Black leaders, activists, and organizers formed the backbone of the U.S. labor movement. Even when the forces of structural racism and segregation sought to stifle their contributions, their resolve to fight for workers’ rights alongside the cause of civil rights remained unshakable. Black women, in particular, have played an enormous role in the movement’s legacy and development.
The Washerwomen of Jackson formed Mississippi’s first labor union in 1866. Lucy Parsons, the anarchist firebrand, cofounded three influential radical unions in 20th-century Chicago. More recently, United Auto Workers (UAW) organizer Sanchioni Butler battled Nissan in a years-long campaign to organize Southern auto-plant workers. Along with so many others, these Black women have long been the bedrock of a workers’ rights movement that has often tried to shut them out.
Prior to desegregation, many white-led unions refused to admit Black members of any gender, and Black women faced the intersectional double bind of gender bias and racial discrimination. When faced with a locked union hall door, however, many Black women labor leaders decided to take matters into their own hands and formed their own organizations within the industries in which they had the highest numbers and therefore held the most power.
In 1866, a group of newly emancipated Black women working as laundresses in Jackson, Mississippi, formed the state’s first labor union by sending a resolution to the mayor, informing him that they would henceforth be charging a “uniform rate” for their labor. Two decades later, in Atlanta, 98% of Black working women in the city were employed as domestic workers, and those who worked long, back-breaking hours as laundresses organized the Atlanta Washerwomen’s Strike, demanding fixed wages. Their numbers grew from 20 to 3,000 people, and they also invited white laundresses to join them in a show of interracial solidarity that was nearly unheard of at the time.
The examples of Southern Black women organizers continue with leaders including Sylvia Woods, a New Orleans–born laundry worker–turned–union activist who in Chicago participated in one of first sit-down strikes of the Depression era; Rosina Tucker, who helped organize the first AFL-CIO–recognized Black labor union and helped organize laundry workers, domestic workers, and hotel and restaurant workers, jobs that at the time were primarily held by Black women; and Dorothy Lee Bolden.
Bolden, who started working in domestic service at the age of 9 and founded the National Domestic Workers Union of America in 1968, was involved in the fight for labor and civil rights, and her organizing work within an often exploited industry made a huge impact on the lives of domestic workers, both in Atlanta and far beyond the city limits. Bolden is now hailed as an Atlanta labor icon, and, according to the Georgia State University library website, at its height, the union she founded “claimed to represent 30,000 people and played a part in fundamentally changing the treatment of domestic workers under U.S. labor law.”
Butler, Bellamy, and Destin are all profiled alongside 24 other Black women labor leaders in the 2015 project And Still I Rise: Black Women Labor Leaders’ Voices, Power and Promise, which was part of the Black Worker Initiative, from the Institute for Policy Studies. “We know that they are, and have always been, ‘the miner’s canary’ for workers in America. Black women have experienced for decades many of the economic and social ills now faced by others. Therefore, it stands to logic that making black women whole raises the floor for all women—likely, for all workers,” consultant Kimberly Freeman Brown and Marc Bayard, director of the Institute for Policy Studies’ Black Worker Initiative, write in the project’s introduction.