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Breaking the “Harness of Household Slavery”: Domestic Workers, the Women's Division of the St. Louis Urban League, and the Politics of Labor Reform during the Great Depression

  • Keona K. Ervin (a1)

Abstract

Largely denied membership in organized labor and access to basic labor protections, black domestic workers of St. Louis employed the local chapter of the Urban League's Women's Division to carve out a space for themselves in a growing, predominantly white, male labor movement and in the multiple coalitions that configured the New Deal. Domestics used household employment reform codes to lay the groundwork for dignity to manifest itself in their labor and contractual agreements. From the Household Workers Mass Meeting of 1933 to the close of the St. Louis Urban League's first phase in the late 1940s, black working-class women joined forces with progressive black women who led the Urban League's Women's Division to reform domestic employment through negotiation, enforcement, collective action, and everyday resistance. A border city with a large and settled black working class located within its core, St. Louis had acute class, gender, and racial divisions that shaped the terms of black women's economic activism. The Gateway City's mix of urban Midwestern-, northern-, and southern-style geopolitics propelled domestics’ mobilization, offering space for dissident women to call for changes to the social, political, and economic order.

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NOTES

1. Annual Report of the Urban League of St. Louis for the Year 1933, p. 5, Urban League of St. Louis, S0093, State Historical Society of Missouri (hereafter cited as SHSM).

2. Annual Report of the Urban League of St. Louis for the Year 1933, p. 5; Premilla Nadasen, “Sista’ Friends and Other Allies: Domestic Workers United and Coalition Politics,” in New Social Movements in the African Diaspora: Challenging Global Apartheid, ed. Leith Mullings (New York, 2009); Nadasen, , “‘Tell Dem Slavery Done’: Domestic Workers United and Transnational Feminisms,” Scholar & Feminist Online, Issue 8 (2009), http://sfonline.barnard.edu/worl/nadasen_01.htm (accessed March 25, 2013); Boris, Eileen and Nadasen, Premilla, “Domestic Workers Organize!” WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society 11 (2008): 413–37; Alice Kessler-Harris, In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in the 20th Century (New York, 2003); Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present, rev. ed. (New York, 2010), 171–174.

3. Clarence Lang, Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936–75 (Ann Arbor, 2009), 13; Priscilla Dowden-White, Groping Toward Democracy: African American Social Welfare Reform in St. Louis, 1910–1949 (Columbia, 2011), 2, 12–16, 116–123; Dowden, “The Urban League of St. Louis in Historical Perspective,” Gateway Heritage (St. Louis, 1993): 32–47; Landon R. Y. Storrs, Civilizing Capitalism: The National Consumers’ League, Women's Activism, and Labor Standards in the New Deal Era (Chapel Hill, 2000), 33, 91–123, 196–198.

4. Nathan B. Young, Your St. Louis and Mine, n.p., 1937, 34, Missouri History Museum Archives, St. Louis (hereafter cited MHM; a copy of this work, published in St. Louis in 1937, can be found at the Missouri History Museum Archives in St. Louis); John T. Clark to George R. Arthur, October 24, 1933, Series 1, Box 9, Folder 10, St. Louis Urban League Papers, University Archives, Washington University in St. Louis (hereafter cited as SLUL); Black Population in St. Louis, from US Census, 1910–1933, Missouri State Employment Service, New Deal and Black Agencies, Missouri File, Special Collections, University of Missouri-Columbia; 1930 Federal Census for Metropolitan Saint Louis Tabulated by Enumeration Districts and Census Tracts (St. Louis, 1932); “Occupational Distribution of Saint Louis Female Workers by Color and by Nativity: 1930,” Facts and Figures for Speakers on Race Relations, Department of Race Relations, St. Louis Community Council, September 1934, p. 4, Fannie Cook Papers, MHM (hereafter cited as FC); “Black Population by Sex and Age for Census Tracts: 1930,” 1930 Federal Census for Metropolitan Saint Louis Tabulated by Enumeration Districts and Census Tracts (St. Louis: The Research Committee of the St. Louis Community Council, 1932); “Black Population in St. Louis from US Census, 1940,” Population and Housing Statistics for Census Tracts, St. Louis, Mo. and Adjacent Area (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1942); Lang, Grassroots at the Gateway, 7–13.

5. Rank of the General Occupational Divisions by Nativity and Color of the Employed Woman, St. Louis, Mo., 1930, Women Workers of St. Louis, Missouri, 1930, S0348, SHSM; Dorothy W. Burke, Economic Status of Saint Louis (St. Louis, 1935), 13.

6. Luella Webster to Jennie C. Bucker, n.d., Series 4, Box 1, Folder 13, Mary Young to John T. Clark, May 12, 1937, Series 1, Box 9, Folder 21, and Mary Young to John T. Clark, May 17, 1937, Series 1, Box 9, Folder 19, SLUL; Annual Report of Executive Secretary of Urban League of St. Louis, 1930, S0093, SHSM.

7. September and November 1930 Reports, Series 4, Box 4, Folder 36, July 1931 Monthly Report, Series 4, Box 4, Folder 39, January 1932 Monthly Report, Series 4, Box 4, Folder 42, and February 1934 Report, Series 4, Box 4, Folder 46, SLUL; Lucy Randolph, “The Perfect Treasure,” American Junior League Magazine (February 1934): 36, 37.

8. August 1931 Monthly Report, Series 4, Box 4, Folder 39, January 1932 Monthly Report, Series 4, Box 4, Folder 42, and July 1931 Monthly Report, Series 4, Box 4, Folder 39, SLUL.

9. Henryetta Makins to John T. Clark, November 28, 1928, Series 1, Box 9, Folder 4, Jane Story to John T. Clark, April 19, 1929, Series 1, Box 9, Folder 5, and John T. Clark to Henry V. Ghem, May 10, 1933, Series 1, Box 9, Folder 11, SLUL; Nancy Maclean, Freedom Is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace (Cambridge, 2006), 16.

10. Annual Report of the Urban League of St. Louis for the Year 1933, p. 1; Ira De A. Reid, Industrial Status of Negroes in St. Louis (New York, 1943), 1; Facts and Figures for Speakers on Race Relations, St. Louis Community Council, Department of Race Relations, September 1934, p. 4, Box 4, Folder 2, FC; “J.T. Clark Called to N.Y. by Urban League,” St. Louis Argus March 30, 1934; Dowden, “Over This Point We Are Determined to Fight” (Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 1997), 79–80.

11. Annual Report of the Urban League of St. Louis for the Year 1933, p. 1; A Digest of Fields Explored and Services Given by the Urban League of St. Louis, n.d., Box 15, Folder 5, Mary T. Hall Papers, Missouri History Museum (hereafter cited as MH); January 1938–June 1938 Monthly Reports, Series 4, Box 4, Folder Monthly Report, Industrial Secretary, 1938, January–July, September–December with comparative employment statistics, S. Williams, July 1938 Report of Industrial Secretary, Series 4, Box 5, Folder Report of Industrial Secretary, July 1938, Comparative Table of Employment Statistics, January 1944, Series 4, Box 5, Folder 7, 1929 Monthly Report, Series 4, Box 4, Folder 32, 1930 Monthly Report, Series 4, Box 4, Folder 36, 1932 Monthly Report, Series 4, Box 4, Folder 42, 1933 Monthly Report, Series 4, Box 4, Folder 44, John T. Clark to John W. George, n.d., Series 1, Box 9, Folder 24, John T. Clark to George R. Arthur, October 24, 1933, Series 1, Box 9, Folder 10, Charles A. Collier Jr. to Freeman L. Martin, June 24, 1933, Series 4, Box 1, Folder 9, Myrtle McKinney to Industrial Committee of Urban League, 8 June 1933, Series 4, Box 1, Folder 9, and Freeman L. Martin to Industrial Committee of the Urban League, June 16, 1933, Series 4, Box 1, Folder 9, SLUL.

12. March 1929 Report, The Urban League of St. Louis, Industrial Department (Women and Girls) Report for March 1929, Submitted by Jennie C. Buckner and Marie C. Wilburn (assistant), Series 4, Box 4, Folder 32, SLUL; Twentieth Anniversary, 1919 to 1938, Urban League of St. Louis, St. Louis Urban League Papers, S0093, Box 1, Folder Urban League of St. Louis, Annual Reports, 1938–1942, 1944–1945, 1957, 1960, 1964–1970, 1972, 1974, SHSM.

13. Jennie C. Buckner and Marie C. Wilburn, “Orders from Bachelors,” Series 4, Box 4, Folder 36, Report of Industrial Secretary, 1936 all, Series 4, Box 4, Folder 50, St. Louis Urban League Papers; Danielle McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (New York, 2011), xx, 201–203.

14. Annual Report of the Urban League of St. Louis for the Year 1933, p. 1; Meeting of General Household Workers, September 21, 1933, Box 4, Folder 1, FC; “Domestic Workers Problems Are Discussed in a Meeting,” St. Louis Argus, October 6, 1933; John T. Clark to Mrs. George Gellhorn, September 20, 1933, Series 3, Box 10, Folder 20, Edna Gellhorn Papers, University Archives, West Campus Library, Washington University in St. Louis (hereafter cited as EG).

15. Meeting of General Household Workers, September 21, 1933, Box 4, Folder 1, FC; Domestic Workers Problems Are Discussed in a Meeting, St. Louis Argus, October 6, 1933; Annual Report of the Urban League of St. Louis for the Year 1933, p. 4; September 1933 Report, p. 2, Series 4, Box 4, Folder 43, SLUL.

16. August 1930 Monthly Report, Series 4, Box 4, Folder 36, SLUL; Meeting of General Household Workers, September 21, 1933, Box 4, Folder 1, FC; Annual Report of the Urban League of St. Louis for the Year 1933, p. 5.

17. T. Arnold Hill, “Domestic Service to the Front,” Opportunity (April 1930): 120; Women's Conference on Household Employment Relations, March 18, 1930, Series 3, Box 10, Folder 20, EG; Standard Certificate of Death, Florence Eldridge, Division of Health of Missouri, Filed November 2, 1949, Date of Death, November 2, 1949.

18. T. Arnold Hill, “Domestic Service to the Front,” Opportunity (1930): 120; Tera W. Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern African American Women's Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Cambridge, 1997), 57–65; Kelley, Robin D.G., “‘We Are Not What We Seem’: Rethinking Black Working-Class Opposition in the Jim Crow South,” Journal of American History 80 (1993): 75112 .

19. Women's Bureau, US Department of Labor, Suggested Minimum Standards for the Full-Time General Houseworker, Proposed in 1931 by the National Committee on Employer-Employee Relationships in the Home, emphasis mine, 1931, Box 4, Folder 1, FC; Kyrk, Hazel, “A Fine Art-An Undesired Job,” Life and Labor Bulletin, p. 1, vol. 9, no. 10, serial no. 97, The National Women's Trade Union League of America, Life and Labor Bulletin, vols. 1–10, 1922–1932, Google Books, http://books.google.com/books?id=5urmAAAAMAAJ&ots=adX8Qofm5k&dq=life%20and%20labor%20national%20women's%20trade%20union%20UL&pg=PA1#v=onepage&q&f=false (accessed August 31, 2012); Peggie R. Smith, Regulating Paid Household Work: Class, Gender, Race, and Agendas of Reform, 48 Am U.L. Rev. 851 (1999); “Unionizing the ‘Hired Girl,’” The Literary Digest, May 9, 1931, p. 23, www.unz.org/Pub/LiteraryDigest-1931may09-00023(accessed August 31, 2012).

20. Ibid.

21. Baker, Ella and Cooke, Marvel, “The Bronx Slave Market,” Crisis 42, 11 (November 1930): 330–32; Francille Rusan Wilson, The Segregated Scholars: Black Social Scientists and the Creation of Black Labor Studies, 1890–1950 (Charlottesville, 2006), 173–214; Phyllis Palmer, Domesticity and Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920–1945 (Philadelphia, 1989), 111–135; Dayo F. Gore, Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War (New York, 2011), 15–45, 106–112; Erik S. McDuffie, Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism (Durham, 2011), 3–6, 10–16.

22. “Domestic Workers Problems Are Discussed In a Meeting,” St. Louis Argus, October 6, 1933; Minutes of Meeting of Committee on Household Service Problems, October 17, 1933, Box 4, Folder 1, FC.

23. Minutes of Meeting of Committee on Household Service Problems, October 17, 1933, p. 2, Box 4, Folder 1, FC; John T. Clark to Edna Gellhorn, October 20, 1933, Series 3, Box 10, Folder 20, EG; Edna Gellhorn to Father William N. Markoe, October 24, 1933, Series 4, Box 1, Folder 9, SLUL; 1933 Annual Report, p. 2, Series 4, Box 6, Folder 82, and March 1932 Monthly Report, Series 4, Box 4, Folder 42, SLUL; Twentieth Anniversary, 1919 to 1938, UL of St. Louis, St. Louis Urban League Papers, S0093, Box 1, Folder UL of St. Louis, Annual Reports, 1938–1942, 1944–1945, 1957, 1960, 1964–1970, 1972, 1974, SHSM.

24. January 1934 Report, p. 2, Series 4, Box 4, Folder 46, 1934; Annual Report of Industrial Secretary, p. 2, Folder 83, UL Placement Service and the Transfer of this Responsibility to the State Employment Service, n.d., Series 4, Box 1, Folder 16, 1939 Annual Report, Series 4, Box 6, Folder 89, Charles A. Collier, Jr. to Jennie C. Buckner, March 13, 1934, Series 4, Box 1, Folder 10, and Charles A. Collier Jr. to John T. Clark, March 13, 1934, Series 4, Box 1, Folder 18, SLUL; John T. Clark to Charles Collier, October 30, 1933, Series 3, Box 10, Folder 20, EG; Lang, Grassroots, 36.

25. 1933 Annual Report, p. 2, Series 4, Box 6, Folder 82, SLUL; Lang, Grassroots, 36; Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill, 2005).

26. Labor Program, by Charles A. Collier, Industrial Secretary, p. 8, Series 4, Box 6, Folder 83 and December 1933 Report, p. 2, Series 4, Box 4, Folder 43, SLUL.

27. Charles Collier, Report of Industrial Secretary, February 1936, Series 4, Box 4, Folder 50, SLUL.

28. Charles Collier, Report of Industrial Secretary, February 1936, Series 4, Box 4, Folder 50; Ava Simmons to John T. Clark, October 4, 1937, Series 1, Box 9, Folder 19, Report of the Industrial Secretary, May 1936, Series 4, Box 4, Folder 50, Collier, Report of Industrial Secretary, 1936 all, p. 2, Series 4, Box 4, Folder 50, and June 1935 Report of the Industrial Secretary, p. 2, Series 4, Box 4, Folder 48, SLUL; Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910–1940 (Washington, DC, 1994), 37.

29. Annual Report of the Urban League of St. Louis for the Year 1933, p. 5.

30. Annual Report of the Urban League of St. Louis for the Year 1933; Suggestions for Elimination of Domestic Employment Load, Series 4, Box 1, General Correspondence 1949, Plan for Setting Into Our Industrial Department A Very Minimum Cost Charge, Series 4, Box 1, Folder 16, John T. Clark to Mrs. William Scarlett, June 15, 1942, Series 4, Box 1, Folder 16, Leah V.R. Scarlett to John T. Clark, June 6, 1942, Series 4, Box 1, Folder 16, John T. Clark to Jewish Employment & Vocational Service, June 6, 1942, Series 4, Box 1, Folder 16, and UL Placement Service and the Transfer of This Responsibility to the State Employment Service, n.d., Series 4, Box 1, Folder 16, Industrial Committee Minutes, June 9, 1949, Series 4, Box 1, Folder 23, SLUL; A Review of the Program of the St. Louis Urban League, Health and Welfare Council Social Conditions, 1948, SHSM; Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (New York, 2008), 2–9; Fine, Janice and Gordon, Jennifer, “Strengthening Labor Standards Enforcement through Partnerships with Workers’ Organizations,” Politics and Society 38 (2010): 552–85.

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International Labor and Working-Class History
  • ISSN: 0147-5479
  • EISSN: 1471-6445
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