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.