The Bronx Slave Market (1950)

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


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.