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Depression, The

Black Women in America

Lois Rita Helmbold

Depression, The 

The worldwide economic depression of the 1930s greatly increased the burden on many black women across the United States. Their triple responsibilities of holding down a job, caring for families and friends, and organizing to build communities and to fight for rights as citizens were more difficult than ever to fulfill. While hard times were hardly new to most black women, what was new was the severity of the Depression and the fact that people at the bottom of the economy found that their old ways of coping with hard times were obsolete. As one unemployed woman noted, “You can’t get no more job like you used to. I used to have a new job before I was let out from the old.”

While the Depression devastated the economy of the United States, its local effects largely depended on the particular circumstances of individual communities. At the time of the stock market crash in October 1929, more than three-quarters of black people lived in the South, and more than half (53.8 percent) lived in the rural South. About a fifth lived in the North and Midwest, the vast majority having moved there as part of the Great Migration. New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia all had far larger black populations than did border cities like Baltimore or Washington, DC, or the southern cities with the largest black populations: Atlanta, Birmingham, and New Orleans. Whether black women resided on cotton plantations or in Harlem, whether they were recent immigrants from the Caribbean, or new or long-term urban dwellers, they suffered far higher rates of unemployment than did white women and men, and often higher rates than did black men as well. While race and gender guaranteed commonalities in their experiences, the survival strategies employed by black women depended to a large degree on differences of urbanization, region, ethnicity, migration, immigration, and especially social class.

The Labor Force

Black women had long been far more likely to hold jobs than were white women. While the high unemployment rate among black men, coupled with the availability of work for black women, ensured a high rate of paid employment, black women nevertheless had few choices of jobs. In 1929, 43.3 percent of black women and girls were in the labor force, and just two occupations—agriculture (26.9 percent) and domestic work (35.8 percent)—employed nearly two-thirds of them. Even in cities, where jobs were more diverse and opportunities more abundant, domestic and commercial service occupations (including hairdressers, laundry operatives, home laundresses, cooks, waitresses, janitors, chambermaids, and household workers) accounted for about three-quarters of black women’s employment. These jobs were characterized by hard physical labor, low wages, and harsh working conditions; on the eve of the Depression, northern black service workers typically earned $10 to $15 a week, and southern service employees far less. Agricultural workers, whether tenant farmers, sharecroppers, small landowners, or wage laborers, endured hard physical labor, braved the elements, attuned their hours to the crops, and often earned no wages at all. Family shares of the sale of cotton, tobacco, or other crops were used to purchase supplies for the following season and the few goods that could not be produced at home. Only 5 percent of black women held manufacturing jobs. In the Durham, North Carolina, tobacco factories, black women earned $6.50 to $8 weekly, but because tobacco stemming was seasonal labor, they earned less than $400 annually. Less than 5 percent of employed black women worked in white-collar professional, clerical, and sales occupations. Among almost 2 million employed black women, fewer than 200,000 worked anywhere except in fields, other women’s homes, and commercial service jobs. All women shared the experience of sex-segregated occupations, but white women dominated the better so-called female jobs: 69.6 percent of employed white women worked in manufacturing, clerical, sales, and professional jobs, compared to only 10.3 percent of employed black women. With the exception of their involvement in commercial service jobs, which usually were domestic tasks moved into the public realm, black women continued to perform much the same tasks that they had during slavery.

Depression, TheClick to view larger

Families of evicted sharecroppers

on the Dibble plantation near Parkin, Arkansas, in January 1936. Library of Congress

The Depression hit black women hard and fast. By January 1931 more than a quarter of black women had lost their jobs in every city with a substantial black population, regardless of region. Their proportion of joblessness, as high as 68.9 percent in Detroit, was far higher than that of white women, whose unemployment rate was 19 percent or lower in those cities, and matched or was higher than that of black men. Typically, employers shortened hours and cut wages before they laid off workers. Restaurant and laundry employees worked short shifts; housewives cut back day workers from one day a week to a half-day or changed a weekly job to a biweekly job. Unemployment and underemployment hit black women more harshly and more rapidly than it did either black men or white women because black women’s location in the occupational structure was more vulnerable. Financially strapped middle-class and well-to-do white families often saved money by cutting household help and reducing patronage of commercial establishments such as hotels, restaurants, and laundries. Furthermore, employers practiced discriminatory policies, laying off black women first when they cut their staffs.

Unemployment was consistently highest in manufacturing, a white, male-dominated sphere. While sex segregation could be said to have protected women whose jobs were usually outside the sphere of production, it protected white women more often than it did black. Black women who had managed to escape the service sector by finding factory work, therefore, were particularly vulnerable to job loss. Nearly half the black women working in the tobacco industry lost their jobs over the decade, and although white women also lost jobs, in 1940 they held a larger share of tobacco jobs than they had in 1930. The clothing and food industries added women workers during the decade, but the jobs went to white women. Black women’s employment fell substantially in both industries.

The fortunes of white-collar workers rose and fell with the fortunes of their employers. Black-owned businesses depended on the patronage of the black community, and as cash became scarce, small businesses failed and larger businesses cut staffs. Small entrepreneurs, self-employed professionals, and clerical workers at black insurance companies lost jobs and businesses. Schoolteachers, who accounted for more than half of all black female white-collar workers, were public employees who usually maintained their jobs in segregated school systems in the South. Some suffered extreme hardships as school boards defaulted on salaries that already were far lower than those paid to black teachers’ white counterparts. White-collar workers who competed with white women lost work. Graduate nurses suffered pay cuts or worse in the segregated nursing profession. Fewer black people were able to afford health care, and black-run hospitals relied on the cheap labor of student nurses. Yet by 1940 the number of black women in white-collar jobs, including professionals, salespersons, proprietors, managers, and clerical workers, had increased slightly, from 88,457 to 97,300 (from 4.8 percent to 6.1 percent of employed black women). A tiny number of black women earned good money during the 1930s. Riding trains from coast to coast, Mahalia Jackson, for example, earned as much as $50 a week by singing gospel songs in black churches.

The principle strategy of unemployed women of all races and from all occupations was downward mobility. Schoolteachers became secretaries, clerical workers took waitress positions, waitresses moved into laundries. Women in every occupation, as well as women without work experience and women who had been out of the labor market for years, all competed for jobs. Especially prized was household employment, because everyone assumed that any woman could do domestic work. In this buyers’ market, unemployment, increased competition, and the racial prejudices of employers contributed to black women’s loss of jobs. For example, a Chicago domestic worker found what appeared to be a good job in 1932, paying $15 a week plus room and board. She helped her employer move into a new home, cleaned the house, and arranged the furniture. She recounted, “Then she hired a white maid after I had done the heavy work.” When the National Industrial Recovery Act mandated minimum wages, many industrial and service employers laid off black workers and replaced them with white workers rather than pay both the same rate. The displacement of black workers by white was not unique to the Great Depression. For several decades commercial laundries, for example, had been displacing black women both by obviating black home laundresses and by employing more white women than black. During the 1930s, commercial laundries continued to grow, and black washerwomen continued to lose work to them. Within laundries, black women lost both numbers and proportion of jobs, while white women gained in both categories.

When unemployment and competition increased, most black women, already on the lowest rung of the ladder of occupational desirability, had no lower rung upon which to stand. Consequently, many domestic workers and older women were forced out of employment entirely. Between 1929 and 1940, the number and proportion of employed black women fell significantly. White women, on the other hand, gained both numbers and a greater share of total female employment. The employment rate for black women fifteen and older, for example, plummeted from 43.3 percent to 33.5 percent. Despite continued population growth, 160,000 fewer black women held paid jobs. At the same time, the number of employed white women increased by more than a million, although their employment rate declined slightly, from 22.9 percent to 21.8 percent.

By 1940, both nationally and regionally, black women still suffered higher unemployment rates than did white workers of either gender, but they were nevertheless more likely to be employed than were black men. Before America’s entrance into World War II ended the Depression, black unemployment was higher in the Northeast and North central states than it was in the South. Southern black workers had recovered more jobs than did their northern cousins. White women and men replaced black workers during the 1930s despite southern traditions concerning gender- and race-appropriate jobs. As the employment outlook improved, however, long-standing white southern practices reasserted themselves; white workers returned to segregated jobs and “Negro jobs” were once again relegated to black women and men.

With the reality of high unemployment rates for both black men and women, black women were forced to create multiple strategies to survive. Some women held on to or even found new jobs in sectors that already employed them, although these jobs generally offered lower pay and worse conditions than they had during the 1920s. Women worked harder for less pay in order to survive. Earlier in the twentieth century, black women had moved away from live-in housework and into so-called day work, but in desperation some returned to live-in jobs, sometimes receiving only room and board as remuneration. Despite hard times, lower wages for housework allowed some families to hire their first day workers. In northern cities such as New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, black women gathered at street corners in white neighborhoods where white housewives came by to bargain with them for a day’s work. While many black women and community leaders condemned these “slave markets” and the indignity of being judged and rejected in public, others used them as a means to control their working conditions.

For agricultural workers, among them a majority of rural women, the Depression hit hard, particularly because less than one-tenth of black agriculturalists in 1930 owned their land. For rural southerners in the 1920s, falling agricultural prices and the boll weevil had ensured widespread poverty, but in the next decade, agricultural prices—and most disastrously for black workers, cotton prices—plummeted.

The New Deal further impoverished black farm workers. To raise the price of cotton, the Agricultural Adjustment Act compensated farmers for growing less. While landowners were supposed to share these subsidies with their tenants, they rarely did so. White planters needed fewer black families to grow smaller crops, and they evicted many black tenants and sharecroppers. Those who were allowed to remain were forced to except a smaller income. Some landowners used cash subsidies to purchase machinery and employed hired hands seasonally, as needed, forcing formerly year-round tenants to find other living arrangements. The number of black women and men employed in agriculture, as owners, wage laborers, or sharecroppers fell sharply. Black women’s agricultural employment dropped by 50 percent over the decade, while black men’s agricultural employment dropped almost 20 percent.

Displaced agriculturalists survived using a number of means. Some moved into town to find work; some moved to the North; some became migrant agricultural workers. These workers were forced to move from place to place and from job to job, depending on the season, circumstances, and the availability of support from their kin. Some rural women did day work and took in laundry, moving back and forth between town and country, staying with a relative in town when there was no field work. Rural dwellers poured into towns and cities in the North and South, but some urbanites returned to the country, believing that, at the very least, they could find the bare necessities there. Yet there were differences between the migratory patterns of black women and men. Between 1935 and 1940, women were more likely than were men to move to cities and towns, and men were more likely to move to rural areas.

The Informal Economy

The informal or underground economy, including the numbers game, prostitution, entertainment at buffet flats, and the manufacture and sale of alcohol, not only created pleasure in the midst of despair but also enabled black entrepreneurs to employ significant numbers of African Americans. In Chicago, five thousand people worked for the policy business alone during the 1930s. Although women were generally subordinate to men in the underground economy, in a few cases they controlled wealth and power; Odessa Marie Madre, for instance, was known as the “queen of Washington’s underworld,” and she operated houses of prostitution, illegal saloons, and a bookmaking operation, as well as legitimate businesses. More typically, female entrepreneurs ran buffet flats in urban communities, which began as lodgings for traveling railroad workers and served a buffet of food, lodging, liquor, gambling, music, and sex. Most women earning money in the informal economy were not entrepreneurs, but rather were service workers motivated by the availability of work and higher income, as well as a lack of interest in domestic work. One Chicago woman who was often arrested for writing policies was nevertheless proud that she could ensure that her child would graduate from high school. The ranks of women attempting to sell sexual services also increased, especially in the most dangerous and poorly paid form of prostitution, streetwalking, even as the number of potential customers with cash declined.

While middle-class reformers severely criticized what they believed to be the immorality of the informal economy, to say nothing of its illegality, the desperation brought on by the Depression, coupled with numbers bankers’ and other entrepreneurs’ substantial economic contributions to the community, bestowed upon that economy a kind of legitimacy. Spiritualist storefront churches and spiritualist mediums, most of them women, actively participated by attempting to divine lucky numbers and by offering prayers for success in less-than-honest enterprises. The informal economy helped to keep the money earned by black families inside their own communities. Eager to dilute the stigma attached to their unlawful activities, its leaders often made generous contributions to local churches and other community institutions.

The New Deal

Although New Deal reforms have been credited with saving the country from the worst effects of the Depression, most legislation that directly affected labor either had no effect or had a negative effect on black workers of both sexes. The Agricultural Adjustment Act enabled landowners to displace black agricultural workers, and other employers fired black employees rather than pay them equal wages as mandated by the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. Three of the most comprehensive pieces of labor legislation did not apply to the majority of black women because these laws excluded agricultural and domestic workers: the National Industrial Recovery Act, which set minimum wages and maximum hours; its successor, the Fair Labor Standards Act; and the Social Security Act, in its provisions for old age and unemployment insurance. Furthermore, the National Recovery Administration legalized a lower minimum wage in the South, referred to in black communities as the “Negro Removal Act” and the “Negro Run Around.” A black woman from Columbia, South Carolina, wrote to President Roosevelt in 1933, “I would like very much to know why they insisted on us signing those Cards if it did not apply to us.” In the end, the economic gap between black and white grew even larger because so many black workers were excluded from even the minimal protections of New Deal labor legislation.

Still, New Deal programs of direct relief and government-sponsored jobs offered a boon to some black communities. Given their lopsided share of unemployment, a larger proportion of black individuals and families were eligible for New Deal relief and work programs than were other workers. Relief benefits varied according to region. In northern cities, where black unemployment was highest, relief checks also were higher, and relief clients received the same amount, regardless of race. In 1938, general relief and Aid to Dependent Children benefits ranged between $20 and $40 a month in northeastern and midwestern states; in the South benefits were less than $20 a month. In 1941 the average Mississippi relief family received $3 a month. Southern black recipients usually received less than did their white neighbors, despite the fact that they paid the same prices for goods and services. About half of northern urban black families received relief in the mid-1930s, three or four times the white rate in the same areas. In the South, the proportion of black people receiving relief compared with whites declined with the size of the population. In cities, about twice as many black families as white received relief payments. The proportions receiving relief were much closer to one another in smaller towns. In the rural South, poor whites were more likely to receive relief than were poor blacks, and in many rural areas the only assistance available to poverty-stricken black families was federal surplus food.

The decision to apply for federal relief was not an easy one; most women felt humiliated by their inability to support themselves and by the necessity of asking for what they saw as charity. A Chicago widow explained, “If I could get a job even for room and board I wouldn’t be asking for relief.” Even when they received payments equal to those of whites, black women had to endure the racist judgments of social workers about their morality, mental and physical health, occupational histories, and inability to find work. After families or individuals were certified eligible for relief, they continually had to demonstrate their neediness. Relief allowed struggling black families to survive, but added another unpleasant responsibility to women’s load: negotiating with bureaucracies to acquire benefits. As the Depression dragged on, working-class people began to expect that relief was a responsibility of government and to critique its shortcomings and low cash payments. One unemployed Chicago woman told an investigator, “The relief just makes you live like a dog! How can anyone make out on $12 a month for rent, light, heat, and gas?”

New Deal employment programs such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) were popular in black communities. Occasionally, black people were hired for work to which they had little previous access, and sometimes WPA wages were higher than African Americans were able to command in the private economy. Sexist and racist presumptions were common, however. Women often could not secure WPA jobs because eligibility was limited to heads of household. Black women who were declared eligible received assignments primarily in sexually and racially segregated domestic work. Yet to most women, work was preferable to relief.

Regional wage differentials applied. In 1935 the minimum WPA monthly wage in most southern states was $19, but $40 in New York and Illinois and $45 in Washington, DC. For a single woman in Chicago, who received a monthly relief payment of at most $23, working for the WPA was an attractive option. Black women were especially interested in getting jobs in WPA sewing rooms, where they made clothing for distribution to relief clients. Higher pay, the ability to escape white women’s kitchens, and the opportunity to gain a skill by working on electric machines made the WPA sewing room a desirable goal for unemployed black women. Small numbers of black women worked in clerical and teaching positions and as artists and writers.

Home and Family

Not all women were employed, but virtually all women did housework, and their scrimping, stretching, and saving grew ever more critical as cash grew more scarce. Housework took up the slack of unemployment suffered by household members. By 1929 rural women had not, for the most part, moved very far into the cash economy. Their diet of fatback, beans, molasses, and corn bread was supplemented with the vegetables, fruit, fish, and meat that their families grew, gathered, hunted, and raised. They built fires, carried water, boiled laundry, sewed garments and bedding, and provided daily necessities with their labor. Practically speaking, housework changed little during the Depression, but women were forced to work harder just to make ends meet.

While subsistence labor was routine for most rural women, city dwellers tended to purchase the necessities of life. During the 1920s urban black women, especially in the North, lived in a consumer economy, paying cash for housing, food, clothing, utilities, and recreation. But during the 1930s urban women were often forced to emulate their rural counterparts. When they had less cash, they invested their labor instead. Where space was available, women planted gardens and canned the surplus. They made their own clothes and mended old clothing, investing time and energy but little money. When they could not pay the rent or when they were evicted, they moved into less desirable housing. A cheaper house or apartment meant fewer conveniences: stove heat rather than a coal furnace, kerosene lamps instead of electricity, no running water, no hot water, shared toilets. Without access to utilities to help create cleanliness and comfort, women had no choice but to work harder even as their pocketbooks shrank; they boiled water on the stovetop for baths, dishes, and laundry, and they hauled coal and ashes up and down flights of stairs. Southern urban dwellers rarely lived in modern housing equipped with amenities such as electricity, gas lines, indoor plumbing, and hot and cold running water, but as their incomes shrank, they, too, moved into poorer housing that required yet more labor to make habitable. In every region and environment, black women and their families were forced to move into less desirable housing, some several times a year.

Familial cooperation became increasingly necessary for survival, but as poverty deepened, tensions increased. Black women’s Depression stories are full of both cooperation and conflict. Marriage and birth rates declined during the 1930s as couples postponed getting married and limited the number of children they brought into the world. Douching was the preferred method of contraception, but condoms, diaphragms, folk methods, and abortions contributed to a decreasing birth rate. Households expanded, adding kin and others in order to share meager resources. Women cared for the emotional and practical needs of these ever-changing households. Cooperation also extended over many miles. Northern mothers sent their children south to live with grandmothers, sisters, or aunts. Assured that kin would care for their children, these women were able to take available work, even the much-hated live-in jobs. Cooperation stretched far beyond bloodlines; friends extended a welcome to one another when they could. Older women living alone in the North were more likely to receive assistance, especially a place to live and meals, from friends than they were from kin.

Conflict increased along with cooperation. Some marriages could not withstand the increased tensions of unemployment and deepening poverty. Some men jumped freight trains to look for work or simply deserted families in their shame over joblessness. Some women blamed men for their unemployment, men blamed themselves, and both were angry when women could find work and men could not. The loss of women’s wages was critical. Their income often meant the difference between survival and eviction, between food and hunger. Consequently, although divorces declined because of the expense, separations and desertions increased.

Familial tensions were not confined to marriages, however. Older women often discovered that they could not rely on their adult children for assistance when lack of jobs and poor health made them dependent. In Chicago in 1937, for example, close to six thousand black women living outside families were receiving relief. A combination of unemployment, old age, ill health, the end of marriages, and the inability of other kin to support them left these women with no recourse except relief.

Activism and Community

During the Depression, black women organized themselves in time-honored ways as well as in inventive new forms in order to secure civil rights, ensure jobs and wages, support the African American community, and assist those most harshly affected by unemployment. While women’s waged and unwaged labor and a few federal work and relief programs were among the most important practical mechanisms for coping with unemployment and underemployment, political activism, economic nationalism, union organizing, organized religion, and spirituality also contributed to survival. Local and national organizations accomplished modest goals, considering the economic and political barriers that constrained them, and they laid the groundwork for subsequent political and economic struggles and successes. For the first time, a black woman, Mary McLeod Bethune, gained national prominence for her political leadership in both the black and white worlds.

Black churches offered community, solace, and faith in better times to come, but rarely could they provide substantial material aid. The movement of recent southern migrants away from mainline religious denominations and into alternative denominations accelerated. These new denominations, including the Sanctified tradition (Pentecostal and Holiness) and Spiritualists, welcomed women preachers and female spiritual leadership to small congregations in storefront churches.

On the worldly plane, the Depression has been linked to the creation and successes of industrial unions through the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Despite the fact that few black women worked in sectors organized by CIO unions in the 1930s, significant numbers did play active roles in labor campaigns and strikes around the country. Women in the Alabama Share Croppers Union, for example, participated in cotton pickers’ strikes and joined eight women’s auxiliaries disguised as Sewing Clubs. Other southern women joined the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. Domestics organized in many cities, relying on social and community networks because they lacked workplace connections, and although their attempts rarely resulted in better wages or working conditions, they created the foundation upon which future generations of labor activists would build.

Workers in laundries, a significant commercial service employer of black women, also attempted to unionize in numerous cities, occasionally with success. Small numbers of organized black women participated in strikes of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). Hundreds of tobacco stemmers successfully struck Richmond plants in 1937 and received picket-line support from white ILGWU members. Other workers struck independently, such as the nutpickers of St. Louis, fourteen hundred of whom, black and white, went on to found the Food Workers’ Industrial Union in 1933.

Black women participated in the organization of men into CIO unions in the steel, auto, and railroad industries through women’s auxiliaries. The International Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters contributed financial and emotional assistance to the first primarily black union, which successfully negotiated a contract in 1937. Arguing for manhood rights and an adequate wage to support families, the Brotherhood relied on the Ladies’ Auxiliary’s promotion of this ideology through domesticity and respectability, rather than through workplace improvements in female jobs.

Black women’s new forms of activism included organizing the unemployed and the recipients of government relief, often through joining the Communist party. In rural Alabama, in Harlem, and in places in between, African Americans were attracted not only to the party’s activism on behalf of the unemployed, workers, and African Americans but also by its defense of the Scottsboro Boys. Women demanded better treatment by relief agencies, joined Unemployed Councils, and helped evicted families move their possessions back into their homes. Louise Thompson Patterson and Claudia Jones, two of the most famous black female activists in Harlem, offered personal testimony of the party’s attractions for middle class (Patterson) and working class women (Jones, a Trinidadian immigrant).

Middle-class black women more typically continued their involvement in the leading civil rights organizations, the NAACP and the Urban League, whose public leadership appeared to be exclusively male, but whose behind-the-scenes roles were often filled by women. New black women’s organizations followed the lead of the NAACP in the years between the World Wars and emphasized pressure-group politics. The most important of these was the National Council of Negro Women, founded in 1935 as an organization of organizations, included the broad range of established middle class and elite women’s groups, such as the leading sororities, Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta; professional organizations, such as the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses and teachers’ organizations; and some groups of churchwomen. Although black women’s organizations consistently lobbied for antilynching and anti-poll tax legislation and raised money for the defense of the Scottsboro Boys during the 1930s, the NACW also directly addressed economic issues. For example, it pressured the federal government to hire black women professionals, lobbied the government to remove photos from civil service applications, and pushed to ensure equal inclusion of African Americans in New Deal relief and jobs programs. The NACW also formed local organizations to educate women about legislation and brought prominent, educated black women to political attention when it sponsored a White House conference in 1938. Compared to the National Association of Colored Women, its programs were less focused on moral uplift and more on pragmatic politics, reflecting especially the contributions of Mary McLeod Bethune.

For the first time, a black woman gained national visibility for her political work, both in the African American and white worlds. Mary McLeod Bethune, educator, club woman, and activist, became the director of Negro Affairs in the National Youth Administration and leader of Roosevelt’s unofficial “black cabinet.” Her considerable political skills brought educated African Americans into government service and placed the issue of segregation on the public political agenda in a way never before possible. Franklin Roosevelt’s dependence on, and reluctance to antagonize, the votes of white southern Democrats waylaid efforts to resolve racial injustice. Bethune and others, however, shrewdly capitalized upon their friendship with, and the political commitments of, Eleanor Roosevelt. The major shift of black voters to the Democratic Party during the New Deal set the stage for political alliances that persisted even into the twenty-first century.

Yet another strain of political and economic organization during the Depression was economic nationalism. So-called Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work campaigns in many cities encouraged locals to boycott white businesses in black neighborhoods unless they altered their employment policies and hired staff from the neighborhood. The female versions of these campaigns, the Housewives Leagues in northern and midwestern cities, such as Detroit, harnessed the energy and power of women as consumers to accomplish these goals.

Not all of these efforts bore immediate fruit, but activism offered the possibility of social change and was embraced by women from all walks of life. Black women of every class, age, and demographic group challenged unendurable and unfair conditions in the workplace. Ultimately, the activism of the 1930s built the base from which unheralded gains arose in the 1950s and 1960s. Many activists were still alive to see the fruits of their labors in succeeding decades.

Housewives’ League of Detroit

The Great Depression of the 1930s was one of the most catastrophic periods in American history, especially for African Americans. Thousands of black men and women who had earlier left the South for northern cities and midwestern communities in search of a better future found themselves embroiled in a fierce struggle for jobs, housing, education, and first-class citizenship. Urban African Americans also encountered an increase in incidences of brutal violence, race riots, and blatant racial discrimination and segregation. During these dire times, black women in Detroit created an ingenious organization based on the principles of mutual aid, economic nationalism, and self-determination: the Housewives’ League of Detroit.

On 10 June 1930, a group of fifty black women responded to a call issued by Fannie B. Peck. Out of this initial meeting emerged the Housewives’ League of Detroit. Peck had conceived the idea of creating an organization of housewives after hearing a lecture by M. A. L. Holsey, secretary of the National Negro Business League. Holsey had described the successful efforts of black housewives of Harlem to consolidate and exert their considerable economic power. Peck became convinced that if such an organization worked in Harlem, it should work in Detroit.

The organization grew with phenomenal speed. From the original fifty members, its membership increased to ten thousand by 1934. The only requirement for membership was a pledge to support black businesses, buy black products, and patronize black professionals, thereby keeping the money in the community. Members held the conviction that “it is our duty as women controlling 85 percent of the family budget to unlock through concentrated spending closed doors that Negro youth may have the opportunity to develop and establish businesses in the fields closest to them.”

Each black neighborhood in Detroit had its own chapter of the Housewives’ League. Fulfilling the duties of membership in the league required considerable effort and commitment. Members of each chapter canvassed their neighborhood merchants, demanding that they sell black products and employ black children as clerks or stockpersons. In addition, chapter leaders organized campaigns to persuade their neighbors to patronize specific businesses owned by African Americans or white businesses with black employees. Across the city, league officers organized lectures, planned exhibits at state fairs, discussed picketing and boycotting strategies, and disseminated information concerning the economic self-help struggles of African Americans in other sections of the country. The Research Committee gathered data and made recommendations as to the types of businesses needed in various communities and neighborhoods and reported the results of “directed spending” tactics.

During the Great Depression, historian Jacqueline Jones notes, the Housewives’ Leagues “in Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, Detroit, Harlem, and Cleveland relied on boycotts” to secure “an estimated 75,000 new jobs for Blacks.” Jones also notes that during the Depression these leagues “had an economic impact comparable to that of the CIO in its organizing efforts, and second only to government jobs as a new source of openings.”

The league continued its work throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. Ironically, however, just as the Black Power movement gathered momentum in the late 1960s, the Housewives’ League of Detroit faded from view.For more information, see Darlene Clark Hine, Black Women in the Middle West: The Michigan Experience (Ann Arbor: Historical Society of Michigan, 1990). Information on the league can also be found in the Housewives’ League of Detroit Manuscript Collection, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library, Detroit, Michigan.

Darlene Clark Hine


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                              Wolcott, Victoria. Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.Find this resource:

                                Lois Rita Helmbold