One night six years ago, on a quiet side street in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, I came across a photo album that had been put out with the trash. I lived around the corner, and I was walking home when I saw it sitting beneath a streetlamp on Lincoln Place.
It looked handmade, with a wooden cover bound with a shoelace. But it had been tied up with twine, like a bunch of old newspapers, and left atop a pile of recycling.
After hesitating a moment, I picked it up and took it home.The pages were fragile, and they cracked when I turned them, as if the album hadn’t been opened in a long time, but the photos were perfectly preserved. They seemed to chronicle the life of a black couple at midcentury: a beautiful woman with a big smile and a man who looked serious, or was maybe just camera-shy, and had served in World War II.
As I turned the pages, the scenery changed from country picnics to city streets and crowded dance halls in what appeared to be Harlem, and the couple went from youth to middle age. Looking at the album, I was struck by how joyful the photos were — and by the fact that as fabled as this era was, I had never seen a black family’s own account of that time.
Excepts from the book Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement by Premilla Nadasen
The sugar sweet nostalgia of the sassy black maid pervades Hollywood myth making and the yellow journalism of Mexicans coming to take our jobs blares from most news channels. Most forget that even today, black women (both native and immigrant) still do a significant amount of the low level domestic and health care work in this country. Black women always rebelled against the value assigned to their labor.Here are some profiles of the brave women who fought wage discrimination and remind us we still have a long way to go.
Geraldine Miller: Slaves no more
In 1935 investigative journalist Marvel Cooke and activist Ella Baker coauthored a widely circulated article about what they called the “slave market” of domestic labor. The article, published in the NAACP’s magazine, Crisis, cast light on an estimated 200 informal markets in New York City — essentially street corners — where African-American women waited in hopes of being hired for the day by white employers.
“Rain or shine, cold or hot, you will find them there — Negro women, old and young — sometimes bedraggled, sometimes neatly dressed … waiting expectantly for Bronx housewives to buy their strength and energy.”
Cooke and Baker highlighted the vulnerability of these workers: “Often, her day’s slavery is rewarded with a single dollar bill or whatever her unscrupulous employer pleases to pay. More often, the clock is set back for an hour or more. Too often she is sent away without any pay at all.”
Geraldine Miller was a worker leader who had never experienced the “slave markets” herself, nevertheless she used the stories she had heard to highlight the vulnerability of African American women in this occupation. The slave market stories also became a way to establish an agenda for reform. Miller used this story to establish boundaries for this labor and to assert that African American household workers would never again get down on their hands and knees to scrub floors.
In 1954 Miller relocated to New York City, where she ended up doing mainly domestic work and living in the Bronx a short distance from the site of the most notorious “slave markets” of the Depression. She recounted hearing stories from women who stood on Burnside Avenue, waiting to be selected for cleaning jobs.
“Sometimes they’d ask to see your knees and the women with the worst-scarred knees were hired first because they looked like they worked the hardest.”
Hearing these stories was transformative for Miller: “This is just one of the things that kind of woke me up.”
In 1971, Miller was riding the train to work in suburban New York City when she struck up a conversation with a woman who began to talk about “fringe benefits” for household workers and informed her about the Urban League’s organizing efforts. The idea of better working conditions for household workers immediately caught Miller’s attention. “I wanted it, and I wanted it with a passion,” she said.
She attended a meeting of the Professional Household Workers Union, a New York City group initiated and led by Benjamin McLaurin of the Urban League, and learned about the work of the NCHE and the upcoming national conference of domestic workers. Miller arranged for league sponsorship of a bus for a group of workers to travel to the meeting in Washington, DC.
To recruit workers, she created a leaflet that read: “Stop, Look, and Listen. Become Aware of Your Rights as a Household Worker.”
She recalled, “I went out on street corners especially near the trains and I gave them out to all the people that rode on my train.”
Miller mobilized 33 women to attend the national conference. Although she had no prior political experience, after returning home from the conference, Miller formed the Bronx Household Technicians and the New York State Household Technicians, eventually becoming a prominent organizer and leader in the Household Technicians of America.
Josephine Hulett: A working mother seeking advancement
Josephine Hulett was a single mother and household worker who formed the Youngstown Household Technicians in 1968. Two years later she became a field organizer for the National Committee on Household Employment, a middle-class organization that was interested in developing a network of domestic worker groups.
Hulett traveled around the country sharing her personal story with local organizations and encouraging them to participate in the first-ever national convention of household workers, which took place in 1971. Many household workers identified with the experiences Hulett shared of hardship, mistreatment, efforts at advancement and juggling work and single motherhood.
As a high school dropout with few job opportunities, Hulett turned to domestic work to support herself. Because she couldn’t afford paid child care, she left the baby with her ex-husband’s family during the day, and ventured out from her home in Girard, Ohio, near Youngstown, in search of day work. At her first job, she earned $25 a week for five and a half days. She paid eighty cents for bus fare, walking two and a half miles each way to avoid paying for an additional bus.
Her employer’s husband owned a produce company, yet she was given only a hot dog for lunch every day. She cared for four young children and cleaned a large house from top to bottom. Although she frequently worked late, she was never paid for overtime.
One day, when she left 30 minutes early to take her son to the doctor, her employer docked her pay. The next day she left at five o’clock and informed her boss she would never work overtime again. The following week, she was fired.
At her next job, Hulett accepted a meager salary of $22.50 a week, working for an elderly couple who had no small children living in the home. Despite the anticipated lighter workload, she cooked for the entire extended family on Friday nights and sometimes babysat grandchildren — all for no extra pay. When the family announced they were moving to Florida, they gave her no severance pay, no prior warning and no unemployment benefits.
Committed to improving her economic situation, Hulett studied part-time to earn her high school diploma. She then spent a year and a half and $285 — three months’ salary — taking a correspondence course to become a practical nurse. After completing it, she was shocked to learn that the course wasn’t accredited and she couldn’t practice in a medical facility.
Hoping to find work in the healthcare field, she looked for home-based nursing work — caring for an infant or an elderly or disabled person. Hulett encountered yet another obstacle, recalling, “I soon discovered that being a companion or baby nurse were jobs mostly for white women.”
She eventually found a job working for a young doctor, his wife, and their two babies, earning $35 a week for five days. In many ways it was a good position and a vast improvement from her previous jobs. She received wage increases, thoughtful gifts, paid vacations and sick leave. “They regarded me as a professional and an adult. They didn’t pretend that I was a ‘member of the family’ nor did they intrude on my life.”
Hulett’s story of her “good” employer also became important symbolically because it illustrated the possibility for just and respectable work and confirmed that there was nothing about the occupation that made it inescapably oppressive. Hulett’s story resonated with other black domestic workers.
She shared her struggles of living in the rural South and how her treatment on the job pegged her as separate and highly unequal. As a single mother, Hulett had to balance care for her son with full-time employment. She spent as much time with her son as she could and carved out one day a week to go out to lunch with him, “and that was an occasion he loved and looked forward to.”
As a black woman, she had few other job opportunities. And in those situations when she tried to assert her rights, she found herself unemployed. She was deeply concerned about the status and dignity of domestic workers and her treatment as a servant rather than a worker. “Even for a day worker, sometimes it seems the employer feels he or she owns you,” she said. “If you’re sick, some employers will call up the doctor to make sure you’re not lying.”
One morning at 4:30 a.m., Hulett saw an older black woman walking to work and offered her a ride. The woman had injured her hip while at work and had no sick leave or insurance. According to Hulett, her “employers refused to accept the fact that her injury had occurred while at work, and they refused to aid her in any way.”
Although she completed most of her work — sitting on a stool to wash dishes — she couldn’t take the child out for a walk. The employer, who was a stockbroker, hired a babysitter to do it for $2 a day and deducted the amount from the employee’s weekly wages. This woman’s story prompted Hulett to contact several other household workers and encouraged them to form the Youngstown Household Technicians in 1968. The sharing of stories and communal connection helped lay its foundation.
Carolyn Reed: Reclaiming humanity
Carolyn Reed, a household worker in New York, experienced the profound dehumanization associated with this labor, but also determined that establishing limits was absolutely essential.
When Reed took a live-in job for a wealthy family in Scarsdale, New York, she was welcomed as “one of the family.” That meant working from seven in the morning until midnight. In five years, Reed never received a raise, Social Security benefits, or a vacation.
“Then one night, the woman of the house — who had been having an affair and was very, very nervous — began to scream at me for not having done something she thought I should have done. … As she screamed I realized I wasn’t real to her. I mean, I wasn’t a person to her. … She had no respect for me, for what I did. … I was a servant to her, maybe even a slave. I remember while she was screaming I began saying ‘I don’t work for you any more.’ … And that was it. I packed my bags in the middle of the night; my husband, who was then my boyfriend, came and got me, and we took off.”
Reed devoted her afternoon break to organizing for the HTA. She entered the laundry rooms of apartment buildings: “The first rule of thumb is to get friendly with the doorman.”
Everyone in the neighborhood, not only the doormen, knew Reed. She also recruited at bus stops, service entrances, and neighborhood gourmet shops. Shopkeepers on Lexington Avenue regularly sent household workers her way. The Village Voice called her a “natural organizer at large.”
There were no clear geographical boundaries for household-worker organizing, especially as the workplace was often off-limits for outreach efforts. Reed firmly believed that household workers had power, which she suggested may take the form of a strike with the support of other service workers.
One reporter explained Reed’s position this way: “The idea of striking entire residential streets of Manhattan with delivery and repairmen honoring the picket lines doesn’t faze Reed in the least.”
Her sense of the potential to strike came from her view of the fundamentally indispensable labor power of household workers: “The houses could not be run. You could never know how helpless people can be — especially wealthy people — until you’ve worked in their homes. Just one day of true hardship or true inconvenience and they’d want to bargain.” Only through this kind of collective power, she argued, could wages be raised and working conditions improved. For Reed, “Housekeepers, mostly black women, are the last frontier of labor organizing.”
I have been following Imani Gandy’s tireless work for reproductive rights for a few years. She is passionate, knowledgeable & incredibly funny as the co-host of the This Week in Blackness podcast. Read more of her work of her work at RH| Reality Check, The Grio.com, AlterNet,
In Tennessee, pregnant Black women have much to fear as a bill that would subject them to disproportionately higher rates of incarceration and detention sits on Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk, awaiting his signature. The bill, SB 1391, would impose criminal penalties on mothers of newborns who have been exposed to addictive illegal or prescription drugs in utero. While the bill appears race-neutral, prosecutors and judges will wield the law against Black women more so than white women, based on a long tradition of deeply embedded racial stereotypes about Black motherhood. Should Gov. Haslam ignore the growing outcry against SB 1391 from pro-choice and anti-choice advocates alike, the law would likely lead to Black women being thrown in jail for up to 15 years for aggravated assault should they choose to carry a pregnancy to term while struggling with an addiction to illegal narcotics
Myth: African Americans don’t give to charitable causes. Fact: African American households give 25% more of their discretionary income to philanthropic activities than Whites (Chronicle of Philanthropy, 2003). The question is where do they give?
Black giving, and the organizations around which it is focused, are rooted in efforts to overcome oppression. The history of Black philanthropy shows that Blacks are motivated by those who are close to them — efforts that make a difference in the daily lives of other African Americans. In many cases, their philanthropy has been a response to discrimination: slavery and segregation in the past; inequality in education and the workplace today.
In other news water is wet……
Are minorities treated differently by the legal system? Systematic racial differences in case characteristics, many unobservable, make this a difficult question to answer directly. In this paper, we estimate whether judges differ from each other in how they sentence minorities, avoiding potential bias from unobservable case characteristics by exploiting the random assignment of cases to judges. We measure the between-judge variation in the difference in incarceration rates and sentence lengths between African-American and White defendants. We perform a Monte Carlo simulation in order to explicitly construct the appropriate counterfactual, where race does not influence judicial sentencing. In our data set, which includes felony cases from Cook County, Illinois, we find statistically significant between-judge variation in incarceration rates, although not in sentence lengths.
This is a great piece on the politics of black hair by Dr. Neal Lester. Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy. I have been natural for years because I live in town were hair dressers are stuck in the 1950’s. My hair dropped out because the small town hair dressers used a ridiculously strong perm on my hair over 10 years ago. The older member of my upper middle class family squawk about my hair every time they see me offer to get it breaded (which I gladly accept) or to perm it, which I flatly reject. When it was I child I begged to wear afro puffs and finally got permission in 7th grade. even when I finally got was allowed to get a perm in high school I would let out grow out because Ultra Sheen scalp burns we no joke and I want to look like Chaka Khan, which disturbed my mother to no end. I reallt hope that the current natural hair movement doesn’t go the way of my afro puffs and women can wear their hair anyway they want without criticism within and outside the black community.
African American women slaves covered their hair with bandannas or used axle grease, greasy dishwater, or lye to temporarily straighten their curly hair. An 1894 minstrel song by African American Gussie Davis, “When They Straighten All the Colored People’s Hair,” proclaimed that heaven would be the place where straight hair, even for black folks, would prevail. Some sources allege that slave women felt ashamed of their non-straight, non-flowing hair when compared with the mistresses’ or the little white children’s they were grooming. In the 1960s, some black women embraced the Afro as a symbol of political resistance and saw activist Angela Davis and Davis’ bold Afro as the embodiment of black power. Davis later lamented her disappointment that her politics had been reduced to a hairstyle, a hairstyle that in the 1980s and 1990s became a fad among black youngsters who saw the Afro and the Afro pick as more fashion than political statement.Continue Reading.
The race to the bottom for Tea Party infested states continues with greater degrees of whackadoodleness. In an attempt to outdo Arizona and Texas’ efforts to keep history as white as the finest grade of meth sold in said states, Tennessee Tea Party Politicians is seeking to remove references to slavery and mentions of the country’s founders being slave owners. The nutters are demanding for the second time that Tennessee lawmakers change state laws governing school curricula. The group called for textbook selection criteria to include: “No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership.”
That means Slavery is out, Jim Crow is out, Lynching out (except Leo Frank and the mass Italian lynchings in 1891), Native American genocide and the Trail of Tears is out, Chinese Exclusion Act is out and the Japanese internment & The Guantanamo Bay detention camp is out. I could go on but, but I think you have the picture. 49% of 55 men at Constitutional Convention owned slaves. This doesn’t include Ben Franklin, Richard Bassett and John Dickinson who owned slaves for the majority of their lives and manumitted them before 1776. Therefore, the majority of the Founders were slave owners.This doesn’t fit in with Michelle Bachmann’s deluded fever dream that the Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to end slavery and that black children were better off as chattel. Many apologists like to point out the faux abolitionist sentiments of Thomas Jefferson as proof of the Founder’s disdain for slavery. Who can really accept the words of a man who made a 13 year old slave his concubine, produced six black kids and said that black women are the preferred lover of orangoutangs?. White supremacists still use this quote today, dreaming of the days when they could rape black women with impunity.
I think part of the anxiety multicultual education the desire to keep the idea that individual whiteness equals greatness. One can always think “I may live in a trailer park, be on meth with three fatherless children but at least I am white.” The vast majority of African Americans have whites ancestry & 10% of whites have African ancestry. Science has proven that skin color is not an accurate barometer of whiteness. If much of your identity is tied up with the fact that your European ancestry ties you to the Founding Father’s, you need to let that go because most African Americans do too.