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.
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).