This Day in History

July 19, 1881: Atlanta Washerwomen’s Strike

Time Periods: Industrial Revolution: 1877 - 1899
Themes: African American, Reconstruction, Labor, Organizing

A family engaged in the hard work of washing clothes, c. 1900. Source: Library of Congress

In July 1881, 20 laundresses met in Atlanta to form a trade organization, the Washing Society. They sought higher pay, respect, and autonomy over their work and established a uniform rate at $1 per dozen pounds of wash. With the help of Black ministers throughout the city, they held a mass meeting and called a strike on July 19 to achieve higher pay at the uniform rate.

The Washing Society, established door-to-door canvassing to widen their membership, urging laundresses across the city to join or honor the strike. They also involved white laundresses, who were less than 2 percent of laundresses in the city — an extraordinary sign of interracial solidarity for the time. In three weeks, the Washing Society grew from 20 to 3,000 strikers. [Description from the Atlanta Tribune]

Learn more about this important Reconstruction era labor organizing from the excellent September, 2020 Code Switch podcast episode, Balls and Strikes. The episode introduces lessons from the Atlanta strike that are relevant to contemporary strikes by sports teams in support of Black Lives Matter. It includes an interview with Jahdziah St. Julien, author of the New America article, The Atlanta Washerwomen Strike of 1881: A Lesson in Unity and Persistence.

Additional Resources

News clippings about the strike posted at the American Social History Project

‘We Mean Business or No Washing’: The Atlanta Washerwomen Strike of 1881 by Brandon Weber in The Progressive

To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War by Tera W. Hunter. (This book is a key source for the articles and podcast listed above.)

Find related resources below, including classroom lessons on the Reconstruction era.