I am unavailable for servitude. I refuse it.
These words, from Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals (New York: W.W. Norton 2019, p. 299), encapsulate what I imagine was the refrain—-articulated or silent, conscious or unconscious——of Black American women who, like Louise Madison, took to the popular stage as dancers, singers, musicians, and actors in the early-mid 20th Century. Talking about “servitude” was not just a poetic turn of phrase. For Black women, whether in the urban north or the rural south, the principal mode of employment was domestic service. Domestic work was the employment of last resort for women generally, and particularly for women with the least status or power— immigrants, non-English speakers, and nonwhites. Black women were at the bottom of the employment hierarchy—after white native-born men, white immigrant men, white native-born and immigrant women, and black men. So, what was for most employment-seekers the last resort was, for most Black women, almost the only resort.
White, US-born women of Louise’s era were finding expanded employment opportunities in “white-collar” jobs such as shop girls, clerks and secretaries. Black women were barred from such jobs, just as they were barred from the white stage. Even with these constraints—-even as domestics, according to Jayna Brown in Babylon Girls, Black women’s “presence was central to the meanings of urban culture, despite their erasure from the critical record.” (p. 169)
Little better than the conditions of slavery, most domestic work in the households of white families meant hard work, low wages, little control over work duties, and varying degrees of separation from offspring. In fact, routines of the northern domestic service industry strongly evoked images of slavery: for example, in the November, 1935 issue of Crisis, the monthly journal of the NAACP, reporters described the “Bronx Slave Market,” where Black women congregated on street corners as white women drove by and hired them for “day labor” — a day of scrubbing, window washing, laundry, or other household drudgery. “Rain or shine, cold or hot, you will find them there — Negro women, old and young — sometimes bedraggled, sometimes neatly dressed — but with the invariable paper bundle, waiting expectantly for Bronx housewives to buy their strength and energy for an hour, two hours, or even for a day at the munificent rate of fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, or if luck be with them, thirty cents an hour” (p. 330).
The oral history series Goin’ North, part of an online oral history collection held at the University of Kentucky, unpacks the social transformations in Philadelphia as a result of the first wave of the Great Migration of Black Americans from the South to northern cities. One part of the series focuses on the experiences of Black women from the South who worked as domestics in Philadelphia. Some found that the work, though difficult, was easier than working in the fields. And the social environment and education opportunities for their children were sufficient to justify their decision to uproot themselves and move north. Others felt duped by the promise and expectation that conditions in the North would be better than in the South. Indeed some migrant women said that the abusive and exploitative attitudes and conditions they encountered in northern white households reminded them of how their grandmothers described slavery. They felt that they were “driven” harder in Philadelphia than they were in the South. According to testimonies in this series, work in Philadelphia’s clothing and tobacco factories was little better, and in some ways worse than domestic service.
As hard as it was for Black women to make a living before the stock market crash of 1929, the plight of Black domestic workers went from bad to worse as employment opportunities deteriorated during the Depression. Jacqueline Jones writes in Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present, that “[i]n 1932 Philadelphia domestics earned from $5.00 to $12.00 for a forty-eight to sixty-seven-hour work week. Three years later they took home the same amount for ninety hours’ worth of scrubbing, washing, and cooking, and hourly wage of fifteen cents.” The scarcity of job opportunities allowed employers of domestic help to become even more racially selective. Despite the fact that in the late-1930s more than 70% of domestic workers in Philadelphia were Black, “Female Help Wanted” ads in the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper of the 1930s often specified “white only,” or “white preferred,” or certain European backgrounds.
There’s little wonder then that Louise, with her talent for dance and rhythm, would decline to join the ranks of Black domestic workers when she could perform on major stages in New York and London. Neither is it hard to imagine why Louise did not follow the lifestyle of her mother, a life-long homemaker and family caregiver. Martha Buckner Coates bore 10 children—- eight by her first husband (Louise’s father) James Madison, who died at age 36 when Louise was still in elementary school, and two by her second husband, Jessie Coates. She raised not only her own children, but also some of her children’s children, including Louise’s daughter Bernice (1928-1970) and son Robert (1944-2016). There’s even family lore that Louise’s son was born in a taxi cab, and that instead of proceeding to a hospital, Louise took the newborn directly to her mother’s house and left him there.
Considering Louise’s employment and lifestyle alternatives, it’s understandable that her granddaughter, Carol Tompkins, would reject the notion that her “grandmother was wild” in choosing a peripatetic career on the stage, as pronounced by Louise’s nephew in a conversation with Carol about five years ago. According to Carol, Louise was just “doing what she had to do,” not consciously being a disruptor or renegade. Still, I choose to believe that by making exciting artistry in the tight spaces consigned to her by race, color and gender, Louise exemplified a form of resistance practiced uniquely by Black women.
Copyright 2021 by Germaine Ingram. All rights reserved.