MARTA’s ‘Maid Routes’ shuttled domestic workers to affluent neighborhoods

Black voters helped defeat the city's first MARTA referendum in 1968, in part because that plan didn't take the needs of blue-collar workers into account. A reworked plan with more Black input passed three years later. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Black voters helped defeat the city's first MARTA referendum in 1968, in part because that plan didn't take the needs of blue-collar workers into account. A reworked plan with more Black input passed three years later. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

When Atlanta’s civic and business leaders first laid the foundation for mass transit expansion in the 1960s, the needs of the city’s Black population were largely ignored.

More than half of downtown Atlanta was covered in parking lots, and local officials wanted better ways to get people to and from work each day. There was a private bus system in place, but local leaders sought to expand public transportation in the heart of the booming Southern metropolis.

A 1968 referendum to expand transit through property taxes failed, in part because it overlooked the needs of the Black riders who would account for most of its ridership.

Among those riders were the city’s domestic workers. Comprised mainly of Black women, these workers would leave their homes early in the morning and travel north to more affluent areas of town, where they cleaned homes, cooked meals, washed laundry and looked after the children of their white employers.

By all accounts, the hours were long, their wages were low and their work often went underappreciated.

Dorothy Bolden, an Atlanta civil rights activist and labor organizer, spent much of her life advocating for these skilled workers, many of whom spent more time toiling away inside expensive homes than they did with their own children and families.

After working to get more Black input in MARTA's planning decisions, activist Dorothy Bolden went on to found the National Domestic Workers Union of America. (J.C. Lee/AJC 1980 photo)

Credit: AJC File Photo

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Credit: AJC File Photo

Bolden was also among a group of Black leaders who came out against the first MARTA referendum, forcing planners back to the drawing board to come up with a more inclusive system that benefitted African Americans.

“There was a huge need for transportation for working people to get out to wherever they were going,” said Georgia’s former state treasurer Tommy Hills, who researched the creation of MARTA for his Master’s degree in history. But such an undertaking wasn’t possible without collaboration from the Black community.

“And I think the white leaders figured that out pretty quickly,” Hills said.

After the 1968 referendum failed, more Black business leaders were appointed to MARTA’s board.

“Whether it was the influence of new board members or just a growing awareness that African Americans had increased their voting strength, the MARTA board seemed to reach out and involve the African American community in planning for the next referendum to a much greater extent,” wrote Hills, who based his 2004 history on extensive interviews with the civic leaders who helped put MARTA on the map.

In 1971, a MARTA referendum based on a one-cent sales tax was approved by voters. This time it had the had the backing of more blue-collar Black workers, including people like Bolden, who founded the National Domestic Workers’ Union of America three years earlier.

The daughter of a chauffeur and a housekeeper, Bolden started washing diapers at age 9 when she went to work in homes with her mother.

She went on to become active in the civil rights movement along with her neighbor, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. One day Bolden stopped him while waiting on a bus. Someone, she told him, ought to be concerned about the plight of domestic workers, toiling 12 hours a day and making about $35 a week.

“That’s a good job for you,” the Rev. King told Bolden, motivating her to establish the union for household workers.

Under MARTA, the so-called “Maid Routes” that shuttled Atlanta’s domestic workers north each day were expanded. The buses, numbered in the 700s, would pick up maids and nannies each morning and drop them off in affluent white areas — neighborhoods in Buckhead, along Mt. Paran Road and on Northside Drive.

In the evenings, the buses would pick the women up and take them back.

Atlanta maids leaving work ride MARTA bus route 706 from the Mt. Paran Rd. area to downtown Atlanta in 2001. (Charlotte B. Teagle/AJC 2001 photo)

Credit: (CHARLOTTE B. TEAGLE/ File photo).

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Credit: (CHARLOTTE B. TEAGLE/ File photo).

“The routes would pick up mainly ladies at the Lindbergh Center Station and transport them to the different areas,” said Alicia Dunn-Garcia, a customer information officer who has worked for MARTA nearly three decades. “There were just a few stops in those areas, and service was only in the mornings and afternoons ... The service was needed to provide transportation for housekeepers and nannies to get to work for wealthy families.”

The routes weren’t widely publicized and often omitted from maps entirely, so information about them was typically spread by word-of-mouth or by calling the transit agency directly.

There were 22 such “maid routes” still in existence when MARTA eliminated them in the early 2000s due to budget cuts.

Dunn-Garcia still remembers fielding phone calls from frustrated housekeepers and the families that employed them.

“Some employers and employees were upset that the service had been discontinued because they had to find other means to get to and from work,” she said.

Some families called to inquire about which bus stops were closest to their homes. Others, Dunn-Garcia said, drove to the Lindbergh Center Station each morning to pick up the women themselves.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the transit agency said MARTA “acknowledges the historical significance of the colloquially named ‘maid routes’, which provided essential transportation for Black domestic workers between train stations and Atlanta neighborhoods.”

“These routes were not widely publicized and relied on word-of-mouth communication within the communities they served,” the statement said, adding: “MARTA remains committed to learning from our past as we strive to provide equitable, accessible transit service and meet the needs of our diverse ridership.”

Bolden, who served as an adviser to Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, died in 2005. But she is still widely remembered as a staunch advocate for domestic workers in Atlanta and beyond.

Civil rights leaders Dorothy Bolden is memorialized in a series of murals, including this one by Fabian Williams on Murphy Avenue. (Courtesy of Jen Farris)

Credit: Handout by Jen Farris

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Credit: Handout by Jen Farris

She rode city buses, identifying women who were housekeepers and recruiting them for her movement. She fought for overtime pay, Social Security benefits and better working hours. But her union also established boundaries for the types of work they believed maids should not be asked to do: things like climbing ladders to wash windows or scrubbing floors on their hands and knees.

One requirement was that those wishing to join Bolden’s organization and use its job referral list had to register to vote.

”I don’t want to be out here pushing for you and you not registered to vote,” Bolden told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1986. “We aren’t Aunt Jemima women, and I sure to God don’t want people to think we are. We are politically strong and independent.”