Former Slaves Went on Strike in 1881 Weeks before A World’s Fair in Atlanta

Former Slaves Went on Strike in 1881 Weeks before A World’s Fair in Atlanta

Donna Patricia Ward - November 18, 2018

Imagine doing laundry without a washing machine or clothes dryer. Although some may remember their grandparents pulling out their washtubs, these modern luxuries spoiled us fast. In the 1880s, sending laundry out was the best option for many, particularly in the South where laundresses competed with each other by undercutting rates. This proved to be detrimental to household economies of the working poor. In Atlanta (as well as other southern cities) former slaves undertook the role of washing clothes. Merely 15 years removed from slavery, washerwomen were able to forge a community network that led to collective labor organizing.

As former slaves, dignity was an attribute that many freed people sought to achieve. Many left plantations and headed to Atlanta. For the emancipated, they had to prove that they were human beings and deserving of rights and liberties like whites. This was no easy task. For centuries, most people treated slaves as a mode of labor without legal rights. As Atlanta rose from the ashes of the Civil War, its promoters reinvented it as a New South city; forgiving of its former trespasses, yet determined to keep black citizens in a perpetual state of servitude. The black population demanded a place at the table, and in 1881 over 3,000 laundresses refused to wash another garment until the municipal government accepted a standard rate of pay. This is the story of the 1881 Atlanta Washerwomen’s Strike.

Former Slaves Went on Strike in 1881 Weeks before A World’s Fair in Atlanta
Black neighborhood in Atlanta in 1890. Library of Congress.


Southern cities became known as harsh and unforgiving for many freed slaves. In the months after the end of the Civil War, thousands of African Americans walked to Atlanta in search of dignity, long-separated family members, and a better life than that of enslavement. Most possessed no birth certificates, marriage certificates, or sales receipts for slaves. Many found it nearly impossible to find family members that had been “sold down the river.” Missionary groups and the Freedman’s Bureau attempted to find long-lost family, but a more pressing concern was to find the destitute “shelter, food, clothing, and work.”

Atlanta’s topography consisted of gracefully rolling hills. The city was nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, with numerous creeks, streams, and drainage ditches carrying rain, floodwaters, and sewage to the ocean. As the city rose from the ashes after the Civil War, its profit-egger boosters failed to lay water and sewage infrastructure to match their New South ideals. 1880s Atlanta stunk! The city had no water system beyond the central business district. Demands placed on the land for constructing new industries combined with rapid growth made the small creeks and ditches streams of raw sewage.

Private wells and springs became contaminated by flooded outdoor privies (toilets). Animals decayed where they fell dead, wealthy white neighborhoods simply dumped household garbage into shantytowns outside of the city’s limits. The stench grew even worse combined with the hog pens, slaughtering facilities, and animal excrement that made the city a contradiction in its modernization efforts.

Former Slaves Went on Strike in 1881 Weeks before A World’s Fair in Atlanta
Shermantown illustration from Harper’s Magazine May 1880. Wikipedia.

The cleanest district in the city was the one inside the central business district. Here, wealthy whites lived in large homes set back from the dirty streets. These old southern families once owned their household staff. After the 13th Amendment ended slavery, these former slave masters were forced to pay wages to their cooks, maids, child nurses, and laundresses. These domestic workers often lived in low-lying neighborhoods that had poor drainage, were prone to seasonal flooding, and often a few miles from the homes of their employers. Atlanta’s poor and working class neighborhoods were filled with row houses, tenements, and shanties.

From the wealthiest Atlantans to the poor, most residents hired washerwomen to clean clothes and household linens. This was no easy task in an era before electricity, running water, and washing machines. Throughout the nation, those at the lower echelons of society became the men and women carrying out the most laborious and undesirable jobs. Former male slaves often became sanitation workers, scrapping sewage and dead animals from city streets. Freed female slaves became domestic workers.

Former Slaves Went on Strike in 1881 Weeks before A World’s Fair in Atlanta
Woman washing clothes with children’s help circa 1900. Library of Congress.

Washing the Clothes and Linens of Atlantans

Washerwomen in Atlanta largely consisted of black women with children. By 1880, 98% of Atlanta’s Black American female population were domestic workers in the home of former slave owners. These cooks, maids, and nurses earned wages for their laborious and long hours but they were still subjected to the overbearing eyes of their employers. Laundresses were considered to be at the top of the domestic worker hierarchy simply because they were able to do their tasks outside of the large homes.

Washerwomen approached wealthy whites and negotiated a fee for picking up the laundry, washing and ironing it, and then delivered it to the satisfaction of their employer. It must have been unsettling for both black women and former slave owners to enter into such an arrangement. Employers ensured that the laundry was done to their satisfaction. Laundresses were also scrutinized for their appearance. Imagine having to walk through muddy streets contaminated with raw sewage to pick up or deliver bundles of laundry. The slightest mark or mud on a washerwoman’s skirt was enough to have her wages reduced.

Washing was a process. Each week, washerwomen would visit the homes of their employers and pick up the bundles of soiled items. Sometimes a young boy would drive a wagon which was used for transport. Returning home with the bundles, the washerwomen began the laborious process of washing other people’s clothes. Children would fill tubs with water and start fires to heat the water. The washerwoman would get her washboard and soap and begin.

Former Slaves Went on Strike in 1881 Weeks before A World’s Fair in Atlanta
An 1880s Washing Machine. Google Images.

Girls poured hot water into large basins where women scrubbed the clothes with soap on a washboard. Once cleaned, the clothes were sent through a ringer using a hand crank and placed into a large tub. A girl or boy would carry the tub to the clothesline where a laundress would hang the clothes and linens to dry. On sunny days the clean laundry dried quickly. Hot and humid days during the summer, of which there are many in Atlanta, would pose a challenge. It would take longer for clothes to dry and the longer that clothes hung on the line, the more odors clung to them. Think about hanging clean clothes to dry steps away from raw sewage! Once the clothes were dried it was time to use heavy irons that were heated with coals to press pleats and collars. Experienced laundresses knew well how to prevent burns and scorched clothing. These women had reputations and could charge more for their labor.

Laundresses carried bundles of cleaned linens to her employer. Here is where the relationship between free blacks and former slaver owners displayed strain. The laundress had agreed to a set price before she set off to clean the clothes. Some whites were humiliated to have to pay for labor that was once free. While some kept their word, others found reasons to reduce wages or not pay at all. The payment to a laundress hung on the whim of her employer. Once the laundry was in the home, the laundress could not simply remove it to hold it until full payment was received. Employers continued to use fear as a tactic to keep African American women in their proverbial place.

Former Slaves Went on Strike in 1881 Weeks before A World’s Fair in Atlanta
A Postcard Advertisement. Wikipedia.

“This Strike Is A Big Thing!”

Two issues made washerwomen organize. The first was the rate of pay. In a free-market economy, supply and demand dictated price. Washerwomen desperate to pay for food, shelter, and clothing often accepted wages that simply were not enough because having a little pay was better than no pay. The second issue was respect. Washerwomen wanted to achieve respect, something they never had as slaves. Yet their employers continued to objectify them, blame them for the spread of diseases, and accused them of stealing.

Employers simply refused to pay for any reason and there were no municipal regulations to prevent this. Washerwomen had no recourse to ensure they were paid the wages agreed upon. If these women were to find success, they first had to stand up for their own human rights. Since so many Atlantans relied upon hired labor to clean their clothes, refusing to wash was a good way to get their point across. Just the thought of a washerwomen’s strike made people shutter.

African American women in Atlanta had a keen awareness of labor organizing. For inspiration they turned to a washerwomen’s strike in Jackson, Mississippi in 1866 and another laundress strike in Galveston, Texas in 1877. The idea that former slaves were demanding the right to self-determination must have been quite a shock to former Confederates. For moths, washerwomen had been organizing throughout Atlanta. The nature of their work that occurred in centralized washing areas in their own neighborhoods along with their freedom to move about the city made it easier for them to reach out to other washerwomen.

Former Slaves Went on Strike in 1881 Weeks before A World’s Fair in Atlanta
Rendering of the 1881 International Cotton Exposition in Atlanta. Wikipedia.

In July 1881, the Washing Society official formed as a trade union and called a strike of their members. To keep the strike going, members met each night in a predetermined location to discuss the advantages of working together to gain full control of their own labor. By implementing a standard rate of $1.00 per pound of laundry, no laundress would be able to undercut another. Employers would be forced to adhere to the going rate. What began in July 1881 with 20 washerwomen and a few men swelled into over 3,000 striking laundresses!

The Atlanta washerwomen strike was a success. Helping them was the threat of a general strike of domestic workers. On the eve of the opening of the International Cotton Exposition in October 1881 in a city where visitors outnumbered hotel rooms, boarding houses required cooks and maids. The image that municipal promoters wanted to display to the world, that of a New South city that had moved away from its legacy of slavery, simply could not be taken seriously if not for washerwomen keeping the city’s clothes clean.

After the close of the Exposition, Atlantans turned to the future. That future was dictated by “separate but equal” and the squashing of any legal rights for African Americans. Jim Crow became inshrined in the state constitution, lynches were public affairs, and the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 eliminated all political gains. Washerwomen continued to wash the cloths of Atlantans but not for long. Steam laundries had begun to replace individual laundresses. When mobilization began for the First World War, millions of poor and working-class blacks and whites left the New South for the industrialization and autonomy of northern cities.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Tera W. Hunter. “To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After The Civil War.” Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi. America: A Narrative History 9th ed, Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.

‘We Mean Business or No Washing’: The Atlanta Washerwomen Strike of 1881. by Brandon Weber. February 6, 2018