The Long History of Black Women Organizing in Georgia Might Decide Senate ControlRoundup
tags: African American history, Georgia, voting rights, womens history
Danielle Phillips-Cunningham is program director of multicultural women’s and gender studies at Texas Woman’s University, and a public voices fellow of the OpEd Project. Her book, Putting Their Hands on Race: Irish Immigrant and Southern Black Domestic Workers is the National Women’s Studies Association’s 2020 Sara A. Whaley Book Prize winner.
With Georgia narrowly supporting the Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1992, there has been no shortage of well-deserved stories about Black women’s influence on the state flipping. This is not surprising. Stacey Abrams, LaTosha Brown, Errin Haines, Keisha Lance Bottoms and others have worked tirelessly to ensure that the voices of African Americans and other historically marginalized people in the state are heard. Their work was instrumental in securing Joe Biden’s win and forcing a U.S. Senate runoff in the state.
These women are contributing to a rich tradition of Black women’s intellectual work and coalition-building in Georgia since the late 19th century. After believing she lost the 2018 gubernatorial race because her opponent Brian Kemp suppressed the vote as the acting secretary of state, Abrams expanded her work to address labor, criminal justice and voting reform — the same essential matters of social justice that were identified by Black female activists in Atlanta during the 19th century. They could not vote or hold political office, but they exercised political leadership in pioneering movements that are foundational to the fight for democracy and equality in the United States.
On July 19, 1881, 20 women working in laundry organized the state’s largest and most resilient labor strike. They were fed up with low wages and long hours that made it impossible for them to meet their basic needs. These striking women, who started the Washing Society, challenged city officials to implement laws to end labor exploitation in household employment. Similar to Abrams’s Fair Fight Action, the Washing Society did the hard work of organizing: knocking on hundreds of doors, building coalitions across racial and state lines, calling out elected officials for their suppression tactics and writing documents asserting the urgent need for labor reform. In the washerwomen’s case, the strike was a vital method for advocating for labor rights in a system that denied women the right to vote and run for political office.
Along with a few Black male allies and Irish immigrant women, Matilda Crawford, Sallie Bell, Carrie Jones, Dora Jones, Orphelia Turner, Sarah A. Collier and other society members demanded that the Atlanta city government standardize the wages of all laundry workers. Establishing a potent coalition, however, was far from easy: Most of the activists were young, and persuading other washerwomen to join their newly formed trade organization required lengthy trips throughout the city to conduct door-to-door canvassing in Black and White neighborhoods during scarce off-work hours. It also carried real risks: Local police routinely arrested and jailed activists, and the White-controlled city council proposed mandatory “business taxes” and “license fees” for all strike participants. Adding to the pressure, landlords raised the rent on tenants who joined the Washing Society, and local businessmen raised funds to build commercial laundries that could potentially put the laundresses out of business.
Despite the local government’s suppression tactics, the group persisted. And once their ranks grew to 3,000, the all-male and majority-White city council had no choice but to take their protests seriously. Although the council never passed a law to standardize wages, it struck down the business taxes and fines resolution. As a result of the strike, many individual employers increased wages. Newly powerful, the majority-Black Washing Society stemmed the threat of commercial laundries and controlled Atlanta’s laundry trade for the next 29 years.
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