Labor History Articles

Black Women Advance Labor’s Cause In an Unlikely Setting: 1881 Atlanta

(January 2010) A little known yet largely successful job action waged in 1881 by black women in Atlanta is credited with helping to set the stage for a century of labor and civil rights struggles.

Within a decade after the Civil War, thousands of newly emancipated black workers were drawn to Atlanta by the prospect of jobs and freedom in what was becoming the pre-eminent urban center of the South. 

Though thousands of freed men and women found work there, they frequently also found that the terms of their employment were strikingly similar to those they had faced as slaves: seven-day work-weeks, low pay, and little respect on the job. 

During the Reconstruction era, black men found work in a variety of occupations. Most worked as laborers, but many were hired by the Post Office or Treasury Department. For black women, however, virtually the only option was domestic work: In Atlanta in 1880, 98 percent of black working women cooked, cleaned, or cared for children, mostly for white households, according to historian Drew Gilpin Faust.

In Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, Faust, the president of Harvard University, notes that although such workers could bring the work home, where they were their own supervisors, doing laundry in the 1880s was perhaps the least desirable of domestic jobs. The rise of manufacturing had made cotton clothing more available, and cleaning was a job that most families would farm out as soon as they could afford to.

In the North, commercial laundries handled a lot of the work. But in the South, where post-Civil War technology wasn’t as advanced, “washerwomen” were hired. They created their own soap from homemade lye and starch, and cut wooden barrels in half to make tubs. They had to gather wood to feed fires to heat the water they carried from wells or ponds in order to boil, wash, and rinse clothes, linens, and diapers.

The workweek typically began early Monday morning, for many with a walk of several miles to collect heavy bundles of laundry, and, of course, a similar walk back home. The week ended on Saturday, with the return of the clean laundry, which they had pressed with heavy irons heated from the same hearths they used to cook for their own families.

Working at home meant there was almost no direct employer supervision, and for many laundresses this “desire to distance themselves physically from erstwhile masters” was a high priority.

As Carl Greenfield, in the Spring 1999 Binghamton Journal of History, relates: “In a walking city like Atlanta, cooks, maids, and child-nurses could live in areas that were within easy reach by foot, yet were far enough to establish autonomous lives.

Most of the South still operated under a plantation mentality, Greenfield and other historians point out, and the laundresses were able to assert their independence and establish self-respect. In so doing, they “agitated the white establishment who wanted their employees to be subservient and tied to the employer’s plantation and/or home.”

Instead, the laundry women labored in their own communities, often working with their neighbors. The long hours and wages of as little as $4 a month were a shared burden, and eventually led to the creation of what Faust calls “their own world of work, play, negotiation, resistance, and community organization.”

The ‘Society’ Strikes

Meanwhile, the African-American population was thriving socially, embracing its newfound freedom by forming churches and civic associations. These new institutions acted as a springboard for organizing to improve their lives, and in many cases, laundresses were the driving force. As Faust observes: “They devised strategies that included achieving literacy, organizing politically and formalizing marriage ties that had been denied them as slaves.”

Because the laundresses had no common employer or job site, it might seem impractical — if not impossible — to organize to improve their status. “The story of Atlanta’s washerwomen, however, defies this assumption,” writes historian Tera W. Hunter inTo ’Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women´s Lives and Labors After the Civil War. 

These women were not slaves and they certainly were not working under any kind of labor contract. They could quit their jobs for any reason whatsoever, including overlong hours, intolerable conditions, and wage issues. Employers did have full say over wages and could unilaterally substitute perishables or dry goods for cash, regardless of whether the worker thought it fair. And when they were given cash, they found that they could be docked for impudence or breaking things, or for use of the employer’s supplies. Quitting was seen as a reasonable alternative and, ultimately, was recognized as a strategic maneuver.

Although many details about the strike are lost to history, Hunter was able to piece together many of the events of the month-long job action through research in newspapers and personal diaries that have been preserved.

In July 1881, 20 laundresses formed The Washing Society and announced that their membership would strike unless they were given a raise to a uniform rate of $1 for each dozen pounds of wash. They went door to door to build their ranks and used church meetings to spread the word, seeking solidarity among washerwomen and organizing to win community support.

Within three weeks of its formation, the society held amass meeting and called a strike. At the time the group had swelled to more than 3,000 members, including some white women.

Economic Sanctions

Within a month, authorities began arresting and fining the strikers for “disorderly conduct” while canvassing the city to increase their ranks, Hunter notes. The city council proposed a $25 fee on members of any washerwoman’s organization, and then offered tax breaks to businesses that expressed a willingness to start commercial steam laundries.

Even though $25 was the equivalent of several months of wages, the striking laundresses were not deterred. They prepared a unified response in a letter to the mayor:

“We are determined to stand to our pledge and make extra charges for washing, and we have agreed and are willing to pay $25 or $50 for licenses as a protection, so we can control the washing for the city. We can afford to pay these licenses, and will do it before we will be defeated, and then we will have full control of the city’s washing at our own prices, as the city has control of our husbands’ work at their prices. Don’t forget this. We hope to hear from your council Tuesday morning. We mean business this week or no washing.”

The show of resolve in the face of arrests, fines, and fees that could so dramatically alter their future inspired other domestic workers. Fearing further labor unrest among cooks, maids, and nurses, as well as a disruption to an international fair that the city was planning, Atlanta’s town fathers withdrew their proposed fees on organized washerwomen.

News coverage pretty much dried up after the Atlanta City Council rejected the idea of imposing fees. But even the Constitution, which had railed against the job action, had come to have “a greater appreciation for the fact that these women should not be taken for granted because of the role they played in the city’s economy,” Hunter said.

The city’s business elite were trying to attract outside capital, and the uprising contrasted sharply with the appealing image of a complacent workforce. “In the end,” an AFL-CIO tribute notes, “the strike not only raised wages, it established laundresses — and black women workers — as instrumental to the New South’s economy.”