Imani Butts is a senior journalism and telecommunications major and writes “Eyes of Clarity” for The Daily News. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the newspaper.
The career options for Black women post-Civil War were bleak.
After Emancipation in 1863, African Americans were awarded their freedom but left with the burden of finding employment. Options were limited to domestic jobs such as cooks, maids and laundresses, also known as washerwomen.
As explained in Kim Kelly’s 2022 book, “Fight Like Hell: the Untold History of American Labor,” fed up with “being paid next to nothing,” in July 1881, a group of twenty Black washerwomen in Atlanta did what no Black woman in U.S. history had successfully done: they unionized and dubbed themselves the “Washing Society.”
The story of the washerwomen has been obscured by more prominent labor strikes, like the Homestead Steel Strike, The Pullman and countless others led by white laborers. “Fight Like Hell: Untold History of American Labor” aims to give the smaller labor movements like the Washing Society the spotlight they deserved in our middle school history books. The book has a 4.7/5 star rating on Amazon, with a commenter saying, “Kim Kelly has tackled a topic that is often too dense and dry, revealing an ongoing story for labor equality that is exciting, surprising and so important.” Sounds pretty powerful.
But as it just so happens, the history wasn’t untold.
Tera Hunter, a Black historian, wrote about the washerwoman strike in “To ‘Joy My Freedom” in 1998. However, Hunter’s book didn’t receive the same praise. “Fight Like Hell: Untold History of American Labor,” authored by a white journalist, has been highlighted by large media outlets like the Washington Post, while “To ‘Joy My Freedom” was left in distant memory.
If we’re being honest, I didn’t know anything about the story of the 1881 washerwomen prior to 2022. It wasn’t like Generation Z was taught much Black history in school. Most Black History Month lessons covered your basics: a reading passage from W.E.B. Du Bois, the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr., a ridiculously short paragraph about the Civil Rights movement, a blurb about Justice Thurgood Marshall and some facts about former President Barack Obama, if you’re lucky.
Oh, and how Malcolm X was “bad” because he promoted violence.
But the 1881 Washerwomen Strike was a prominent moment in the Reconstruction Era. It should be in our history books. As Kelly’s book explains, it was one of the first documented incidents of Black laborers, who were legally treated as independent contractors or the self-employed, taking the initiative to fight for better pay and wages. It was such a big deal because white clients “were still unaccustomed to [paying] Black people for their labor.” Their first order of business was “setting a higher, standard wage rate for their labor,” calling for a mass meeting “to make their demands public.”
History isn’t really clear on the resolution of the strike because while washerwomen saw wage increases, other black laborers didn’t. However, Hunter writes in her book the period was just a brief time of opportunity, but “African Americans pressed it as far as they could before the full force of New South economic development made itself felt.” But as Kim Kelly reminds, “The city’s white-supremacist employer class [came] face-to-face with the reality of Emancipation: Black workers would tolerate injustice no more.”
Don’t get me wrong, the Washing Society’s history being showcased in both of these books is a great thing. Our educational system needs to overhaul the history curriculum in order to provide more nuanced viewpoints on how Black history is explored. But the appreciation “Fight Like Hell” received opens up a more crucial conversation about who has the license to tell Black history.
Authors writing outside their own experiences in order to honor histories that aren’t theirs is not inherently a bad thing. Sometimes, more prominent voices are needed to uplift and amplify marginalized stories. I believe if someone has the right intentions for the story they're telling, then their intentions will shine through in the way the story is told.
However, let’s not pretend Black voices aren’t overshadowed, even during Black History Month. The recognition and praise white journalists and historians receive for telling the stories Black people have been screaming to be acknowledged for decades is an insult to the Black historians who put in work to recover lost information that is centuries old. There are aspects of Black history constantly ignored and overlooked, but the Black historians who are uncovering these forgotten aspects of history deserve to be recognized.
This recognition affects the people who directly benefit from learning history. In my majority-minority high school, we weren’t taught to celebrate Black history. The administration didn’t want to shake the table. But for the thousands of black students who walked those halls every day, they didn’t know they were being robbed of the knowledge that could shape their futures.
As a Black journalist, the way Black stories we try to tell are co-opted for praise stifles the credibility we are fighting to keep. My “voice” isn’t as loud as other journalists. Honestly, trying to be heard is exhausting. Constantly being disregarded for more prominent journalists is exhausting. Not having the support to tell the stories of the Black community is exhausting.
More crucially, academia has always imposed a white lens to frame Black experiences. White-washing Black history to the bare bones of just the details of the historical event without exploring the motivations or inequities invites a pervasive form of whiteness to seep into our history, influence how we study the past and inform what the future will look like. History is the foundation, and in a world where Black history isn’t valued, the future becomes blurry because we don’t know if it will be repeated. This was never about whose stories are told but whose story is worthy enough.
Maybe the Washing Society’s story was worthy enough this time to be noticed in “Fight Like Hell.” Maybe it was worthy enough this time to be noticed by all these media outlets. But this “untold” history has always been told amongst the Black community which values the efforts our ancestors put in to give their descendants a fighting chance at having stable and fair working conditions.
It is our responsibility as journalists to tell the story of America, but I can only tell it through the lens of a Black woman. Because of that, my storytelling comes from the perspective of someone who has experienced the injustices of society and is trying to combat them through journalism. It is unfortunate Black journalists are expected to explore the depths of our society’s dark present and even darker past.
For white journalists, it’s just uncovering the “untold” history of the Black community. For Black journalists, it’s diving deeper into the history we were robbed of learning in the first place. Maybe one day Black journalists will be worthy enough to be listened to for their perspective, their knowledge and their insight.
It’s time for society to value the Black voices telling the stories in the first place.
Contact Imani Butts with comments at email@example.com or on Twitter @imani_butts.