“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.
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.