For most Americans, the first Monday in September is synonymous with heading down to the shore, smoking up the barbeque, or ending the summer with one last hoorah.
But for most New Yorkers, Labor Day brings to mind an entirely different picture: The West Indian Day Parade, a day where close to two million people are drawn to Crown Heights to immerse themselves in rich Caribbean culture and heritage in one of New York City’s top summer attractions.
In the mid-1940s, Trinidadian Jesse Waddle organized a street festival in Harlem on Labor Day to bring together immigrants from Trinidad and other Caribbean islands to celebrate Carnival. The parade permit was revoked in 1964 following a disturbance, but a commission headed by Carlos Lezama received permission to have the parade on Eastern Parkway five years later.
Today, that committee is known as the West Indian-American Day Carnival Association. The parade has grown to the point where its total economic impact is close to $200 million. But, aside from its economic impact, “the Carnival is an assertion of pan-Caribbean culture, bringing together people from different island nations under one umbrella, and demonstrating to the rest of the world the power and vibrancy of the peoples of the Caribbean,” according to this Brooklyn Public Library page.
At its core, the West Indian Day Parade reflects the true spirit of Labor Day, a day going far back in U.S. history.
Labor Day, an annual celebration of workers and their achievements, originated in the late 1800s at the height of the U.S.’s Industrial Revolution, when most Americans were working 12-hour days and seven-day weeks to make a basic living. Children as young as 5 or 6 were sent to work in unsafe conditions, and people of all ages hardly had access to sanitary facilities, fresh air, and breaks, according to the History Channel.
Labor unions grew more prominent and vocal. In New York, industrial workers joined together to celebrate their contributions to our country. Their numbers grew into the thousands, and they sacrificed their daily pay to secure privileges for themselves, their friends, their loved ones, and their neighbors. Because of these dedicated union members, Americans now enjoy benefits like weekends off, 40-hour workweeks, overtime pay, and minimum wage.
As mentioned in this year’s presidential proclamation of Labor Day, the first Monday in September is about more than fair paychecks; it is about taking care of others and giving back to our communities and the country we would do anything for.
While the West Indian Day Parade may just seem like a celebration of Caribbean culture, it actually reflects these community values. The West Indian Day Parade is a chance for people from all over New York City and the country to come together and celebrate being with each other, while boosting the local economy and sending a message to the city’s Caribbean population that they genuinely care about them.
So, the next time you get frustrated by some parade go-er trying to push their way through the crowd, remember that you are both there to celebrate the grit and resilience of America’s workers and their families on Labor Day.