“The Mudsill of the New Social Order”: African American Women and the Politics of Economic Citizenship in Interwar Washington, D.C.

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:40 AM
Marriott Ballroom, Salon 1 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Mary-Elizabeth Murphy, Eastern Michigan University
In recent years, historians have begun to illuminate the ways that African American women throughout the United States spent the 1920s and 1930s engaged in a broad range of political campaigns, stretching from anti-lynching activism to desegregation movements.  One notable absence in this literature has been African American women’s struggles to secure economic justice.  In this paper, I seek to address some of these gaps by documenting the ways that middle-class and working-class black women in Interwar Washington, D.C., crafted a broad vision of citizenship that aimed not only to secure legal equality for all African Americans, but also, elevate the status of service workers by securing just wages, hours, labor protections, and dignity.  African American women in Washington, D.C. staged wide-ranging grassroots campaigns and engaged in partisan politics to enact their visions of economic citizenship, whether it was operating employment bureaus, speaking with employers to improve conditions, pressing for the positive representation of African American women workers through art, commemoration, and cultural production, or protesting the Social Security Act, which excluded domestic servants as beneficiaries.  In this paper, I argue that black women viewed the labor question as inseparable from full equality in the United States and wove their visions of economic justice into their different political campaigns.  It is only through the recent digitization of sources—including the Manuscript Census, newspapers, and Sanborn Maps—that working-class women’s voices can be most fully recovered and documented.