Your current book focuses on marriages among African-Americans in the 19th century? Can you discuss the origins of that book?
The idea germinated in the process of doing research for the first book as I was exploring family dynamics during the Reconstruction period. The Freedman’s bureau records for example, include a lot of resources about the transition from slavery to freedom. Many ex-slaves were searching for family members and the agents at the bureau would take down their stories and often in the process they compiled lots of information about slave and ex-slave family relationships. There is a very rich treasure trove of personal records as a result. In doing this research I came across a lot of documents related to marriage. I put aside some of the research from that, thinking I would write an article about marriage during this period.
After my first book I started working on a different project related to the history of medicine but decided to go back to this topic of marriage and rather than write an article about Reconstruction, I would write a book about marriage in the whole 19th century. I was interested in how the concept of marriage changed from slavery when there was no legal standing, until after slavery ends when it does gain recognition and the complications that created. I also wanted to look at free blacks during the period of slavery, some of whom had enslaved spouses.
What was the view of marriage by African-Americans during and after slavery?
Many couples did marry under slavery in these informal relationships that the masters did sometimes recognize. They could be split apart and they often were, but masters did recognize the value of having slaves marry if for no other reason than to bolster their own interests and helped to maintain a stable workforce. Proslavery ideology and Christianity also influenced masters who wanted to use marriage to reinforce paternalism and the “positive-good” thesis for rationalizing slavery. At the same time, slave owners were not willing to have those benefits outweigh their economic interests. Profit was the most important fact in their decisions about how they regarded the permanence of those relationships.
This made marriage for slaves highly significant and valued because they understood and experienced the implications of not having legal protections and autonomy. Marriage was taken for granted by most people at the time, especially whites, because they didn’t have to worry about outside interventions and violations of their marital bonds. Slaves had a greater appreciation of marriage because of that but I think that their views were complex. After slavery ends, there’s this embrace of marriage. It’s the first civil right they can exercise and it also provides legitimacy to their children. At the same time, some people wanted to maintain the informality of conjugal relationships as they had before .
There was also a sense that marriage had a larger meaning for the race. There was this sense of hopefulness that with legal recognition they would gain respect from the larger society and that it could open doors and could erase the stigma of racial inferiority they had lived with for so long. By the end of the 19th century, you get a sense that racial discourse is diminishing under Jim Crow. It’s clear that marriage is not going to have the kind of impact they thought it would have for the race as a collective. But it still had importance for individual couples.
Were couples separated under slavery able to reunite and get married?
Some of them were but many of them were not able to. Some of the separations had occurred earlier in the period of slavery and some happened as result of the war itself. Sometimes when the Union Army came into a territory, the plantations would be split up. Many people were separated during the course of the war. Soldiers, including black soldiers, were going off to fight. Women often tried to keep their families together by following behind and setting up nearby camps. After slavery ended there was a huge undertaking to reunite family members and spouses. It is remarkable not only that so many were unable to do so, but also that many did, with the help of agencies such as the Freedmen’s Bureau.
How much material was available for research for this book compared to your previous book?
The research for this book is much easier than for the first one. The big difference is that for this book there are so many sources. In part, this is because I’m doing this very broad topic of marriage in the whole 19th century throughout the country. But the records themselves are also richer. Just take the period of Reconstruction itself. I could write a book on that period alone. For example, there are Civil War Pension records, generated by widows of Civil War veterans. African American widows who applied for pensions had to show how they were married before the War, which meant they needed the testimony of people who knew them as couples, including former masters and fellow slaves. In order to maintain the pensions they had to stay unmarried and the government could and did send out investigators to verify this. All of the testimony that the original pensions and the investigations generated provide a treasure trove of revelations about black marriages stretching from slavery through the end of the 19th century and beyond.
I have also had to explore different kinds of sources I had not used much before, such as legal records. When I started to write what I thought would be the first chapter on slave marriages, I realized that before I could write that chapter, I would have to write an entire chapter on slave law as it applied to marriage issues. I had a lot of questions the existing secondary literature could not answer for me so I found myself having to delve deeper into legal treatises, case records, and statutes to figure things out for myself.
Q. Can you discuss the origins of your first book, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War?
The first book started out as a seminar paper about the washerwomen’s strike in Atlanta, Georgia in 1881 in David Montgomery’s seminar on American Social History. It was a strike that not very many historians had paid much attention to. The scholars who had written about it had been pretty dismissive of it. I looked at the original sources such as newspaper accounts from the Atlanta Constitution and I found it quite interesting that the strike had a very significant impact - much more so than other historians had suggested. That was the opening for me to do more research on working class women in Atlanta in particular.
Can you put the strike in the context of slavery?
If you think about slavery as forced labor it is easier to understand the urgency on the part of African Americans to find ways to be more autonomous and to have lives that were as far removed from slavery as possible. You see this search in the kind of work they chose, within the constraints still imposed on them. For urban black women, domestic work was the only option they had. But within that category many chose to be washerwoman because it allowed more independence and flexibility. They could do the wash in their own quarters, take care of their kids and other family responsibilities at the same time. It helped to relieve the unrelenting dynamic between worker and employee conflict that they faced under slavery or even as free people working in white households.
1881 was not that far removed from the abolition of slavery, so it was still a very risky enterprise for the women to organize a strike. So this really helps put their demands for higher wages and respect for their work into perspective.
What can you tell me about the women who organized the strike?
There is information available on some of the women organizers as a result of their arrests for “disorderly conduct” while canvassing the city to increase their ranks. They tended to be older women, married women, mothers, and so they put a lot on the line to assert themselves and be willing to face the repercussions of possible violence, as did other African Americans who were organizing throughout the south. These women had a similar profile as compared to other strikes by washerwomen in Jackson, Mississippi in 1866 and Galveston, Texas in 1877 . The Atlanta strike was the largest among these and for the city of Atlanta as well. Strikes by workers in the South in general, white or black, were pretty rare at the time.
How did you research a book on black working women given that there are so few sources on the topic?
The strike provided an entrée to figuring that out. I built my dissertation by trying to figure out who these women were who ended up in Atlanta in 1881. How did they get there? What kinds of opportunities were available to them? They came from the countryside seeking work and opportunities and the work that was available to them was domestic work .
I was interested in how the work impacted their families and their communities and also how they were perceived by their employers and larger society, I wanted to learn more about the everyday lives of these women in their work spaces and neighborhoods. The dissertation took me in other directions as well. I have a chapter on the ways that they were stigmatized as carriers of disease, in particular tuberculosis. There was also some controversy about how the women spent their leisure time. Dancing was one of the activities they were drawn to which some employees argued interfered with their jobs, that instead of dancing they should spend their time resting to prepare themselves for the next day’s work.
Can you describe what took place during the Atlanta strike?
Historians have often made the assertion that domestic workers are the most difficult to organize because they tend to work in employer’s homes in isolation of fellow workers. This was one of the examples that defy that generalization. These were women who worked in their own homes, they also often worked together in common spaces in their neighborhoods where they would do the wash. They used those spaces and daily networks as a basis for their door-to-door campaign.
The basic idea was that they wanted higher wages. They wrote an open letter to the mayor that was a very interesting document because it is the only surviving source where you get to hear the women speak. This was in stark contrast to the employers and other opponents of the strike who were very vocal and had their views well-represented in the press. The opponents included the newspaper itself, which was not the objective journalism we would expect today: the Atlanta Constitution was very clear about how it felt about many topics.
Yet, there was a kind of grudging respect for these women because the city wrongly assumed that the women would cave immediately. They ended up having a significant impact in terms of the symbol of organizing and calling attention to the issues that they thought were important. The newspaper had to acknowledge that the city had felt the impact of not having full access to these women’s labor. At the time, most white households relied on their labor; even some working class women hired these domestic workers because laundry work was one of the most difficult of the household chores. So housewives who could afford it were very eager to send out the wash.
How many people were involved in the strike?
The strike began with just 20 women and a few men meeting at one of the neighborhood churches. The newspaper reported that there were 3000 strikers and supporters. That may have been an exaggeration, so it is hard to say. The women did get wide support within the black community, however, so the numbers are probably more reflective of that.
Did they succeed?
I was very reliant on what the newspapers said and they reported a few instances of women getting higher wages. But if I look at the evidence more broadly than that, more than likely they did not get the higher wages they were seeking. I tend to emphasize the political importance as opposed to actual victory on specific issues like wages. From the period I looked at from the time of the Civil War to 1920, low wages was one of the biggest issues that domestic workers constantly complained about.
What kind of wages were washwomen making?”
Most washerwomen earned around $4 to $8 per month. And again, there is little movement in those figures even into the first decades of the 20th century.
Can you explain why the strike was a symbolic victory?
One outcome was that it earned the women more respect. They threatened to organize a general strike of all the domestic workers at the opening of a major event: the International Cotton Exposition in the fall of 1881. The strike was in the summer and they suggested that they might organize this bigger strike during the Exposition.
I was curious about why they chose to use that event. I discovered that it was the first world’s fair in the South and Atlanta was the host. Atlanta was trying to showcase itself as the leader of the “New South” and this was seen as its debut. Business and political leaders were trying to make themselves more attractive to industries and to present the city as forward-thinking. They portrayed Atlanta, and the south, as having passive workers (not prone to protest) at the same time that these women were threatening to strike.
The contrast between the two events is interesting, even though the threat was not carried out. The city did not like the fact that the women had dared to think they could carry off an even bigger strike at a time when their labor and their cooperation would have been needed even more. Even the newspaper that had articulated the most vocal opposition to the strikers had come to have a greater appreciation for the fact that these women should not be taken for granted because of the role they played in the city’s economy.
Did the strike organizers retain power through other organizations after the strike?
The paper trail ends after the strike. The strike was led by members of the Washing Society that eventually subsided. But domestic workers more generally had other mutual aid organizations and some of them functioned as trade unions organized around labor issues.
Were you able to follow these women through the 1920s?
It was difficult to trace individuals . I tried to find the known strikers in later census records, but could not follow up. More generally, the book traces the larger group of working-class women who migrated to Atlanta and at first saw the city as a place of opportunity after the Civil War was over. But by 1920 there’s this sense of dashed hopes. The book ends around World War I and the great migration. By this time, many have tried Atlanta and tried the south. Many of them began thinking about other places they could move to, especially in the north, that might be more hospitable. The concluding chapter is about that next transition and transformation.
How did you research the book without much from the women themselves?
The challenge is basically a scarcity of sources from the women themselves. There are some sources, such as ex-slave interviews, but for the most part I had to read other accounts to get the women’s perspectives. For example, many of the employers kept diaries and journals. Often they would record their daily travails with the domestic workers. Even though they were biased they usually inadvertently revealed the other side. Household account books were very interesting. These were records the employers kept of their expenses, including the wages they paid domestic workers. They claimed that they paid their workers very well when asked but when you look at the account books you can see how little they paid. I was also able to look at these expenses in comparison to others, for example, how much they spent on treats for their children or how much money they gave to a beggar on the street. Then you get a very different perspective.
Newspapers were very important as well as government documents. There’s an African-American newspaper for part of the period and the Atlanta Journal Constitution was useful also. I used church records, and various organizational records like mutual aid societies. There was also the Neighborhood Union, a social settlement type organization that is typically identified with middle-class reform that involved domestic workers .
My book branches out from Atlanta and talks about other cities in the south. I wanted to do that in order to make comparisons but also to talk about the urban south more generally. This helped to expand the sources.
Was the research challenging?
Very much so. It’s kind of the needle in the haystack approach to doing research. I would go into the archives and try to find anything that might be relevant and then dig in to see how useful it could be. I had to find ways to talk about the project so that archivists would not think to narrowly about what I was doing and assume that they did not have records in their collections I could use. I spent a lot of time at the Atlanta Historical Society, as well as several state archives, the National Archives, the Schomberg Center in New York, and the Library of Congress. Regional archives, such as the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Duke University archives were important too.
How long did it take you?
I did the research in stages. First, I wrote a dissertation, which laid the groundwork, provided a foundation, and also showed me where the holes were to do more research. Once I had that base, I began to look at the project with fresher eyes. I went back and read the African American newspaper in Atlanta again and I started to see things that I hadn’t seen before. I started to see ads I hadn’t seen before, things that were happening in terms of popular culture, notices about amusements that were going on. This led me to write two chapters in the book related to leisure.
I also began to think about the book differently conceptually. The dissertation was organized thematically, though somewhat chronologically. Several colleagues, scholars in the field, read the dissertation and asked the question , ‘Can you comment about how things changed over time?’ I realized I could not really do that unless the manuscript was completely re-organized in the context of time.
Thinking about it chronologically from beginning to end turned out to be a very interesting exercise. One of the things it changed was my interpretation of the strike. Once I situated it within a broader chronological context, I began to see connections to grass roots politics with respect to the Republican party and African Americans participation in the party after Reconstruction. Their influence declined after Reconstruction, but on the local level they still had some political leverage in the 1880s, which they were using. The strike was part of that.
Is southern history becoming a hot field?
It is a very hot field. There is a lot of very interesting work is being done on that region. It is amazing how the field has really exploded.