In Atlanta, Ga., in the 1880s, all but the lowest-income households relied on black women to cook their food, clean their houses, nurse their kids and wash their clothes.
With few other opportunities available, more than 98 percent of the city’s employed black women worked at poorly paid domestic jobs. And even though the Civil War had ended slavery, they labored under a power structure that was saturated with fierce racial prejudice and a plantation mentality.
With such a pivotal role in domestic labor, black women washed nearly all of Atlanta’s dirty laundry. They worked out of their own homes, made their own soap, used barrels for washtubs and lugged water from wells and streams.
On foot, they picked up dirty laundry on Mondays and returned the cleaned and ironed clothes on Saturdays. They earned only $4 to $8 per month — a rate that never increased. Their contribution to society was ignored and disrespected by nearly everyone in authority.
In the summer of 1881, 20 laundresses formed the Washing Society and vowed to strike until the fee for 12 pounds of laundry was raised to $1. They went door-to-door to call out laundresses all over the city to join them, even recruiting some white laundresses. They organized widespread community support by holding frequent meetings in black churches and were helped by the ministers. Within three weeks, 3,000 women had joined the strike.
Atlanta’s commercial and political leaders, who were hoping to attract new business to the growing city, were alarmed by the strike. The image of Atlanta they promoted to investors — a city with a docile workforce — lay in ruins.
Fearful that labor unrest would spread to other sectors (hotel workers were already striking), authorities began arresting laundresses for “disorderly conduct.” Further, the city council proposed that any laundress who joined an organization such as the Washing Society would have to pay $25 to get a license from the city.
Undeterred, the women sent 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 washer women’s defiance, plus growing support for the strike (and the growing piles of dirty laundry), forced the city council to withdraw its licensing threat. The women called off the strike and achieved an improvement in their rate of pay.
Atlanta’s white power structure was forced to recognize that the women who had been their slaves less than 20 years prior were now a force to be reckoned with when they organized for justice at work and in society at large. Their courage and organizing skill set a precedent for the labor and civil rights struggles that would grip Atlanta and other parts of the South over the coming century.
There are similarities between the laundresses of 1881 and today’s fast food and retail workers, who are likewise neglected and disrespected by a power structure that resists efforts to raise the minimum wage.
Perhaps these low-wage workers who have lately come together to fight for a living wage and for the right to unionize will be inspired by the success of the trailblazing black women at the wash tubs of Atlanta, who didn’t give up until they had won respect and better compensation for their work.
John Curtis is a retired U.S. Postal Service letter carrier who lives in Surry. February is African-American History Month.