The Identity of Black Women in the Post-Bellum Period 1865-1885

Carl Greenfeld

Throughout history, the black woman has always had a multitude of responsibilities thrust upon her shoulders. This was never truer than for southern black women in the period between 1865 and 1885. In this span of twenty years, these women were responsible for their children, their husbands, supporting their families, their fight for freedom as black citizens and as women, their sexual freedom, and various other issues that impacted their lives. All of these aspects of the black woman’s life defined who she was. Each of her experiences and battles shaped the life that she lived, and the way she was perceived by the outside world.

Who were these women, and how did the experiences in their life shape who they were? This essay will argue that these women’s identities can be surmised by the way in which they handled the different responsibilities and experiences that they were exposed to in the aftermath of slavery. These responsibilities and experiences formed who they were; only by looking at the identities of these women can their lives be studied and explored. In this essay the southern black woman’s occupational identity, sexual identity, family identity, and gender identity will be examined. There are, of course, many more specific aspects of these women’s identity, but these are the ones that furnish the clearest and most specific view of what these women were about. It is through these four aspects of the southern black women’s identity a picture of them can be drawn. One will be able to recognize the hardships they overcame and the effort they put forth in order to be seen as citizens of the United States of America.

Occupational Identity

In the period after the Civil War, work was very important to the southern black woman; she was free for the first time and wanted to assert her freedom and independence. One of the first things that the black woman attempted, after gaining her freedom, was to obtain a job. These women learned quickly, however, that they would not be equals just because they were now free. The job opportunities available to black women, like many other aspects of their lives, would be of much less quality than the jobs offered to the rest of the population. They would be low paying, involve extended hours, and would put them in constant danger; “black women would have to negotiate the literal rough terrain of Atlanta and the social consequences it imposed on their everyday lives as they struggled to earn a living for their families and searched for peace of mind.” They would have to persevere in their quest to work and support their household.

After the Civil War, all black citizens of the Unites States were allegedly free. The thirteenth amendment banning slavery had been passed and the reconstruction of the South was moving along swiftly. This promised freedom, however, was far from what was expected. There were many laws and forces at work to keep blacks in some type of involuntary servitude. Some of the laws that limited black freedom included making it a crime to hire away a worker who had been under contract with a different employer (so called enticement laws), various contract-enforcement statutes that bound the black worker to their employer, and vagrancy statutes in which unemployed blacks were arrested and later forced to work for an employer. These laws operated to deny both black men and black women the ability to search for work or change employers. If a black citizen could not furnish proof of work, he or she could be arrested and later forced to sign a contract with an employer. If a black citizen attempted to change jobs, he or she would be forced into the service of their former employers.

The government of the South was not the only entity that attempted to keep black women from having the freedom to obtain employment. Opposition also came from “white vigilantes, planters, mistresses and overseers, all anxious for the return of a reliable and subordinate labor force.” These opposition forces worked closely with the southern government, inflicted torture upon blacks living in the South, made sure that the compensation of both black men and black women would be kept at a dishonorable level, and did everything within their power to make the lives and working experiences of the newly freed black women as uncomfortable as possible. The atmosphere was one in which “organized sexual-assault raids against black women were especially common in rural areas where terrorist groups like the [Ku Klux Klan] thrived.” The Ku Klux Klan was one of many organizations that attempted to put blacks, and more specifically black women, in their place. These groups thrived on terror to scare, silence, and subordinate these women. Terror was a tremendous incentive for many black citizens to work at the jobs they were told to work at, and to not question their wages or working conditions.

The various terrorist groups and laws that attempted to restrict the black woman’s freedom were not the only barriers set up against her. These restrictions and groups were supplemented by the difficulties that black women had in gaining employment, being offered a salary that was close to that of black men, actually obtaining the wages that they had worked for, and being treated as workers and humans rather than as slaves. The employment experience was rarely a very beneficial one for the southern black woman. Women had to work lengthy hours, at a severely discounted rate, to supplement the salaries of their husbands so that their family could obtain things essential to living. This was the way of life for the black woman whose husband could not earn a sufficient income to support their family (as in most cases). These women had no choice but to work, and they had to work under the conditions that were set forth by their employers.

The job opportunities available to black women in this time period were often meager and involved menial tasks. One must only look to the statistics in seven southern states in 1870. In this year, 36.4 percent of black women worked at home, 23.3 percent worked as servants, and 10.5 percent worked as laundresses. In comparison, .1 percent worked in semi-skilled jobs, a negligible amount worked in skilled jobs, and .1 percent worked as teachers. In this same year, 59.6 percent of white women worked at home, only 5.7 percent worked as servants, and .4 percent worked as laundresses. The situation that developed was one in which southern black women worked low-skilled jobs, usually the same jobs that they had held before the end of slavery. For example, “by 1880, at least 98 percent of all black female wage-earners in Atlanta were domestics.” It got to the point where “virtually every black girl-child, except for the most affluent, knew that at some time or another she would be cleaning house for white folks.” There were a limited amount of positions available and black women secured the ones they could get.

It would seem logical that people who worked low-skilled jobs would receive lower pay than those who worked high-skilled jobs, and these black women received these lower wages. The problem now, was that these black women did not receive wages that were comparable even to their fellow low-skilled black male workers. There were many situations in which black men and black women who held the same occupation earned different wages. According to historian Dorothy Sterling “freedwomen were always paid less than the men. On one Georgia plantation male hands received $140 a year, women from $60 to $85. In Adams County, Mississippi, Sarah Nelson was promised $10 a month; John, a man working alongside her received $15.” Black women in this time period could not achieve equal pay for equal work; they had to be content with what they were offered.

Another problem that black women encountered during their working experience was actually receiving the wages and benefits that they felt they had earned. There were many methods used by southern employers to prevent workers from obtaining the salary they had been promised in their contracts. There were times when “employers would substitute perishables or durable goods in lieu of cash for remuneration, without the workers’ consent.” and other times when “women could also face deductions for behavioral infractions such as lost time and impudence, or for breaking or misplacing objects.” These methods would lead to large deductions from the already low wages of the black worker, whether male or female. One specific example of this is the case of the Baldwin family. This family had contracted themselves out to J.R. Thomas and were supposed to be paid salaries of $140 for David Baldwin, $85 for Matty Baldwin (note the difference between the male and female salaries), and $60 for Mariah Baldwin. On the day they were to be paid, they received $12.40, $48.53, and $3.15 respectively. Their salaries were reduced for sickness, bad weather, going against orders, and using supplies. Black women were already making less money, but now their salaries were being reduced to almost nothing. There was little they could do about the situation. If they wanted to labor for that employer, they took the salary and benefits they were given and continued working.

The last work-related problem that southern black women had was that they were often treated as slaves rather than as free wage laborers. Often they were beaten or raped with no action being taken against their tormentors. This pattern of abuse can best be shown in the case of Mary Long. As historian Tera Hunter recounts:

Mary Long refused to cook for her employer, Mrs. Montell, in an attempt to receive a holiday one Sunday, and an argument ensued. Long also refused to accede to her boss’s command to keep quiet, which angered Mr. Montell. He stepped in and struck the cook twenty-five times with a hickory stick.

Employers still believed that their employees, many of them former slaves, were their property and could be treated as such. The case was the same for incidents of rape and sexual abuse. Women were raped by their employers and humiliated beyond human comprehension. They still had to be frightened that a man, now called boss rather than master, would approach them and sexually abuse or rape them. In both cases of assault and rape, there were two constants; the conditions under which they occurred were similar in slavery and in freedom, and there were few ways in which these black women could redress the wrongs that had been committed against them. It would appear that the southern black female worker had nothing that could even resemble freedom.

This, however, is not true. The southern black woman did have some advantages that emerged with the advent of liberation. She might not have had considerable job opportunities, equal pay (or any pay at all), or freedom from being abused, but she was still able to gain satisfaction through gestures that would irritate her white employers and allow the black woman to regain her self-respect. These gestures were only possible because of the freedom that they now possessed. Eventually, “it was the freedwomen’s refusal to work as they had under slavery that planters and northern agents of Reconstruction commented on most frequently and most bitterly.” Their freedom may have been limited, but it did allow these women some forms of retribution against their former proprietors. The two main gestures that were utilized by southern black women included relocating themselves and their families away from their place of employment, and withholding their services from their employers.

One of the black women’s main goals after the Civil War was to proceed as far as possible from any aspects of slavery that remained. There was a “great desire to leave, to walk away from the plantation, to go in search of a place to live, away from the old reminders of their former status.” They did this by physically moving themselves and their families away from the plantations and the homes in which they worked. By moving away, these women made many of their employers upset, as the employers felt they were losing a portion of the control that they exercised over the female black workers. The black working woman did not care, however, and in fact,

The desire to distance themselves physically from erstwhile masters ranked high in their priorities. In a walking city like Atlanta, cooks, maids, and child-nurses could live in areas that were within easy reach by foot, yet were far enough to establish autonomous lives.

This distance was very important to the black woman. It made her feel like she was a real person who had a life outside her job. She did not have to reside with her employer twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, but could instead work a full day and still go home to her family. In this way, the black woman asserted her independence, restored her self-respect, and agitated the white establishment who wanted her to be subservient and who wanted to keep her tied to the employers plantation and/or home.

The other method that southern black women used to assert their independence after the Civil War and emancipation was to withhold services from their employers. There were obviously certain situations when this could not be done, but the opportunity did present itself for women who were not forced to sign long-term employment contracts and who had no reservations about leaving without notice. The two main techniques these women practiced in order to withhold their services were to quit at any time or to go on strike. By relinquishing jobs any time they desired, these women were once again asserting their independence. Unlike in slavery, these women could depart from their jobs for any reason. “African-American women decided to quit work over such grievances as low wages, long hours, ill treatment, and unpleasant tasks.” There were also other benefits of relinquishing employment. Not all of these women were assured of obtaining improved jobs, “but [quitting] was an effective strategy to deprive employers of complete power over their labor.” The working black woman thus secured a measure of revenge against her white employers.

The same can be said of strikes by black women. The most famous strikes in this period were the washerwomen’s strikes that occurred in Jackson, Mississippi in 1866, in Galveston, Texas in 1877, and in Atlanta, Georgia in 1881. In all of these instances, black women held a valuable commodity, their laundry skills, and used them to assert their freedom, regain their self-respect, and inflict injury upon their white employers and families. These strikes allowed them to procure more valuable benefits, higher salaries, and compelled whites to acknowledge the importance of black citizens in their lives. In the event that strikes did not result in elevated wages or benefits, they did allow these women to stand up for themselves and force the white establishment to work more arduously. Few things could have made the striking women more jubilant then hearing that “rather than give in to the strikers’ demands or burden their husbands’ salaries, ‘some of the first ladies of this city have announced themselves as ready to carry their accomplishments into the kitchen.’” These black women were standing up to those who had oppressed them, and, for a change, making their employers lives more difficult.

The black woman’s occupational identity in the period after the Civil War was one of frustration and reciprocation. There were many barriers preventing them from succeeding, but these women did not buckle. They used the opportunity advanced by emancipation to make their lives conform to their own wishes, to irritate the powerful white establishment, and to maintain their identities as free black women in the South. They did not give in to the pressure that was inflicted upon them, but instead used the importance of their labor to their own advantage.

Sexual Identity
Family Identity
Gender Identity

Last Updated: 11/19/14