Resource

Laundry Workers’ Strike

Black laundry workers in Jackson, Mississippi, demand living wages in 1866.

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Summary

“Petition of the Colored Washerwomen.” Jackson, Mississippi
June 20, 1866.
To Mayor Barrows
Dear Sir:—At a meeting of the colored Washerwomen of this city, on the evening of the 18th of June, the subject of raising the wages was considered, and owing to many circumstances, the following preamble and resolution were unanimously adopted: Dear Mayor,
The washerwomen of Jackson, Mississippi met to discuss how to make sure every washerwoman was paid a fair wage. This is the decision we’ve come to.
Whereas, under the influence of the present high prices of all the necessaries of life, and the attendant high rates of rent, while our wages remain very much reduced, we, the washerwomen of the city of Jackson, State of Mississippi, thinking it impossible to live uprightly and honestly in laboring for the present daily and monthly recompense, and hoping to meet with the support of all good citizens, join in adopting unanimously the following resolution: We, the Washerwomen of Jackson, Mississippi believe it is impossible to live an honest life as a laundry worker because the pay is too low to cover the high cost of living. To address this issue, we taking the following action:
Be it resolved by the washerwomen of this city and county, That on and after the foregoing date, we join in charging a uniform rate for our labor, that rate being an advance over the original price by the month or day the statement of said price to be made public by printing the same, and any one belonging to the class of washerwomen, violating this, shall be liable to a fine regulated by the class. We do not wish in the least to charge exorbitant prices, but desire to be able to live comfortably if possible from the fruits of our labor. We present the matter to your Honor, and hope you will not reject it as the condition of prices call on us to raise our wages. The prices charged are: $1.50 per day for washing $15.00 per month for family washing $10.00 per month for single individuals. As of June 20, 1866, we will all charge the same rate for our work. Any washerwoman who charges less will be fined by our group. We do not want to charge high prices, we just want to be able to live comfortably from our work. These are the new prices we agreed on: $1.50 per day for washing; $15 a month for family washing; $10 a month for single people.
We ask you to consider the matter in our behalf, and should you deem it just and right, your sanction of the movement will be gratefully received. Yours, very truly, THE WASHERWOMEN OF JACKSON. Please consider this matter. We would appreciate your endorsement.

“First Collective Action of Black Women Workers,” Jackson Daily Clarion, June 24, 1866, in The Black Worker: A Documentary History from Colonial Times to the Present, ed. Philip S. Foner and Ronald L. Lewis (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978-1984).

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Background

Black women, especially in urban areas, immediately asserted their status as free workers at the end of the Civil War. Many left the people who had once enslaved them and demanded fair wages and decent working conditions in any new job they took. If an employer failed to meet their standards, they quit and sought another opportunity. This assertiveness angered white employers. As a result, Black women workers were subjected to increasingly violent efforts to oppress them. But they continued to find strength and solidarity in their communities and worked tirelessly to improve their financial situations and position in the U.S. economy.

About the Document

In 1866, only a year after the end of the Civil War, the Black laundry workers of Jackson, Mississippi, went on strike. The laundry workers earned very low wages for their backbreaking work. They wanted to be able to make enough to support their families. The laundry workers understood that white households depended on their services. They knew that if they stood together then they could secure a fair and standard wage for every laundry worker in the city.

Laundry workers from all over the city met to discuss the situation. After the meeting, they wrote this letter to the mayor of Jackson, outlining their complaints and demands. The letter was printed in the Jackson Daily Clarion newspaper. The newspaper called the strike “ill-timed, unfortunate, and calculated to injure instead of bettering their condition.” The newspaper’s critical and dismissive tone was typical of white attitudes towards Black workers in the Reconstruction era. Unfortunately, there is no surviving record of the outcome of the strike. However, this remarkable action inspired laundry workers in other cities to unite to fight for better wages in the decades to come.

Vocabulary

  • Reconstruction: The years between 1865 and 1877 when the federal government actively sought to reincorporate the former Confederacy back into the United States and integrate Black Americans into the nation’s economics, politics, and society.
  • strike: When workers stop working to force employers to meet their demands.
  • wage: A payment for services.

Discussion Questions

  • Why did the laundry workers of Jackson, Mississippi, go on strike in 1866?
  • What were the strikers’ demands? Why did they want these improvements?
  • What does this story teach us about the work of Black women in the Reconstruction era?
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Themes

WORK, LABOR, AND ECONOMY

New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections

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