As we celebrate Labor Day, let’s remember the Black women who helped make this day possible. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Association of Wage Earners (NAWE), a little-known but important Black women’s labor organization of the early 20th century. Although the labor movement is often credited to White male industrial workers, it was Black female organizers who, more than a century ago, recognized that bettering the lives of working people required dismantling systemic racial, class, and gender inequalities in all institutions. They believed that the single most important pathway to doing so would be equal access to the ballot box.
Upon launching NAWE in 1921, Nannie Helen Burroughs, suffragist, educator, organizer and later a mentor to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., crafted a groundbreaking national agenda to integrate comprehensive labor reform into the movement for voting rights. In a prophetic 1915 article in the Crisis newspaper, Burroughs declared that “when the ballot is put into the hands of the American woman the world is going to get a correct estimate of the Negro woman. It will find her a tower of strength of which poets have never sung, orators have never spoken, and scholars have never written.”
Nannie Helen Burroughs
Women of color in the early 20th century on average made less than White women and men. More than 3 million Black women labored as domestic workers because they had been barred from other forms of employment. They experienced and resisted labor exploitation in the homes of White families while navigating and challenging racial segregation, racism and sexual assault in their workplaces. Additionally, they faced limited educational opportunities and threats of being jailed or lynched when employers accused them of stealing or talking back.
While fighting for Black women’s right to vote, Burroughs pushed U.S. presidents and congressional members to pass labor legislation to protect exploited workers. She worked her ambitious agenda from multiple angles — through education, labor organizing, and government studies. In 1909, at the age of 30, Burroughs established the National Trade School for Women and Girls (NTS).
During Burroughs’s 51-year tenure as NTS president, she created a multitude of programs to improve working conditions for domestic workers and forge new career pathways for Black women. Hundreds of women graduating from her school entered the labor market as community organizers, certified domestic workers, writers, barbers, dormitory managers, teachers, stenographers, waitresses, actresses, singers and composers, milliners, print shop owners, horticulturalists, beauticians, and housewives who became active in the civil rights movement. Still, Burroughs knew that education alone would not change the country or Black women’s circumstances in the labor market.
Black women’s labor and the vote
In the absence of voting rights, Burroughs saw labor organizing as an effective method for the unheard to demand that the country live up to its democratic ideals. Under the auspices of the NAWE, Burroughs and her co-organizers enlisted 1,800 Black women and men from 37 states and the nation’s capital to advocate for a “wage that will enable women to live decently” and “influence just legislation affecting women wage earners,” especially domestic workers. Recognizing the great need for all Black workers to have political representation, Burroughs recruited women and men across occupations to the organization. NAWE members included domestic workers, farmers, professors from Spelman and Morehouse colleges, barbers, teachers, chauffeurs, beauticians, and students of Burroughs’s school. Together, Burroughs and members of the NAWE declared that they could become “towers of strength in the labor world” through organizing.
In 1919, Congress passed the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote and sending it to the states to ratify, which they did in 1920. But Congress still refused to pass federal legislation to override state laws and practices — such as random and erroneous literacy and bean-counting tests — that prevented Black people from voting. Furious that politicians would not do what was morally just, Burroughs took matters into her own hands. In 1924, she co-founded the National League of Republican Colored Women (NLRCW), at a time when most Black people were registered Republican voters, to collect national data about voter suppression and inspire Black women to vote. Her determination to collect voter suppression data across the country, while presiding over a school and a national labor organization, demonstrates the lengths to which Black female organizers went to make the country a true democracy.
Democracy built by Black women workers
By the 1930s, Burroughs’s organizing initiatives had finally caught the attention of the White House and a president who was interested in documenting systemic inequalities. In 1931, President Herbert Hoover appointed Burroughs chairman of the Committee on Negro Housing for the White House Conference. In its report, the committee found that on average Black people’s housing conditions were substandard because they “must face the problem of low income as against high, if not exorbitant rent.” The report was one of the first federal studies to document wage inequalities between White and Black women. Burroughs continued fighting for labor and voting rights through her school, organizations, and research well into the 1950s.
Burroughs criticized the government for excluding domestic workers from the Social Security Act of 1935, which was a deliberate decision not to extend labor protections to Black female workers. She rebuked the act as “undemocratic” in an article for the Pittsburgh Courier and Atlanta Daily World, declaring, “Society has always seemed to delight in penalizing those who wear caps, aprons, and work with their hands. … Now along comes the Federal Government … by a sweeping legislative act of exclusion makes domestic workers the mudsill of the new social order.”
While Burroughs died before passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, she and other Black female organizers laid the foundation for those two key pieces of legislation, which uphold our democracy to this very day. She would undoubtedly advocate for the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the protections that the Supreme Court stripped from the Voting Rights Act in its 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder. Burroughs once wrote, “The fundamental idea of a democracy is that we are all individual members of the social mechanism, and as such, each is necessary in the complete working of the whole.”
Danielle Phillips-Cunningham (DPhillips3@twu.edu) is associate professor and program director of multicultural women’s and gender studies at Texas Woman’s University; an OpEd Project public voices fellow, with support from the Jane Nelson Institute for Women’s Leadership; and author of “Putting Their Hands on Race: Irish Immigrant and Southern Black Domestic Workers” (Rutgers University Press, 2019), the National Women’s Studies Association’s 2020 Sara A. Whaley Book Prize winner.