Founded in 1869 by a group of Philadelphia tailors, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor grew slowly as a secret organization under the leadership of Uriah Stephens. In 1879, when Terence V. Powderly, a machinist and former mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania, became grand master, the organization claimed fewer than ten thousand members; under his leadership, however, membership had swelled to more than seven hundred thousand by 1886.
The Knights of Labor accepted both skilled and unskilled laborers into membership. Female, immigrant, and African American workers joined the Knights of Labor, although blacks and whites met in separate unions locally. The Knights proposed an ill-defined cooperative society between employers and workers as an alternative to the competition of nineteenth-century industrialization. Although the organization opposed strikes as antagonistic to the goals of cooperation, the Knights of Labor engaged in some of the most famous strikes of the day, including the southwestern railroad strike against Jay Gould in 1886.
The Knights of Labor entered the South around 1878, but as a result of the opposition tactics of employers, their activities have remained obscure. By 1883 Tennessee had eleven local assemblies located in Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, Chattanooga, and in the coal mines of Anderson and Grundy Counties. Organizing efforts in Chattanooga apparently produced the greatest results among the urban assemblies. In 1885 Powderly visited the city on his organizing swing through the South, and in 1889 the head of the women's department, Mrs. Leonora Barry, lectured on the evils of child labor and the need for shorter hours for female workers. The Chattanooga Knights demonstrated their strength in 1886 when they elected John J. Irvine, an African American machinist, to the position of circuit court clerk. The stunned white political community readily attributed the victory to the labor union.
The Knights also found adherents in the coalfields of the Cumberland Plateau and East Tennessee. In 1884 Tracy City miners organized a local assembly and elected Tom Carrick the first master workman. Under his leadership the union swelled to between four and five hundred members. As the Farmers' Alliance simultaneously spread across the state, the Grundy County Knights urged greater cooperation between the two organizations, anticipating a day when farmer and laborer would end the economic hegemony of the “trusts” and “monopolies.” The Grundy County union faded under the threat of blackballing by the mine owners, though, and finally surrendered its charter; the seven hundred dollars in the Tracy City union's treasury went to the support of local schools.
The Anderson County Knights remained active well into the 1890s. During the convict lease wars that convulsed the county in 1891 and 1892, Eugene Merrell, a Knights of Labor organizer, played a prominent role as spokesman and leader. In a confrontation with Governor John P. Buchanan, Merrell demanded that the state enforce all the laws and protect miners against the use of scrip, unfair weighing practices, and “yellow dog” contracts in addition to imposing order. As late as 1893, the Clinch River Assembly No. 93 still advertised weekly meetings in the hall above Hill's grocery in Clinton.
The Knights of Labor succumbed to union organization by craft, and their cooperative vision fell to more realistic goals centered on wages, hours, and safety issues. Nevertheless, the union made important contributions to southern labor in its insistence on the inclusion of all workers, regardless of skill level, race, or gender.
Perry C. Cotham, Toil, Turmoil, and Triumph: A Portrait of the Tennessee Labor Movement (1995); Melton Alonza McLaurin, The Knights of Labor in the South (1978)