Posted by: kokoro | 28th Jan, 2009

Hunter, Domination and Resistance; Hall, Cotton Mill People

The Hunter reading discusses African American domestic laborers, particularly washerwomen, in Atlanta from the Reconstruction period to World War I. Of the class readings so far, I found this one to be the most interesting. The fact that domestic workers were able to exert their independence and fight white supremacy so strongly and successfully without explicit organization is pretty amazing, particularly right on the heels of emancipation.

The New South Movement was an effort by businessmen to promote industrial capitalism and attract northern capital following the Civil War. To draw northern interest, the South tried creating an image of docile Southern workers who were indifferent to class struggle. While the movement gained momentum, black domestic workers were exercising their newly gained independence, which was in opposition to the docile image businessmen were trying to cultivate. Household manual labor was an attempt by whites to restrict black workers’ social and economic opportunities. However, black domestic workers, particularly washerwomen, were able to fight back.

Quitting was common if workers were unhappy. Not only were laborers able to avoid direct conflict with their employers, they were also able to strengthen their bargaining position as the whites grew to believe that there was a dearth of labor. Quitting became such an issue that the Atlanta City Council passed a law in 1866 that required recommendations from previous employers before any hiring could take place. However, employers often didn’t follow this law, even though it was meant to protect them and maintain the system of white supremacy. Furthermore, while strikes were rare, they weren’t unheard of, including a washerwomen strike in 1881 where they fought for higher wages and to maintain their autonomy.

Politicians often ran on platforms that involved revoking labor rights from blacks, and during WWI Southern legislatures took advantage of the “work or fight” law passed by the federal government to draft unemployed men. However, in the South, it was used as an attempt to break the will of black workers. It was even turned against women, and those who were in violation of the law could be attacked or arrested. Nonetheless, black women were successful in lobbying to fight the legislation.

Black women in the South were also involved in secret societies. They pooled their wages and resources to support the sick, orphaned, and unemployed, and to create opportunities for personal enrichment and race advancement. While the organizations didn’t have explicit labor goals, they brought working class women together and could act in the form of trade unions if necessary. Overall, the washerwomen’s rebellion inspired other domestic workers and beyond to organize.

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