Many people are aware of the civil rights movement in the post-World War II period of U.S. history but may not know how the role of some black washerwomen in Atlanta sparked the movement.
In the 1880s, most households in Atlanta, Ga., depended on black women for all their domestic jobs – they cleaned, cooked, nursed children and washed clothes.
But these black women, despite doing all the hard jobs, were poorly paid and even though the Civil War had ended, they were still disrespected by a power structure that saw no need to increase their wages.
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“With such a pivotal role in domestic labour, 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,” said John Curtis in an article on bangordailynews.com.
Despite the poor living conditions of these black women, they were ignored by officials and earned only $4 to $8 per month, an amount that never went up.
Twenty laundresses, who couldn’t take it anymore, met in a church in Summerhill and established a labour organization called the Washing Society in July 1881.
At the said meeting, they vowed to strike until their wages were increased. The 20 washerwomen subsequently went from house-to-house in the city, organizing laundresses to their cause, including some white laundresses.
Within three weeks, 3,000 women had joined the strike and held frequent meetings at black churches with support from church ministers.
Political leaders in Atlanta, who feared that the strike may spread to other sectors and ruin their hopes of attracting investors to the city, started arresting laundresses for causing “disorder.”
The authorities also proposed that any laundress who joined an organization such as the Washing Society would have to pay $25 before getting a license from the city.
But the women were not perturbed and they sent a letter to the mayor that read:
“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.”
As dirty laundry continued to pile up and many more laundresses joined the strike, city authorities were compelled to withdrawing their licensing threat.
The women eventually called off the strike after receiving an increment in their pay.
The 1881 Washerwomen’s Strike in Atlanta became one of most successful action protests carried out by African Americans in the late 19th century.
The women’s strike got both moral and financial support from black churches, mutual aid societies, and fraternal organizations throughout the city.
The strike would later establish a precedent for other labour protests in the city and civil rights activities in the South.