During the summer of 1881, African-American domestics organized a strike for higher wages and to maintain autonomy in the work place. In the article, Domination and Resistance: The Politics of Wage Household Labor in New South Atlanta, Tera Hunter examines the plight of newly emancipated black women domestic workers who actively resisted the terms of their labor in Atlanta. Her focus is on how these women shape the meaning of freedom through workplace resistance, the exercise of political rights and institution building during the latter part of the nineteenth century. The purpose of this essay is to examine the covert ways African-American women domestic workers constructed their world of work, negotiation, resistance and community.
Hunter begins her analysis by integrating the experiences of African-American women workers into the broader examination of political and economic conditions in the New South. According to Hunter, the period between 1877 and 1915 is critical to understanding the social transformations in most southern cities and complicating this transformation are the issues of race, class, and gender. The examination of the lives of black domestic workers reveals the complexity of their struggles to keep their autonomy with white employers and city officials. For example, African-American women built institutions and frequently quit their jobs in response to the attempts by southern whites to control their labor and mobility. Hunter carefully situates these individual tactics of resistance in the New South capitalist development and attempts by whites to curtail the political and social freedoms of emancipated slaves.
African-American women migrating to Atlanta after the Emancipation found themselves segregated and with limited job opportunities. Because of the disparity between black men and women, Hunter notes the importance of wage work for single, divorced or widowed women charged with the responsibility for taking care of their families. She continues, “Washerwomen represented the largest single category of waged household workers in Atlanta…Working as a laundress enabled these women to live at home, work six days a week, involve family members, and create a community among working women.” The community based nature of the domestic works proved invaluable to the efforts of the black community to organize effectively against the continued assault as autonomous workers. This strong foundation according to Hunter, “demonstrates why washerwomen were the most outspoken leaders in the domestic workers’ strikes documented in the South.”
One of the most dramatic examples of an organized workers’ protest occurred in Atlanta in the summer of 1881. African-Americans led the fight to curtail the racist and sexist execution of the “work or fight” laws. The intent of these laws were to contain the black body by either forcing workers to accept low wages or forcing them to enlist in World War One. By utilizing, the...