Inside the Step by Step exhibit: “Why?” The National Foremen’s Institute guide to managing an interracial workplace (c.1954)

The following is the first in a series of inside looks at the current exhibition in the Industrial Relations (IR) Section at Princeton University. 

Curated by Charissa Jefferson, Labor Economics Librarian and liaison to the Industrial Relations Section, “Step by Step: The March Towards Equal Employment Opportunity” was jointly developed by Princeton University Library (PUL) and the IR Section. Using a series of pamphlets, the exhibit aims to highlight the political origins of antidiscrimination in the workplace. 

“Why?” National Foremen’s Institute
In the early 1950s, when African American employees were given the opportunities for equal employment in professional fields and positions once exclusive to white workers, it was often left to managers to mediate between the two racial groups within the workplace. 

In response to the experiences of many companies, The National Foremen's Institute published an FAQ-like guidebook to answer the main questions a supervisor might have about the reality of an interracial workplace. The pamphlet titled “Why?” attempted to offer a guide for managers who were witness to the changes a no-discrimination policy would have on the workplace and ways to mitigate the impact of hostility of white employees targeted at African American employees.  

The pamphlet also encouraged managers not to “wait and see” if problems arose in the workplace, but rather allow employees to voice their concerns before African American employees arrived in the workplace. It stated that the objections would be founded on three fears: displacement of the white worker, the spread of social disease, and safety of white women. While recognizing these points were “touchy,” the pamphlet goes on to point out the illogicality of these concerns from an employment perspective.

pp. 6-7 of “Why” by The National Foremen’s Institute, Inc., 1954. Industrial Relations Section, Princeton University.


The fear of displacement by under-qualified workers was addressed by ensuring that only workers who met (and often exceed) the standards of the required skills, education, and experience as well as the personality and character, would be employed. Combating the concern for disease transmission, managers were encouraged to be firm on the illogicality of this fear by pointing out that African Americans were often employed as domestic workers and in food handling in public restaurants - all without objection.  

The pamphlet recognized that many issues that white workers would never encounter were suddenly at the burden of African American employees simply because of their race. Managers were encouraged to explain, in advance of the first hire of a new African American employee, what behaviors would not be tolerated in the workplace. As managers were expected to offer guidance and training for employees, they were advised to “park any prejudices” they might have to ensure “a sincere effort [was made] to create a harmonious working relationship among employees, regardless of color” (p.7, see image).

About the exhibition

“Step by Step: The March Towards Equal Employment Opportunity” will be on display from January 14, 2022 through August 15, 2022 in the Industrial Relations Section in the Louis A. Simpson Building at Princeton University. 

Discover more about "Step by Step" through PUL's online exhibition.

Find out more about the Industrial Relations Section and its current research interests. Check out the “Discrimination in Employment” Libguide. For more information, contact Charissa Jefferson, Labor Economics Librarian and liaison to the Industrial Relations Section

Written by Charissa Jefferson, Labor Economics Librarian and liaison to the Industrial Relations Section 
Media contact: Barbara Valenza, Director, Library Communications

Published March 17, 2022