Black Woman Magic: The At­lanta Laun­dry Work­ers’ Strike of 1881

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - LIVING - By Ros­alind Bent­ley rbent­[email protected]

Imag­ine that each day you gather up the soiled sheets, shirts, di­a­pers and un­der­pants of an­other fam­ily. You go from house to house do­ing this un­til you have a mound of stink­ing, dirty laun­dry that you tie into a gi­ant bun­dle and hoist atop of your head.

Then you walk a mile, maybe 2, joined along the way by other black women bear­ing sim­i­lar loads. Even­tu­ally, you come to a back­yard dot­ted with caul­drons. You make the lye soap by hand. You haul the wa­ter to fill the caul­drons and build fires to heat the wa­ter. Then you spend hours beat­ing the clothes in the hot soapy wa­ter with a big wooden pad­dle. But your work as a laun­dress or “washer woman” has only be­gun. There’s still dry­ing, iron­ing, fold­ing and de­liv­ery to do.

How much would you ex­pect to be paid for the tasks?

It was of­ten less than $1 a day or as lit­tle as $8 a month for each of the hun­dreds of black women who toiled as laun­dresses or “washer women” in At­lanta in 1881.

So in July of that year, as the city pre­pared to host the In­ter­na­tional Cot­ton Ex­po­si­tion to show off what a “will­ing” la­bor force it had — as New South cham­pion and At­lanta Con­sti­tu­tion ed­i­tor Henry Grady would de­scribe the city’s work­ers — the washer women de­cided to go on strike.

The strike was an early post-Civil War ex­am­ple of the power black women ex­er­cised when they acted col­lec­tively, de­spite seg­re­ga­tion. In or­der to get fair pay for hard, dan­ger­ous work, the laun­dresses told their white em­ploy­ers to wash their own dirty clothes.

Many of these black women lived on At­lanta’s south side, hav­ing come from the coun­try­side and for­mer plan­ta­tions dur­ing Re­con­struc­tion look­ing for work. But em­ploy­ment for most for­merly en­slaved women was lim­ited to do­mes­tic la­bor, com­mon la­bor or be­ing a laun­dress.

In some ways, there were ad­van­tages to be­ing a laun­dry worker, said Tera W. Hunter, a Prince­ton his­tory pro­fes­sor and au­thor of “To ‘Joy My Free­dom,” an ex­am­i­na­tion of the At­lanta strike and the or­ga­niz­ing ef­forts of newly eman­ci­pated black women. Do­mes­tic work­ers of­ten had to live with the white fam­i­lies they worked for and, as a re­sult, were iso­lated. Laun­dry women had more in­de­pen­dence and worked in com­mu­nal set­tings

where there was more pri­vacy and strength in num­bers.

“It was the laun­dry work­ers who of­ten took the lead in or­ga­niz­ing be­cause they didn’t work long hours un­der the su­per­vi­sion of a white woman,” Hunter said.

What started as a group of 24 laun­dresses, who dubbed them­selves “The Wash­ing So­ci­ety,” swelled to more than 3,000 in three weeks, Hunter said. Some whites called them the “Wash­ing Ama­zons.” The women wanted no less than $1 per pound of laun­dry. That would have been a dra­matic in­crease over what they had been getting.

“Even if they’d agreed on a wage with their em­ploy­ers, if they didn’t get that wage when they de­liv­ered the laun­dry, they had no re­course,” said Calin­dra Lee, vice pres­i­dent at the At­lanta His­tory Cen­ter, who cu­rated a per­ma­nent ex­hibit at the cen­ter that tells the story of the strike. “An em­ployer might say, ‘I’m not pay­ing you this week,’” or of­fer the woman cast-off cloth­ing or house­hold items in­stead of money for her la­bor, Lee said.

Most peo­ple in the city sent their clothes out to be laun­dered be­cause the work was so hard and time con­sum­ing, Lee said. The strike drove that point home. Laun­dry piled up. And the laun­dresses showed the city the cru­cial role they played in its op­er­a­tion.

Things in the city be­came so tense, the or­ga­niz­ers were ar­rested and the City Coun­cil got in­volved to break the strike. The coun­cil con­sid­ered leg­is­la­tion that would have charged the women a busi­ness tax of $25 a year. In a let­ter to the ed­i­tor of the Con­sti­tu­tion, the women fired back.

“We, the mem­bers of our so­ci­ety, are de­ter­mined to stand 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 … will do it be­fore we will be de­feated, and then we will have full con­trol of the city’s wash­ing at our own prices. … We mean busi­ness this week or no wash­ing.”

But the threat of the li­cense did shake their move­ment, as did the ar­rests. And land­lords and other busi­ness peo­ple re­tal­i­ated against the strik­ers, Hunter said. The laun­dry work­ers never got a set wage as they’d de­manded, but they did show the power of low-wage, African-Amer­i­can, fe­male work­ers to dis­rupt the sta­tus quo. As for the New South claims that its work­force was docile and will­ing, Lee said, “These women proved other­wise.”


An At­lanta His­tory Cen­ter ex­hibit on the Laun­dry Work­ers’ Strike of 1881, dur­ing which more than 3,000 African-Amer­i­can laun­dresses stopped work for weeks, de­mand­ing fair wages.


Two At­lanta Con­sti­tu­tion ar­ti­cles dur­ing the Washer Women’s Strike of 1881: The ar­ti­cle on the left, from July 21, re­ports on the early days of the strike. The ex­cerpt on the right, from Aug. 3, in­cludes a let­ter that the women wrote to Mayor Jim English.

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