BLACK WOMEN WORKERS
World War I produced a Great Migration of black men and women from the agricultural South to the industrial North. By the first decade of the century, the machinery of segregation had been installed, and the accompanying economic intimidation, violence, and lynching constituted sound evidence that the South held no future for black people. At the same time, industry in the northern industrial centers was stimulated by the increased production of war armaments. The demand for labor became even stronger when European immigration came to a halt and American men, both black and white, embarked for foreign battlefields.
Few black women followed industrial pursuits prior to World War I, most non-agricultural female workers being concentrated in domestic service. But the increased demand for industrial workers during the war, and the increasing mechanization of heavy manual labor occupations brought a large influx of black women into industry. Many of these women were former domestics, but most came from among the supply of newly arrived southern migrants. In Philadelphia, for example, the black population increased 48 per cent between 1910 and 1920 (see Doc. 1). Consequently, by the mid-twenties, black women represented about 10 per cent of all female workers in the United States, but 18.4 per cent of all working women. More than twice as many were in the labor force as native-born white women, and six times more black girls under sixteen had to work than their native-born counterparts.
Black women felt the impact of the Great Depression earliest and bore the heaviest burdens. Their tenuous foothold on industrial employment began to give way before the waves of returning soldiers who replaced them according to the principle of “last hired, first fired.” On the eve of the depression once again most black women workers were in domestic service or in menial occupations in shops and factories. With the widespread unemployment, however, white women, by now willing to take any kind of job, began to replace black domestics and menial laborers in factories. By April, 1931, black women bore a disproportionate share of the unemployment. In Cleveland, for example, where one-sixth of the white women were jobless, more than half of the black women workers were unemployed. In Louisville, Kentucky, one-half of the black women, in contrast to less than one-fourth of the white women, were without jobs.
Those black women who did find employment were exploited, having to work long hours under poor conditions for inadequate pay. Frequently they were forced into the most undesirable and dangerous occupations in the particular industry, and just as women earned less than men during the depression, black women earned less than white women. Even though they were most in need of a strong union, black women were among the least organized of all workers. Some unions were open to them and fought to improve these conditions, such as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, but most unions were either closed to blacks, ignored women, or were so structured that they expressed little concern for the unskilled worker.
The problems confronting black women workers are illustrated in Part II.