The Colored Woman
and Her Relation to the Domestic Problem
c.August 6-11, 1902 — Negro Young People’s Christian and Educational Congress, Agricultural Building, Piedmont Park, Atlanta GA
May I venture forward in this hour to make a plea for a class of women of my race whose number is legion? May I plead for the moral and industrial salvation of two-thirds of the women of this country, women who by the sweat of their brow must eat bread? I refer to the honest working woman. If this class of women arise, they will push forward, higher and higher, the principles espoused by negro women who are laboring for the salvation of the masses. If they fall, they will pull down with them, for it is impossible for us to rise unless we take the masses of our sisters with us.
You ask what is meant by the domestic problem. It is that peculiar condition under which women are living and laboring, without the knowledge of the secrets of thrift, or true scientific methods, in which the mind has been awakened, and hands made capable thereby to give the most efficient services. It is a condition of indifference on the part of our working women, to their own needs morally, intellectually and industrially. Further, it is a question as to how we may dignify labor, that our services may become indispensable on the one hand and negro sentiment will cease to array itself against working women on the other hand. It is a question as to how we may receive for our services compensation commensurate with the work done. The solution of this problem will be the prime factor in the salvation of Negro womanhood, whose salvation must be attained before the so-called race problem can be solved.
The training of Negro women is absolutely necessary, not only for their own salvation, and the salvation of the race, but because the hour in which we live demands it. If we lose sight of the demands of the hour, we blight our hope of promise. The subject of domestic science has crowded itself upon us, and unless we receive it, master it and be wise, the next ten years will so revolutionize things that we will find our women without wherewith the support themselves.
Untrained hands, however willing, will be unwelcomed in the humblest homes. We may be careless about this matter of equipping negro women for work in the homes, but if we are to judge from the wonderful progress of recent years, have brought in the world of labor, we must admit, that steps must be taken, and that at once, to train the hands of negro women for better services and their hearts for purer living. All through the north white help is taking the place of negro help. Where we once held forth without a thought or change, we find our places filled by imported help. The people who had to have servants declared that they wanted intelligent trained help, and we ere not ready to give what they wanted. Our intelligent negroes, even thought they have not bread to eat, in many cases shun service when the fact is evident that ignorant help is not desired by the best people of this country.
What will this crowding from service mean to Negro women? It will mean their degradation. Our will will sink beneath the undermining influences of insidious sloth. Industry is one of the noblest virtues of any race. The people who scorn and frown upon her must die. Little heed has been given to the demand for a better class of help, the supplanting of negro labor by importing Irish, Dagoes and English, may not yet be felt by all of us, but it is time for the leaders to sound the alarm ere we are rooted from the places we have held for over two centuries. The time will come when we will stand as helpless as babes, as dependent as a beggar, without wherewith to sustain life, unless we meet the demands squarely.
The masses of our people have not yet realized that we are losing hold on American sympathy and sentiment, and must compete like other people for ap lace in the race of life. Men who want to practice medicine, study medicine; men who want to practice dentistry, study dentistry, and the hour is now that when a woman wants to cook, must study domestic science.
Our women have worked as best they could without a thought of making improvements, and thus developing the service into a profession, and that way make the calling more desirable from a standpoint of labor as well as from as standpoint of compensation received.
The race whose women have not learned that industry and self-respect are the only guarantees of a true character will find itself bound by ignorance and violence or fettered with chains of poverty.
There is a growing tendency among us to almost abhor women who work at service for a living. If we hold I contempt women who are too honest, industrious and independent, women whose sense of pride is too exalted to be debased by idleness, we will find our women becoming more and more slothful in this matter of supporting themselves. “Our ‘high-toned’ notions as to the kind of positions educated people ought to fill have caused many women who can not get anything to do after they come out of school to loaf rather than work for an honest living, declaring to themselves and acting it before others, that they were not educated to live among pots and pans. None of us may have been educated for that purposes, but educated women without work and the wherewith to support themselves and who have declare din their souls that they will not stoop to toil are not worth an ounce more to the race than ignorant women who have made the same declarations. Educated loafers will bear as much watching as ignorant ones. When the nobility of labor is magnified, and those who do labor respected more because of their real worth to the race, we will find a less number trying to escape the brand, “servant girl.” We are not less honorable if we are servants. Fidelity to duty rather than the grade of one’s occupation is the true measure of character. Every gentle virtue will go down before a people and their endeavors come to naught when they forget that the foundation stone of prosperity is toil. What matters it if we do rise from pots and pans? They tell us we came from apes and baboons, and we have made it this far. Further, if God could take a crop of apes or baboons and make beings like us He is God indeed, and we can rust Him to raise us from servants to queens. If we did come from these ungainly animals of the four-footed family, we got here nearly as soon as the people who didn’t have so far to come.
What matters it if our women by honest toil make their way from the kitchen to places of respect and trust in the walks of life. Are they less honorable because they have been servants? Are not the women who by thrift and economy with everything operating against them within their own ranks, and low wages that mighty power before whom the poor must bow, struggling for mastery, work their way to the front, more serving of praise, more worthy of recognition and respect, than scores of parlor ornaments, who by methods unknown have maintained some social standing and hold in contempt the unfortunate servant girls? These were women at service who would eat their meals off of the heads of barrels, or dress after the fashion of John the Baptist in the wilderness, before they would sacrifice their high-tone moral character simply to shine in the social world, by virtue of their idleness and ability to rest well. It is not the depth from which we come, but the heights to which we soar. The incomparable water lily rose out of the slime of black lagoons, and heaven itself consists not in the location but in the nobility of the character of its population. It matters not where or how low the station pursued, the unswerving way of industry and victory or defeat will decide your fitness for the places we seek.
Again, if we scorn women who have character and are honest enough to work to preserve it and accept into our company women who have no character and will not work to secure it, are we making the race any more moral? This pulling aside of our silken skirts at the approach of the servant women ahs materially affected the morals of the Negro women. How many of them have abandoned honest labor in which they could have given character and tone to the service rendered by our women, and to satisfy their ambitions for social recognition have resorted to idleness in order to gain the smiles of a class among us who will receive any woman who can dress well without working at service to pay for it.
Scorn the servant woman? No, never. Rather scorn that class of women who have resolved not to work and hag out of doors and windows, hold up corners, keep the neighborhood astir because of chronic gossip, scorn young negro women who flirt and loiter about the streets at the sacrifice of their good name, but honor and praise the worm who have learned that all labor is just as honorable, just as honest as the person who is doing it. Have we not all been servants? God made us all servants the very day Adam was dismissed from Eden, “By the sweat of thy brown shalt thou eat bread.” What means these women who are eating bread and are not sweating either, and scorn those who are obeying the injunction?
Young women from rural districts flock to great cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore and Washington in search of employment. Not only are they unprepared to serve but are woefully ignorant of the new social conditions into which they must be thrown. The white women in these large cities and other organizations that employ attendants to meet the trains and be on the alert for the white servant class that may be coming in seeking work or homes. Christian homes and churches are pointed out to the new-comers. The strong arms of Christian women are thrown about them, and while they are far from home and loved ones, they have the assurance that they have friends who will be ever mindful of them and their interests.
What are the results of this wholesale abandonment of working women? Nine cases out of ten the girls who come from the country fall into the hands of ill-disposed Negro men or keepers of some “back way boarding house” of the famous “furnished rooms” character. Thousands of our women are to-day in the clutches of men of our own race who are not worth the cost of their existence. They dress well and live on the earnings of servant girls. Negro men can aid us in the solution of the problem by becoming self-supporting rather than live on the earnings of women who often get less than ten dollars per month. Not only does this increase idleness among us but weakens the moral life of women. Negro women can help solve their own problem by applying to sese lazy men Horace Greeley’s doctrine, “Root hog or die.”
The solution of this servant girl problem, then, can only be accomplished — first, by making it possible for these girls to overcome their ignorance, dishonesty and carelessness by establishing training classes and other moral agencies in these large cities and maintain one or more first-class schools of domestic science. Second, by employers demanding the trained help from these classes or schools and paying wages in keeping with the ability of the servant to do their work. Third, by giving to women who work time for recreation and self-improvement. This constant all-day “go” has made service a drudgery. If servants had hours for rest and improvement, like other laborers, they would come to their work with a freshness and intelligence that is now absent.
Emphasize the importance of preparation for service work. Let Negro women who are idle find work, stick to it, and use it as a stepping stone to something better. Let us cease reaching over women who are servants and have character enough for queens to queens who haven’t brains and character enough for servants. By becoming exponents of the blessed principles of honesty, cleanliness and industry, Negro women can bring dignity to service life, respect and trust to themselves and honor to the race. Then in deed and in truth we can mount up as with the wings of eagles, soar above the mountains of virtue and hide our heads among the stars. If anybody is to be scorned, scorn those women who will not honestly toil to raise themselves and are pulling us form the throne of honor and virtue.
Hundreds of our girls must leave school and work in service for a living. They work hard all day, and for recreation or a change resort to the dance hall, theater and some to church. Hundreds loiter about or spend the hours in gossip. What more can they do? The education women have divorced themselves from the working class forever, and while there are guilds and clubs for the improvement of the lives of women, yet none but the pure in heart shall enter there No reading rooms, nor special agencies for the intellectual and moral improvement of their condition thrown open to them. The doors of the church are thrown open semi-weekly, ought we not to have training classes, supported by the churches or other agencies for these women who must work all day, but who in the spare hours would like to improve themselves intellectually, better than have them in the dance hall, at parlor socials, half the night loitering about the streets? I beg you invite them to the home of the Lord. Let the churches throw open their doors and give these women an opportunity for self-improvement. If to no other class of mortals in this world, the negro churches owe a debt of gratitude to our working women, who are the most liberal and faithful contributors to them They day they withdraw their support from our churches, we witness the failing of our financial strength and religious zeal. Take form our church life the working women and you take from the army its general. Realizing that they have helped on the great work of the churches, is it not our duty to help them to get ready to meet the requirements?
The servant girls must learn the golden lessons of economy. They work hard, and many of them have nothing. In some cases it is not the cause of poor wages but because an extravagant idea of dress and ambition to make a good show. Women working for less than $12 or $18 a month, dress finer, comparatively, than their employers. We have not been faithful I teaching this lesson of economy, and hence I appeal to you to magnify the nobility of character rather than the ability to dress. When negro women learn that it is no disgrace to work, that virtue does not confine itself to the parlor ornament, the fine dress, or educated head, but will live and be happy in the humblest toiler who loves her and keeps her commandments. Prepare yourselves for profitable service, let all women who are without work seek it, stick to it, and use it, however humble, as a stepping stone to something better Let negro men cease reaching over servant girls who have brains and character enough for queens to the queens who have not brains and character enough to be servants when it comes to this matter of choosing associates. By the coming exponents of the blessed principle of honesty, cleanliness and industry, negro women can bring dignity to service life. Know the value of your service and demand it because of your fitness, for the work you seek, then if anybody is to be scorned let us scorn those women who will not work, but are like dead bodies, pulling us from the throne of honor and virtue.
Source: The United Negro: His Problems and His Progress, Containing the Addresses and Proceedings of the Negro Young People’s Christian and Educational Congress, Held August 6-11, 1902, (Atlanta: D.E. Luther Publishing Co.) 1902, pp. 324-329.
Also: The Atlanta Constitution, August 10, 1902, p. 12.