African American laundry womens strike of 1881

With slavery less than two decades behind them, thousands of African American home laundry workers went on strike for higher wages, respect for their work and control over how their work was organized. In the summer of 1881, the home laundry workers took on Atlanta’s business and political establishment, and gained so much support that they threatened to call a general strike, which would have shut the city down.

Life as a laundry worker in 1880s Atlanta

Almost all (98 percent) of these African American working women were household workers. On average, women began working as domestics between ages 10 and 16 and worked until 65 or older. In the 1880s, more African American women worked as home laundry workers than any other type of domestic work. The city had more home laundry workers than male common laborers. In contrast, only a small portion of white women worked for pay, and in fact, the average white family could afford the services of at least a home laundry worker.

Home laundry workers worked long, tiring hours and their wages ranged from $4 to $8 a month. These wages changed little over time, and home laundry workers would increase their earnings by adding on clients or getting help from their children. Home laundry workers worked mostly in their own homes or in their neighborhoods with other women. They worked outside in the shade when weather permitted, or inside their homes, hanging clothes all over the house to dry.

They made their own soap from lye, starch from wheat bran and washtubs from beer barrels cut in half. Their work began on Monday mornings and continued throughout the week until the clean clothes were delivered on Saturday. Throughout the week, they would carry gallons of water from wells, pumps or hydrants for washing, boiling and rinsing clothes. Then, after hanging the clothes to dry, the women would iron, alternately using several heavy irons at a time.

The summer of 1881

In July of 1881, 20 home laundry workers met to form a trade organization, the Washing Society. They were seeking higher pay, respect and autonomy over their work, and established a uniform rate at a dollar per dozen pounds of wash. With the help of African American ministers throughout the city, they held a mass meeting and called a strike to achieve higher pay at the uniform rate.

The Washing Society established door-to-door canvassing to widen its membership, urging home laundry worker all over the city to join or honor the strike. They also involved white home laundry workers who were less than 2 percent of home laundry workers in the city — an extraordinary sign of interracial solidarity for the time.

In three weeks, the Washing Society grew from 20 to 3,000 strikers.

By August, municipal authorities were taking direct action, arresting strikers and fining members who were making house visits. The home laundry workers were not deterred. But the white establishment was so agitated that city politicians got involved. The City Council proposed that members of any home laundry workers’ organization had to pay an annual fee of $25, and then offered nonprofit tax status to businesses that wanted to start commercial laundries. Even though the $25 fee would mean several months of wages, the strikers were not discouraged. They responded with a letter to the mayor, agreeing to pay the fees rather than be defeated. “We mean business … or no washing,” the letter stated.

The resolve of the striking home laundry workers despite the arrests, fines and proposed fees inspired other domestic workers. Cooks, maids and nurses began demanding higher wages. Hotel workers were going on strike. Unlike strikes in the past, employers — aware of the magnitude of the African American labor unrest — weren’t confident that they could find replacement workers. So the following week, the City Council rejected the proposed fees. The home laundry workers had prevailed.

Adapted by Beatrice Lumpkin from Working Women Network. Join the network at .