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.
I have always been ridiculously proud of being black. My parents filled me with the stories of those who fought for Caribbean independence like Julian Fedon, Queen Nanny and Toussaint L’Ouverture. For the few years my family lived in Canada, my dad owned a black book store and I loved nothing better than to sit in a corner reading a book and listening to grown folk talk about history and politics. I learned about the ongoing struggle in America and the rest of the black diaspora an to reverse centuries of racism and imperialism at a very early age.Spending my formative years in London and Toronto I got read and hear about so many heroes that bucked the restrictions of antebellum and Jim Crow America without the malignant dynamics that serve to minimize and disregard the acts of these heroes in this country.I was deeply impressed by the fighting spirit of black people of all walks of life. By the time I was nine I was recite more facts about black accomplishments than a J. A. Rodgers book!
Since I was surrounded by this knowledge I never got the idea that math and science was for white men. I competed and won borough and city wide science fairs. I went to natural science camp and I am proud alumni of the Bronx High School of Science. It wasn’t until my tenure as a doctoral student I got the message that black excellence was not to be seen or heard. I was asked by several professors indirectly and directly to tone down my rhetoric when it came to issues of race because I was making white students uncomfortable. One vile little weasel of a professor actually told me I had to learn “how to talk to white people!” In my doctoral program the feelings of whites were more important than my education, a lesson that was a far more bitter pill to swallow than when illness stopped me completing my degree.
This is why women like Katherine Johnson (portrayed by Tajari P. Henson in the film Hidden Figures) has my undying admiration. She served this country when she didn’t have the right to vote. She helped this country garner the prestige of winning the space race when she couldn’t buy a home next to her white colleagues. She had to temper her brilliance, yet excel at her work in era where the toxic brew of racism and sexism was the norm. I doubt my pride would have let me reach the heights of technical brilliance that she and her colleagues did. Ms. Johnson performed her duties with quiet dignity and we are now able to bask in the glow of her accomplishments and show the next generation able to how fantastic black female mathematicians and scientists can be.
Johnson was born in 1918 in the little town of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Johnson was a research mathematician, who by her own admission, was simply fascinated by numbers. Fascinated by numbers and smart to boot, for by the time she was 10 years old, she was a high school freshman–a truly amazing feat in an era when school for African-Americans normally stopped at eighth grade for those could indulge in that luxury.Her father, Joshua, was determined that his bright little girl would have a chance to meet her potential. He drove his family 120 miles to Institute, West Virginia, where she could continue her education through high school. Johnson’s academic performance proved her father’s decision was the right one: Katherine skipped though grades to graduate from high school at 14, from college at 18.
Continued at: Katherine Johnson: The Girl Who Loved to Count | NASA
These women may be lesser known to most Americans, but they are my heroes and
I walk gratefully in their footsteps.
“There’s a Chinese saying, ‘Women hold up half the world,”‘ the late civil rights historian and NAACP chair Julian Bond told NBC News in 2005. “In the case of the civil rights movement it’s probably three-quarters of the world.”
Here are just nine of other women who made indelible contributions to the civil rights era:
Google celebrated Flora Nwanzuruahu Nwapa, Nigerian Igbo author with a doodle on her 86th posthumous birthday yesteday.
Flora Nwapa, the mother of modern African literature and forerunner to a generation of African women writers, is acknowledged as the first African woman novelist to be published in the English language in Britain and achieve international recognition, with her first novel Efuru being published in 1966 by Heinemann Educational Books.
Hello folks! It has been a long time since I have posted to this blog. In an effort to get over the shock and horror initiated by impeding elevation of the Orange Menace to PEETUS, I’m going to try to translate my burgeoning habit of “old lady yells at cloud” into bringing you all the black lady news with my own brand of trenchant cultural criticism. I also hope to upload most of my scholarly work on my sister blog site Black Is…Black Ain’t in the hopes that some shiny new blackademic will get interested in my ramblings and continue the research I couldn’t.
Well on to the topic at hand. With the election of Cheeto McPissParty we live in the post-truth world so presciently described in George Orwell’s 1984:
Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge, which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.
In the America headed by the Orange Shitgibbon, an Attorney General with a documented history of racism, xenophobia, homophobia and anti-disability statements and legislation is what is needed to make ‘MERIKA GREAT AGAIN and honoring women of color for their contributions to making this country a more equitable land is racist identity politics. After the run of the African American Lady Liberty coin, there will press Asian-American, Hispanic-American and Native-American sets also. So if you want to piss off the white supremacist faction of the supporters of upcoming junta buy some gold ladies for posterity!
As an Africana/film historian and person with common sense, it has always gotten on my nerves that individuals refer to a sports as white or black. It is if America has massive amnesia and forgot that about 110 years ago blacks were not considered super athletes but sickly, frail creature prone to certain diseases, destined to “naturally die off” like the American Indian. Sports stardom is based on hard work, natural talent, access, luck and MONEY. Serena and Venus’s father worked hard to get them access so their talent and work ethic could be admired by the world and Tiger’s dad was featuring his little golf prodigy at three years of age. As black athletes become contenders in swimming, gymnastics, hockey, speed skating and other so called “white” sports we sometimes forget the people like Pete Brown, Arthur Ashe and the incomparable Althea Gibson who opened the door for today’s superstars.
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.”