Black Woman Magic: The Atlanta Laundry Workers’ Strike of 1881

Imagine that each day you gather up the soiled sheets, shirts, diapers and underpants of another family. You go from house to house doing this until you have a mound of stinking, dirty laundry that you tie into a giant bundle and hoist atop of your head.

Then you walk a mile, maybe 2, joined along the way by other black women bearing similar loads. Eventually, you come to a backyard dotted with cauldrons. You make the lye soap by hand. You haul the water to fill the cauldrons and build fires to heat the water. Then you spend hours beating the clothes in the hot soapy water with a big wooden paddle. But your work as a laundress or “washer woman” has only begun. There’s still drying, ironing, folding and delivery to do.

How much would you expect to be paid for the tasks?

It was often less than $1 a day or as little as $8 a month for each of the hundreds of black women who toiled as laundresses or “washer women” in Atlanta in 1881.

So in July of that year, as the city prepared to host the International Cotton Exposition to show off what a “willing” labor force it had — as New South champion and Atlanta Constitution editor Henry Grady would describe the city’s workers — the washer women decided to go on strike.

An Atlanta History Center exhibit on the Laundry Workers’ Strike of 1881, during which more than 3,000 African-American laundresses stopped work for weeks, demanding fair wages.

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The strike was an early post-Civil War example of the power black women exercised when they acted collectively, despite segregation. In order to get fair pay for hard, dangerous work, the laundresses told their white employers to wash their own dirty clothes.

Many of these black women lived on Atlanta’s south side, having come from the countryside and former plantations during Reconstruction looking for work. But employment for most formerly enslaved women was limited to domestic labor, common labor or being a laundress.

In some ways, there were advantages to being a laundry worker, said Tera W. Hunter, a Princeton history professor and author of “To ‘Joy My Freedom,” an examination of the Atlanta strike and the organizing efforts of newly emancipated black women. Domestic workers often had to live with the white families they worked for and, as a result, were isolated. Laundry women had more independence and worked in communal settings where there was more privacy and strength in numbers.

“It was the laundry workers who often took the lead in organizing because they didn’t work long hours under the supervision of a white woman,” Hunter said.

What started as a group of 24 laundresses, who dubbed themselves “The Washing Society,” swelled to more than 3,000 in three weeks, Hunter said. Some whites called them the “Washing Amazons.” The women wanted no less than $1 per pound of laundry. That would have been a dramatic increase over what they had been getting.

Two Atlanta Constitution articles during the Washer Women’s Strike of 1881: The article on the left, from July 21, reports on the early days of the strike. The excerpt on the right, from Aug. 3, includes a letter that the women wrote to Mayor Jim English. 

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“Even if they’d agreed on a wage with their employers, if they didn’t get that wage when they delivered the laundry, they had no recourse,” said Calindra Lee, vice president at the Atlanta History Center, who curated a permanent exhibit at the center that tells the story of the strike. “An employer might say, ‘I’m not paying you this week,’” or offer the woman cast-off clothing or household items instead of money for her labor, Lee said.

Most people in the city sent their clothes out to be laundered because the work was so hard and time consuming, Lee said. The strike drove that point home. Laundry piled up. And the laundresses showed the city the crucial role they played in its operation.

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Things in the city became so tense, the organizers were arrested and the City Council got involved to break the strike. The council considered legislation that would have charged the women a business tax of $25 a year. In a letter to the editor of the Constitution, the women fired back.

“We, the members of our society, are determined to stand 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 … will do it before we will be defeated, and then we will have full control of the city’s washing at our own prices. … We mean business this week or no washing.”

But the threat of the license did shake their movement, as did the arrests. And landlords and other business people retaliated against the strikers, Hunter said. The laundry workers never got a set wage as they’d demanded, but they did show the power of low-wage, African-American, female workers to disrupt the status quo. As for the New South claims that its workforce was docile and willing, Lee said, “These women proved otherwise.”

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