Black Women Domestics as Community Organizers

98% of all Black women wage-earners in 1880s Atlanta worked as domestics starting around adolescence and working until their mid-sixties or later. Household workers generally had to fulfill many roles. Wages ranged from $4 to $8 a month though some women earned $10 to $12 a month. Younger and single women general maids and child-nurses to contribute to their parent’s income. Old and married women tended to do cooking and washing. These occupations offered time and flexibility as married women got to work from home.

Atlanta had the highest concentration of domestics per capita due to an influx of white migrants that were wage-earners. The average white household in Atlanta could afford the services of washerwomen though middle-class homes would hire cooks or general domestics. Upper-middle-class homes could afford a child-nurse while elite white families staffed all positions.

Black Women Have Always Been Paid Low Wages for their Work

Employers often were more willing to spend more money annually on inconsequential expenses than they did provide adequate wages for the workers. Other employers cheated their wage earners. Sometimes they would give them items in lieu of cash without the worker’s consent. Also, they could face deductions to wages if they didn’t behave as the employer liked. Furthermore, the wages they earned were low compared to the average at that time.

Workers also stole breaks by pretending to be ill or sloughing off at work. In the northeast, most domestics lived in the home of their employers. Atlanta women not only lived alone but also frequently quit or pilfered the table scraps and dry goods of their employers.

Black women didn’t earn enough for fresh foods and dry goods. White people responded to Black women scavenging by calling authorities to remove garbage dumps. Some people on Summer Hill still raised their own food for instance with some Black men having plots of land on edge of town in the 1880s. Others would shop from street vendors. Those who could afford to invest in their own property. For example, Elizabeth Pope and her husband Alfred opened a store in Summer Hill, owning over $1,000 property by 1873. Annie Johnson, a seamstress, had a similar amount of property in 1880 but relied on the help of her mother who was a washerwoman in Jenningstown.

Black Women Have Always had to Work

Most Black women in Atlanta after the Civil War had to share the burden of wage labor with spouses. Black women got the jobs via newspaper ads or employment agencies and negotiated during the hiring process. Though Black men got paid more, they faced higher unemployment. Black people preferred women who didn’t work outside the home due to sexual harassment and the displacement of the value of Black women’s labor away from their own homes.

Cooks tended to demand the highest maids while kitchen sculleries earned the lowest. Laundresses were able to accept additional clients or seek help from family members The labor remained difficult because technological advances hadn’t reached every home. Duties and work conditions depended on the employer’s economic means including additional servants. Domestics generally did household chores.

Black Washerwomen and Kinship

Laundry was the most difficult job for domestics. Most laundresses worked in their own homes and neighborhoods. Flexibility was the main advantage of laundry work. Washerwoman was the archetypical domestic laborer in Atlanta with more Black women in this role than in other occupations. There were more women as washerwomen than male common laborers. In the 1880s Black women increasingly got hired in boardinghouses, brothels, and hotels. Other Black women did a la carte meal services or lunch carts as well as catering services.

Laundry workers were important to the black community – a washtub center of Shermantown village and one Georgia town named its Shakerag. Laundry work encouraged women to work in communal spaces within their neighborhood. This enabled them to create informal networks of reciprocal social support. These kinship networks also helped manage child care because the communal setting helped them salvage resources within their own immediate environment.

Black Women Have Always Fended for Themselves

Black women engaged in informal processes of mutual aid via their social networks, which they institutionalized into churches and secret societies:

Mutual aid and benevolent associations, also called secret societies, with antebellum roots in many Southern cities, rivaled churches in their popularity. They provided benefits for widows, orphans, and ill or unemployed members, as well as outlets for education, trade association, and political and social expression (Hunter 1997: 70).

These groups had rituals like initiation, oath-taking, and self-improvement ceremonies. Mutual aid and benevolent societies relied on monthly fees to pool resources. Black people in Georgia gave about $16.5 million to lodges between 1870 and 1920. These resources were used to provide services like health care and death benefits. 

Some of these groups worked in concert with or emerged out of churches. They included the Daughters of Samaria. They pooled their resources to become the first black secret order in Atlanta to purchase a property. The group sent items to Memphis and Savannah during the yellow fever epidemic of the 1870s. The Morning Star Lodge of the Good Samaritans and Daughters of Samaria staged a parade in 1888 for their twelfth anniversary that went from Peach Street toward Bethel AME Church. Other groups included the Daughters of Bethel, Sisters of Friendship, Sisters of Love, and the Daughters of Zion.

Black Women Have Always Been Political

Other groups that Black women participated in included labor unions and political leagues. In 1868 William Finch found the Mechanics and Laborers’ Union, which bridged labor issues and the Republican Party. Laundry workers formed the Washing Societies in the 1870s and 1880s. Many women’s groups acted as subsidiaries of men’s groups. The Rising Daughters of Liberty Society promoted political education among members and the wider community. The Gospel Aid Society placed men and women in executive positions. Other groups included the Order of Good Samaritan, the Union Benevolent Society, and the Daughters of Samaria. Working-class women had a visible role in these and other groups like the True Sisters of Honor and Daughters of Bethlehem.

Unless otherwise stated, all insights noted here are from Tera W. Hunter’s To ‘Joy My Freedom