Alonzo Draper – Abolitionist and Labor Activist

Alonzo Draper would be a leader and an agitator wherever he went. First he led workers in their fight for a living wage, and then he led African-American troops in the fight for freedom.

Alonzo Draper

Alonzo Draper

Born in Brattleboro, Vt., in September 1835, he moved to Lynn, Mass., as a young man. Lynn back then offered plenty of jobs.

There, he became a leader in the Lynn Mechanic’s Association, a forerunner of today’s modern labor unions. He also published and edited the New England Mechanic, a progressive newspaper.

In the late 1850s, modern equipment had allowed the shoe factories to produce more shoes than needed. With an economic slump under way, factory owners forced workers to take repeated wage cuts.

In 1860, discontent with low pay boiled over and prompted one of the first widespread organized strikes in New England. It started in Lynn in February, and quickly spread to nearby cities. By March, women workers joined in the walkout. By April, the factory owners relented and offered raises, though they refused to officially recognize the union. That would take more years of organizing effort.

Civil War

Draper’s leadership came into full view, however, when the Civil War broke out. He turned his attention to the cause of liberating slaves. He used his organizing skills to begin enlisting men in the 14th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry from Lynn and nearby cities.

By August 1863, Draper sought and received a post leading the North Carolina Colored Volunteers. He did it after pleading his case in support of freeing and educating slaves. His organizing skills again paid off, as he actively recruited slaves and former slaves to join the unit.

The recruitment of colored volunteers was a controversial move by Union forces, as it made clear there would be no peace possible that allowed for the continuation of slavery.

The 4th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment

Draper defended his men against the insults and racism that existed in the Union Army. He promoted efforts to teach the former slaves to read. Though Draper was criticized for his aggressive attacks on southern guerillas, he rose through the ranks. Before he turned 30 he achieved the rank of brevet brigadier general, a promotion given for bravery. He also got command of a brigade.

Upon entering Richmond near the end of the war, Draper witnessed the freeing of slaves being held for sale.

“I became so overcome with tears that I could not stand up under the pressure of such fullness of joy in my own heart,” he wrote of that moment.

We’ll never know what he might have gone on to accomplish in life. At the end of the war, Draper remained in the army. He died three days before his 30th birthday, killed by an accidental gunshot.

This story was updated in 2021. 

Images: Colored troops By Julius Jääskeläinen – Company E of the 4th United States “Colored" Infantry Regiment, at Fort Lincoln, Washington, D.C. c. 1864., CC BY 2.0,

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