#27 Cleaning up: The 1881 Atlanta Washerwomen’s demands

One hundred and 40 years ago under the hot Atlanta sun, a group of African American women formed an assocaition and staged a major labor organizing effort that was leadng toward a general strike. Such a strike would have shut down Atlanta’s business and political establishments, according to reports in the Atlanta Constitution newspaper and the Magazine of History.

Beginning in July 1881, a group of African American women formed an association, Washing Society, and grew its membership from 20 to 3,000 women. About 98 percent of the members were African American domestic washers. They received wages of $4 to $8 monthly for an unlimited amount of laundry from their clients. The Washing Society sought a rate of $1 for every dozen pounds. It was a uniform rate of pay for what the Washing Society women felt was fair and a living wage to keep up with the growing demand of work.

Atlanta Constitution newspaper article, July 1881

Their well organized work stoppage campaign attracted newspaper attention across the country. Some 25 states and the area now known as the District of Columbia, provided coverage of the single city strike.

Article appeared in the Record Union newspaper, Sacramento, Calif.

From the Times and News paper in Eufaula, Ala.

By the end of their work stoppage, here is what the women endured and achieved:

July 21
  • Washing Society begins its recruitment tactics.
  • Door-to-door recruitment of washing women.
July 26
  • Atlanta City Council announces it will tax all women belonging to an association.
July 29
August 3
  • A letter signed by five (5) Washing organizations, comprised of 486 women wrote to the Mayor of Atlanta, Jim English. They agreed to pay the $25 and $50 licenses that were proposed by the Mayor and Atlanta City Council and in its letter stated “then we will have full control of the city’s washing at our own prices, as the city has control of our husbands’ work at their prices. Don’t forget this. We hope to hear from your council Tuesday morning. We mean business this week or no washing.”
August 16
  • Atlanta City Council approved a resolution for a $25 tax for the washing women to continue their work.

Their demands were met and the ladies went back to work.

Want to learn more?

Read more about the Atlanta washerwomen and other Labor Day stories in the September 2021 e-book, available on Amazon, Nook and other platforms.