Toward a Brighter Dawn (1936)

This article was originally published in the Communist Party USA journal Woman Today (April 1936), with the tagline “Cramped and crushed by prejudice and discrimination, fingers worn to the bone by ceaseless labor at coolie wages, the Negro women are the most exploited group in America. But they have banded together for the fight for freedom, and will win.” At the end of the article appeared a note from the editors: “Have you ever heard of the ‘Bronx slave market’? Most papers wouldn’t print such a story. Many such stories, crying to be told, never see the light of day. We want to print such stories – your stories. Write us about things your local paper won’t print.”

Second meeting of the Negro National Congress, Philadelphia 1937.
Second meeting of the National Negro Congress, Philadelphia 1937.

Early dawn on any Southern road. Shadowy figures emerge from the little unpainted, wooden shacks alongside the road. There are Negro women trudging into town to the Big House to cook, to wash, to clean, to nurse children – all for two, three, dollars for the whole week. Sunday comes – rest day. But what rest is there for a Negro mother who must crowd into one day the care of her own large family? Church of course, where for a few brief hours she may forget, listening to the sonorous voice of the pastor, the liquid harmony of the choir, the week’s gossip of neighbors. But Monday is right after Sunday, and the week’s grind begins all over.

Early dawn on the plantations of the South. Dim figures bend down in the  fields to plant, to chop, to pick the cotton from which the great wealth of the South has come. Sharecroppers, working year in, year out, for the big landlord, never to get out of debt. The sharecropper’s wife – field worker by day, mother and housewife by night. Scrubbing the pine floors of the cabin until they shine white. Boiling clothes in the big black iron kettle in the yard. Cooking the fat-back and corn pone for hungry little mouths. She has never to worry about leisure-time problems.

The same dawn in Bronx Park, New York. There is yet no movement in the near-by apartment houses. From the subway come women, Negro women. They carefully arrange the Daily News or Mirror along the park bench still moist with dew, and sit down. Why do they sit so patiently? It’s cold and damp in the early morning.

Here we are, for sale for the day. Take our labor. Give us what you will. We must feed our children and pay high rent in Harlem. Ten cents, fifteen cents an hour! That won’t feed our families for a day, let alone pay rent. You won’t pay more? Well, guess that’s better than going back to Harlem after spending your last nickel for carfare…

So thrifty “housewives” drive sharper bargains. There are plenty of women to choose from. And every dollar saved leaves that much more for one’s bridge game or theater party! The Bronx “slave market” is a graphic monument to the bitter exploitation of this most exploited section of the American working population – the Negro women.

Over the whole land, Negro women meet this triple exploitation – as workers, as women, and as Negroes. About 85 per cent of all Negro women workers are domestics, two-thirds of the two million domestic workers in the United States. In smaller numbers they are found in other forms of personal service. Other employment open to them is confined mainly to laundries and the tobacco factories of Virginia and the Carolinas, where working conditions are deplorable. The small fraction of Negro women in the professions is hampered by discriminatory practices and unequal wages.

The economic crisis has placed the severest test upon the Negro woman. Representing the greatest proportion of unemployed workers in the country, Negroes are discriminated against in relief and work relief. Negroes must pay high rent for the worst housing in any city. Segregated Negro neighborhoods are invariably deficient in nurseries, playgrounds, health centers, schools. And in the face of such adverse conditions, Negro women must maintain and rear their families.

It was against such a background that there assembled in Chicago on February 14, 15 and 16, 1936, Negro women from all sections of the country for the National Negro Congress. They made up about one-third of the eight hundred delegates, men and women, who came together from churches, trade unions, fraternal, political, women’s, youth, civic, farm, professional, and educational organizations. Women club leaders from California greeted women trade unionists from New York. Women school teachers made friends with women domestic workers. Women from the relief agencies talked over relief problems with women relief clients. Women from mothers’ clubs and housewives’ leagues exchanged experiences in fighting against the high cost of living. Negro women welcomed the white women delegates who came to the Congress as an evidence of the growing sense of unity between them.

The Women’s Sub-Session of the Congress dramatized the conditions facing Negro women everywhere. Neva Ryan, slight but dynamic, pictured the plight of the domestic workers of Chicago and the steps being taken to organize them. Rosa Rayside of New York told how they already had an A.F. of L. charter there for a domestic workers’ union. Tarea Hall Pittman, state president of the Federation of Women’s Clubs of California, emphasized the necessity of linking together the struggle of women workers with professional women. Marion Cutbert of the National Board of the YWCA and National Treasurer of the National Negro Congress greeted the delegates and urged the need for organization on all fronts. A white delegate from Detroit, Margaret Dean, told of the valiant fight made in her city by both Negro and white women against the high cost of living. Thyra Edwards, social worker of Chicago, and chairman of the Women’s Committee for the National Negro Congress, emphasized the need for consumers’ co-operatives. Rosita Talioferro, student at the University of Wisconsin, urged the mothers to begin early in their children’s lives to educate them upon the pressing problems under discussion. Herbert Wheeldin, from Westchester County, New York, one of the several men delegates who listened attentively, spoke of the severe exploitation of women workers by the rich families of Westchester.

The session ended all too soon, with many delegates yet to be heard from. The facts they related told sad stories, but there was no sadness in these women delegates, many of whom were attending a congress for the first time in their lives. There was a ring of confidence in each report – a confidence, born in many instances right at the congress, that it was possible to change these unbearable conditions. Negro women from all walks of life, unskilled and professional, Negro and white women found themselves drawn together, found that they liked being together, found that there was hope for change in coming together.

Organization and unity were the keynote of the resolution on women passed by the Congress. The resolution embodied a three-point program: (1) Organization of women domestic workers into trade unions of the American Federation of Labor; (2) organization of housewives into housewives’ leagues to combat the high cost of living, and educational facilities for their families, and (3) organization of professional women. All three to be joined together to work for adequate social legislation, for better relief, and against war and fascism. This resolution was presented to the general session of the Congress by Mrs. Nellie Hazell, representing the Negro Democratic League of Philadelphia, and was unanimously adopted.

The delegates have returned to their homes, but not as they came. These women now have a program around which they will rally their sisters at work and in the home. They have a year in which to carry through the declarations of their resolution, so that by May, 1937, when the National Negro Congress again convenes – this time in Philadelphia – they will come together once more in greater numbers and with a different story to tell, of accomplishment, of a struggle nearer the goal of the liberation of Negro women from bitter exploitation and oppression.

Author of the article

was a communist organizer, a member of the Citizens' Committee to Aid Packing-House Workers, and Director of Organization of The Council of African Affairs, Inc.