Too often the stories of Black trade unionists, particularly our Black union sisters, have been forgotten or were never told. These women have been the backbone of society throughout the history of our country and our movement. Their work has been drastically undervalued and disregarded. The labor movement in the 21st century is committed to honoring their labor and to ending the systemic discrimination and inequality that has suppressed our fellow workers for too long.
The Black washerwomen of Atlanta were essential to the Black workforce and the entire Atlanta community depended on their labor to provide an essential service. The Atlanta Washerwomen’s Strike of 1881 demonstrated an extraordinary ability to advocate for their own autonomy and the right to their own labor. Many of these women were former slaves.
Even today discrimination across the workforce, and the assumption that certain kinds of work are less dignified than others, has persisted, and disproportionately impacts Black women.
Compared with other women in the United States, black women have always had the highest levels of labor market participation regardless of age, marital status, or presence of children at home. In 1880, 35.4 percent of married black women and 73.3 percent of single black women were in the labor force compared with only 7.3 percent of married white women and 23.8 percent of single white women. Black women’s higher participation rates extended over their lifetimes, even after marriage, while white women typically left the labor force after marriage.
Atlanta in the early 1880s was just beginning to develop. Less than two decades had passed since the Civil War ended. The city had primitive water and sewer systems, and unsanitary trash lined the unpaved streets. Atlanta’s businessmen and politicians sought to paint a very different picture to lure northern businesses to the city, spotlighting it as the urban center of the New South with a large, subservient workforce.
More than half of the city’s black residents—and half of the black wage earners—were women. Black women largely were responsible for sustaining not only their families but their communities as well. One-third of black women living in Atlanta, as in other cities, raised families alone.
Nearly all (98 percent) of these black working women were household workers. On average, women began working as domestics between age 10 and 16 and worked until age 65 or older. In the 1880s, more black women worked as laundresses than in any other type of domestic work. The city had more laundresses than male common laborers. In contrast, only a small portion of white women worked for pay, and the average white family could afford the services of at least a washerwoman.
Laundry work was the most difficult of domestic jobs, and industrialization made the chore even more dreadful. Manufactured cloth—especially washable fabrics such as cotton—made clothing more available so people had more clothes than ever before. Laundry work was the first chore women would hire someone else to perform if her family had the slightest bit of extra money. In the North, women would send their family’s dirty clothes to a commercial laundry at the time. But in the South, technology was lagging and even poor whites could send some wash to black women.
Laundresses worked long, tiring hours and their wages ranged from $4 to $8 a month. These wages changed little over time and laundresses would increase their earnings by adding on clients or getting help from their children. Laundresses worked mostly in their own homes or in their neighborhoods with other women. They worked outside in the shade when weather permitted or inside their homes, hanging clothes all over the house to dry.
They made their own soap from lye, starch from wheat bran and washtubs from beer barrels cut in half. Their work began on Monday mornings and continued throughout the week until the clean clothes were delivered on Saturday. Throughout the week, they would carry gallons of water from wells, pumps or hydrants for washing, boiling and rinsing clothes. Then, after hanging the clothes to dry, the women would iron, alternately using several heavy irons at a time.
“I could clean my hearth good and nice and set my irons in front of the fire and iron all day [with]out stopping….I cooked and ironed at the same time,” said laundress Sarah Hill.