While our exhibition Cover Story: Katharine Graham, CEO, is on view in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery, the Center for Women’s History is exploring the lives and professional experiences of women in media. For this installment, we’re diving into one of the most famous events in investigative journalism: when activist Ella Baker and journalist Marvel Cooke went undercover to expose the working conditions faced by Black women domestic workers in the Bronx in the middle of the Great Depression. Baker and Cooke’s story, “The Bronx Slave Market,” was published by The Crisis, the newspaper of the NAACP, in November of 1935. The exposé described domestic workers’ plight as an urban slave market where Black women sold their labor to the highest bidder and spurred an outcry for change.
“The Bronx Slave Market” documented the lives of the Black women who, before the market crashed in 1929, had been readily employed by middle- and upper-class white families in Manhattan, Long Island, and Westchester for decent wages. While the Depression impacted job availability for people regardless of race and gender, African Americans and African American women, specifically, suffered from the lack of job prospects. Black women who did find work were paid unbearably low wages because of increasing competition from the white American and immigrant women who had previously spurned domestic-service work.
In the wake of the Great Depression, Black women took to city street corners—particularly those at 167th Street and Jerome Avenue and at Simpson and Westchester Avenues—where white housewives would offer “slave wages” of anywhere from 15 to 30 cents an hour for Black women’s domestic labor. As Baker and Cooke put it, Black women came “to the Bronx, not because of what it promises, but largely in desperation.”
Baker and Cooke describe the arduous work the women were tasked with and the strain it took on their bodies: A woman was “permitted to scrub floors on her bended knees, to hang precariously from window sills, cleaning window after window, or to strain and sweat over steaming tubs of heavy blankets, spreads, and furniture covers.” After a day’s work, many Black women domestic workers were lucky if they left with the amount of money that they had been promised.
Baker and Cooke’s short but impactful exposé was widely-read and brought much-needed attention to the plight of exploited Black women domestic workers. Both Black and white activists, including Anna Hedgeman, Dora Jones, and Dorothy Height, and community organizations, such as the Bronx Citizens Committee for the Improvement of Domestic Employees and the Domestic Workers’ Union, worked to offer Black domestic workers alternative employment opportunities and put an end to the “slave market.”
Their activism also brought policy change. In 1941, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia ordered an investigation into the claims of exploitation driven by the slave markets and opened “hiring halls” that offered different means of acquiring work in the neighborhoods where the markets were common. With the advent of World War II, the women who once populated Bronx street corners in search of labor now found better paying and more regulated work as the war effort called for more laborers—skilled and unskilled, Black and white, men and women—in factories. But this improvement in working conditions wasn’t permanent. After the war, unemployment for Black women rose and the markets began to appear once more.
Some 15 years after The Crisis published “The Bronx Slave Market,” Marvel Cooke, who had by 1950 become one of the country’s most influential African American female journalists, wrote “I Was Part of the Bronx Slave Market” for The Daily Compass, where she had become the first Black woman to get a job at the white-owned paper. Just as she and Baker did in the 1930s, Cooke once again worked undercover to gain first-hand information about the markets and what Black domestics endured in the homes of New York’s white families. Not only did Cooke’s five-part series recount the economic exploitation and physical toll of domestic work, but it also revealed the threat of sexual abuse from male members of the households. Cooke even hinted at her own experience of sexual assault while undercover.
Baker and Cooke highlighted the precarity Black women face during times of national economic hardship. Cooke’s 1950 investigation highlighted how few protections Black domestic workers had from exploitation, even with the policy changes that had followed the publication of “The Bronx Slave Market.” Despite Mayor LaGuardia’s attempt to curtail the market by opening free hiring halls, many Black women did not visit them because they wanted to avoid employment records of any kind as most received, often insufficient, relief from the state. In the 1950s, domestic workers were not covered by minimum wage and minimum hour laws in New York state. They were not protected by the Workmen’s Compensation law unless they worked for a single employer at least two-days a week. At the end of Cooke’s investigative article series for The Daily Compass, she argues that the most important factor in changing the condition for Black domestic workers would be unionizing. The Domestic Workers’ Union had heeded this call back in 1937, organizing after “The Bronx Slave Market” was first published, and was still active during the 1950s. Baker and Cooke’s investigations empowered individual women and organizations in their attempts to change the exploitative labor system Black women faced.
Written by Tracey Johnson, Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History.