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A Case of Black and White: White Women Protest the Hiring of Black “Wage-Slaves”

Before the Civil War, some enslaved African Americans labored in Southern textile mills, especially in the spinning and weaving rooms. But with the jump in the price of slaves in the 1850s, manufacturers decided that poor white farmers provided a cheaper labor force. After the Civil War, the textile mill workforce remained entirely white for a number of reasons: landlords wanted African Americans to work in cotton fields; white leaders promoted industrialization as the salvation of poor whites; and the dominant racial ideology forbade the mixing of white women and black men in the workplace. Although planters and manufacturers had the most to gain from a segregated work force, white workers—as this 1898 protest from the women of Atlanta’s Fulton Mills indicated—accepted the idea that factory work was the privilege of “loyal white citizens.” There were few opportunities for white women to earn cash wages in this period, and family farms yielded little cash. The only jobs open to black women—domestic service—paid even less.

To Whom It May Concern:

We, the employees of the Fulton Cotton Mills, herewith present of the public the attitude of the cotton mill workers in the present controversy. Notwithstanding the fact that these 1,400 wage-workers, composed mostly of women and children, have for years been compelled to have their flesh and blood counted in dollars and cents by the mill owners owing to excessively long hours of work and extremely low wages, they are now subject to such indignities as would meet the condemnation of every loyal white citizen of Atlanta, and also of the majority of self-respecting black citizens.

The efforts of the Fulton mill owners to force the white women and girls employed there to work with the negro women who were placed among them is a deliberate attempt to eliminate the white wage-slaves from this avocation and substitute black wage-slaves because they will work cheaper, although the white wage-slaves do not live but simply exist.

The real question at issue now is one of wages and not of prejudice. . . .

Source: Executive Committee, Textile Workers' Union, “Manifesto of the Strikers,” Fulton Cotton Mill, Atlanta, Georgia, 1898, in The People (New York), 6 August 1899.