How Domestic-Worker Activists Helped Fight Jim Crow
By Rachel M. Cohen | Aug 26, 2015
From the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, to Ava DuVernay’s award-winning movie Selma, to #BlackLivesMatter activists who have refused to stay silent in the face of racial injustice, there has been no shortage of civil rights remembrances this year. And yet, there’s plenty about the struggle for racial justice many of us are not aware of. A case-in-point is the subject of historian Premilla Nadasen’s new book Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement. Nadasen’s text narrates the struggle and activism of 20th century domestic workers—women who were integral, yet rendered invisible—in the fight against racism and Jim Crow.
As someone who has reported previously on the inspiring labor organizing of domestic workers, I was floored by all the history I learned from Nadasen’s book. She focuses on household worker activists from the 1950s to the 1970s, though readers glean some context from before and after those decades as well.
You’ll learn about Marvel Cooke, an investigative journalist in the 1930s who went undercover to expose the disturbing working conditions of domestic workers in New York City. And you’ll read about Georgia Gilmore, who raised money for those boycotting buses in Montgomery, Alabama, by selling cakes and pies that she cooked daily. “Had it not been for people like Georgia Gilmore, Martin Luther King Jr. would not have been who he was,” Nadasen writes. There are others, like Geraldine Roberts who mobilized household workers to advocate for higher wages and job training in Cleveland, and Edith Barksdale Sloan, who helped to organize the first national organization of household workers: The Household Technicians of America (HTA).
Just last week, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the Department of Labor’s new regulations, issued in 2013, that entitle home care workers to minimum wage and overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act. For 80 years, these workers—mostly women, immigrants, and people of color—have toiled away without the basic labor protections that other workers have long been afforded. Yet while contemporary domestic worker organizations, like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, have been instrumental in pressuring governments to take action on behalf of the rights and needs of exploited workers, Nadasen’s book is a powerful reminder that 20th century activism, led by some truly incredible women, has helped to make our present-day victories possible.