Resource

Organized Labor and Strikes

A newspaper article about a racially charged factory strike in Atlanta.

Document Text

1,400 MILL WORKERS ON A STRIKE. WOULD NOT WORK WITH NEGROES.

Women at the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills Refuse To Work with Negro Women and Go on a Strike.

OTHER OPERATIVES HAVE JOINED THE STRIKES

Textile Workers Will Conduct the Strike and Announce That They Are Determined To Push the Fight Through—A Lively Mass Meeting of Strikers Yesterday.

Because twenty negro women were put to work in the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills yesterday morning, over 1,400 men, women and children employed in the mills quit their machines and walked out. 

The strike was started by the white women employed at the mills, who refused to work with negro women. The women and children struck at 8 o’clock in the morning and the men walked out at noon. The mills were promptly closed down and it may be weeks before they are operated again.

The strikers after quitting work lost no time in organizing. A meeting was held at 3:30 o’clock in the Federation of Trades hall. Committees were appointed and the strike was given a good shove off by the other trade unions.

The big strike was entirely unexpected by the operators of the bag and cotton mills. Yesterday morning at the regular hour for beginning work, the entire force of nearly 1,500 hands were at the factory and nothing unusual could be noticed. The women had been told on the previous evening that the negro women would be put to work in the folding department yesterday morning, and it seems that some of them had already discussed the matter before going to the factory.

When the hands congregated around the factory at 6 o’clock they were told that the twenty negro women had already gone upstairs to begin work. This seemed to enrage the girls who work in the folding department. One of the, a young woman named Brooks, waited until Mr. Jacob Elsas, one of the proprietors, arrived, and then the trouble began. Miss Brooks walked up to Mr. Elsas and said she wanted to know if he intended to put a crowd of negroes in with her and the other girls.

Mr. Elsas informed her that he was running the business and that it was not a matter to inquire about.

Miss Brooks was warm on that particular subject and she told the proprietor that the girls were running that part of the business and that trouble would ensure if the negroes were put to work. 

As Mr. Elsas walked away she told him that they would not go to work if the negro women were allowed to remain. 

Mr. Elsas disregarded this threat and the negroes were set to work. The 200 girls employed in the folding department refused to even enter the factory, but after lingering for a while around the gate, went quietly to their homes. The strikers claim that three employees named Rachel Hughes, Oscar Todd and Mrs. Bailey remained in the folding department and taught the negroes how to work.

“1,400 Mill Workers on a Strike. Would Not Work With Negroes,” The Atlanta Constitution, August 5, 1897. Atlanta Journal Constitution.

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Background

Industrialization led to an increased need for factory workers. More women joined the labor force. Yet work opportunities for Black women in the South were limited. Most worked in either agriculture or domestic service. Factory work offered slightly better pay, and white women considered it more desirable than domestic service, where they had to work in someone’s home. 

Southern workplaces were strictly divided by race. Most factory owners only hired white employees. This made it difficult for Black women to gain access to better jobs in factories.

About the Resources

On August 4, 1897, a white businessman named Jacob Elsas hired 20 Black women to work in his factory, the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill in Atlanta, Georgia. The women were hired to fold bags after Elsas struggled to find white employees to do the job.

About 200 white women were so upset about their new Black coworkers that they walked off the job. The next day, 1,200 white workers from the factory joined the strike. The white strikers demanded that Jacob Elsas fire all Black staff at the factory. The strike ended when Elsas agreed to move Black workers to different departments where they would work separately from the white laborers.

The Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill strike demonstrated that the white working class was not in solidarity with the Black working class. White supremacy trumped class. Strikes like this one were not uncommon in the urban South. Jim Crow kept Black Americans in low-paying jobs and limited their access to more lucrative work.

Vocabulary

  • domestic service: Paid work done in someone’s home, including cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children.
  • Jim Crow: Policy of segregating Black people from white Americans.
  • strike: When workers stop working in order to force employers to meet their demands.
  • white supremacy: Suppressing and denying the rights of people of color based on the belief that white people are superior.

Discussion Questions

  • Why did the white women go on strike? What were their demands?
  • How did the factory owner explain his decision to hire 20 Black women? 
  • This article does not include the perspective of the Black workers. How might they have felt during this strike? How do you think the strike affected them and their jobs?
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Suggested Activities

  • Ask students to write a newspaper article from the perspective of the Black women workers.
  • Many Black working women had jobs in domestic service. Pair this document with a study about Black domestic workers. Why was factory work considered better than domestic service? Why did white women have more access to factory work than Black women?
  • Consider how white workers blamed people of color for poor working conditions by combining this document with the Page Act and an article about factory work.
  • Explore Black women’s labor activism by reading this document alongside the laundry workers’ strike and the life story of Lucy Parsons.

Themes

WORK, LABOR, AND ECONOMY

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