If you were watching television in the 1990s, you are probably familiar with the jingle “the touch, the feel, of cotton. The fabric of our lives.” In many ways, cotton has also long been the fabric of our country.
Many correctly associate the growing of cotton in the United States with the institution of slavery. In 1850, nearly 2 million of the 3.2 million enslaved African Americans working in the slave states, worked to grow and prepare cotton. America’s cotton exports were worth more than all other exports combined. The nation’s success relied on cotton, and thus America’s success also relied on the enslavement of African Americans.
After the Union’s victory in the fight to end slavery during the Civil War, the period of extending rights and citizenship to African Americans that followed is known as Reconstruction. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery. The 14th guaranteed birthright citizenship. The 15th Amendment extended voting rights to African American men. Formerly enslaved African American had unprecedented political power and freedom of movement.
Sadly, this era came to an end in 1877 and was replaced with a system of racial oppression called Jim Crow that lasted for generations. In this historical moment, not only was the relationship between race and freedom changing, but so was the relationship African Americans and the cotton they had once been enslaved to pick. Some of these relationships are explored in Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow, and still more can be found in Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean.
A Song to a Negro Wash-Woman
Betye Saar (b. 1926). “Supreme Quality,” 1998. Mixed media on vintage washboard, metal washtub, wood stand. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, CA.
Maggie Walker, 1910. Courtesy of National Park Service, Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site
After Reconstruction, many formerly enslaved African Americans immediately left their agricultural lives on cotton plantations. Often by foot, they migrated by the thousands to city life in places like Atlanta, Charleston, and Richmond. While moving away was certainly a way to enjoy freedom from the shackles of bondage, these women also found a new set of limitations: what jobs they could hold. The majority were forced to turn to domestic work. This work often involved cleaning, making, or mending clothes, clothes perhaps made of the cotton they had once been forced to pick.
One of these urban Southern participants in the clothing trades was Richmond, VA entrepreneur Maggie Walker. Although Maggie was born in 1867, after Emancipation, Walker spent her childhood helping her laundress mother carry heavy baskets of laundry, picking her way through the still-rubble-strewn streets of Richmond. “I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but with a laundry basket practically on my head,” she later reflected. These experiences, all while observing her proud mother stoop and scrub to feed her family, convinced Walker of the dignity of all work.
“[I was] consumed with the desire to hear the whistle on our factory and see our women by the hundreds coming to work.”
Black women’s ability to find dignity in the demeaning work they had to do is also explored by Betye Saar in her 1998 work “I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break.”
But it also galvanized her to aim for more. Her dream was to provide black women with professional alternatives to domestic work, and she achieved it when she became the first black woman to start a bank in the United States, founding the St. Luke’s First Penny Savings Bank in 1903. As Maggie Walker looked out upon rows of professional black women, seated boldly upright, and listened to them capably operate the clicking, whirring, state-of-the-art adding machines she had bought for the bank, she must have felt the satisfaction of a task completed.
Much like a snow-white garment reaching its truest potential only after it has been skillfully washed, mended, and cared for, Walker’s upbringing taught her to have faith in the transformative effects of the hard work of black women.
Maggie Walker and accountants using an adding machine, St. Luke’s Hall, 1917. Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, National Park Service.
Weapons of Cleansing and Revolution
The transition from slavery to paid work also brought black women a new relationship to freedom and self-worth. In 1881, the city of Atlanta hosted an exposition on the state of the cotton industry, designed to both declare Atlanta as a modern city of thriving industry, and to showcase that the Reconstruction era of black officeholding, voting, and full citizenship was over. Exposition leaders highlighted these points by unveiling a painting called “The New South Welcoming the Nations of the Earth,” featuring imagery of African Americans once more picking cotton.
But the washerwomen of Atlanta had a very different vision of “The New South.” Knowing the event would bring thousands of visitors to Atlanta, they chose that moment to organize a strike, demanding better wages for their work. Black women in Atlanta had already demonstrated that they were skilled political organizers. They came together earlier in the year to successfully fix rates for domestic work, and had been organizing for years to protest discrimination and violence in the city. The 1881 strike was more than 50 years before the popularization of the washing machine. Paying someone to do the family laundry, often a black woman with a washing board such as the ones featured in Keepin’ It Clean, was the only option for most Atlanta residents.
Artworks on view in Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean
Although Atlanta city officials threatened to impose fines, this collection of women, some of them formerly enslaved, stood firm. The washerwoman understood that if Atlanta was going to be heralded as a would-be capital of the “New South,” the city was going to have to prove, to them, that it had left the old South behind. Women in Atlanta would continue this political tradition after the strike, including by forming the Atlanta Neighborhood Union in 1908 to provide healthcare and education for the city’s black families.
Atlanta Neighborhood Union. Atlanta University Center, Robert W. Woodruff Library
A Loss of Innocence
As the 20th century began, the Jim Crow system of racial oppression tightened. Segregation intensified. Violence spread. African Americans became even more creative in their approach to advocating for their shrinking rights. In 1917, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in New York organized a silent parade to protest racial violence. Understanding the symbolism of children as the future of the country, the NAACP had a group of children lead the parade down 5th Avenue. Their freshly-laundered white outfits, possibly made of cotton served as a visual reminder of the vulnerability of young black lives.
Nearly a century later, Betye Saar contemplated this same symbolism in her piece “A Loss of Innocence” (1998) In it, a child’s white christening gown dangles from a hanger, unworn, above a picture of an unnamed black child, throwing a stark shadow on the wall behind. The label text cautions us to look more deeply, noting the garment is stitched with racial slurs that the child will face as they mature.
After the Civil War, the end of slavery meant that innocence of black children would no longer be sacrificed to produce the cotton to make America’s clothes. But would they ever really be free? As Saar’s work and Black Citizenship’s history remind us, their future, in the streets and in the shadows, depends on America to clean up its act.
See Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow before it closes Sunday, March 3.
Written by Dominique Jean-Louis
Project Historian, Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow