From slaves to strikers
By DEBORAH A. MILES
Life in the South after the Civil War was a time of transition for the more than 3 million African Americans who were freed in 1863.
The brutal war left the land destroyed, the economy was evolving, political institutions were overrun by outsiders and society was in an upheaval. In 1865, the federal government stepped in and initiated the Freedman’s Bureau, an agency designed to help former slaves by providing food, education and support. More than 200,000 freed slaves were taught to read and write.
By the 1880s, Atlanta was one of the first cities to begin developing, even though two decades had passed since the war. The city had primitive water and sewer systems and malodorous trash lined the unpaved streets. But to lure northern businesses, Atlanta’s politicians and businessmen touted it as a new southern urban center with a large workforce.
Black men became laborers, while others were hired by the Post Office or Treasury Department. But it was a different scenario for black women. The overwhelming majority performed domestic work, mostly for white households. They cooked, cleaned and cared for children. Black women started working as laundresses between age 10 and 16, and worked well into their 60s. Atlanta had more “washerwomen” than male common laborers.
The least desirable of domestic work was doing laundry, as the South did not have commercial laundries that were available in the North. Washerwomen took on this role during a time when cotton clothing became more available. Most families farmed out their laundry, even poor whites.
Washerwomen made soap from homemade lye and starch, and cut wooden barrels in half to make tubs. They gathered wood to feed fires to heat gallons of water that they carried from wells or ponds. They washed, boiled and rinsed clothing, linens and diapers, then hung them outside to dry. They pressed the clothes with heavy irons heated from the same hearths they used to cook for their own families.
Although they had to walk several miles to collect heavy bundles of laundry, working at home meant no direct employer supervision. For many of the washerwomen, the desire to distance themselves from a “master” was a high priority. This paid dividends, compared to their $4 monthly earnings, as they were able to assert their independence and establish self-respect. It was a way to differentiate their new status as freed people from the oppressive experiences of slavery.
These women devised strategies that included achieving literacy, organizing politically and formalizing marriage ties that had been denied them as slaves. In many cases, the washerwomen were the driving force behind newly organized churches and civic associations.
In July 1881, twenty laundresses formed The Washington Society and asked for a raise to a uniform rate of $1 for each dozen pounds of wash. They went door-to-door to build their ranks, and used church meetings to spread the word. Within three weeks, the group had swelled to more than 3,000 members, including some white women, and they called a strike.
Within a month, authorities arrested the women and fined them $25 for canvassing the city to increase their ranks, and called it “disorderly conduct.” Even though $25 was the equivalent of several months of wages, the striking washerwomen held their ground and prepared a response to Atlanta’s mayor, which in part read, “We will have full control of the city’s washing at our own prices, as the city has control of our husband’s work and their prices. We hope to hear from your council. We mean business this week or no washing.”
Atlanta’s town fathers conceded as the organized washerwomen’s show of resolve also inspired and created unrest among cooks, maids and nurses. The washerwomen’s wages were increased due to the strike, but it mostly created an awareness of the integral role that black women played in the new southern economy, and the power of solidarity.