Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and the Family, from Slavery to the Present

Jaqueline Jones

Excerpts: pages 155-165

Paths North

The hundreds of thousands of black women who followed husbands north, or threw meager belongings in pillow cases and ventured out alone, or donned men's overalls in order to get a free ride on a train headed for the Midwest, belied the words of a song sung by blacks in the Deep South around 1915:

When a woman takes the blues, She tucks her head and cries; But when a man catches the blues, He catches er freight and rides.

Moreover, few women ceased to travel once they arrived at their destination; they continued to move in search of better jobs and living quarters, and made periodic visits south to visit friends. The self-selective| nature of the migration process itself meant that migrating women were likely to be younger and better educated compared to other black women in the South. But regardless of their reasons for leaving, or their immediate family situation, most women could ill afford to lose time looking for a job when they reached the big city; the urban North would offer them no respite from gainful employment.

Between 1870 and 1910, an average of 6,700 southern blacks moved north annually. The women who took part in this early movement tended to be young, single, separated, or widowed, and they often made the journey alone. Most left the Mid- or South Atlantic region (Virginia and the Carolinas) and traveled to Philadelphia, New York, or Boston in response to what they believed were specific job offers in domestic service. Some, like Essie Roberts of St. Helena's Island, South Carolina, relied on personal contacts for advice and encouragement. Roberts, a widow, learned from her white employer in Beaufort of a Massachusetts woman in need of a maid; in 1901 she left her children at home on the island with a relative who later took them up north to join her. Other women fell prey to unscrupulous northern employment agencies that promised them good wages and comfortable lodgings. These agencies soon became notorious among social workers for their exploitation of "fresh green country girls." More than one young Virginia black woman, lured north by the prospect of a cook's job and provided transportation at a nominal cost, found herself alone on the dock in New York or Boston and at the mercy of a "society official." After her luggage was confiscated, she might be "placed" in a brothel or with a white woman who only wanted a window washer or floor scrubber. Nevertheless, cheap steamship fares continued to attract young women who felt "stifled in the dead country town[s]."

By the early twentieth century, black communities in the Northeast reflected the demographic characteristics of this young adult migrating population. Women who left homes along the southeastern seaboard helped to create imbalanced sex ratios in Philadelphia (116 black females to 100 males in 1900) and New York (124 to 100). In 1905 fully one quarter of all adult black women in New York lived alone or in a lodging house (90 percent of the black working women in the city were domestic servants). Taken together, midwestern cities received only a few hundred black southerners each year, and most of them were young men without families.

The Great Migration of the World War I era represented a dramatic break with the past in several crucial respects. First, the sheer magnitude of the movement was striking. Between 1916 and 1921 an estimated half million blacks, or about 5 percent of the total southern black population, headed north (this number was larger than the aggregate figure for the preceding forty years). Compared with their predecessors, the new migrants more often came from the Deep South; they traveled longer distances to their final destination and relied on overland (rail) transportahon rather than water transportation, and a greater proportion than previously chose to go to midwestern cities. In 1920 more than a fourth of the North's black population was concentrated in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, and their black communities were larger than any in the South. Still, blacks numbered no more than 9 percent of the total population of any urban area in the North, and only 2 percent of all northerners were black.

Contemporary observers, particularly nervous white southerners convinced that their entire supply of black labor was about to disappear overnight, provided melodramatic accounts of the initial population movement in the spring of 1916. Many assumed that the arrival of a train sponsored by a northern railroad company was enough to create havoc at a moment's notice and that black men, promised free transportation and outrageously high wages in return for their labor, would scramble aboard with only the shirts on their backs, without bothering to say good- bye to friends or family. In fact, the decision to leave was just as often a calculated one made by husbands and fathers as it was an impulsive act on the part of single men. In his survey of 506 male migrants to Pittsburgh in 1918, Abraham Epstein found that 300 were married (though single people predominated in the eighteen- to thirtyyear age group) Thirty percent already had their families with them, and an almost equal number planned to have their wives and children join them as soon as possible.

The Great Migration, then, was frequently a family affair. Significantly, black men mentioned the degraded status of their womenfolk as one of the prime incentives to migrate, along with low wages and poor educational opportunities for their children. Husbands told of sexual harassment of wives and daughters by white men and of other forms of indignities woven into the fabric of southern society. One migrant to Chicago expressed satisfaction that his wife could now go into a shop and "try on a hat and if she don't want it she don't have to buy it." Another man in the same city, a stockyard worker, told an interviewer for the Commission on Race Relations that in Mississippi

Men and women had to work in the fields. A woman was not permitted to remain at home if she felt like it. If she was found at home some of the white people would come to ask why she was not in the field and tell her she had better get to the field or else abide by the consequences. After the summer crops were all in, any of the white people could send for any Negro woman to come and do the family washing at 75 cents to $1.00 a day. If she sent word she could not come she had to send an excuse why she could not come. They were never allowed to stay at home as long as they were able to go. Had to take whatever they paid you for your work.

However, letters from potential migrants to the Chicago Defender (the largest black newspaper and an enthusiastic proponent of migration), indicate that most men expected their wives to continue to contribute to the family income, at least temporarily, in their new northern home. Husbands wrote to the weekly paper and inquired about employment possibilities, describing their wives as "very industrious," "a very good cook . . . [with] lots of references," or "a good launders." But a move out of the South, according to a Jacksonville, Florida, man in the spring of 1917, would be worth the trouble if only because "it will allow me to get my wife away from down hear."

Some women during this period did have to make the decision to leave, find their way north, and locate housing without the aid of a trailblazing spouse. Single mothers from rural areas searched for a way north, because, as one South Carolina widow put it, "When you live on the farm, the man is the strength." Domestic servants in southern cities decided to find out for themselves the truth of reports that northern wages might be three or four times more than they were used to making. Strains on the household budget prompted daughters to strike out at an early age. A fifteen-year-old in New Orleans realized that her mother had "such a hard time" trying to make ends meet for a family of five and as the oldest child, she could lessen expenses at home and at the same time contribute extra cash to the family income by finding a job in Chicago. The plight of a Sea Island girl about the same age was less critical but no less compelling. In 1919 she left for New York City, hoping to escape from the loneliness of St. Helena's Island, where you "go to bed at six o'clock. Everything dead. No dances, no moving picture show, nothing to go to.''

These were general, rather predictable reasons for moving north. How families and individuals timed their move and managed the transition between rural and urban work are issues that require more detailed examination. Migration northward from the Mississippi Valley to the Midwest between 1916 and 1930 provides a useful case study of these issues because it is particularly well documented and highlights differences between men's and women's employment patterns. For example, interviewed by historian Peter Gottlieb for his study of Pittsburgh's migrants, Jonnie F., a black woman, explained why she had become part of the Great Migration many years ago. As a child she had not minded picking cotton: "It was fun then, you know, but when you commence to gettin' older and work, work, work, and stay the same . . . You know, you want a change." She and other rural blacks in their late teens were semidependent upon their parents. They lived at home most of the time, but often worked as nonagricultural wage earners when their labor was not needed on the farm July and August, November and December)-the women as domestic servants in towns, the men as laborers in logging camps, cotton presses, or sawmills. When they returned to the family cabin, many of them had mixed feelings of pride and resentment as they turned over hard- earned wages to families who relied on this meager but valuable source of cash, and they chafed under the rule of fathers who wielded an iron hand in enforcing a specific division of labor based on gender and age within the household.

For Jonnie F. and others, the trip north actually involved, in Gottlieb's words, "a series of moves that slowly expand[ed] the migrants' contacts with industrial society." Their off-season work introduced them to a world apart from the cotton field and their own kin clusters. Short- range geographical mobility among sharecroppers, combined with the small but steady flow of country blacks into southern cities, made movement a fact of life for even the most isolated of rural folk. Compared to their sisters and wives, young men had more opportunities to hear about jobs in the North and to make contacts that would assist them in planning the journey. Indeed, men were much more likely than women to work their way north gradually, picking up a few dollars and some encouragement from friends along the way before breaking out of the South altogether. Yet many rural young people of both sexes had already had some experience with jobs not unlike the ones they would eventually find up north.

In general, demographic patterns of migration to different cities were determined by the nature of employment opportunities. Men almost invariably led the way north to cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit that offered industrial jobs for them but few positions outside domestic service for women. Chicago, with its more diversified female occupational structure, attracted single women and wives like Mrs. T of St. Louis, who preceded her husband to the city in order to investigate job conditions because, according to a Race Commission interviewer in 1920, she "doesn't always wait for him to bring something to her, but goes out herself and helps to get it."

Few migrants, male or female, abandoned the South totally or irrevocably. Some went back home frequently to join in community celebrahons, to help with planking and harveshng on the family farm, or to coax friends north with their beautiful clothes and stories of good pay. A constant flow of letters containing cash and advice between North and South facilitated the gradual migratior of whole clans and even villages. For example, the records of a Detroit social- welfare agency include the case of a young Georgia widow who moved to the city in 1922 to care for her ill niece. The woman returned south the following year and then went back to Detroit with one of her children, leaving the other three in the care of her mother-in-law. In 1925 she managed to convince the older woman (aged seventy) and her sister-in-law (aged fifty-nine) to join her in the North. There the three women pieced together a living for themselves and the four children by doing "day work" (domestic service on a daily basis). Thus the continuous renewal of personal ties through visits south and moves north meant that, at least for the first few years, the migrants maintained contact with their southem homes in both a physical and a cultural sense.

The adjustment from a wartime to a peacetime economy led to a national recession in 1920- 21. Migration from the South slackened in response, but then picked up again in 1922 and reached a peak the next year. Despite the disillusionment of recent migrants, they sent home encouraging reports so that the stream of refugees continued unabated as long as economic condihons were favorable. Elderly people who remained in the South expressed remorse over the departure of their kin, and they lamented the severing, or at least loosening, of bonds that had traditionally held the generations together in love and obligation. Some, however, received much-appreciated cash from northem relatives on a sporadic or regular basis. One Mississippi woman who lived in a small town that had been decimated by the Great Migration told an investigator that she felt envious of her "friends who are in the North and prospering," and noted ruefully, "If I stay here any longer, I'll go wild.... There ain't enough people here I now know to give me a decent burial."

Work and Family Life

Paid Labor

The radical economic inequality of black working women in the urban North did not become apparent undl the early twentieth century. Before that fume, disproportionately large numbers of single and married black women worked for wages, but they and black men and white women were concentrated in essentially the same job category-domestic service. In a rough sense, all three groups were subjected to the same kinds of degrading working conditions characteristic of this form of employment. But as household conveniences and electricity lessened the need for elbow grease, new forms of business enterprise opened clerical and sales positions for white women. Commercial laundries gradually replaced laundresses, and personal service became increasingly associated with black women exclusively. For the most part, black female wage earners remained outside the expanding industrial economy, and the few who gained a foothold in factory work remained in the lowest-paying jobs. Despite the significant shift in white working women's options, the paid labor of black women exhibited striking continuity across space-urban areas in the North and South-and time-from the nineteenth to the early twentieth century.

Black women's gainful employment was related to their fathers' and husbands' job security. Beginning in the 1880s, the arrival of large numbers of Eastern Europeans had a profound impact on the type and numbers of positrons available to black men. Always only a tiny percentage of the total male population of any particular northern city, black men had never been able to dominate a single type of work; nevertheless, the displacement by successive waves of immigrant groups of black artisans, apartment house doormen, barbers, elevator operators, and waiters and cooks in expensive hotels was well underway by 1900.

Although the war provided black men with their first opportunities in northern industrial employment, regardless of their personal talents or ambitions they rarely advanced beyond those jobs "reserved for the rawest recruits to industry." These were menial positrons, subject to regular layoffs. Demobilization resulted in mass firings of black laborers in many plants, though some men retained their low-level jobs in the metalworking, automobile, and food processing industries. For example, in the Chicago meat-packing and slaughterhouses where they composed up to 70 to 80 percent of all workers in the 1920s, they were concentrated in jobs traditionally held by men with "no alternative," so difficult and disagreeable were the assigned tasks. Black men skill constituted a labor force of last resort, and they could not look forward to gradual advancement for themselves or even for their sons. Moreover, black men's work patterns condnued to diverge from those of white men, who moved into white- collar, managerial, and advanced technology jobs in increasing numbers. By 1930 two types of workers symbolized the status of all black male wage earners in the urban North-the New York City apartment house janitor and the Pittsburgh steelworker who manned a blast furnace during the hottest months of the year.

It is clear, then, that most male breadwinners suffered from chronic underemployment and sporadic unemployment, and that other household members had to supplement their irregular earnings. In 1930 from 34 to 44 percent of black households in the largest northern cities had two or more gainfully employed workers. Most apparent among black families was the high percentage of wives who worked outside the home-in 1920, five times more than the women in any other racial or ethnic group. The different cities showed some variation in this regard: In 1920, for example, 25.5 percent of black married women in Detroit, but 46.4 percent in New York, worked for wages (rates for all cities remained stable over the next decade). Variations between cities can be explained by reference to the local job situation for black men. In general, where men had access to industrial employment-in Pittsburgh and Detroit, for example- fewer wives worked than those in cities where large numbers of men could find little work outside domestic service. Jobs in the latter category were just as insecure as those in the industrial sector, but with the added disadvantage that they paid much less.

Black wives worked in greater proportion compared to white wives, but more significantly, they served as wage earners more often than immigrant wives of the same socioeconomic class. Not only did black husbands earn less than foreign-born men, their wives bore fewer children compared to immigrant women. The few children blacks had tended to establish independent households, or at least retain their wages for their own use, in greater proportion than the offspring of immigrant families. For example, based on her observations of black and immigrant neighborhoods in Manhattan in 1911, New York social worker Mary White Ovington suggested that the "marked contrasts" in the lives of women of the two races derived primarily from their respective households' "different occupational opportunities." The young white wife, she wrote in Half A Man: The Status of the Negro in New York, rarely "journeys far from her own home"; she departs from "her narrow round of domestic duties" to seek day or laundry work only if "unemployment visits the family wage earner." As the household grows in size over the years, its income is augmented by the wages of older sons and daughters who, "having entered factory or store, bring home their pay envelopes unbroken on Saturday nights" and turn them over to their mother. Gradually the family's standard of living improves, and the number and quality of its material possessions increases. As children depart from the household to marry, and the father's wage-earning capaoty dwindles in proportion to his physical strength, the family falls on difficult times and "the end of the woman's married life is likely to be hard and comfortless."

The black woman, on the other hand, has a quite different family history. Ovington noted that she often begins "self-sustaining work" at the age of fifteen and remains in the labor force after marriage because of her husband's inability to support his family ("save in extreme penury") on his wages alone. The working black wife's day is more diverse and varied than that of the white homemaker, but she must sacrifice time with her children in return. Wrote Ovington, "An industrious, competent woman, [the black mother] works and spends, and in her scant hours of leisure takes pride in keeping her children well-dressed and clean."

A black woman must continue to work throughout her middle years because her wage- earning children tend to hand over to her "only such part [of their paychecks] as they choose to spare." Ovington disapprovingly noted that these young people were self- indulgent in their spending habits and often neglected the needs of their parents and siblings. The types of jobs available to sons and daughters served to lessen parental control; many "go out to service, accept long and irregular hours in hotel or apartment, travel for days on boat or train." Moreover, "factory and store are closed" to young women. Consequently the mother "must continue her round of washing and scrubbing." Yet old age did not necessarily bring with it unremithng drudgery and sorrow. According to Ovington, an elderly black woman often spent her last years engaged in produchve labor at home, "treated with respect and consideration" in the household of her children.

Census data reveal that Ovington's analysis held true for the Great Migration period and after, as well. The percentage of black women gainfully employed in New England, the Middle Atlanbc states (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania), and the east north-central region (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan) increased slightly between 1900 and 1930, but stayed within the 40 to 50 percent range. Occupational patterns based on age were stable from 1900 to 1920; black women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four worked in the greatest proportion, but while white women tended to drop out of the work force in their early twenties, black women stayed in it for many years. In some cides, the percentage of employed older black women had actually increased by the time the first phase of the Great Migration ended around 1920. About six out of ten women in the twenty-five- to forty-four-year-old category condnued to earn wages throughout the period (56.5 percent in 1900, 62.7 percent in 1920), and that figure declined only slightly for women aged forty-five and over (53.5 percent in 1900 and 54.8 percent in 1920). (Few foreign- born married women in northern cides took jobs outside the home, with the exception of those in New England mill towns; in 1920 only 10 percent in the Northeast and Midwest were engaged in gainful employment.) Thus the need for black mothers and wives to work remained constant before and after World War 1.

In general, black women's work in the North was synonymous with domestic service; although the racial caste system was more overtly brutal in the South, white Americans regardless of regional affiliation relegated black women to this lowliest occupational status. The exploitation of black domestics was thus a national, rather than a southern, phenomenon. In the three largest northern cities-New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia-the total number of servants declined by about 25 percent (from 181,000 to 138,000) between 1910 and 1920, but the proportion of black women in that occupational category increased by 10 to 15 percent. After World War 1, black women constituted more than a fifth of all domestics in New York and Chicago, and over one-half in Philadelphia. Pittsburgh, with its heavy-industry jobs for black men, offered few alternatives for their wives and daughters; in 1920 fully 90 percent of black women in that they made their living as day workers, washerwomen, or live-in servants. The 108,342 servants and 46,914 laundresses not in commercial laundries totaled almost two-thirds of all gainfully employed black women in the North.

In their efforts to secure cheap domestic labor from the South, middleclass families at times engaged in deceitful practices. In the early 1920s, for example, a young Florida native was reduced to a state of involuntary servitude by a white family in a Chicago suburb. She eventually managed to escape but not before her employer "had kicked, beaten, and threatened her with a revolver if she attempted to leave." Yet such cases of violence and overt intimidation were relatively rare. Like southern mistresses, northern white women tyrannized their servants in more subtle ways. Indeed, though a migrant might endure a scolding delivered in a Brooklyn accent, or even broken English, instead of a southem drawl, she was likely to discover that the personal dynamics of the employer-employee relationship differed little between North and South.

Still, in the urban North the occupation of domestic service was shaped by the region's peculiar social structure and spacial arrangement and so diverged in certain ways from the southern case. For instance, in their new homes, migrant women encountered competition from white women for service jobs for the first time. After World War 1, when white female factory workers lost their positions to returning soldiers, they displaced black domestics, at least temporarily, until they could find something better. Moreover, developments in household technology affected the number and kinds of jobs available. As the work associated with cleaning, heating, and lighting homes became more efficient and less messy, and as the latest laborsaving devices were installed in modern, expensive apartment units, the demand for servants declined. And finally, the traditional social hierarchy characteristic of service collapsed into two or three categories of work, leaving little room for upward mobility within households.


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