Former Slaves Went on Strike in 1881 Weeks before A World’s Fair in Atlanta

By Donna Patricia Ward

Imagine doing laundry without a washing machine or clothes dryer. Although some may remember their grandparents pulling out their washtubs, these modern luxuries spoiled us fast. In the 1880s, sending laundry out was the best option for many, particularly in the South where laundresses competed with each other by undercutting rates. This proved to be detrimental to household economies of the working poor. In Atlanta (as well as other southern cities) former slaves undertook the role of washing clothes. Merely 15 years removed from slavery, washerwomen were able to forge a community network that led to collective labor organizing.

As former slaves, dignity was an attribute that many freed people sought to achieve. Many left plantations and headed to Atlanta. For the emancipated, they had to prove that they were human beings and deserving of rights and liberties like whites. This was no easy task. For centuries, most people treated slaves as a mode of labor without legal rights. As Atlanta rose from the ashes of the Civil War, its promoters reinvented it as a New South city; forgiving of its former trespasses, yet determined to keep black citizens in a perpetual state of servitude. The black population demanded a place at the table, and in 1881 over 3,000 laundresses refused to wash another garment until the municipal government accepted a standard rate of pay. This is the story of the 1881 Atlanta Washerwomen’s Strike.

Black neighborhood in Atlanta in 1890. Library of Congress.

Atlanta

Southern cities became known as harsh and unforgiving for many freed slaves. In the months after the end of the Civil War, thousands of African Americans walked to Atlanta in search of dignity, long-separated family members, and a better life than that of enslavement. Most possessed no birth certificates, marriage certificates, or sales receipts for slaves. Many found it nearly impossible to find family members that had been “sold down the river.” Missionary groups and the Freedman’s Bureau attempted to find long-lost family, but a more pressing concern was to find the destitute “shelter, food, clothing, and work.”

Atlanta’s topography consisted of gracefully rolling hills. The city was nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, with numerous creeks, streams, and drainage ditches carrying rain, floodwaters, and sewage to the ocean. As the city rose from the ashes after the Civil War, its profit-egger boosters failed to lay water and sewage infrastructure to match their New South ideals. 1880s Atlanta stunk! The city had no water system beyond the central business district. Demands placed on the land for constructing new industries combined with rapid growth made the small creeks and ditches streams of raw sewage.

Private wells and springs became contaminated by flooded outdoor privies (toilets). Animals decayed where they fell dead, wealthy white neighborhoods simply dumped household garbage into shantytowns outside of the city’s limits. The stench grew even worse combined with the hog pens, slaughtering facilities, and animal excrement that made the city a contradiction in its modernization efforts.

Shermantown illustration from Harper’s Magazine May 1880. Wikipedia.

The cleanest district in the city was the one inside the central business district. Here, wealthy whites lived in large homes set back from the dirty streets. These old southern families once owned their household staff. After the 13th Amendment ended slavery, these former slave masters were forced to pay wages to their cooks, maids, child nurses, and laundresses. These domestic workers often lived in low-lying neighborhoods that had poor drainage, were prone to seasonal flooding, and often a few miles from the homes of their employers. Atlanta’s poor and working class neighborhoods were filled with row houses, tenements, and shanties.

From the wealthiest Atlantans to the poor, most residents hired washerwomen to clean clothes and household linens. This was no easy task in an era before electricity, running water, and washing machines. Throughout the nation, those at the lower echelons of society became the men and women carrying out the most laborious and undesirable jobs. Former male slaves often became sanitation workers, scrapping sewage and dead animals from city streets. Freed female slaves became domestic workers.