Prologue Magazine

Black Domestics During the Depression

Workers, Organizers, Social Commentators

Federal Records and African American History (Summer 1997, Vol. 29, No. 2)

By Phyllis Palmer

The New Deal eagerness to collect data about the American people evoked a similarly passionate response from American citizens. They answered interviewers, filled out questionnaires, kept consumption records, mailed petitions, and wrote countless letters to inform Washington planners about the vicissitudes of life during the Great Depression. Amid ongoing segregation and racial discrimination, government agencies played fair in one significant manner: they collected statistics about African Americans and answered and filed the correspondence of some of the country's least powerful. Saved in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), these numbers and voices illuminate the past, just as the writers sought to enlighten New Deal officialdom.

I discovered the richness of NARA's holdings on the African American working class of the 1930s and early 1940s when I began research for a book on domestic servants and housewives in the interwar era.(1) I assumed that domestic work, the largest women's occupation until 1950, would be difficult to document at the job site of the private household. What information did exist, I assumed, might come from white housewives, white women's clubs, and home economists writing about the work. Since I had chosen to study a period in which most employers were white women and often high school or college educated, while the majority of domestic workers were women of color (African American, Mexican American, Asian American, or Native American) with limited education, little access to the written record, and no social power, I also assumed that few direct accounts from women workers would have been created or preserved. Workers' views of the job, their standards of job performance, working conditions, and attitudes towards employers, I believed, would be invisible.

NARA record groups proved me wrong. The rich holdings enabled me to write a book with significant voices from African American women and men. The very existence of the archival record challenged the then-prevailing idea that housework was a private affair and not part of a public, social, even governmental organization of women's aspirations and work. Indeed, my focus on African American women enabled me to join a group of scholars who questioned a neat division of social spheres.(2) Locating housework in the public arena clarified that it was an occupation, fought over by interest groups like any other job. Middle-class employers, usually white, generally wanted the job unregulated, unless hours legislation, for instance, attracted new workers into the job. Domestic workers from working-class families, whatever their racial group, sought inclusion in statutes that protected union organizing or awarded coverage under maximum hour and minimum wage laws. The public story of housework also supported new scholarship on the creation and maintenance of whiteness.(3) Housewives had found government allies for a system that supported white women's entitlement as mistress of a comfortable, well-ordered home, while other women found their futures defined by low-wage, unregulated jobs that rarely paid enough to support their own homes and families.

My first forays into the Archives records were greatly aided by the publication Selected Documents Pertaining to Black Workers Among the Records of the Department of Labor and Its Component Bureaus, 1902–1969.(4) Archivist Debra L. Newman's compilation of earlier studies gave me the impetus to take my questions to NARA, and her entries for the records of the Women's Bureau (Record Group 86) led me to a rich cache of handwritten and typed letters to President and Mrs. Roosevelt and to Director Mary Anderson. Newman also pointed the way to other important sources: the National Recovery Administration (NRA, RG 9); the National Youth Administration (RG 119); and the Work Projects Administration (RG 69). With these leads, I began to comprehend how black citizens organized and spoke in behalf of their perspectives and interests to federal bureaucrats in distant Washington.

As soon as Roosevelt inaugurated the National Recovery Administration in 1933 to draw up industry-wide codes to stop labor strife, ease competition, and get production moving again, southern black workers found fault with the codes planned for the textile industry. Domestic workers recognized that while better-paid industrial jobs might offer release from their limited labor market or enable husbands to earn wages sufficient for the household, the textile industry jobs open to black workers were excluded from code coverage. Even as the administration publicly congratulated itself on setting wage rates by job and not by race or gender, black protesters wrote to inform NRA Director Gen. Hugh Johnson that the codes offered them no protection:

Thanks for your reply of the 3rd instant, in which you refer me to the "cotton textile code" as an evidence of the lack of racial prejudice. I am not fully conversant with this code, but I am informed that it does not cover cleaners nor outside workers, most of whom are colored.(5)

These private letters found organizational backing. An analysis and protest from National Consumers' League general secretary, Lucy Randolph Mason, appears in the NRA records near the above-quoted letter. As she remonstrated against code exclusions intended to maintain differential minimum wages, she rebutted employers' arguments that Negro labor was inefficient: "Many southern negroes are excellent workers and it is frequently lack of incentive that makes both white and colored workers inefficient and undependable. There is nothing inherent in the Negro which disqualifies him from being a good worker."(6)

If southern black workers quickly spotted the inequities of the textile industry code, they also noted the omission of any efforts to formulate a code for the occupation most widely held in the black community: household work. By 1934 a group named the National Association for Domestic Workers announced itself from its headquarters in Jackson, Mississippi, and politely but firmly inquired:

May I take this opportunity to write you in behalf of the hundreds of thousands of Negroes and whites employed in Domestic and Personal service in the United States. The attached code has been drawn up after an intelligent study of the conditions of these workers by a representative group of colored men and women from all parts of the South and we are asking your sincere consideration of the contents. In our survey of the Southern States we find the average wage of these workers $3.50 per week. Does this mean a living wage? If not, what protection do they have? Every type of industry has applied for some form of regulation with regard to hours, wages and general conditions. Are there workers of a group of more importance than those working in the homes of public and private citizens?(7)

The composition of the group's officers, from Jackson, St. Louis, Knoxville, Baltimore, and Washington, confirmed its regional representation. Its labeling the proposal a "Code of Fair Competition for Personal and Domestic Workers" demonstrated that this organization understood that the federal government could meet constitutional standards for regulation by invoking its duty to sustain free commerce.(8) In this group, domestics were using the most up-to-date political terms to argue for their interests.

The Supreme Court shortly declared the NRA unconstitutional, but the impetus for federally defined maximum hours of work and minimum wages remained alive and culminated in congressional passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938. From 1934 on, domestic workers denied coverage under NRA and FLSA wrote Washington to ask for help and to inform policymakers about work conditions in the unregulated industry. A representative letter written in pencil on lined notebook paper asked Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt to "please try to help the cooks in private homes to have some kind of working schedule about our jobs."

We only get a small salary . . . when we keep the house, wash, iron the clothes, cook the meals, come to work at 7 a.m. [and] no limit to the hour we get off. No rest on the job, not an hour to lie down or sit down to rest. But we poor Negro women have to work. Our husbands only get a small salary to pay a few bills, that is rent and a few other utility bills, and we must help. And we don't mind the work, but 18 hours out of 24 hours a day is killing our women.(9)

Another letter, handwritten, lamented the low wages still in effect as the United States entered World War II: "We don't make enough to support ourself[;] I have two children to support and I don't make enough to support them with. . . . I hope you can help all of us, not only myself."(10) Not until the 1970s would domestic workers succeed in gaining inclusion in the labor's basic bill of rights.(11)

The government-funded jobs programs operated first under the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and later the Works Progress Administration (WPA) did provide government assistance for African American domestic workers, but at the price of sustaining traditional relationships of black women's service for white families. Documents from these agencies not only highlight African American experiences but also contribute to the scholarship of gender history (the creation and maintenance of female-male social roles) and of race history (the perpetuation of racial differences within gendered roles).(12) The New Deal gained voter approval by creating gender-appropriate jobs programs: Women cooked, cleaned, sewed, and held clerical jobs while men designed, constructed, and reshaped the rural and urban landscapes.(13) Yet "women's jobs" and "men's jobs" also divided along racial lines. White women generally learned to care for their own homes while black women learned to serve in someone else's home; white men gained jobs defined as skilled and that paid "skilled" wages denied to black men, who held manual-oriented jobs. The nationwide social data in the National Archives reveals the racial/gendered patterns in large-scale government programs.

The material race-class lines that separated women's housekeeping lives during the era became much clearer to me after examining the underused resource of "Family Disbursement of Wage Earners and Salaried Workers, 1934–1936," an enormous body of data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in forty-two cities on families with annual incomes between five hundred and three thousand dollars. In contrast to census data that had led most historians to accept the notion that only 5 percent of American households hired domestic workers by the 1930s, my analysis of data from six cities in the "Family Disbursements" survey showed wide regional and intraracial variations. In Jackson, Mississippi, for instance, only 19 percent of white households were unable to hire some domestic work, whether housework or laundry work. The South's peculiar racial power structure loomed much larger than in any other region.

Not all white women, moreover, gained the status and racial privilege of hiring a servant, and particularly a nonwhite servant. In analysis of white households hiring domestic labor, the most significant indicator, besides income, was the wife's educational level. The housewife with at least a high school degree generally sought to hire a servant who could free her time for the activities deemed more valuable and more in accord with her husband's white-collar or professional job status, activities like club work or self-improvement or child development. Households with educated wives and husbands in "clean" jobs such as supervisory, technical, clerical, and sales—the white-collar jobs in this middle income group—replicated their workplace status within the home; here, too, the wife supervised a worker of inferior economic or racial status just as her husband did on the job.

Government programs sustained these class, race, and gender norms. The WPA project for housekeeping aides employed adult black women in need (by 1938 they composed 93 percent of the program) even as it confined them to traditional domestic work. Aide jobs went to adult women certified for relief employment to help in families disorganized by the absence or illness of the mother. The aides brought skills in cooking nutritious meals from government commodities and other inexpensive staples, decorating houses, and preserving fresh produce as well as nursing and housework. For many in the black community, the jobs not only provided reasonable, government-funded wages but also produced pride in work now accorded official recognition.

In the South, though, the jobs underlined the social distance between white women's families who deserved household help and black women's families who provided it. Southern officials "thought of it as a servant's project' employing 100 percent Negro women." White women were not given these jobs, and in some southern states the aides were referred to as "maids."(14) In WPA publicity files that record state newspaper reports of agency achievements, an item sent to the New Orleans Tribune applauded the work of housekeeping aides who washed and ironed laundry for poor [white] families "unable to care for their laundry."(15)

Relief programs in the National Youth Administration (NYA) that trained teenage girls for adult roles mimicked the job options in the adult divisions of the WPA. Even with the advocacy of Mary McLeod Bethune, appointed with Eleanor Roosevelt's blessing to head a Division of Negro Affairs, the NYA sponsored programs that prepared girls for their race-specific, gendered roles. In southern states especially, white girls gained skills as future homemakers and housewives while black girls learned domestic service work. The 1937 Mississippi state report showed "450 NYA youth in homemaking classes and 800 in domestic service classes."(16) Although the document did not specify racial divisions, it is likely that segregated education and expectations kept white girls in homemaking and black girls the domestic service classes.

The skills taught in NYA courses embodied a set of attitudes about the proper relationships between housewives—pictured as white—and servants—pictured as black. Kentucky teaching pamphlets on spring cleaning showed a young white woman sewing, hanging curtains, and observing a clothesline of wash to illustrate the themes of "dress up; fix up; spruce up." Only the brochure on "clean up" showed a black woman, and she was a laundress bending over a tub, presumably filled with curtains and clothes ordered for the white woman's household. Other Kentucky pamphlets designed for white women stressed ornamentation and comfort with instructions on decorating, such as "The Kitchen Strikes for Cheer in Color" and special recipes for holiday "Christmas Cookies." Domestic workers learned laundry work and proper serving techniques for formal meals as well as the etiquette for answering telephones and doors.(17)

Other teen service jobs were in hospitals, where again black girls and white girls performed gender-specific jobs organized along racial lines. In Texas, African American and Mexican American girls received assignments in kitchens, cafeterias, supply rooms, and laundries; white girls worked on the wards as nurses' aides and as clerical workers in hospital offices.

The New Deal maintained racial hierarchies even as it aided African Americans through relief projects. Perhaps more helpful for the long-term pursuit of racial justice and amity in the United States, the New Deal agencies also recorded the lives, livelihoods, and struggles of all its citizens. With NARA records, the historian can construct a fairer and more complex picture of a people who have always demanded equal treatment for themselves as citizens and pointed the way to a society that treats all its citizens equally.


1. Phyllis Palmer, Domesticity and Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920–1945 (1990).

2. Bonnie Thornton Dill, "Race, Class, and Gender: Prospects for an All-Inclusive Sisterhood," Feminist Studies 9 (Spring 1983): 131–150, speculated on how scholarship about women would change if black women's experience as housewives and workers became the modal experience in place of white women's more divided experience. Linda Kerber, "Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman's Place: The Rhetoric of Women's History," Journal of American History 75 (June 1988): 9–39, and Alice Kessler-Harris, "Providers: An Exploration of Gender Ideology in the 1930s," in A Woman's Wage: Historical Meanings and Social Consequences (1990) challenged the private-public division as it had been used by women's historians.

3. David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (1991), and Alexander Saxton, The Rise and the Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (1990) are the most frequently cited statements about whiteness as a subject of study.

4. Debra L. Newman, comp., Selected Documents Pertaining to Black Workers Among the Records of the Department of Labor and Its Component Bureaus, 1902–1969, National Archives Special List No. 40 (1977).

5. Leonard Barcroft to Gen. Hugh Johnson, Oct. 6, 1933, Richmond, VA, 580–581, box 247, Records of the National Recovery Administration, RG 9, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC (hereinafter, records in the National Archives will be cited as RG ___, NARA).

6. "Objection to minimum wage discrimination against Negro workers," Aug. 29, 1933, 581, box 248, RG 9, NARA.

7. Z. Elizabeth Moman, President, National Association for Domestic Workers, "Codes, 1933–1936," box 1717, Records of the Women's Bureau, RG 86, NARA.

8. See Vivien Hart, Bound by Our Constitution: Women, Workers, and the Minimum Wage (1994), esp. pp. 160–164, on the significance of the commerce clause as a constitutional basis for congressional setting of labor standards.

9. L. G. Huff to Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt, Jan. 5, 1937, Fort Worth, TX, box 925, RG 86, NARA.

10. Marie Wise to Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt, Jan. 26, 1942, Washington, DC, box 921, RG 86, NARA.

11. Phyllis Palmer, "Outside the Law: Agricultural and Domestic Workers Under the Fair Labor Standards Act," Journal of Policy History 7 (1995): 416–440.

12. Eileen Boris gives a sophisticated analysis of the inextricable intertwining of race and gender in "The Racialized Gendered State: Constructions of Citizenship in the United States," Social Politics 2 (Summer 1995): 160-180.

13. Barbara Melosh's Engendering Culture: Manhood and Womanhood in New Deal Public Art and Theater (1991), describes the gender and race ideologies that pervaded New Deal arts programs. Martha Swain's "ER and Ellen Woodward: A Partnership for Women's Work Relief and Security," in Without Precedent: The Life and Career of Eleanor Roosevelt, ed. Joan Hoff-Wilson and Marjorie Lightman (1984), recounts gendered, and implicitly racial, policymaking in WPA projects.

14. Margaret Batjer to Florence Kerr, Assistant Commissioner, WPA, Aug. 28, 1939, General Subject Series 212.1, box 487, Records of Work Projects Administration, RG 69, NARA.

15. WPA of Louisiana New Release, Oct. 24, 1940, Information Service Primary File, 824-A, RG 69, NARA.

16. Mississippi State Reports, file 330, Records of the National Youth Administration, RG 119, NARA.

17. Kentucky State Reports, file 330, RG 119, NARA.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.