Founded as a secret organization of Philadelphia garment cutters in 1869, the Knights of Labor was an early federation of organized labor with more than 15,000 local assemblies by 1889 and a peak membership of more than 7 million in 1886. Between 1875 and 1890, the Knights organized more than 330 local assemblies in 170 communities in Indiana, including 36 in Indianapolis.

The first Indianapolis assembly, No. 141, was led by Calvin Light, a printer and the editor of the Workingman’s Map. Light and Lycurgus P. McCormack, who became Master Workman of Local Assembly 141 in 1880, were active in the Workingmen’s party and leaders of protests by the unemployed in Indianapolis in 1876 and 1877.

During the early 1880s, the Indianapolis Knights expanded to 18 local assemblies under the leadership of Samuel H. Leffingwell, also a printer and editor of the labor paper Our Organette. The local Knights were active supporters of a national strike of telegraphers in 1883-1884 and joined International Typographical Union Local No. 1 in strikes against the Indianapolis Journal in 1884 and the Journal and the Sentinel in 1887.

The following trades organized local assemblies in Indianapolis during this period: coopers, printers, telegraph operators, barbers, varnishers, plumbers, ironworkers, stonecutters, horseshoers and blacksmiths, bakers, machinery molders, hod carriers (laborers hired to carry bricks, mortar, and other building materials), machinists, furniture workers, salesmen and clerks, saw makers, wheelmakers, and bookbinders. In 1886, they helped organize the first Labor Day Celebration and parade in Indianapolis.

As the Knights grew in strength, they became increasingly involved in politics. Under the leadership of Thomas Gruelle, editor of the Labor Signal, they campaigned vigorously against Republican Benjamin Harrison in the 1888 presidential campaign and helped persuade the majority of voters in his home county Marion County, to vote Democratic. The Knights also elected 14 members to the state legislature in 1888 and were largely responsible for a substantial amount of reform legislation, including the enactment of an eight-hour day in 1889.

The Knights exhibited considerable strength in Indianapolis from 1886 to 1889 and cooperated with the local trade unions belonging to the newly formed American Federation of Labor. However, Indianapolis members also became disenchanted with the national leadership of the Knights, partly because the national leaders had supported Harrison in 1888 but even more because they reinstated J. P. Kelleher, a retail merchant who had been expelled for breaking an early closing agreement with the assembly to which his employees belonged. By 1890, all but six local assemblies had turned in their charters, and most of them became Federal Labor Unions or local unions of affiliates of the American Federation of Labor.

Revised July 2021

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