From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)
Telephone Company Employees Kentucky African Americans.pdf

Telephone Company Employees, Kentucky, African Americans, 1900-1960

(start date: 1900  -  end date: 1960) 

By Reinette F. Jones with assistance from Kathy L. Schiflett, April 29, 2018

Appended to this entry is a .pdf of the Excel spreadsheet listing the number of African Americans employed in telephone-related jobs in Kentucky from 1910-1940. The data come from the U.S. Census. Additional data about Kentucky are mentioned in this entry for the decades 1940-1960 from The Racial Policies of American Industry, Report No. 10, The Negro in the Public Utility Industries, by B. E. Anderson, 1970. This report was the first nationwide employment study of African Americans employed by public utility companies. (Telephone companies were considered a public utility.) This entry focuses specifically on employees in telephone-related jobs. It will be noted that the employment patterns in Kentucky did not mimic what took place on the national level.

Telephone services and companies started in Kentucky in 1877 [source: "Telephone Service" in The Kentucky Encyclopedia, edited by J. E. Kleber, pp. 873-874]. The telephone industry continued to grow, but for several decades no consistent count was kept of telephone employees by race in Kentucky or anywhere else. There were, however, early reports of the total number of employees and other statistics made public by the American Bell Telephone Company. Two examples are the report published in Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1891, No. 235-Telephone Statistics, p. 27; and the information in Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1900, Table No. 117, p. 388. The American Bell Telephone Company's main office was located in Boston, MA; the company had a monopoly of the telephone business.

American Bell Telephone Company - Number of Employees

1889        1890        1891       1894         1895      
6,310       6,758       7,845      10,421      11,094    

1896        1897        1898        1899        1900
11,930     14,425     16,682     19,668     25,741

"Employment statistics by race are incomplete for the utility industries before 1920. The limited data available, however, show 529 Negroes employed as telephone and telegraph linemen, and 69 employed as telephone operators among the 89,912 workers employed in those occupations in 1900." ~ Source: p. 65 in The Racial Policies of American Industry, Report No. 10, The Negro in the Public Utility Industries, by B. E. Anderson.

Prior to the 1930s, the utility industry grew more heavily in states outside the south. Fourteen southern states made up "slightly less than one of every six workers in the three utility occupations" (electric power; gas; and telephone communications) [source: p. 68 in The Racial Policies of American Industry, Report No. 10, The Negro in the Public Utility Industries, by B. E. Anderson]. The southern states were not among the employment leaders in the telephone industry or the labor union efforts. Companies such as Southern Bell Telephone in Georgia  (formerly the Atlanta Telephone Exchange)  created its own associations and unions as a way of getting around independent labor unions recruiting their employees as members [source: Pulling together for productivity a union management initiative at U.S. West, Inc., by U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Chapter 2 - Labor, Management, and Unions, pp. 21-36].

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), which organized in 1891, was the labor union that initially included telephone company operators and linemen. The IBEW, however, barred African Americans from becoming members.

The organization had many challenges and was not able to gain control over labor in the telephone industry, especially in the south. In 1906, the IBEW called a strike for linemen at the Southern Bell Telephone Company that served several southern states. The strike failed after 16 weeks because the Southern Bell replaced the striking linemen with non-union African American linemen [source: Anderson, p. 74], so for the next 60 years the IBEW still did not accept African American members. Finally, however,  because of the ongoing civil rights challenges, two African American members were admitted to the IBEW in 1966 . [source: V. Riesel, "Wilkins at AFL-CIO Convention," The Crisis, January 1968, p. 14].

Meanwhile, in Kentucky there were more than 200 telephone companies/exchanges listed in the 1909 Biennial Report of the Auditor of Public Accounts of Kentucky, pp. 472-481 [online in Google Books]. With  the number of telephone companies on the rise, the  number of employees at those companies increased. It is in the 1910 U.S. Census that African Americans are first noted as employees at Kentucky telephone companies: 80 men and two women. One of the women was employed to answer the telephone in a Louisville doctor's office, and the other was a janitor at a telephone company in Boxville, KY.

Most of the men were linemen (33) or laborers (26), while the other men were employed as a driver, foreman, helper, wagon driver, janitors, messengers, porters; and two as telephone operators in Louisville - one at a hotel and one at a private phone number -  and one man with an unknown employment title in Midway, KY. Fifteen of the linemen were employed in Louisville and 10 of the laborers were employed in Hopkinsville. The city with the most African American employees in 1910 was Louisiville with 30, followed by Hopkinsville with 14; the remaining 38 were located in 25 other Kentucky cities/towns.

As the telephone companies continued to expand on the national level from 1920-1930, there was a "strong" demand for women telephone operators, resulting in a 26% increase in the employment of women [source: Anderson, p. 78]. By 1930, there were 235,259 women telephone operators, 331 of whom were African American women, so the "strong" demand for women telephone operators was not a "strong" demand for African American women employees.

Only one African American woman was listed in the 1920 U.S. Census as a telephone operator in Kentucky. Employed in a doctor's office in Falmouth, she was among the 11 African American women in telephone-related jobs that included four janitors, three maids, a servant, an office girl in Paris, KY, and a cook in Louisville. All but two of the women were employed in very menial jobs. The women were among the 46 African American telephone industry employees in Kentucky, which represented a decrease by almost half of the 82 African American employees that had been counted in the 1910 Census.

A loss also occured in the hiring of African American male employees in Kentucky. Eighty men were  employed in 1910, but only 35 in 1920, which included 12 laborers and 10 linemen along with 13 men employed as a fireman, janitors, and porters. The loss had occurred a decade ahead of the Great Depression. The city with the most African American employees in 1920 was Louisville with 16, with the remaining 30 located in 19 other Kentucky cities/towns.

At this time, no records have been found of protests by African Americans challenging the employment practices of telephone companies/exchanges in Kentucky. However, Venus Green notes in her article that African American protests took place during World War I up through World War II in cities such as Washington, D.C., New York City, and St. Louis [source: V. Green, "Race, gender, and national identity in the American and British telephone industries," International Review of Social History, vol. 46 (2001), pp. 185-205].

In 1930 on the national level, the Great Depression (1929-1939 or 1941) was causing large-scale layoffs. Total telephone industry employment had been 578,602 in 1930 and was down to 316,600 in 1940. Overall employment in the telephone and telegraph companies decreased by 45.3%, and among African Americans the decrease was 41.9% [source: Anderson, p. 79]. In spite of the layoffs, the telephone companies had more employees than the electric power companies and the gas companies, and still the telephone companies continued to hire fewer African Americans than the other utility companies [source: Anderson, pp. 77-76, Table 21. Public Utility Industries Employment by Race and Sex United States, 1930-1960 ]. See also Real Folks: Race and Gender in the Great Depression, by S. Retman.

For African Americans in Kentucky, the telephone industry employment numbers held steady from 1920 to 1930, with a slight increase in the total number of African American male employees. In 1930 the women employees were still in manual labor jobs, and the same had become even more true for the men. There were seven African American women and 51 African American men employed in the industry in 1930. Among the women, there were five maids, a cook, and a telephone girl in a doctor's office in Louisville. Among the men, there were 21 laborers and 15 janitors, along with a ditch digger, garage man, grader, pipe layer, stock boy, tile layer, underground man, three porters, and five linemen. The city with the most African American employees in telephone-related jobs was Louisville with 28; the remaining 30 employees were located in 15 other Kentucky cities/towns.

The impact of The Depression in Kentucky was undeniable when the 1940 U.S. Census was completed. The number of African American employees noted as working in the telephone industry in Kentucky had decreased by 85%, more than twice the national job loss percentage for African Americans at 41.9%. In the 1940 U.S. Census, there were eight African American employees employed in the telephone industry in Kentucky. There were two women, one a chambermaid in Louisville and the other a telephone operator in a dormitory in Lexington. All six of the men were janitors. Five of the employees were in Louisville with one each in Greenville, Lexington, and Princeton.

The prior year, 1939, the Federal Communications Commission published the first issue of the Statistics of Communications Industry in the United States, which  contained financial and operating data of telegraph, telephone, cable, and radiotelegraph carriers and controlling companies. There were over 18,000,000 telephones in homes and businesses in the U.S. in 1939 [p. 4], and of that number 158,495 were in Kentucky [p. 14, Table 2]. On the national level, there were 287,333 employees at telephone companies: 60.95% females and 39.05% males. The compensation of employees was $511,892,396. The largest group with the highest pay were operating officials and assistants who earned $60 or more per week: 6,290 men and 11 women [p. 19, Table 6]. The most work-related deaths and injuries in 1939 occurred among men employed in line and station construction, installation, and maintenance [p. 21, Table 7]. The gross operating revenue reported by telephone carriers in 1939 was $1,201,427,364 [p. 3].

While there was great wealth being earned by the telephone industry, African Americans were a very small part of the operations, just 0.7% of the total employees in 1930 and in 1940 [source: The Racial Policies of American Industry, Report No. 10, The Negro in the Public Utility Industries, by B. E. Anderson, pp. 76-77, Table 21]. During WWII, the protests by African Americans had intensified toward telephone companies that refused to hire African Americans. The movement had somewhat of an impact: a few African American women were hired as telephone operators [source: V. Green, "Race, gender, and national identity in the American and British telephone industries," International Review of Social History, vol. 46 (2001), pp. 185-205].

By 1950, African Americans made up 1.3% of the total telephone industry employees: 594,120 total employees and 7,920 African American employees [source: The Racial Policies of American Industry, Report No. 10, The Negro in the Public Utility Industries, by B. E. Anderson, pp. 76-77, Table 21]. The increased number of African American employees, however, was not the most notable aspect of their employment. It was the employment of more African American women that was the major difference, which was counter to what had occurred in the United States history of telephone companies/exchanges. In 1940, the number of African American women employees at telephone companies had been 380, and by 1950 there were 3,630. African American women were almost 1% of all 373,740 women employed at telephone companies in 1950. The telephone industry had become more feminized.

African American women made up 46% of the total number of all African American telephone communications employees in 1950; there were 4,290 men and 3,630 women for a total of 7,920. The numbers represent a change in the hiring strategy of African American employees as the telephone companies had increased the percentage of African American employees to 1.3% in 1950 by hiring more African American women and fewer African American men. Between 1940 and 1950, the total number of African American women employed as telephone operators increased almost tenfold, from 259 to 2,481 [source: The Racial Policies of American Industry, Report No. 10, The Negro in the Public Utility Industries, by B. E. Anderson, p. 80].

That trend continued: by 1960 the number of African American women employees in telephone communications surpassed the number of African American men and also surpassed the number of African American women hired by the electric power companies and the gas companies. The change had been two decades in the making, starting with the response to the civil rights protests during World War II to hire more African American women as telephone operators [source: V. Green, "Race, gender, and national identity in the American and British telephone industries," International Review of Social History, vol. 46 (2001), pp. 185-205]. A few additional women were also hired as clerical staff [source: Anderson, pp. 76, 79-81].

In 1960, 692,480 employees worked in telephone communications [source: Anderson pp. 76-77]. Of those, 11,006 African American women made up 64% of the 17,127 African American employees. African American women were 2.8% of the 388,596 women employees. The telephone communications industry overall had grown from 594,120 employees in 1950 to 692,480 in 1960. The industry had continued to rebound, increasing in growth and reversing the decline during The Great Depression. 

The state of Kentucky was a small contributor. There were 9,922 employees in telecommunications in Kentucky in 1960: 5,039 men and 4,883 women. Of the state total, 166 were African American: 142 men (24 of whom were linemen and servicemen) and 56 women. ~ Sources: Anderson, pp. 84-85, Table 23. Public Utility Industries Employment by Race and Sex Selected States, 1950 and 1960; and Anderson, p. 94, Table 25. Public Utility Industries Total and Negro Employment, Three Occupational Groups Selected States, 1950 and 1960. 

The numbers in Kentucky had slightly increased since 1950 when telecommunications employees included 98 African American men, 34 of whom were linemen and servicemen; and 43 African American women. It would take a couple more decades before African American women in Kentucky would start to take part in the telephone industry employment gains seen on the national level. The lack of progress did not go unnoticed.

In 1937, the League of Women Voters in Louisville had asked the Women's Bureau for a survey of women workers in Kentucky. The Women's Bureau was a division of the U.S. Department of Labor. In 1979, H. D. Irvin published information from the survey concerning African American women on p. 84 in Women in Kentucky. ..."[T]he figures serve to emphasize the lack of opportunities for employment of Negro women in the manufacturing industries of Kentucky. No investigation could be made of black women as telephone operators and dime-store clerks.... Black women were excluded from such work. They would continue to be shut out until federal civil rights legislation was passed three decades later."

For additional information about African American employees at telephone companies, see the following sources: "Notes of the Clubs" Negro girls for telephone operators... in Broad Ax, 7/21/1917, p. 4; "[James W.] Ford urges action," Capitol Plaindealer, 1/7/1938, p. 5; "St. Louis Negroes to march on telephone company: Seek jobs from telephone company," Plaindealer (Kansas), 6/4/1943, p. [one]; "Starting training for first group on switchboard," Plaindealer (Kansas), 10/10/1947, p. [1]; Bureau of the Census, Bicentennial Edition: Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, Chapter R Communications, Telephone and Telegraph Systems (Series R 1-92), pp. 775-791; V. Green, "Race and technology: African American women in the Bell System, 1945-1980," Technology and Culture, vol. 36, no. 2, April 1995, pp. S101-S144; J. Peoples and R. Robinson, "Market structure and racial and gender discrimination: evidence from the telecommunication industry," The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, vol. 55, no. 3, July 1996, pp. 309-325; and Race on the Line: gender, labor, and technology in the Bell System, 1880-1980, by V. Green.

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Item Relations

Cite This NKAA Entry:

“Telephone Company Employees, Kentucky, African Americans, 1900-1960,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed April 19, 2024, https://nkaa.uky.edu/nkaa/index.php/items/show/300003701.

Last modified: 2023-02-20 22:06:24