All About Atlanta: The Washerwomen Strike of 1881

Word to the wise: Never underestimate the will of a Black woman to get something done. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

I was thinking of my Uncle Thaddeus “Thad the Handyman” Lawhorne when I first made an offer on my home. I was heartbroken when he passed away in 2018. He had been an important force in my life. Though he was my uncle through marriage, he was a true #girldad to me. I vividly recall summers in Orlando accompanying him to Home Depot and tagging along on his various home repair jobs. I learned bricklaying and sprinkler system installation with him. He also taught me the importance of slanting the surface when installing tile on a shower floor.

This house I purchased was originally built in 1950. It sits in the midst of Metro Atlanta’s Trump country on an acre-plus of land.  It’s a  pretty little thing, just over 1100 square feet with a beautiful settin’ porch and a good back deck.  The area is a quiet, serene with a steady flow of dogwalkers, bikers and joggers.  Children can leave their toys in the yard without fear of theft or disappearance. When I walked through the house for the first time, admiring all the beautiful trees and imagining the understated thrill of experiencing all four seasons here, I knew it was home. Also, I swear I heard Uncle Thad’s voice in my head. He said, “Get yourself a good inspector, Girl.”

I ignored the list of inspectors my realtor forwarded and researched until I found Mr. Paris Pressley; he’s an older Black gentlemen who’d spent the last several decades inspecting Metro Atlanta homes. Man. He inspected THE HELL out of my house. He found all the corners the home flippers cut and put every last fault in his extensive report—with pictures! Inspector Pressley stood his ground when those jokers tried to refute his findings AND he was kind enough to coach me on insisting on 12-month warranties for all the original and corrective work the various renovation contractors performed before agreeing to purchase.

That 12-month warranty stipulation came in handy.

In mid November, I noticed a spike in my water bill and water pooling in the front yard along the trench where the new septic tank had been installed. As I investigated the matter, both Cobb County Water and a professional plumber theorized that the septic tank installers had struck my water line during their install, did a piss-poor patch job and then neglected to tell the home sellers about what they’d done. Seems it’s a common occurrence with these people. Since nobody was living in the home when I bought it, nobody was there to test the repair until I moved in.

When I called Banks Septic of Palmetto, Georgia, both the receptionist and the owner told me off. They were rude and condescending and claimed no responsibility whatsoever before hanging up in my face. So I called my realtor, reminded her of my home purchase stipulations and let her know that the seller and these bastard Banks Septic people needed to come correct. Banks Septic begrudgingly sent a representative out to my property and as I stood on my porch and talked with him, I made sure to audio record our conversation. Dude admitted that his workers most likely struck the line and patched it up incorrectly. He also assured me that he would return to correct the situation after discussing matters with his business partner.

Now I knew he was going to change his story the minute he left my property. And he did, which is why I recorded his monkey ass in the first place. The very next day, they claimed no responsibility but offered to dig down to determine the issue for $6000. They thought there were going to cheat this Black woman homeowner but I’m not the one. I belong to a long line of Black Atlantan women who don’t play that mess.

washerwoman strike
These laundering women meant business when they collectively said, “Not today, Satan.”

You see, back in 1881, a mere 18 years after emancipation,  the majority of the  Atlanta labor force at large (and the Black workforce specifically) were women. Of those women, most were domestics who worked as laundresses or washerwomen. You think you hate doing laundry today? Try washing your clothes by hand with substandard water and sewage systems. No one wanted to do that, especially White people in the South. Even poor White folks set aside a budget to hire a washerwoman. And so Black women did this hard, tedious work from anywhere from $4.00 to $8.00 a month.  A MONTH!

These women made their own detergent, drew and hauled water from wells or pumps, boiled and washed the clothing in barrels, and hung the clothing to dry. They then starched, ironed and folded it all and delivered it back to whatever White person who had hired them to perform this madness in the first place.

During the summer of 1881, about 20 of these laundresses formed the Washing Society to demand respect, self-regulation and a standard rate of pay for their services. They organized themselves and set about on a canvassing campaign  to grow their numbers and launch a citywide strike. In less than a month, they were 3000 strong and they’d even convinced the few White laundresses in Atlanta to join their ranks. Their efforts and the various letters they wrote are documented here. 

Now the Atlanta City Council tried to fight the laundresses by proposing a steaming laundry operation as an alternative to their services and by charging any washerwoman’s organization an annual fee of $25. The Washing Society agreed to the fee but doubled down on their strike by getting other domestics involved such as cooks and maids. When hotel workers also went on strike, the city gave in to all of the Washing Society’s demands. You see, at the end of the day, Atlanta could not rebuild, grow or progress in the period following Reconstruction without its predominantly Black and female labor force and they needed to put some respect on these Black women’s names.

As for this water leak caused by these Banks Septic people, I hired a plumber who dug down about a foot and a half deep right over the septic tank trench line. He used a damn shovel, Y’all. And sure enough, the shoddy patch job was revealed. I took pictures and had the plumber give me the clearly damaged piece of PVC with the little piece-of-crap coupling they used. Those fools didn’t even bother to use glue and I was able to pull it apart with my hands. I told those mofos I had time to take them to small claims court and I was happy to report them to the media. They knew from my emails that I have a way with words. Plus with the audio recording and copies of their original work agreement, I had no doubt other homeowners would be very interested in knowing all about their charlatan ways. They’ve since requested invoices for my reimbursement because reputation is everything in business.

If you’re looking to make a home purchase in Atlanta, don’t hesitate to contact me if you need any advice. I’ve got an Uncle, an Inspector and a legacy of “don’t start none, won’t be none” energy at my disposal.

Until tomorrow.






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