Atlanta’s role in Labor Day, as U.S. Labor Department erases day’s violent origins

By David Pendered

A strike in 1881 by black laundresses in Atlanta was a precursor of strikes across the nation that led to President Grover Cleveland declaring the national Labor Day holiday in 1894.

atlanta washerwoman strike

A strike in 1881 by black Atlanta laundresses, over respect and higher wages, was a precursor to the national unrest that led to the creation of Labor Day in 1894. Credit: medium.com

The Atlanta incident unfolded a short 16 years after the conclusion of the Civil War. Atlanta was attracting all kinds of new residents, folks who flocked to join in the city’s growing economic prosperity. Black women comprised part of the influx.

Almost all the black working women worked as domestic help. More of them worked as laundresses than in any other type of work. The city had more female laundresses than male laborers.

The women were paid from $4 to $8 a month. They made their own soap; carried water from wells, pumps or hydrants to wash, boil and rinse clothes; and ironed the clean clothes with irons warmed by a fire, according to a report:

  • “’I could clean my hearth good and nice and set my irons in front of the fire and iron all day [with]out stopping….I cooked and ironed at the same time,’ said laundress Sarah Hill.”

The fledgling protest started with 20 laundresses and within three weeks grew to 3,000 supporters. With support from black ministers, the laudresses did not flinch:

washerwoman

Washerwomen typically made their own soap, carried water from a well, pump or hydrant to boil, wash and rinse clothing, did the work, hung the clothes to dry, and ironed them with heavy irons that were warmed by a fire. Credit: blackthen.com

  • “By August, municipal authorities were taking direct action, arresting strikers, fining members and making house visits. The laundresses were not deterred. But the white establishment was so agitated that city politicians got involved….
  • “In the post-Civil War South, the laundresses refused to be seen as subordinate. These laundresses saw the strike as asserting their freedom and identity and gaining respect for their work.
  • “Unlike past strikes, employers – aware of the magnitude of the black labor unrest – weren’t confident they could find replacement workers. So the following week, the City Council rejected the proposed fees [on laundresses who joined the Washing Society to promote solidarity] . The laundresses had prevailed.
  • “In the end, the strike not only raised wages – it, more importantly, established laundresses – and all black women workers – as instrumental to the New South’s economy. The white establishment was forced to acknowledge that black women workers, who were former slaves, were not invisible.”

This account comes from a report posted on aflcio.com, which was reproduced in a report posted on libcom.org and a report by atlantasupperwestside.com. A separate report was posted during Black History Month by progressive.org.

The report on aflcio.com credits two academic treatises – a book by Princeton University history Professor Tera Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War (Harvard University Press, 1997); and an article by Carl Greenfeld, The Identity of Black Women in the Post-Bellum Period, 1865-1885, that appeared in the Binghamton (University) Journal of History (Spring 1999).

Meanwhile, the history of Labor Day as presented by the U.S. Department of Labor doesn’t mention the actions taken by the laundresses in Atlanta. Nor does it mention any of the other labor unrest that is often cited as compelling Cleveland to recognize the nation’s workers. The words “strike” and “protests” do not appear on the page.

labor page, missing

This page pops up from a U.S. Department of Labor link titled, ‘Former DOL Historian on the History of Labor Day.’ A link to the same historian from a story on forbes.com also results in an error message. Credit: dol.gov

A Labor Department website has been removed, the page titled, Former DOL Historian on the History of Labor Day. The subtext states: “Linda Stinson, a former U.S. Department of Labor historian, provided some answers to common questions about the history of Labor Day in 2011.” The link opens a page that states:

  • “Page Not Found
  • “Oh, no! We can’t find that page.”

Stinson was quoted in a 2014 report by forbes.com, in which her views track others taught in at least some history classes:

  • “’[M]ost historians emphasize one specific event in the development of today’s modern Labor Day. That pivotal event was the parade of unions and a massive picnic that took place in New York City on September 5, 1882,’ says Linda Stinson, a former U.S. Department of Labor’s historian.”

Incidentally, the link provided in Stinson’s name in the forbes.com story goes to a site on the Labor Department’s site that states: “Page Not Found.”

The Labor Department’s history page on Labor Day concludes:

  • “The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pays tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership – the American worker.”

 

pullman strike, atlanta washerwoman strike

The U.S. Labor Department’s history of Labor Day doesn’t mention the Pullman Strike of 1894, which was sparked by pay cuts to railroad workers without a corresponding cut in prices charged in a company town. President Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops to bust the strike and he later created Labor Day to celebrate the working man, according to many accounts of the event. Credit: Fotosearch/Getty Images via thoughtco.com

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

1 reply
  1. Peggy Powell Dobbins says:

    Now that’s journalism for the 21st century! Congratulations David Pendered and Maria Saporta! Thank you. “It makes me proud, just knowing we were there” as the song goes. Report

    Reply

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