eastern Pennsylvania. Shortly thereafter, in 1905, Roosevelt selected Neill to succeed Wright as Commissioner of Labor. President William Howard Taft reappointed him in 1909 and Woodrow Wilson appointed Neill Commissioner of Labor Statistics in 1913 when the Bureau of Labor Statistics was established within the new Department of Labor. Neill provided federal mediation services in railroad labor disputes and his investigation of the meat packing industry, prompted by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, resulted in a federal inspection law in 1906. In addition, his detailed report on child labor provided a basis for congressional legislation.

Letter from Wright to Neill about his prospects of becoming next commissioner, December 15, 1904. Charles P. Neill Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

After his departure from the Department of Labor later in 1913, Neill specialized as an arbitrator working for the Southeastern Railways, 1915-1939, and the United States Railroad Board of Adjustments, 1919-1921. He also promoted industrial safety and workmen’s compensation laws. His charitable work included serving as a member of the Board of Charities of the District of Columbia, and was Director of the National Catholic School of Social Service, 1921-1922. He had positions of leadership in professional societies like the American Statistical Association and was honored by Notre Dame with the Laetare Medal in 1922. A small collection of Carroll D. Wright’s Papers can be found at Cornell while the Archives at Catholic University houses the Charles P. Neill Papers while records of the U.S. Department of Labor and predecessor Bureau of Labor are at the National Archives. 


[i] Hooker, John J. ‘Seven Decades of Economics,’ The Catholic University of America Bulletin (33: 4), April 1966, pp. 11.

[ii] Annual Report of the Rector of The Catholic University of America, March 1896, p. 35; Year-Book of the Catholic University of America, 1896-1897, pp. 52-53.

[iii] Goodberg, Joseph P. and Moye, William T. The First Hundred Years of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1985, p. 7, 11.


The Archivist’s Nook: Speaking Labor to Power – W. B. Wilson

Photos of John Mitchell and W. B. Wilson from the pamphlet ‘Speech of William B. Wilson on Mitchell Day, October 29, 1901,’ Box 127, John Mitchell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

Scottish immigrant and Pennsylvania coal miner, William Bauchop (W. B.) Wilson (1862-1934), became the voice of workers speaking to power as a founder of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) union, the first representative for labor in Congress, and the first secretary of labor in the Woodrow Wilson (no relation) administration. Although not a Catholic, W.B. worked during the Gilded Age and Progressive era to advance labor’s cause along with many Catholics such as T. V. Powderly, John Mitchell, John W. Hayes, and ‘Mother’ Jones. Wilson’s papers reside with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, but his documentary trail is well represented in the papers of his Catholic colleagues at the Catholic University of America Archives, and the digital version available by subscription at The History Vault.

W. B.’s family settled in the tightly controlled coal company town of Arnot, Tioga County, in the mountains of northern Pennsylvania. In 1871, not yet 10, Wilson went to work in the mines. As a young man he began to organize his fellow workers, becoming blacklisted by mine owners, and thus working a series of jobs as lumberjack, mill hand, and railroad worker. Active in the Knights of Labor, where he was a supporter of leader Terence V. Powderly, as evidenced by his letter of March 5, 1895. W. B. was also a founder of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in 1890, serving on their National Executive Board though he remained an active coal miner until 1898. He served as UMWA Secretary-Treasurer, 1900-1908, working closely with President John Mitchell as his “wise and sagacious counselor”¹ during the Great Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, winning higher wages, shorter working days, and national recognition of the union. During this time he also became a colleague of celebrated labor activist, ‘the Miner’s Angel,’ Mary Harris ‘Mother’ Jones, who usually addressed him as “My Dear Comrade’ in her numerous letters.²

Letter denouncing John W. Hayes, who had engineered the ouster of T. V. Powderly from leadership of the Knights of Labor. W. B. Wilson to T. V. Powderly, May 24, 1895, Box 48, T.V. Powderly Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

W. B. went on to serve three terms, March 4, 1907-March 3, 1913, as a Democratic congressman from Tioga County. In Congress, he introduced legislation creating the Bureau of Mines and established a Department of Labor, which included the Bureau of Labor Statistics that had been headed successively by Catholic University professors Carroll D. Wright and Charles P. Neill. In 1912, W. B. became chairman of the House Labor Committee but was defeated for a fourth term in Congress. However, incoming Democratic President, Woodrow Wilson appointed W. B. as Secretary of Labor, heading the department he had created from March 5, 1913, to March 5, 1921. There he conciliated numerous potential strikes, regulate working conditions for women, and during World War I created an employment service moving more than six million workers to places where workers were needed. He also worked to provide insurance for military members and housing and higher wages for war workers. W. B. also worked diligently to restrain excesses of Attorney-General A. Mitchell Palmer during ‘The Red Scare’ regarding Communist threats in 1919-1920.

W. B. left the Labor Department in 1921, where incidentally he had been reunited with his former Knights of Labor chief Powderly who now reported to the Secretary from his position as head of the department’s Information Bureau. Out of government, W. B. engaged in mining and agricultural pursuits near Blossburg, Tioga County. He made a foray back into politics for an unsuccessful run for the U. S. Senate in 1926. Thereafter, W. B. did some work as an arbiter in Illinois coal fields but otherwise lived in retirement until dying on a train returning from Florida near Savannah, Georgia, on May 25, 1934. He is buried beside his wife, fellow immigrant Agnes Williamson, whom he married in 1883, in Blossburg’s Arbon Cemetery, not far from other family members. He is remembered for speaking labor’s “truth to power.”³ He was also an occasional poet, poignantly expressing the immigrant’s longing in Memories (1916):

Group portrait of Anthony Caminetti and T. V. Powderly flanking their boss, William B. Wilson, at the Labor Department, n.d., This photo and others of Wilson can be found in both the John Mitchell and T. V. Powderly online digital photo collections.

True, there stood Penn’s forest as stately as ever,
And, there, the wide meadows and tall growing grain,
And down in the valley the swift flowing river
Fast winding its way to the billowy main.
Yet though my heart loves them with loyal devotion,
My memory dwells on sweet visions of yore,
And pictures that country far over the ocean,
The land of my fathers, old Scotia’s loved shore.

Special thanks to the best online source for William B. Wilson: Blossburg.org. I also owe a personal debt to ‘Dunny’ Dunlap, an aged corner store owner in my hometown of Cherry Tree, Pennsylvania, who would regale me with stories about his wife’s uncle, W. B. Wilson.


¹ Craig Phelan. Divided Loyalties: The Public and Private Life of Labor Leader John Mitchell. State University of New York Press, 1994, p. 91, citing the United Mine Workers Journal of June 18, 1903.

² See Edward M. Steel (ed.) The Correspondence of Mother Jones. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.

³ To borrow an iconic phrase attributed to later civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.

The Archivist’s Nook: John Mitchell – Apostle of Labor

Contemporary newspaper depicting the people and events of the Anthracite Coal Strike, 1902. John Mitchell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.
Contemporary newspaper depicting the people and events of the Anthracite Coal Strike, 1902. John Mitchell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

May First is a date full of meaning as ‘May Day’, a traditional European spring festival, the Feast Day of St. Joseph the Worker for Roman Catholics, and International Workers’ Day for leftists. However one marks this day it is certainly an appropriate time to note one of the most important figures in American labor history, John Mitchell, whose archival papers, including an online digital collection of his photographs, are housed at Catholic University. If Terence V. Powderly can be called ‘Labor’s American Idol,’ Mitchell was widely recognized as The Apostle of Labor after he led the fledgling United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) union through one of history’s most significant strikes, the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902. He also wrote two books, Organized Labor (1903) and The Wage Earner (1913), arguing capital and labor could work together if both were linked in prosperity.

Mitchell was born 4 February 1870 in the coal mining village of Braidwood, Illinois, to poor Irish immigrants. Orphaned at a young age, he had little opportunity for education, and by age 12 was working in the coal mines. He joined the Knights of Labor in 1885 and in 1890 was a founding member of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). He became an international union organizer in 1897, working alongside the celebrated “Mother” Mary Harris Jones, before being elected UMWA Vice President that same year, and President in 1899. Union activity in this era was a risky business as coal operators controlled the mines, coal towns, and coal miners who were forced to endure horrible conditions and long hours. Miners were often paid with coupons that could only be redeemed at company stores at inflated prices and had to buy tools and supplies such as dynamite for blasting and oil for lamps. As UMWA president, Mitchell, with his priestly mien, worked to incorporate new workers from various immigrant groups, mostly Catholic, who showed their affection by nicknaming him ‘Johnnie da Mitch.’   Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: John Mitchell – Apostle of Labor”