THE OTHER WORKPLACE
The womenfolk of [Durham’s] mill villages, however—of its cotton-mills and tobacco mills, of the niggertowns, in the “City of Opportunity”—went on, of driven necessity, amusing themselves at the washpot and the cooking pot. Hacking the dull blade of a hoe into their leisure time from the loom or the long hours in the stemmeries. Weeding in the bean vines and collard patch to hold the wolf away a little longer from their scuffed and broken doors. Dropping their clothes to quench their squalid menfolks’ lust; having also the tugging pap-lust of their too-fast-arriving excrementitious young to dance attendance upon.1
The “driven necessity” that Seeman refers to was the product of the class, racial, and sexual subordination of Durham’s working women. Once a staunch believer in the “Foremost City of the New South,” Seeman turned heretic as he observed the yawning gap between rich and poor. Moreover, Seeman understood the economic imperatives that impinged on women’s lives both in the formal workplace and in the “poverty-struck and stenchful” neighborhoods surrounding the factories.2 As Seeman makes clear, there were other workplaces in Durham besides the red brick buildings crowned with gothic arches. Before the morning whistles beckoned factory hands to work and after the machines had ceased for the evening, women labored in small frame houses, shacks, and rows of identical mill housing. Black women and girls, when the factory didn’t require their labor, often performed “day’s work” in homes of more affluent white tobacco or textile workers. On Sundays and after their household chores were completed, some women carried on the “Lord’s work”—which was understood to be women’s work: attending services, teaching Sunday school, collecting money for missions and charity, visiting the sick and the dying, converting sinners, and offering spiritual counsel. On Saturdays and evenings they did their shopping; “toting the pocketbook” had become women’s work in an urban world where household needs were mostly purchased. Women’s leisure hours often involved the tasks that connected family and friends: visiting on the front porch, gossipping, preparing festive meals, nursing sick relatives, sheltering needy kin, adopting orphaned children, and overseeing births, weddings, and funerals. Some women also found time to catch a movie downtown or listen to a blues musician on the street. As Seeman suggested, however, “leisure time” was scarce.
While carrying on these essential but generally unpaid tasks, Durham women also assumed major responsibility in the birth and rearing of children.3 Through interaction with their children, they taught skills and values to the next generation of workers. Others, primarily females, assisted in the child-minding and socialization. Most childcare was conducted on an unwaged basis, but sometimes mothers without willing relatives or neighbors would pay another woman for those duties. Women thus oversaw major social relationships in which personal identities were formed.4
Men—fathers, husbands, and employers—vied for the right to control female sexuality. Some women, primarily young unmarried women, were required to remain chaste. Shotgun marriages were one method for forcing sexually active couples into respectability; gossip acted as another check. Sexually-experienced girls and women were labeled “bad” or “fast.” It was a rare person who, like Ernest Seeman, left any sympathetic record of the plight of women who earned their living in Durham streets. Meeting a young black prostitute, Johnny Anders (Ernest Seeman’s fictional self) “saw in his mind’s eye the devil that was driving her” and understood that she’d been “sent out to bring back some money or take a beating . . . And he knew there were many other young skinny girls, wilding things, and not all of them black, out in [Durham] tonight trying to bring back a little money.” Gangs of young men exercised informal controls over female sexuality by their regulation of courtship. Young men from a different neighborhood would be “rocked” if they dared to call on a local girl.5 To be considered respectable, a female had to become the exclusive sexual property of her husband; men’s sexual behavior was never equally restricted. Men often seduced females without assuming responsibility for their partners or offspring. White men claimed sexual access to black women both inside and outside the factory; employers ignored or condoned the sexual exploitation. The rape of a black woman by a white man was rarely treated as a crime. In general, then, cities recreated the sexual values of the rural South.
There were other parallels between the rural past and the urban present. Although urban women were more likely to be the family purchasing agents (consumers, in the modern sense) and to bear fewer children, their identities remained crucially linked to their household duties. The household also supplied one of the few acceptable areas for encounters between women of different races: the black maid or washerwoman relieved her white female employer (possibly a wage-earner like herself but better paid) from some burdens of housework. White women thus shared in the privilege of exploiting black labor.6
The sheer hours that a working-class female passed in the household and surrounding community influenced her understanding of the world and her place in it. The socialization that she acquired as a child occurred within an environment that tangibly expressed the configurations of power and wealth. Segregation by race and class was a central organizing principle. The earliest maps recorded the tobacco manufactories scattered along the railroad tracks, identified the location of the small houses of black tobacco workers, and listed the white farmers who shared ownership of the land with the manufacturers. Later maps of the 1880s and 1890s depicted mill villages rising on the eastern and western flanks of a small city. An artist who drew a “Bird’s Eye View of Durham” in 1891 graphically captured the dominance of the railroad tracks that carved paths through Durham’s heart. In one corner of the map, he sketched a scene that exemplified the relationship between industry and city. An enormous mill loomed above rows of tiny, neatly aligned houses that appeared to prostrate themselves before the god that begat them.7 The image speaks volumes about the reverence accorded industry and its capitalist entrepreneurs. The physical contours of the city’s ridges, hills, flats, and creek “bottoms” enabled wealth to occupy the “high ground and poverty . . . the low,” after a brief period when the mansions of the Dukes and Carrs had lined the railroad tracks.8 Seeman described the higher ground, the “large houses and well-groomed lawns, where several of its richest and most righteous rajputs and masters of machinery lived.” He also described the “undesirable and disreputable edges, dumping brinks and smelly sewage brooklets” where black washerwomen and factory workers clustered.9 In this setting, women located themselves spatially and socially.
The neighborhoods of working-class Durham mirrored the differences in wage levels based on race and gender, the contrasts between mill village housing and rental dwellings purchased on the open market, and racial segregation. Where a person lived also symbolized her respectability in a society that believed that success was a reward for the virtuous and failure a punishment for the dissolute. A low-lying area populated by bootleggers and gamblers, Buggy Bottom was known as a dangerous place after dark. Living precariously between Monkey Top and Monkey Bottoms, West Durham residents prided themselves on their position among the respectable. One Erwin worker mused in 1938, “A person don’t ever know what they’ll be brought to in this life, but I sure hope I’ll never have to move to Monkey Bottom.”10 Pauli Murray, the granddaughter of once-prosperous black brickmakers, lived on “a hill just above the Bottoms,” but “of course, my family would never admit we lived in the Bottoms. They always said we lived ‘behind Maplewood Cemetery,’ but either choice was a gloomy one.” Observing the shacks that housed her neighbors, often tobacco workers, Murray described West End as “an odorous conglomeration of trash piles, garbage dumps, cow stalls, pigpens and crowded humanity.”11 With quiet irony, Murray described her family as trapped between the Bottoms and a “whites-only” cemetery—despite her aunts’ education, her grandmother’s connections to a wealthy planter family, and her grandfather’s former success. Millworkers lived in West Durham, East Durham, and Edgemont—in descending order of prestige and according to the company that employed them. By virtue of their higher wage levels, white tobacco workers, particularly in households that pooled incomes, could live in neighborhoods intermingled with middle-income and lower-income residents. Black tobacco workers lived in separate areas. Most lived in Hayti, the largest black community, which was located across the railroad tracks from the American Tobacco Company and the Durham Hosiery mill that employed black workers. Other blacks lived in the small pocket ghettos of Hickstown, West End, East End, Lyons Park, and Walltown. A few workers commuted from rural areas. Yet the expense of automobiles meant that most workers, white and black, lived within walking distance of their workplaces into the 1930s.12
By the 1920s and 1930s, the impact of class and race on access to housing was clear. A study of black life in Durham in the late 1920s contrasted the well-kept homes of the businessmen and clerical workers with the inadequate housing stock of the “laboring class.” The survey noted “rough, unpaved streets,” unpainted houses, drainage “so bad that it constitutes a considerable health hazard,” the lack of garden space, the inadequate facilities for heating and lighting, and primitive or nonexistent plumbing.13 Another study conducted ten years later judged about 60 percent of Durham’s housing stock to be “substandard.” The worst of it was located in black areas like Hayti, East End, West End, and Hickstown, but the mill village housing in Edgemont and East Durham (by then privately owned) had also deteriorated. In a comparison of white and black rental housing, only 12 percent of the 4,725 black dwellings, but 45 percent of the 6,235 white dwellings, were considered adequate. With an average income of less than $20 a week—the combined wages of a black tobacco workers couple—black families could afford rents only in ramshackle duplexes erected perhaps forty years before. White tobacco workers were more often able to pay the $25 per month that promised satisfactory housing. But even when blacks and whites paid the same rent, the blacks received inferior housing. Unemployed mill workers and residents of areas once owned by the failing Durham Hosiery Mills, the bankrupt Durham Cotton Manufacturing Company, and parts of West Durham like Monkey Bottoms, added to the large numbers of the poorly housed. Overall, one-fourth of Durham’s children lived in buildings “unfit for use.”14 The children of black and white tobacco workers fared better; only 8 percent of black households and 2 percent of white households were classified as “unfit for occupancy” in a comparison done in 1935. Although black tobacco workers were less likely to live in houses labeled “good” (39 percent of white houses compared with 18 percent of black), they were better off than other “laboring class” blacks.15
▪ Inadequate housing made domestic labor and the care of a family more difficult. Insufficient heat during winter, poor sanitation, inadequate diet, and overwork contributed to malnutrition, tuberculosis, typhoid, pneumonia, diarrhea, and great susceptibility to influenza, measles, and other contagious diseases. These, coupled with the dust, heat, and humidity in areas of the tobacco factory where most blacks worked, contributed to a black death rate nearly double that of white Durham. Death and sickness exerted an additional toll on women who nursed the ill and suffered the emotional consequences of losses. As housekeepers, women found that dust and mud from unpaved streets made cleaning an endless chore. In West Durham a black employee cleaned out the village privies in the early twentieth century until indoor bathrooms were installed in the mill village; the majority of black tobacco households, however, lacked bathtubs, inside toilets, modern utilities like electricity and gas, and all “essential equipment” for modern living except running water into the mid-1930s. It was left to housewives and relatives to substitute their labors for the modern technology that was available to more privileged members of society.16
In the late nineteenth century, an increasing number of mothers with children under five years of age began to enter the paid labor force (see Table 23). Perhaps the added pressures were responsible for declining rates of fertility. Between 1900 and 1940, rates of employment for married women rose as the rates of births declined. By 1940, black and white women resembled one another in their wage-earning and maternal activities. Obviously, women took advantage of both more reliable information and techniques to control fertility (see Table 24). The rising costs of childcare (influenced by the declining demand for child labor, laws requiring school attendance, and the need to purchase food, clothing, and shelter) probably encouraged this trend. Rather than struggling with three jobs—paid employment, domestic labor, and childrearing—Durham women increasingly were occupied with only the first two.
Another factor that may have contributed to a declining fertility rate was the decreasing opportunity for women to earn money at home. Black women were accustomed to taking in “a little laundry,” but the introduction of appliances and the impact of the Depression limited that alternative. Caring for boarders was another way to increase family income (see Table 25), but the limited returns for the amount of work required made it unattractive:
Percentage of Women Employed Having Children under Five Years of Age for Durham and Industrial Suburbs, 1880–1900
*N = 245.
SOURCE: 10th, 12th Censuses of the United States, 1880, 1900 (manuscript) Population Schedules for Durham City and Its Suburbs, National Archives, Washington, D.C. (see Appendix for description of sampling techniques used).
Number of Children under Five Years of Age per Woman of Childbearing Age* in Durham, 1880–1940
*Women between 14 and 45.
SOURCE: 10th, 12th, 14th, 15th, 16th Censuses of the United States, 1880, 1900 figures from (manuscript) Population Schedules for Durham, National Archives; 1920, 1930, 1940 figures from U.S. Census of Population, published volumes, for Durham (see Appendix for description of sampling techniques and publication information for published volumes).
My mother cooked for boarders. Gave them a hot dinner. A lot of people would come out of the mill and have dinner with us, and they’d pay my mother a little something. ‘Course it wasn’t much because we weren’t making much . . . She cooked on a wood range where you could burn coal. The mothers had a hard time. When we were in the country, she did all our knitting for us, stockings and things. We didn’t know what it was to have a storebought pair of stockings. Even carded the cotton, spinned. In town she just bought material and made them. I never had the opportunity to sew. My mother always had a big garden, cows, chickens.17
Durham Households Keeping Boarders by Race of Household, 1880–1930
SOURCE: 10th, 12th Censuses of the United States, 1880, 1900 figures sampled from the 1880 and 1900 (manuscript) Population Schedules for Durham, National Archives, Washington, D.C.; 1930 figures from 15th Census of the United States, U.S. Census of Population, published volume, for Durham (see Appendix for description of sampling techniques).
Health codes and the growth of the city restricted a woman’s ability to keep cows, chickens, or pigs to feed her family.
From the 1880s to the end of the 1930s, a unique form of domestic production enabled some women to work at home. In 1884 about 250 women took up the sewing of bags to hold Bull Durham smoking tobacco. After bag making was mechanized in the Golden Belt Manufacturing Company, women carried on subsidiary tasks. Bessie Buchanan occupied herself tagging bags for “spending money” the year she nursed her dying mother. A young and curious boy watched his poorer neighbors work at this occupation in the mid-1920s on his Durham street:
The Bull Durham tobacco was packed in sacks and used to sell for a nickle, and it was famous. The cowboy and pictures with a cowboy sack. But the round tag had a hole in it and you had the two loops, the strings that came out of the sack and the way they fastened it was to put one of those loops through that hole and then you looped it around . . . I guess elderly women or maybe women who had to work at home. I’m very conscious of this because we had a woman who lived a few houses up from us, a Mrs. Vickers . . . We would sit and she, just like people knit, would have a big croaker, a big burlap sack, full of the tobacco bags and another bag full of the tags. Like knitting, you could do it without thinking . . . It was sort of a pleasant occupation. You sat and talked. [Do you know how much she was getting paid?] I’m sure it was very little because I do recall when the minimum wage came in, the tobacco companies said that they couldn’t afford to guarantee the minimum wage on this sort of thing. My recollection was that they said this was to keep older people occupied and it probably was.18
He was referring to the controversy over the impact of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 that imposed a minimum wage and ended most forms of household production in the United States. After mechanization and the law eliminated this means for supplementing wages, rising numbers of Durham women entered the public workplace.
Many Durham women struggled through a “double” or even a “triple” work day. The rate of female employment among married and single women in Durham was substantially higher than the national average, and the numbers of employed women with primary responsibility for housework must have been equally high. Less than 40 percent of Durham’s female working-age population were full-time housewives in 1900, and these numbers probably concealed many who were stringing sacks, keeping boarders, or otherwise earning wages (see Table 26). Nevertheless, male notions of what constituted women’s work did not alter because more women earned wages. Even single female textile workers completed forty-five minutes of housework after an eleven or twelve hour day in 1907, and married women spent nearly three hours in the 1920s. A study of black tobacco workers in the 1930s discovered that 65.9 percent were “responsible for the provision and care of homes” while another 27 percent “had distinct home duties . . . to be performed after the heavy strain of the workday.”19 On a typical day, a black female tobacco worker rose at 5:30 A.M. to prepare breakfast, pack lunches, and get her family ready for work and school. After returning from the factory, “the mother has the night meal to cook, the laundry, cleaning, and care of the children to do; which, if she is conscientious, will take well towards midnight before it is completed.” Another study reported that the “children were neglected because father and mother” struggled “daily to supply elemental wants.”20
Distribution of Women’s Employment in Durham and Industrial Suburbs, 1900*
*N = 802 women above age 12 and not attending school.
†Including seamstresses, teaching, clerical, sales, boarding, housekeeping, bag-making, and stringing.
SOURCE: 12th Census of the United States, 1900 (manuscript) Population Schedules for Durham City and Its Suburbs, National Archives, Washington, D.C. (see Appendix for description of sampling techniques).
As a young girl, one woman remembered looking at the faces of weary tobacco workers trudging home with “the dust on their clothes”:
I would think how hard they had worked . . . for cheap prices . . . In the face of some, joy; in the face of some, distress. That was in the depression years . . . I knew some of them would be hurrying home . . . Some of those women after working all day had to go home to take care of families. It always bothered me to see that some had to work so hard to make a living. It didn’t place a desire in my mind to work in a factory.21
Another observer identified the interplay between age, sex, and marital status that sent some Erwin employees home after “closing time,” but allowed others to linger on street corners and sidewalks:
The quiet streets become alive with crowding humanity. The young girls come in clusters, talking and laughing gaily. They are bareheaded, buoyant with youth and the love of living. A group of young men join them. There is more laughter, several pair off in couples and drop behind, walking slowly and the laughing chatter continues. The older women walk quickly, anxious to get home where the evening meal must be prepared and the ironing must be finished before they can sit down to the quietude of closed doors and the comfort of a rocking chair where they can sit and rest their work-weary feet—feet that all day have been standing beside the clacking looms. The older men linger on the street corners talking and smoking. Someone tells a joke and bass laughter mingles with the staccato voices of the girls further down the street.22
What awaited the women who hurried home was more work. Young girls began to contribute their labor to the household at an early age. Bessie Taylor Buchanan, who started working at Erwin Mills at the age of eight, described what she did after the hours in the mill:
I don’t know, we just never had the chance to walk around and play. We was never idle. And then when we went home, we had a chore to do at home. We had to scrub the house and a whole lots of time we had a cow and chickens . . . At that time there were hogpens in this section . . . and we had to slop the hog and clean out the hogpen after we did all that work. We just didn’t have time to do anything.23
Allie Ennis, who helped her mother “wash for white people” as a young girl, cleaned house, ironed, and cooked while her brothers worked in the garden that fed the eleven members of her family. When her father died, she left school to work full-time at domestic and occasional factory work.24 To support herself and her youngest child, Wilma Couch carried on “light housecleaning” to supplement the low wages paid to white tobacco workers in the 1920s. Scanty resources caused the Couches to operate “on a shoestring with a bare minimum of furniture and appliances.” Mrs. Couch cooked on an oil stove with a movable wick, kept food in a “primitive ice box,” and washed clothes “by hand in a zinc tub” in the evening after work. Continually in search of cheaper accommodations, mother and son lived from “week to week.” On special Sundays they visited her three older children at the Methodist orphanage in Raleigh.25
Mrs. Dena Coley, also a widow, attempted to support her two children on the still lower wages paid to black women by the same company that employed Wilma Couch. Earning $4 a week in 1919, she rose at 5 A.M. to carry her children across town to a woman who watched them for 50 cents a week. After a ten-hour work day, she returned home to wash, iron, and do other housework. A day might end after midnight as Mrs. Coley washed the windows.26 Another black woman told an interviewer,
All of the women who worked in the factories had to do the same thing . . . They worked out all day long, then they would come home and look after their families, and looked after their houses. [So they had to work really hard?] Oh, yes, that’s all some of us knew, most of us, hard labor . . . All we knowed was hard labor and not much pay.27
It was no wonder that a visitor to black Durham detected a “tenseness” among its residents.28
Having children old enough to be useful did not always provide relief. After preparing her own breakfast, Nonnie Mebane left her only daughter in charge:
My job after she left was to see that the fire did not go out in the wood stove, to see that the pots sitting on the back didn’t burn—for in them was our supper, often pinto beans or black-eyed peas or collard greens or turnip salad . . . The other pot would have the meat, which most often was neck bones or pig feet or pig ears, and sometimes spareribs. These could cook until it was time for me to go to school; then I would let the fire die down, only to relight it when I came home to let the pots finish cooking . . . After I got older we sometimes had meat other than what had to be prepared in a “pot.” It would be my duty to fry chicken or prepare ham bits and gravy. After supper, she’d read the Durham Sun and see that we did the chores if we hadn’t done them already: slop the hogs, feed the chickens, get in the wood for the next day . . . Saturdays were work days, too, the time for washing, ironing, going to the garden, preparing Sunday dinner . . . and always on Friday she went to the A & P on Mangum Street and bought her groceries . . . That was her routine—fixed, without change, unvarying.
And that routine led to quarrels between mother and daughter about “scorched food.” The real issues, however, were the mother’s exhaustion and the daughter’s resentment of endless drudgery that left the young little choice but to “accept your lot just like the rest of us.”29
If “sheer drudgery” drained the energies of many young women, it also taught them to accept the traditional divisions between the sexes. Children in these households accepted as natural a clearcut division between men’s work and women’s work. An observer who interviewed many former residents of Carrboro described the mill child’s view of work:
They knew that there were some things men did and some things women did; there was no uncertainty. Women washed and ironed. Women sewed. Women cooked. Women preserved food for winter. Women were in charge of boarders. Men might cook, but they did not wash dishes, or wash clothes, or sweep or make beds. Men tended the livestock and worked in the garden. Men butchered the hogs. Men could milk; but it was the women’s job to churn. Men did not wash children, but they could take them swimming in the creek. Men chopped wood and brought it into the house for the stove. Men went to the company pile to buy coal. Men trapped in the woods and fished to supplement the family’s food supply . . . Small children tended the garden behind the house. But it was the boys, eight, nine and ten, who cut the grass. They chopped the firewood and brought the water from the well. Both boys and girls (five years old and up) watched younger brothers and sisters in the yard. Both boys and girls were sent to the store to shop for their mothers. Girls, eight years old and olde, washed the dishes and the clothes. Girls swept and dusted the inside of the house. They helped with canning and preserving. They learned to sew and cook . . . Women and girls made all of the family’s clothes and sewed for other people. If there was an extra bed in the house, they took in a boarder.
Expending considerable ingenuity in “making things work and making things do,” girls modelled themselves after their hardworking mothers and accepted the sexual division of labor as inherent in the natural scheme of things.30
While females remained tied to the household, the streets and other public spaces were male territory. Men patrolled, negotiated, and altered the social boundaries that demarcated neighborhoods, racial communities, and the middle places in which different groups mingled or fought. Men were more likely to “cross” or trespass into other men’s territory. Older men conducted the formal negotiations: interracial discussions, political contests, petitions to employers, and the other meetings between different groups within the city. Young men were more likely to be involved in informal encounters, sometimes violent, that carved the urban space into enclaves, neutral ground, or contested areas. “Rocking” was one method of defending turf:
People used to be clannish. A guy from one section didn’t travel through the other sections, or he’d get his head whupped, get it tore up. They all kind of had a thing for guys from Hayti. You couldn’t hardly go into North Durham, East Durham, or West Durham, unless you carried your soldiers with you. If for any reason they didn’t like you, you’d come out of there hauling potatoes. White and black were the same way . . . You had to be good with your fists, throwing big bricks, or fast on foot, or you’d get a hole knocked in your head. I never had any trouble except going over here to the park, when the white boys and the black boys always tangled, because we had to go through their community . . . That was white versus black, in East Durham.31
In the 1920s, white men revived the Klan to control the public spaces of Durham. As elsewhere, the Klan arranged a march through the main streets of Durham in full regalia. The police, as one black woman suspected with fear, “were mixed up in them.”32
There were lighter sides to male-dominated street life. The “hustles”—bootlegging, prostitution, panhandling—were important leisure activities in black Durham. Women who participated, however, would be criticized and could earn reputations for being “bad” or “fast.”33 The street was a place of male prerogative. In white sections, white women rarely ventured into the barber shops, the illegal bars, or other male haunts. Whether the street was a battlefield, a place to exchange jokes or ogle women, or an opportunity for illicit pleasures, it was no place for a virtuous woman.
Although men monopolized the positions of authority in Durham churches, the church belonged to the female world. Congregations usually included more females than males. Religion, moreover, was used by women as a way to woo men from the streets. The juxtaposition between the secular blues and sacred gospel music was one manifestation of the conflict between male and female views of the world. The small churches that attracted worshipers from the poor black community frowned on street life, house parties, and the music that flowed from both. According to a scholar of the Piedmont blues, the distinctive style in Durham, “There was no way that you could sing blues and be in the church. Some churches would throw you out . . . The blues were ‘Devil music.’” In interviewing many blues players, he discovered that many of their mothers had adamantly opposed their music:
There were a lot of children, people tell me that when they were being raised, they couldn’t listen to blues in the house. None of the guitarists would play blues for their mother. It’s almost a universal. If you ask them about how their parents felt about their being blues musicians, they’ll start by telling you their parents were church-goers. Often the father, though a church-goer, would encourage his son, the mother would not. The mother would often not let him play blues in the house. Very often there would be a dominant female figure who was adamantly opposed to the music coming up in the early life histories of the musicians. A lot of people, when they join the church, either stop singing the blues, or switch . . . It was a cultural thing that women were more strongly involved in the church, I think. The blues and the church are two opposing world views. They could never get together.34
The existential realism of the blues (“the only one that is going to do anything about [my problems] is me”) and the religious reliance on God’s inexplicable will as the answer to suffering were weapons in a war between the sexes that was waged on the battleground of street and church. A study in nearby Chapel Hill noted that black women would seize the opportunity when men were sick or despondent to “save” them from sin.35 “When God put a halter on them,” declared a Durham woman active in a local church, men were ripe for conversion from the culture of the streets to the sanctity of home and church.36
Although no scholar has focused on the way in which white women used the church to domesticate errant males, the church’s denunciation of drinking, gambling, and extramarital sex obviously aided women with unreliable husbands. Men who were “saved” were more faithful husbands, better providers, and more diligent employees, which was desirable for women, employers, and churches alike. In part, Erwin Mills’ policy of monitoring employees’ moral behavior was intended to impose industrial discipline on people accustomed to agrarian life. By firing a man who “stepped out” on his wife, dismissing young women who became pregnant out of wedlock, and routing bootleggers and other undesirables from West Durham, Erwin Mills formed a tacit alliance with women.37 Sanctions for nonconformity were severe; a man’s drinking, petty thievery, or sexual immorality could consign his family to Monkey Bottoms.38 Alternatively, marriages might shatter because the woman continued to serve the Lord while her man preferred the Devil. Such was the experience of Martha Hinton, a boardinghouse keeper in East Durham. Through the debacles of a sexless marriage with a drinking, philandering husband, the premarital pregnancy of her rebellious daughter, and a grim struggle to raise her grandchildren in the strict code that she herself had embraced, Hinton took satisfaction in never having “failed the Lord.”39 Whether they cheerfully accepted their men’s lapses, attempted to reform them, or resignedly pursued their duty, women could grasp religion as a weapon or a consolation.
Residential segregation marked the estrangement between racial groups. Black and white workers shared no common meeting places: churches, schools, clubhouses, parks, and athletic facilities were separate. Blacks entered white homes only in subordinate roles. While there, they were expected to honor all the taboos against common meals, use of white persons’ first names, or any suggestion of challenge to a white decision. A white tobacco worker, seeking a suitable metaphor to describe how a foreman had treated her, said, “He treated me cooler than I’d treat a nigger in my house.”40 Another worker fondly remembered her family’s black help:
We had a relationship with the black families that lived nearby that was just great. They’d come over and help my mother with the washing and ironing . . . There was never no trouble. They stayed in their place. They’d help my mother cook and clean, but never would they sit down and eat with us. They would go and eat after.41
A less enthusiastic woman would not hire a cook because she “couldn’t abide niggers in my house.”42 A textile worker was also reluctant to employ help when her mother was ill becase low-paid black domestics were reputed to “hit” their employers’ groceries.43 Whether these complaints were expressions of blind racism or practical recognition of the structural deceit built into racial relations, the attitudes accurately reflected the distance between the two groups.
White insistence that blacks never appear as equals created many tense situations. When the Durham Cotton Manufacturing Company sold its mill village, the real estate speculator who purchased the houses decided to rent to black tenants, who would pay higher rents than white textile workers had been used to. The sudden shift in racial boundaries rankled white sensibilities. Four white boys jumped a black youth outside a store. The victim’s father returned to the scene of the incident with a gun. Four white men grabbed their guns and chased the black man. A white neighbor averted violence by calling police, telling an observer later that he bore “no hard feelings against the niggers for moving in. My feelings are against the white man that moved them in.”44 His rational attitude was unusual in the neighborhood during the summer of 1939. Having lost their jobs when the mill closed, the white men were even more determined to protect their cherished racial superiority symbolized by segregation. The landlord lived elsewhere; the blacks were on the scene and handy targets for white rage.
A mere bus journey between white and black parts of Durham could provoke violent encounters. In the late 1930s, a black man refused to move to the back of the bus and was beaten by a policeman. Mary Mebane heard about another dispute between a black soldier and a white bus driver in which the soldier was shot; a warehouse in Durham mysteriously burned down later that night. Mebane always feared trouble when she rode a bus. Once a black man refused to surrender the seat between the black and white sections to a white man. A middle-aged black woman defended the defiant black man when the bus driver tried to make him move: “These are niggers’ seats! The government plainly said these are the niggers’ seats!” screamed the little woman in rage. Mary Mebane was “embarrassed by the use of the word ‘nigger’ but I was proud of the lady. I was also proud of the man who wouldn’t get up.” The bus driver backed down. This incident later assumed particular importance for Mebane: “One minute we had been on a bus in which violence was threatened over a seat near the exit door; the next minute we were sitting in the very front behind the driver. The people who devised this system thought that it was going to last forever.” Yet, as her autobiography demonstrates, she never completely freed herself from “the psychological terror of segregation.”45 Nor did many of her friends, neighbors, and relatives.
The segregation of churches, a continuation of rural practices, was never confronted:
I reckon it was just the times we were living in. It hadn’t been integrated. We’d just been raised up that way. It wasn’t that we thought anything against them because a lot of colored people we loved. I know a lot of times my sister would take her lunch and give it to colored people on the way to school. It wasn’t because we didn’t like them. It was because we just wasn’t raised up to do things with them like that. They was their nationality and we was our nationality. It was like the Jews and the Gentiles today.46
Most ministers, black and white, refused to address racial issues. In their view, religion was concerned with personal sin and salvation, not the evils of secular society. Yet indirectly the church strengthened black women’s ability to cope in a white-dominated society. They joined a community of the respectable people who were loved by God and by one another. They organized in circles, “agencies for mutual self-help” that provided care for the sick and needy. Winning new members to the church and participating in church-related clubs, schools, and governing bodies helped women to “escape from the repressions . . . of daily existence” and gain skills in meeting “the practical affairs of life.”47 If religion taught black and white women to accept a white-dominated society and a male-controlled church, it also taught them self-confidence. Unintentionally, the churches were preparing women to take active roles in movements for social change.48
The inferior facilities offered to black residents made it more difficult for their children to receive a decent education or proper health care. Pauli Murray, the granddaughter and niece of devoted teachers, talked about the conditions that eventually led her to leave Durham:
Our seedy run-down school told us that if we had any place at all in the scheme of things it was a separate place, marked off, proscribed and unwanted by the white people . . . We came to know that whatever we had was always inferior. We came to understand that no matter how neat and clean, how law abiding, submissive and polite, how studious in school, how churchgoing and moral, how scrupulous in paying our bills and taxes we were, it made no essential difference in our place.
Like other black Durhamites, Murray noted the mysterious fires that burned down three black schools during her childhood. Later, determined to acquire an equal education, she headed north.49 Other Durham children, unable to follow her example, dropped out of schools that offered only lessons in inferiority. According to a Durham school board report in the late 1920s, 90 percent of the pupils of either race dropped out before completing high school. White students, however, “forced by economic stress,” left gradually; black students lost half their number between the first and second grades. When asked by the school board to explain these dramatic losses, black teachers reported that many black children “shift about from place to place in the city”; “little children stay at home because of inadequate clothing against inclement weather”; other children were kept at home “to help with the home work”; factory workers who left home before the school day began could not monitor their children’s attendance; and “little negroes” had problems with “reading and writing.” In response, the school board urged that black education should become “more largely industrial and vocational” and thus even more differentiated from white education. Its members, representatives of dominant economic interests, including Kemp P. Lewis of Erwin Mills, offered no acknowledgment of the pervasive economic problems that propelled nine out of ten pupils from the school system.50
The rapid disappearance of black children from school reflected a hard-bitten realism: education would not necessarily lead blacks to better-paying jobs. Even a black person with a high school education might find no better job than a tobacco factory offered. Black girls found that community pressure to form a heterosexual attachment in their early teens made it more difficult to concentrate on education.51 Pearl Barbee later regretted declining an opportunity for advanced schooling:
Ah, there was a doctor that my mother worked for. He offered to send me to school. And I got hooked at the factory and wanted to help her out. And I just stayed on at the factory . . . [But didn’t you think, maybe if you had gone to school, you would have earned more money?] Well, I couldn’t think that way then, but I see now what a mistake I made, because I could have. Now this doctor, this doctor my mother worked for, now he wanted to give me schooling. He said I was so billiant about waiting on people, sick people. Like my brother was sick. He give me some kind of plaster to stay sixty minutes and told me after sixty minutes were up to put a needle in there. And I did it perfectly. And from that day he told my mother he wanted to give me schooling ‘cause I would be a brilliant nurse. Now I would have liked to be a teacher, but I just got hooked and then I jumped up and married and messed up everything. Just messed up everything.52
One black child, after overhearing anguished discussions between his parents about financial matters, tried to help the family and still continue school. Evenually he abandoned the effort:
It was pretty tough back in Depression times. I was small so I didn’t have to worry but I realized it was tough. When I got a quarter it was like twenty-five dollars. They’d sit down together and try to discuss the decisions with what they were making. See, my daddy was making about eight dollars or nine dollars a week and my momma was making about six dollars [or] six dollars and a half. You know that was very little income with four children ‘cause I was holding my end up. ‘Course things were pretty cheap then but it was still rough. Some people had it worse . . . because some people didn’t have no job.
In this case “holding my end up” meant starting “to work before I quit school, odd jobs, helping clean school to start with. I gave my money to my parents. Children didn’t keep their money then, that wasn’t the style.” The boy quit school at fifteen to work in the Duke Hospital kitchen, where “you wasn’t making nothing.” His pay was docked for every dish he broke and his food was carefully rationed so that he never got enough to eat.53
Giving wages to parents was indeed the style. Allie Ennis, for example, began working at home. She and her siblings strung and turned tobacco sacks, assisted their mother with chores that included hauling water from the well, making lye soap, tending the family garden, boiling clothes in an iron pot, and ironing them with heavy flatirons. When she reached eleven, she began working part-time at the Durham Hosiery mill turning socks. Before and after school, she also washed dishes and cared for white people’s children. All the children in the Ennis family gave their mother at least one dollar from their wages to keep the eleven-member household together. After her “father passed in 1918,” she was forced to leave school. At the age of fifteen, this young black girl became one of the family’s major breadwinners, together with her older brother who worked in a tobacco factory.54
Black females grew to an adulthood that offered few options. Black women competed for factory jobs because wage levels, though very poor, exceeded those paid for domestic work. The lucky ones joined the processions of tired tobacco workers who marched homeward at night to do domestic chores. On Sundays they attended segregated churches in their respective parts of town. Even if they remained above street battles and apart from racial negotiations between the white and black leadership, they could not remain uninfluenced by the issues at stake. They suffered from the irresponsibility of men who were themselves overwhelmed by circumstances. After discussing their problems related to black men, a group of black women concluded, “You know what’s the problem with black men? It’s the white man.”55 Some men, and occasionally women, drank their troubles away. Marital violence, child abuse, murder, suicide, and acute depression all claimed victims. Some women abdicated their family responsibilities. Others vented their frustrations on fellow victims by “being mean and fighting,” engaging in street “hustles,” depriving their children of affection, or participating in racially or sexually inspired violence.56 Both men and women deserted their children. Disease inflicted other casualties. An investigation into juvenile delinquency, sickness, and childhood accidents in the late 1930s discovered that the highest rates for each occurred in the deteriorating neighborhoods of East Durham, where unemployment was high, “self-supporting” poor people were congregated, and many mothers worked outside the home.57 Families headed by women struggled for a livelihood. Heightened racial tensions often accompanied these ordeals. The Ellis family, whose sons left school early to help the family, later produced a local Klan leader who saw blacks as the “cause” of his deprivations.58 His anger exacerbated the difficulties faced by black families who, despite his perceptions, were still more victimized than his. Reared in such a world, Annie Mack Barbee and her sisters learned that “there is a time for meekness and humbling,” for such was their daily experience. To humble yourself, to repress justifiable anger, to mind your tongue so that you could continue to provide for yourself and your family—these were essential for survival in black Durham.59
Durham’s households and neighborhoods were shaped by the same economic forces that created its factories. The resources that women had available, the likelihood that they would have to earn wages, the opportunities open to their children, and the quality of life they would enjoy all depended on their access to property, to capital, and to the men who controlled both. While some farm girls and small-town women like Sarah Angier, Nannie Parrish, and Mary Duke might become the wives or sisters of successful industrial entrepreneurs, their numbers were few. Most were white. Class also determined the chances of success. The son of a Durham optometrist described the effect of attending an economically diverse (white) elementary school:
It resulted in me going to school, all the way through grade school with kids, two-thirds of the class were poor people, working people, tobacco or cotton mills . . . I found it very educational. We had a situation in which most of the kids were working class, but we also had Anne Lewis in my class. Her father [K. P. Lewis] was superintendant of Erwin Mills. We had several doctors’ daughters in class. And my first day of school, I remember her very well. I sat next to Mary Duke Lyon, a grandniece of Buck Duke . . . So we actually had some of the richest and the poorest and then ones like myself. I knew or sensed very early that some of my class would not go past the eight grade . . . You just knew. I think one of my closest friends, I knew perfectly. He lived with his grandfather who sawed wood. He went barefoot most of the year . . . You could almost know who would make it. Out of 30, there were maybe 5 or 6, who, just because you knew who their parents were, would go through. I think one of the status symbols was if you bought your books . . . But you just knew that some of them would drop out soon . . . I guess the Depression came along and some of them had to quit . . . Growing up in the school that I did, I had the strong feeling that there but for the grace of God go I ‘cause there were some kids in our school who were as smart as any one of us but they were simply in those days not going to get ahead.60
Later this man took a demanding white collar position; his fellow students from the lower classes entered the factory or found other ways to survive.
Some children of “the poor people, the working people” later recounted how they dealt with the realization that “they were simply . . . not going to get ahead.” Sometimes they accepted their fate cheerfully. As Theotis Williamson said, “I had to like it. I had to work.” Love for her widowed mother was a primary reason for her cheerful acquiescence: “She raised us, her and all the rest of us together raised all the kids. She had three or four that were old enough to go to work when my father got killed. And there weren’t no welfare; there weren’t nothing like that then. She made the decisions for us.”61 Another child described a bribe of a stick of candy that brought him into the mill at the age of eleven; his voice was tinged with bitterness. One black man was determined to do better for his children:
Well, I treat my children better than my parents treated me, because I was better able to do for them than my parents were for me. I could give them what they wanted but my parents couldn’t give me what I wanted. And then I had a different belief, a different mind toward children than my parents did. In the time my parents came up, parents didn’t believe in giving children too much and my parents was about like they came up. But when I came up I believed in giving children most anything they wanted . . . That’s the difference between me coming up and them coming up.62
Louise Couch Jenkins appeared to accept the necessity that forced her mother to “ship three of us off” to an orphanage, but there was regret in her voice. Although she got along “pretty well,” her hot-tempered younger sister had a harder time, because “many of the people who worked at the orphanage didn’t understand how to raise children.” She could hardly miss the irony that kept the youngest child with his mother: that child, largely because the older children supported the mother after they left the orphanage, was the only one to finish college. Explaining that her mother was forcibly retired in her early fifties, the daughter added, “The big corporations would just put people off when they got a little gray so they wouldn’t have to retire them. I think it happened in her case, but it didn’t happen just to her.” Dismissed from L and M, Wilma Couch depended on her older children for support because “there wasn’t Social Security then which might have given her more independence and pride.”63
Pride was a factor in persuading one young resident of East Durham to leave school. In the late 1930s, she told an interviewer, “It’s awful to have to sit in a room where most of the people have on good clothes and you are so ashamed of your own. It’s awful to see your teacher get up with a list in her hand and to know that in a minute, she’ll be reading out your name as one that hasn’t paid the book rent.” Her father was working only part-time and the family couldn’t afford the 85-cent book rental fee in Durham high schools. The girl helped her mother “tag bulls for two hours after I got home from school . . . That’ll help to buy bread.”64 Nonnie Mebane’s education was cut short because of racial discrimination and economic pressures—there was no high school for black young people in her part of Virginia. She came to Durham, found a job, and eventually married. Her daughter Mary, fortunate to be born in the 1930s rather than in earlier decades, was able to finish school and graduate from college despite embittered relations with her mother.65 Unlike children of tougher times, Mary Mebane could escape the life lived by her parents. The change from their spare, uncomplaining acceptance to her fiercely successful rebellion marked the passing of a world whose disappearance occasioned little regret.66
The “driven necessity” that sent children to work produced the Durham version of the “proletarian” family, that is, the family with only its children (or proles) as its assets. Child labor enabled hard-pressed families to survive, as many of its victims understood. In the absence of welfare, retirement benefits, or disability insurance, families relied on their members. Asked by a government investigator in 1918 about the effects of the federal anti-child labor law, a black Durham mother asked, “But what’s the poor widow gonna do?” Another black woman suggested that the law should raise her wages if the legislators sincerely wanted better opportunities for her children.67 Federal intervention seemed to make things worse, especially for black households headed by women. Many parents believed that the price of survival demanded the sacrifice of their children’s hope “to do better.”68
▪ Instead of vain ambitions or gnawing regrets, women were encouraged to accept their unsolved problems and take pride in small victories. They prided themselves on clean homes, clean clothes, and food on the table. Indeed, their self-respect was demonstrated through the unpaid labors they performed at home or in their communities. Dena Coley always housed her children in a one-family house rather than a duplex. That marked a small victory over the forces that tried to crush her spirit. Theotis Williamson and Allie Ennis reared their younger brothers and sisters through hard work and self-sacrifice. Wilma Couch kept her children together by the expedient of placing some in an orphanage. Rose Weeks taught Sunday School while her husband helped with the housework: “If he stayed with me, he had to.”69 Annie Mack Barbee had her baby the way she chose: she paid for the best obstretrician she could find despite her husband’s objections. As she explained, “Being married don’t mean that your husband controls your whole life. You all work together.”70 Having seen her mother’s life as a dependent housewife, Esther Jenks never married: “I didn’t want to ask somebody for what I got.”71 Bessie Buchanan lived a moral, upright life in a community of respectable people. Louise Couch Jenkins and Mary Mebane avoided permanent employment in the factory, unlike their mothers. Hetty Love switched when her original church refused to allow her to preach.72 Fannie Jenks won numerous skirmishes with her father over bobbing her hair, shortening her skirts, and dating men he disliked. Her successes made life easier for her younger sisters.
But there was often an unbridgeable gap between personal resistance and collective rebellion. Many of the influences impinging on women’s consciousness opposed or conveyed ambiguous messages about workers’ rights to engage in conflict with their employers. Most churches refrained from advocating unions or discussing economic issues. As one black worker observed, the church concentrated on the “inner man” while neglecting the “outer man.” Economic contributions from black and white businessmen discouraged ministers from endorsing social protests, even if they were so inclined.73 Moreover, an emphasis on heaven favored acquiescence to the world of “hard work at low wages” in this “vale of misery and tears.”74 Mark Miles Fisher and John Newsome spoke about the rights of workers but other black ministers remained silent.75 In West Durham the Pentacostal minister counseled his congregation against taking part in secular conflicts, the Baptist minister kept silent lest he split his congregation, and only the minister of the local Christian Church earned a reputation as “an out-and-out labor man.” When questioned, most Durham ministers would probably have concurred with the views of the leading Episcopal minister, the brother of an assistant manager at Erwin Mills: “In my opinion the Church should not commit itself, either to unions or to employers’ associations.”76
The Lord also appeared to straddle the fence. He spoke to Bessie Buchanan in a dream telling her that she would be saved because she “never joined a union in my life.” But, in reference to the strike that Buchanan refused to join, the Lord sent a contradictory message to Esther Jenks. Discussing the Erwin Mills strike in March 1940, Jenks recalled:
It was in March. The reason I remembered it so good, I had joined the church up here. We were out those two weeks and naturally we didn’t get an Easter outfit. And I went to church that Sunday. I had on my old winter coat, you know and all. It was snowing just as pretty on all those new outfits. I said I knowed the Lord was looking.
Jenks also sought the Lord’s help to sustain her through the year’s unemployment that followed. She responded to the church’s request to tithe: “So, I thought I would give it a try, so I did and it worked . . . They had to put me back to work in 1941.”77 The same God sustained Buchanan in her opposition and Jenks in her activism, while allowing both women to heed their own inclinations in good conscience.
Nor did the organs of public opinion often discuss the conditions faced by working people. When they did, they usually praised the benevolence of the factory owners and the harmony that prevailed in Durham workplaces. “Outside agitators” received a less than enthusiastic welcome. The selection of a unionized company to build the east campus of Duke University was denounced by local business leaders. A pro-union film was denied a showing in the Durham City Auditorium, as we have seen, “because of the increased fire insurance rate.”78 Reared in such an atmosphere, workers displayed understandable caution in openly discussing views opposed by their employers. An investigator discovered that it was difficult “to get a single direct answer” from the mill workers whom he questioned. He ascribed their unwillingness to a “double fear. In the first place, southern workers naturally distrust outsiders, and over and beyond that many have learned by experience that it is not to their personal interest to ‘talk too much to snoopers.’” Discussions were held in private places and secret locations. Only knitters were allowed to join one secret organization of hosiery workers because “expansion to include toppers and menders would be sure to destroy its secrecy.” This policy also effectively excluded women.79 Moreover, as several investigators learned, women felt particularly ignorant about the purposes of a union. Katherine Norman, then a seamer at Golden Belt’s hosiery mill, tried to explain the reasons for low union membership: “Some people take the religious viewpoint that they should ‘not oppose them that have rule over them’” but “other would join if they understood.” Black women, “laboring under the double disadvantage of being marginal workers because of their sex and race,” exhibited the greatest reticence in discussing collective action and usually claimed that they were ignorant of the issues involved.80 Advised by black business leaders against taking risky actions, offered little encouragement from their church, and disillusioned by past experience with unions, many black women shared Roxanne Clark’s opinion: “I thought it was foolish . . . for them to do that when that was how they was making their living.”81 Well acquainted with unemployment because of the seasonal nature of their work, black women were more reluctant than their colleagues to court additional disasters. Whether people were silent out of apathy, caution, fear, or conviction, they reinforced the pressures from above that hindered them from devising collective solutions.
Censorship could not screen out all challenges to employers, but the “masters of machinery” were protected by their relative inaccessibility. Also, there were more convenient targets for workers’ frustrations. According to a lawyer who was experienced in defeating southern union drives, “The inherent conflict between the white Southern industrial worker and the colored worker . . . in keeping with the human need of having somebody of lower status than we are . . . has a great deal to do with the so-called anti-union sentiment in the South.”82 Black workers, for their part, were likely to distrust any movement in which whites participated.83 Although gender differences rarely produced such intense hostility, the sexual wars also claimed victims and provided villains. The inadequancies of a spouse or father sometimes focused a woman’s resentment at home instead of at the exploitative conditions under which she worked. Indeed, a woman could blame her man for her having to work at all. Alternatively, some men found it easier to physically mistreat their wives and children than to challenge their employers. Drinking and sexual conquests were other forms of transitory relief. Violence and petty crimes often set members of an oppressed group against one another. Still other victims blamed themselves for their own poverty. Somehow they had failed to build a better life. Self-blame could turn destructive, leading to irrational actions and an abandonment of all efforts to improve a person’s life.84 An environment with so many possibilities for internal conflicts within the working-class community and also between racial groups impeded the formation of a common front. Such were the “trade secrets” that anti-union strategists offered their clients in the battle to keep workers internally divided.
But the increasing demand for anti-union “trade secrets” in the 1920s and 1930s suggested that a maturing working class contained many members who were defining themselves as a distinct group in opposition to their employers. The creation of working class neighborhoods and institutions were bringing “together people and movements which historically had been divided and apart” in cities like Durham.85 Employer vigilence and “trained confidential agents” were no longer preventing “professional agitators” from attempts “to inject costly restlessness into southern labor.” Indeed, the growth of tightly-knit communities around a core of permanent inhabitants could shield “persons who may be agitators . . . . or ‘have an ax to grind.’”86 Living closely together, workers began to develop cultural institutions: separate churches, social organizations, family and kinship networks, recreational activities, consumption patterns, moral sensibilities, and distinct vocabularies that separated “them from us.” The separation of “lint-heads” in mill villages from the respectable townspeople was particularly conducive to a growing self-consciousness, but that awareness could emerge among other working people in a place like Durham.87 By the late 1920s in the Durham area, workers could listen to speeches by men “trying to tear down the industrial life of the State,” in the view of Kemp P. Lewis, who was engaged in a losing battle to silence such critics. Although Lewis and other manufacturers considered these “outside agitators” and their local supporters to be “dangerous dreamers or vicious propagandists,” he could not suppress all discussion of “the union doctrine” even in his own mill village.88
The arrival of a more militant younger generation of black leaders prodded Durham’s conservative elite to champion “the just cause of labor along with the right claims of capital.”89 C. C. Spaulding and a leader of the organized tobacco workers eventually served together on the Board of Deacons of the White Rock Baptist Church—a tangible expression of the accommodation by black capital to black labor. Indeed, to retain influence, the black elite had to abandon its old strategy of silencing protests against inequities.90 Durham had become a “Hot Spot,” according to two anti-union activists, where “some eloquent radical can stir up unrest if the opportunity and time are given.”91
The Durham elite never faced a radical feminist movement, but the growing concentration of working women did produce a milder social feminism. Unlike rural households, working-class women in Durham were frequently in contact with women outside their families. Also, they were bringing money into the family economy and “toting the pocketbook.” Their numbers drew the attention of more privileged women in the city. Cooperation between sympathetic upper-class women and working women to study and then reform working conditions created a potential crisis for the industrialists. Even though K. P. Lewis and his associates forced the officers of the Durham YWCA to apologize for their enthusiastic support of working women’s causes, the danger remained that female empathy might overcome class interests.92 The YWCA sponsored an Industrial Girls’ Club and sent female wage-earners to the Southern Summer School for Women Workers, where they learned about the labor movement and their own economic position.93 Mary O. Cowper, an active participant in the cross-class alliance of Durham women, continued to support labor organizing, childcare, and discussions with workers about their situation.94 For the most part, however, the social feminists confined their activities to white women, a serious limitation in a city like Durham. Ultimately the timid women’s groups in Durham offered little real help to their female constituency, but there was a growing awareness that men could not always protect women. Some Durham women had learned to think and act for themselves.
The journey from field to factory, then, presents a complicated mixture of continuity and change. By many objective measures, women’s lives were the better for it. Their labors lightened; their consumption levels rose; their childbearing declined; and some were able, by the end of the period, to live outside the patriarchal family economy. The battle between the sexes now involved combatants who were more equally matched. Moreover, women’s common experiences in the city and workplaces, however hedged in by racial barriers, tended to draw them together. Whether they could submerge their differences and unite as women and workers was a question that could now at least be posed. Judged by the lives they led in the workplace and the household, black and white women qualified as sisters “under their skins.”