Tera Hunter follows African-American working women from their newfound optimism and hope at the end of the Civil War to their struggles as free domestic laborers in the homes of their former master. We witness their drive as they build neighborhoods and networks and their energy as they enjoy leisure hours in dance halls and clubs. We learn of their militance and the way they resisted efforts to keep them economically depressed and medically victimized. Finally, we see the despair and defeat provoked by Jim Crow laws and segregation and how they spurred large numbers of black laboring women to migrate north.
Tera Hunter has written an excellent book, one which is both scholarly and engaging for non-scholars. She writes about black women in Atlanta from the Civil War through World War I and the beginnings of their “great migration” to northern cities. Throughout most that period, over 90% of black women in Atlanta worked as domestic servants, making it very relevant for Real Help.
As Amanda and Amy have already reported, T’Joy My Freedom is an appealing book. Hunter’s descriptions of particular women and events give the book an immediacy and make it an enjoyable read for a wide range of readers. Her stories of black women scandalizing white observers with their bright clothes and parasols, the little-known strike of Atlanta washerwomen, and the rise of black women as blues singers give readers a sense of women not beaten down by the limitations of their lives. In addition, her meticulous research and writing ensure that other historians respected her work.
Hunter’s approach is to place the black women of Atlanta in the context of the emergence of the city after the Civil War. As she describes, reconstruction in Atlanta and throughout the south involved the shift from slavery to wage labor. Atlanta was a new kind of southern city based on railroads and manufacturing rather than slavery, yet it was always a place determined to retain control over blacks. Through Hunter’s sources we can see the emerging black neighborhoods, the palatial mansions of rich whites, and Decatur Street where new entertainment enterprises were emerging. Gradually, we also see the development of virulent anti-black attitudes taking shape and becoming the legal limitations of the Jim Crow south where blacks were threatened with violence and segregation was the norm. Ironically, black women were still expected to work in the homes of whites even as fears of what they brought into those homes grew. By the time of World War I, the possibility of jobs and greater breathing space offered black women and men alternatives to what Atlanta offered, and they began to move to northern cities.
In addition, Hunter places her narrative about black women in Atlanta in the context of other historical writing. For almost a century, U.S. historians trusted white Southern historians to “know their own history” and accepted their stories of blacks being “inferior” and threatening “civilization.” Over the past thirty years that scenario has been challenged by revisionist historians looking at the period from the perspective of blacks. Telling their side of the story has revealed the absurdity of many statements by the white supremacists. While much of the revisionist history has focused on the political and economic roles of black men, Hunter extends the story with her discussion of black urban women.
In Atlanta between the Civil War and World War One, no black women wrote lengthy accounts of their own lives. Gaining literacy was their priority, not keeping diaries. Some of the words and stories of black women from the Reconstruction period have survived in the records of groups like the Freedman’s Bureau and the American Missionary Society. The title of Hunter’s book, in fact, is taken from one such account. Given the scarcity of writing by black women, Hunter has creatively used a wide range of primary sources in researching her story. As she says in her introduction, she used
“diaries [by white men and women], household account books, newspapers, census data, municipal records, city directories, personal correspondence [also of whites], oral interviews, government reports, business records, photographs, political cartoons, and organizational records [of blacks]”.
Recognizing the biases present in all her sources, Hunter uses them with skill and sensitivity. For example, instead of accepting white’s assessments that black women lacked the ability to work consistently at the same job, she interprets their frequently walking out on their employers as their way of ensuring a measure of independence and creating time to attend to the needs of their own families.
With Hunter’s T’Joy, we see the value of using a wide range of sources and of putting the story of particular groups in the context of larger historical and theoretical debates. Race, class, and gender are discussed. Using contemporary theory, Hunter discusses dance halls and black women’s bodies as “contested”, with whites seeking more complete control over those whom they believed they had still rights of ownership. In this regard, Hunter’s book is a contrast to Elizabeth Clark Lewis, Living In, Living Out, where the narratives seldom reach beyond the oral history which Lewis collected.
Sometimes the point is made that meeting academic standards for research and placing black women and others in a larger context weakens or compromises their stories. I can see the danger of this happening. Yet there is much to be gained by looking at particular experiences in the relation to the whole, as Hunter does in T’Joy. Compared to only reading the words of black women, hearing the actual words of white employers gives readers a shaper sense of why black women were angry.
By all means everyone should read this book, even if they read nothing else about African-American women’s history.
Beginning with Reconstruction, Hunter writes, “Just as the city’s infrastructure had to be rebuilt for daily life to reach a new normalcy, so blacks had to rebuild their lives as free people by earning an independent living. Women’s success or frustrations in influencing the character of domestic labor would define how meaningful freedom would be” (pg. 26). Hunter focuses on the work of black women laundresses, writing, “One important advantage of laundry work was that whites were not employers of laundresses as much as they were clients” (pg. 58). She continues, “Laundry work was critical to the process of community building because it encouraged women to work together in communal spaces within their neighborhoods, fostering informal networks of reciprocity that sustained them through health and sickness, love and heartaches, birth and death” (pg. 62). Washer women staged protests and strikes during the International Cotton Exposition of 1881, demonstrating their political power. According to Hunter, “Atlanta officials may have controlled black men’s labor, but the washerwomen seemed determined to divest them of authority over all black workers by using the threat of regulation to their own advantage” (pg. 94). Hunter continues, “After the washerwomen’s strike, black women continued their direct protests. In response to official indifference toward police brutality, they retaliated in the streets. Initially, their physical resistance exasperated authorities unable to control their spontaneously organized eruptions…Political disenfranchisement, vigilante violence, and de jure segregation intensified in the 1890s and began to tip the scales of justice decidedly in favor of whites” (pg. 98).
Addressing the character of the city, Hunter writes, “Though young, vibrant, and ostensibly progressive cities like Atlanta offered the best hope for fulfilling black expectations for freedom, they were often repressive. The so-called modern cities were the first to rationalize segregation as the solution to the race problem. An all-white police force was the most visible symbol of the enforcement of Jim Crow codes and of the unwritten rules of racial etiquette” (pg. 122). Leisure was one of these areas that saw new etiquette. Hunter writes of saloon patronage, “Black women were also the target of complaints, however; they were criticized for violating both prohibitions against consuming intoxicating drinks and gender restrictions” (pg. 165). Further, “Women’s behavior became a trope for the race, their public deportment and carriage the basis by which some assumed the entire race would be judged” (pg. 166). Dancing further served to illustrate divisions. Hunter writes, “As working-class women and men danced the night away in dark, dingy, public, and, sometimes, shady places, the black elite danced to a different beat in more immaculate surroundings, demonstrating the class privileges they openly embraced” (pg. 172). Middle class whites and blacks likewise divided over the issue of dancing. Hunter writes, “Both sides understood that dancing interfered with wage work, though clearly from antithetical perspectives…Workers saw it as a respite from the deadening sensation of long hours of poorly compensated labor – critical to the task of claiming one’s life as one’s own” (pg. 180). Finally, “white Southerners had even more at stake in controlling black leisure and dancing, since they continued to make claims for reaping the benefits of black labor power long after African Americans had been divested as literal commodities” (pg. 186).
Hunter concludes in the World War I era, writing, “White Southerners sought recourse in legal and physical coercion to achieve black female subservience because they could not achieve this in any other way during a period of unusual mobility. Beneath the rhetoric of ‘vagrancy,’ ‘idleness,’ and ‘patriotism,’ employers were distressed by black women’s agency, just as they had been since Reconstruction” (pg. 231). Despite this, “African-American women were resilient and creative, if not always successful in thwarting oppression, in their use of a variety of survival strategies – the establishment of strong community infrastructures and the use of countless other tactics to achieve liberty and justice” (pg. 238).