The Bronx Slave Market (1950)

Woolworth’s, E 170th St. between Walton Ave. and Jerome Ave., The Bronx

Introduction

Marvel Cooke, a seasoned African American labor activist and member of the Communist Party, wrote this set of investigative reports for the New York-based radical newspaper The Daily Compass in January 1950. For Cooke, it was a return to a familiar setting: she and Ella Baker, the famous civil rights leader, had co-written a groundbreaking exposé on an earlier iteration of the Bronx Slave Market in 1935 for the NAACP’s journal, The Crisis. Cooke’s analysis here is worth revisiting for several reasons. Not only does this represent an important attempt at conducting a form of workers’ inquiry among black domestic workers, at that time still a mostly unorganized sector of the working class; she also picks up a line of argument that resonates with other currents of black radicalism (including Claudia Jones, W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, and others), tracing the survivals of slavery within the industrializing northern ghetto, where recent black migrants encountered new forms of extra-economic coercion and superexploitation.1 Over the course of four articles, Cooke demonstrates how the set-up of these “slave markets” across New York City, where women stood on sidewalks near department stores seeking offers for a day’s work, engendered isolation (their actual workplaces were always changing, from the Upper East Side to Long Island) and depressed wages through competition (they had practically no bargaining power). In her personal experience as part of the “paper bag brigade,” Cooke details the the grueling nature of the work and the overt racism often encountered, as well as how the informal wage agreement made procuring daily necessities ‒ transportation, food, etc. ‒ a strenuous task. She ends by emphasizing unionization and struggle as the principal means for abolishing these markets once and for all. Even though the Woolworth’s on E 170th St in the Bronx has long been shuttered, Cooke’s reports remain essential material as we continue to think through the connections between migration, racialization, and domestic labor today.

***

“I Was Part of the Bronx Slave Market”

The Daily Compass, January 8th, 1950, pages 1, 15.

I was a slave.

I was part of the “paper bag brigade,” waiting patiently in front of Woolworth’s on 170th St., between Jerome and Walton Aves., for someone to “buy” me for an hour or two, or, if I were lucky, for a day.

That is the Bronx Slave Market, where Negro women wait, in rain or shine, in bitter cold or under broiling sun, to be hired by local housewives looking for bargains in human labor. It has its counterparts in Brighton Beach, Brownsville and other areas of the city.

Born in the last depression, the Slave Markets are products of poverty and desperation. They grow as employment falls. Today they are growing.

They arose after the 1939 crash when thousands of Negro women, who before then had a “corner” on household jobs because they were discriminated against in other employment, found themselves among the army of the unemployed. Either the employer was forced to do her own household chores or she fired the Negro worker to make way for a white worker who had been let out of less menial employment.

The Negro domestic had no place to turn. She took to the streets in search of employment – and the Slave Markets were born.

Their growth was checked slightly in 1941 when Mayor LaGuardia ordered an investigation of charges that Negro women were being exploited by housewives. He opened free hiring halls in The Bronx and other areas where Slave Markets had mushroomed. They were not entirely erased, however, until World War II diverted labor, skilled and unskilled, to the factories.

Today, Slave Markets are starting up again in far-flung sections of the city. As yet, they are pallid replicas of the depression mode: but as unemployment increases, as more and more Negro Women are thrown out of work and there is less and less money earmarked for full-time household workers, the markets threaten to spread as they did in the middle ‘30s, when it was estimated there were 20 to 30 in The Bronx alone.

The housewife in search of cheap labor can easily identify the women of the Slave Market. She can identify them by the dejected droop of their shoulders, or by their work-worn hands, or by the look of bitter resentment on their faces, or because they stand quietly leaning against storefronts or lamp posts waiting for anything – or for nothing at all.

These unprotected workers are easily identified, however, by the paper bag in which they invariably carry their work clothes. It is a sort of badge of their profession. It proclaims their membership in the “paper bag brigade” – these women who can be bought by the hour or by the day at depressed wages. The way the Slave Market operates is a primitive and direct and simple – as simple as selling a pig or a cow in a public market.

The housewife goes to the spot where she knows women in search of domestic work congregate and looks over the prospects. She almost undresses them with her eyes as she measures their strength, to judge how much work they can stand.

If one of them pleases her, the housewife asks what her price is by the hour. Then she beats that price down as low as the worker will permit. Although the workers usually starts out demanding $6 a day and carfare, or $1 an hour and carfare, the price finally agreed upon is pretty low – lower than the wage demanded by public and private agencies, lower than the wage the women of the Slave Market have agreed upon among themselves.

Few Changes

I know because I moved among these women and made friends with them during the late 1930s. I moved among them again several days ago, some ten years later. And I worked on jobs myself to obtain first-hand information.

There is no basic change in the miserable character of the Slave Markets. The change is merely in the rate of pay. Ten years ago, women worked for as little as 25 cents an hour. In 1941, before they left the streets to work in the factories, it was 35 cents. Now it is 75 cents.

This may seem like an improvement. But considering how the prices of milk and bread and meat and coffee have jumped during the past decade, these higher wages means almost no gain at all.

And all of the other evils are still there.

The women of the “paper bag brigade” still stand around in all sorts of weather in order to get a chance to work. They are still forced to do an unspecified amount of work under unspecified conditions, with no guarantee that, at the end of the day, they will receive even the pittance they agreed upon.

They are still humiliated, day after day, by men who frequent the market area and make immoral advanced. Pointing to this shameful fact, civic and social agencies have warned that Slave Market areas could easily degenerate into centers of prostitution.

So they could, were it not for the fact that the women themselves resent and reject these advances. They are looking for an honest day’s work to keep body and soul together.

“Where Men Prowl and Women Prey on Needy Job-Seekers”

The Daily Compass, January 9th, 1950, pages 4, 7.

I was part of the Bronx Slave Market long enough to experience all the viciousness and indignity of a system which forces women to the streets in search of work.

Twice I was hired by the hour at less than the wage asked by the women of the market. Both times I went home mad – mad for all the Negro women down through the ages who have been lashed by the stinging whip of economic oppression.

Once I was approached by a predatory male who made unseemly and unmistakable advances. And I was mad all over again.

My first job netted me absolutely nothing. My employer on the occasion was a slave boss and I quit cold soon after I started.

My second job netted me $3.40 for a full day of the hardest kind of domestic work. My “madam” – that is how the “slaves” describe those who hire them – on this occasion was a gentle Mrs. Simon Legree, who fed me three crackers, a sliver of cream cheese, jelly, and a glass of coffee while she ate a savory stew.

The brush with the man was degrading and unspeakable.

These are the everyday experiences in the Bronx Slave Market and in the markets elsewhere in the city.

***

I took up my stand in front of Woolworth’s in the early chill of a December morning. Other women began to gather shortly afterwards. Backs pressed to the store window, paper bags clutched in their hands, they stared bleakly, blankly, into the street, I lost my identity entirely. I was a member of the “paper bag brigade.”

Local housewives stalked the line we had unconsciously formed, picked out the most likely “slaves,” bargained with them and led them off down the street. Finally I was alone. I was about to give up, when a short, stout, elderly woman approached. She looked me over carefully before asking if I wanted a day’s work. I said I did.

“How much did you want?”

“A dollar.” (I knew that $1 an hour is the rate the Domestic Workers Union, the New York State Employment Service, and other bona fide agencies ask for work by the hour.)

“A dollar an hour!” she exclaimed. That’s too much. I pay 70 cents.”

The bargaining began. We finally compromised on 80 cents. I wanted the job.

“This way.” My “madam” pointed up Townsend Ave. Silently we trudged up the street. My mind was filled with questions, but I kept my mouth shut. At 171st St., she spoke one of my unasked questions: “You wash windows?”

“Not Dangerous”

I wasn’t keen on washing windows. Noting my hesitation, she said: “It isn’t dangerous. I live on the ground floor.”

I didn’t think I’d be likely to die from a fall out a first-floor window, so I continued on with her.

She watched me as I changed into my work clothes in the kitchen of her dark, three-room, ground-floor apartment. Then she handed me a pail of water and a bottle of ammonia and ordered me to follow her into the bedroom.

“First you are to wash this window,” she ordered.

Each half of the window had six panes. I sat on the window ledge, pulled the top section down to my lap and began washing. The old woman glanced into the room several times during the 20 minutes it took me to finish the job. The window was shining.

I carried my work paraphernalia into the living room, where I was ordered to wash the two windows and the venetian blinds.

As I set about my work again, I saw my employer go into the bedroom. She came back into the living room, picked up a rage and disappeared again. When she returned a few moments later, I pulled up the window and asked if anything was all right.  

“You didn’t do the corners and you missed two panes.” Her tone was accusing.

I intended to be ingratiating because I wanted to finish this job. I started to answer her meekly and offer to go back over the work. I started to explain that the windows were difficult because the corners were caked with paint. I started to tell her I hadn’t missed a single pane. Of this I was certain. I had checked them off as I did them with great precision – one, two, three.

The I remembered a discussion I’d heard that very morning among members of the “paper bag brigade.” I learned that it is a common device of Slave Market employers to criticize work as a build-up for not paying the worker the full amount of money agreed upon.

“They’ll gyp you at every turn if you let ‘em,” one of the women had said.

“They’ll even take 25 cents off your pay for the measly meal they give you. You have to stand up for yourself every inch of the way.”

Suddenly I was angry – angry at the slave boss, angry for all workers everywhere who are treated like a commodity. I slipped under the window and faced the old woman. The moment my feet hit the floor and I dropped the rag into the pail of water, I was no longer a slave.

My voice shaking with anger, I exclaimed: “I washed every single pane and you know it.”

Her face showed surprise. Such defiance was something new in her experience. Before she could answer, I had left the pail of dirty water on the living room floor, marched into the kitchen, and put on my clothes. My ex-slave boss watched me while I dressed.

“I’ll pay you for the time you put in,” she offered. I had only worked 40 minutes. I could afford to be magnanimous.

“Never mind. Keep it as a Christmas present from me.”

With that, I marched out of the house. It was early. With luck, I could pick up another job.

Again I took my stand in front of Woolworth’s.

“‘Paper Bag Brigade’ Learns to Deal With Gypping Employers”2

The Daily Compass, January 10th, 1950, pages 4, 21.

I had quit my first job in revolt and now, at 10:30 a.m., I was back in the The Bronx Slave Market, looking for my second job of the day.

As I took my place in front of Woolworth’s, on 170th St. near Walton Ave., I found five members of the “paper bag brigade” still waiting around to be “bought” by housewives looking for cheap household labor.

One of the waiting “slaves” glanced at me. I hope she would be friendly enough to talk.

“Tough out here on the street,” I remarked. She nodded. “I had one job this morning, but I quit,” I went on. She seemed interested.

“I washed windows for a lady, but I fired myself when she told me my work was no good.” It was as though she hadn’t heard a thing I said. She was looking me over appraisingly.

“I ain’t seen you up here before,” she said. “You’re new, ain’t you?”

On the Outside

I was discovering that you can’t just turn up cold on the market. The “paper bag brigade” is like a fraternity. You must be tried and found true before you are accepted. Until then, you are on the outside, looking in.

Many of the “new” women are fresh from the South, one worker told me, and they don’t know how to bargain.

“They’ll work for next to nothing,” she said, “and that makes it hard for all of us.”

My new friend, probably bored with standing around, decided to forgive my newness and asked about the job I had left. I told her how the fat old lady had accused me of neglecting the window I had so painstakingly washed.

“Oh, that’s the way they all act when they don’t want to give you your full pay.” She brushed off the incident as if it was an everyday occurrence.

“Anyway, you shouldn’t-a agreed to work by the hour. That’s the best way to get gypped. Some of them only want you for an hour or so to clean the worst dirt out of their houses. Then they tell you you’re through. It’s too late by that time to get another job.”

“What should I have done?”

“Just don’t work by the hour,” she repeated laconically. “Work by the day. Ask six bucks and carfare for a three-room apartment.”

Expert Advice

My new friend proved helpful. She told me all manner of things for which to be alert.

“Don’t let them turn the clock back on you,” she warned. “That’s the easiest way to beat you out of your dough. Don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself if they put more work on you than you bargained for.”

I asked whether she had tried to get jobs at the New York State Employment Service on Fordham Road. She said she had a “card,” but that “there were no jobs up there…And anyway, I don’t want my name on any records.”

When I asked what she meant by that, she became silent and turned her attention to another woman standing beside her. I guessed that she was a relief client.

There seemed little likelihood of another job that morning. I decided to call it a day. As I turned to leave, I saw a woman coming down the street with the inevitable bag under her arm. She looked as if she knew her way around.

“Beg your pardon,” I said as I came abreast of her. “Are you looking for work, too?”

“What’s it to you?” Her voice was brash and her eyes were hard as steel. She obviously knew her way around and  how to protect herself. No foolishness about her.

“Nothing,” I answered. I felt crushed.

“I’m new up here. Thought you might give me some pointers.” I went on.

“I’m sorry honey,” she said, “Don’t mind me. I ain’t had no work for so long. I just get cross. What you want to know?”

When I told her about my morning’s experience, she said that “they (the employers) are all bitches.” She said it without emotion. It was spoken as a fact, as if she had remarked, “The sun is shining.”

“They all get as much as they can out of your hide and try not to pay you if they can get away with it.”

She, too, worked by the job –“six bucks and carfare.” I asked if she had ever tried the State Employment Service.

“I can’t,” she answered candidly. “I’m on relief and if the relief folks ever find out I’m working another job, they’ll take it off my check. Lord know, it’s little enough now, and it’s going to be next to nothing when they start cutting in January.”

She went on down the street. I watched her a moment before I turned toward the subway. I was half conscious that I was being followed. At the the corner of 170th St. and Walton Ave., I stopped a moment to look at the Christmas finery in Jack Fine’s window. A man passed me, walked around the corner a few yards on Walton Ave., retraced his steps and stopped by my side.

I crossed Walton Ave. The man was so close on my heels that when I stopped suddenly on the far corner, he couldn’t break his stride. I went back to Jack Fine’s corner. When the man passed me again, he made a lewd, suggestive gesture, winked and motioned me to follow him up Walton Ave.

I was sick to my stomach. I had had enough for one day.

“‘Mrs. Legree’ Hires on the Street, Always ‘Nice’ Girls”

The Daily Compass, January 11th, 1950, pages 4, 21.

Woolworth’s on 170th St. was beginning to feel like home to me. It seemed natural to be standing there with my sister slaves, all of us with paper bags, containing our work clothes, under our arms.

I recognized many of the people who passed. I no longer felt “new.” But I was not at peace. Hundreds of years of history weighed upon me. I was the slave traded for two truck horses on a Memphis street corner in 1849. I was the slave trading my brawn for a pittance on a Bronx street corner in 1949.

As I stood there waiting to be bought, I lived through a century of indignity.

It was that rainy muggy day after the two-day Christmas holiday, but there was no holiday cheer in the air. The “paper bag brigade” assembled unwilling – slowly. These women knew, even better than I, that there would be little trading on the market today.

I waited with six others one hour – two. Four gave up and left. Then a young couple approached, looked us over, and bargained with the woman next to me. I didn’t blame them for not choosing me. She was younger, obviously more fit. She went off trailing behind them.

An Offer of Work

I was alone. I was drenched and my feet were wet. I was about to give up when a little old woman with a bird-like face asked if I wanted a few hours’ work.  

I let my fellow workers down, for I went off with my new “madam” with a bad verbal contract—75 cents an hour for an undetermined amount of work, knowing only vaguely that there was general cleaning and ironing to do. What that meant in detail, I didn’t know.

By the end of the day, I knew very well. Every muscle in my body ached.

On the way to her home on Morris Ave., the little old woman informed me that she had been hiring girls off the street for 20 years and that she’d never been disappointed.

“I’ve always picked nice girls,” she said. “I knew you were nice the minute I laid eyes on you.”

That pat on the back was worse in a way than a kick in the teeth. “I was almost afraid to ask you to work,” she went on. “You look like you belong in an office.”

I glanced down at her. Was it in her mind that the old clothing I was wearing was too good for a Negro? I couldn’t interpret her expression. She had none.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Margo,” I answered, quickly selecting a name close enough to my own not to be confusing. However, five minutes later she was calling me Margie. By the end of the day, I was Mary, a name that to her mind, I suppose, was more befitting my station.

Her apartment had two rooms and a bath, with the kitchen unit in one end of the large living room.

A Good Purchase

She watched while I changed into my work clothes. She seemed to be taking stock of my strength. Without turning, I could almost see her licking her lips. She had bought a strapping, big animal.

“First, rinse those clothes and hang them on the drier in the bathroom,” she said, pointing to the tub. “And then you can dust the walls down all over the house.” She handed me a makeshift wall mop.

There were endless chores. I ironed a man’s shirt, four full-length ruffled curtains and a tablecloth. I took the stove apart and gave it a thorough cleaning. I cleaned and scrubbed the refrigerator, a cabinet, the sink and tub and shelves above the sink. I rubbed all of the furniture in the apartment with furniture oil.

Through it all, my employer sat unperturbed, watching my every move. Once or twice she arose from her chair to flick imaginary dust from an area I had already been over. Then she’d sit down again to watch me.

She was gentle, and persistent, and cruel. She had bought her pound of flesh and she was going to get every ounce of work out of it.

They pay-off came when she asked me to get down on my hands and knees to scrub all the floors, which were covered with linoleum. I just couldn’t do it. I realized with some surprise that the ache in my chest I had been feeling all day was just old-fashioned anger. Suddenly it flared. I stood up and faced her.

“I can’t do it!”

“Can’t do what, Mary?”

“I can’t scrub all of these floors on my hands and knees. This method of scrubbing went out with the Civil War. There are all sorts of methods to make floor washing easier. And if they must be scrubbed this way, why don’t you provide a knee pad?” My words tumbled over each other. But she caught their meaning all right.

“All of my girls clean my floors this way, Mary,” she said gently. “This is the way I like them done. Well, finish this one and I’ll call it a day.”

I gathered strength as I scrubbed that floor. I cleaned it with the strength of all slaves everywhere who feel the whip.

I finished my job. After I had changed into my street clothes, this gentle Mrs. Legree counted $3.40 into my hands – exactly what she owed me by the hands of the clock, at least minus my car fare.

I was too exhausted to ask about 20 cents.

“Some Ways to Kill The Slave Market”

The Daily Compass, January 12th, 1950, page 6.

So the Slave Market is back. And it is back to stay unless something is done to kill it off quickly.

A lot of people, aroused by its rebirth in the Bronx, Brighton Beach, Brownsville and elsewhere, are already fighting to beat back its advance. They want no return of conditions that existed during the last depression when wages were driven down to 25 cents an hour. They point to a number of things that can be done.

Says Nina Evans, president of Local 149 of the independent Domestic Workers Union: “Our primary aim is to bring these women into the union. But other things must be done, too. We must carry on a continuous and militant fight to bring domestic workers under the protection of the minimum wage and minimum hour laws, and under the workmen’s compensation and social security acts.”

At present, the domestic worker is covered by the Workmen’s Compensation law only if she works for one employer 48 hours a week, and by the unemployment insurance law only if she is one of four or more household workers employed in a home for 15 days in the calendar year.

Says Laura Vossler, field manager of the New York City household office of the New York State Employment Service: “Slave Markets are a disgrace to New York City. Standardization of domestic employment can never be accomplished while they thrive. My office carries on an unrelenting fight to raise employment standards in the domestic field. But it is an uphill struggle. There must be more employer education and employee training.”

The Domestic Workers Union, manned entirely by volunteer workers, has free hiring halls at 103 W. 110th St., Manhattan; at 927 Kings Highway, Brooklyn; and is searching for a Bronx location.

Organized in 1937 by a group of courageous young domestic workers under the leadership of Dora Jones, the union has watched its membership fluctuate with the times. In the late 1930s, 500 women were paid-up members. At present, the total is 125. The main reason for this downward trend was the fact that many domestic workers went into factories during the war. Now that they are returning to household employment and the “paper bag brigade” is once more on the march, the DWU is redoubling its efforts to bring them into the union.

This is one of the most difficult groups of workers to organize, Nina Evans comments. Unlike those in other fields, they work in isolation from each other and seldom have a chance to exchange work experiences. Long hours and the piling on of impossible loads preclude such interchange after work. When their work day ends, they are dog tired and need to go home to rest, or, in most cases, to take care of their own families.

But the women of the DWU are undaunted. They spend their free time, little though it is, talking with the women of the Slave Markets, passing out leaflets in front of churches and subway stations, and in finding jobs at decent wages for unemployed domestic workers.

Last fall, the union presented a course in Negro history which brought in a number of new members.

“We want our Negro workers to walk erect in dignity and pride with their white allies,” Nina Evans says.

Mayor LaGuardia was the father of the New York State Employment Service (NYSES) household offices. In an attempt to remove unemployed women from street corners and thus eliminate Slave Markets, he opened the first experimental free hiring hall at 1029 Simpson St., The Bronx, on May 1, 1941.

Didn’t Solve Problem

But this clearly was not the answer to the problem. It merely put a roof over the Slave Market. Bidding for labor at depressed rates was more comfortable than heretofore, but other evils of the market remained. However, LaGuardia’s move did pave the way for the establishment of a number of free employment offices under the auspices of the State Employment Service where trained social workers attempt to standardize working conditions and rate of pay.

The offices, at W. 80th St., Manhattan; 384 E. 149th St. and 29 E. Fordham Rd., The Bronx; 205 Schermerhorn St., Brooklyn; and 90-91 Sutphin Blvd., Queens, are in areas where there is a demand for household workers, but where few Negroes live.

The NYSES has no household office in Harlem or in other areas where there is a concentration of Negro workers who form the majority of applicants for domestic employment. Since domestic workers are employed in every borough in the city, and in most cases must travel some distance to work, it would seem logical to set up the employment offices nearer their homes rather than in scattered working areas.

The NYSES stresses education of the employer as a method of eliminating the Slave Market. When it became aware last spring that the “paper bag brigade” was back on the streets, trained field workers from the Employment Services spoke in Bronx churches and before PTA groups, explaining to housewives the bad features of negotiating independently with workers in the streets. “Our aim is to do everything we can to protect the worker,” said Miss Vossler.

Before an applicant goes out on a job, specifications are listed and approximate time to complete the job is estimated. “There is little or no chance that an employer will take advantage of a worker we send out,” she said.

Reject Free Service

Commenting on the fact that women still frequent Slave Markets despite the fact that NYSES offers free service, Miss Vossler said: “There are always some who will not take advantage of our service for one reason or another.” She suggested that these were women who did not have “good referrals.”

However, judging from what the members of the “paper bag brigade” themselves say, many won’t take advantage of the NYSES or any other employment agency because they are relief clients and feel they must avoid employment records of any kind. “What I used to get was little enough,” one woman told me. “What am I going to do in January when my check will be cut still more?”

That is one $64 question. Another is, what will happen to her if the Slave Market ideology grows?

Now she may get 7 cents an hour. But as more and more workers join her “brigade” – as the supply of domestic labor surpasses the demand – wages are bound to be depressed even further.

Her security lies in decent legislative safeguards, in employer education and employee training, and, above all, in unionization.

These, and these only, will make Slave Markets disappear.  


  1. For an excellent overview of Cooke’s contributions as a radical journalist and activist, see Lashawn Harris, “Marvel Cooke: Investigative Journalist, Communist and Black Radical Subject,” Journal for the Study of Radicalism, 6.2 (Fall 2012), 91-126. 

  2. Editor’s note: the use of this racial slur is unfortunate, but we have retained it in the interest of historical accuracy. 

Author of the article

(1903-2000) was an investigative journalist and Communist activist.