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BLACK WOMEN IN HARLEM DURING THE GREAT DEPRESSION Experiences of Both Race and Gender Inequality

By Chelsea Pan

Records of the Work Projects Administration, Record Group 69

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THE GREAT DEPRESSION    The Great Depression was a period of

A group that was impacted by both race

economic failure experienced in the

and gender inequality was African

industrialized countries located in North

American women. During the Great

America and Europe that lasted from 1929

Depression, Black women faced many

to 1939. The Depression had catastrophic

struggles that were not faced by their

effects on the United States economy.

white or men counterparts. The

Various groups of people suffered these

experiences of African American women in

consequences on different levels. Race and

Harlem during the Great Depression give

gender were essential factors that

insight into the social, economic, and

determined one’s experience in the United

socioeconomic climate of that time period.

States during the Great Depression. The

These insights also explain the racial and

experiences of the white population varied

gender issues that Black women in the

from the experiences of the Black

United States face today.

population. The experiences of men varied from the experiences of women. Location also played a huge part in people’s stories. The Depression influenced the North and the South in dissimilar ways

The Great Depression began when the

Seeing the despair and the desperation of

stock market prices on the New York Stock

the people, Congress decided to create

Exchange crashed on October 1929

and enact relief programs. These programs

(Nelson). The economic downfall of the

included the Civilian Conservation Corps

United States soon led to an international

(CCC), the Civil Works Administration, the

economic downfall. Industrialized

National Recovery Administration (NRA),

countries in Europe were suffering from

etc (Nelson). The history that is often

high unemployment rates, low American

presented displays the helpfulness of these

investments, etc (Nelson). However, back

relief resources to the American people as

home, the people of the United States

a whole. However, the cruel truth is that

were facing similar consequences.

not all groups of the American people

Unemployment was plaguing the nation.

benefited from these programs. Not all

Millions of Americans were jobless and

groups even experienced the same

searching for sources of food, work and

struggles during the Great Depression.

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shelter (Nelson).

UNIVERSAL PAIN, DIFFERENT SUFFERING    Although the consequences of the Great

As the Depression hit the nation,

Depression affected every group of

conditions for the Black population

Americans, the levels of impact varied

worsened. Due to racial discrimination,

throughout different race and gender

when a growing number of white workers

groups. African Americans faced more

started to lose their jobs, employers would

difficult hardships during this time period

fire their Black employees and replace

compared to the white population. There

them with white counterparts. Racial

were also social, economic, and

violence also became more prevalent in

socioeconomic disparities between men

the South (Library of Congress).

and women. The African American

   The Great Depression also had different

population in the United States was

effects between men and women.

struggling in many aspects prior to the

According to Black Women in America:

Great Depression.

Social Science Perspectives,

“The fifty year period from the closing decades of the nineteenth century to the advent of the Great Depression was a time of considerable change in the public and private roles of women and in the economic, social, and racial climate in the United States in general” (Malson, Mudimbe-Boyi, O’Barr, Wyer, 1990, p.161). Gender roles between men and women were changing. White women and Black women were also experiencing different difficulties. According to Daughters of the Great Depression, two million women in the Black community worked out of the total of eleven million women in the labor force (Hapke, 1997, p. 61). Unlike the domestic housewives, married African American women “worked five times as often as equally impoverished foreign-born wives” (Hapke, 1997, p. 61). Therefore, the unemployment crisis during the Depression had more of an effect on Black women than white women. As their husbands started to lose their jobs, white women started to compete for jobs in the labor market that were once only desirable to Black women. The employment opportunities were primarily domestic work or work in service industries ( Due to the racial discrimination that was overtly displayed at the time, employers would favor the white women ( Now, the two million Black women who acted as the wage earners in their families found themselves at the very bottom of the food chain.

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majority of white women who were

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GOVERNMENT RELIEF PROGRAMS AND TRADE UNIONS    As the Great Depression wore on, the

women would be unable to get the

people of the United States started to

employment assistance that they need.

become more desperate for financial

Other times women and African Americans

stability. The government began to create

were turned down from these work-relief

relief programs in hopes of lessening the

projects due to the rampant race and

struggles of the American people. Congress

gender discrimination that was prevalent

devised the Civilian Conservation Corps

during the Great Depression ((Malson,

(CCC). This program sought to “bring relief

Mudimbe-Boyi, O’Barr, Wyer, 1990, p. 288).

to young men between 18 and 25 years of

   In addition to government enacted

age” (Nelson). The CCC enrolled

programs, the workers themselves began

unemployed young men to participate in

to form trade unions and labor federations.

conservation projects across the country for

By organizing themselves, the workers had

$30 a month (Nelson). Many similar relief

a more efficient and effective method to

projects, like the Civilian Conservation

demand economic change. However, these

Corps, were enacted to help the working

unionization efforts also did not benefit

class. However, most of these projects were

every group of people. Once again, African

not entirely inclusive. The relief programs

American women were left out of the

often were targeted towards a specific

picture. There are a few reasons as to why

racial or gender group. Like with the CCC,

this was the case.

Firstly, Black women were

They also formed their own unions, “such as the Urban

employed in occupations, like

League’s Negro Workers Councils, Negro American Labor

domestic and non-household

Council, etc” (Malson, Mudimbe-Boyi, O’Barr, Wyer, 1990,

service, that were not likely to be

p. 288). Black women also supported Black men’s labor

unionized. Even if African

activism by “participating on picket lines, providing food

American women were employed

and clothing for strikers and their families” (Malson,

in large industrial workplaces, “they

Mudimbe-Boyi, O’Barr, Wyer, 1990, p. 289). Eventually, the

were segregated from white

social, economic, and socioeconomic reforms resulting

female workers, where the

from the Great Depression led African American women

organizing took place, and were

to join the Communist Party (Harris, 2009, p. 23). Many

often pawns in the labor-

Black women believed that joining the Communist Party

management contests” (Malson,

would be the equivalent of supporting the right causes.

Mudimbe-Boyi, O’Barr, Wyer, 1990, p. 288). Secondly, the white leaders of the trade unions made no effort to recruit African American women. If Black women wanted to join the cause, they were often denied membership because of racial discrimination (Malson, Mudimbe-Boyi, O’Barr, Wyer, 1990, p. 288). Thirdly, as mentioned before, Black women were often did not get to experience the benefits of federal work-relief programs. This means that a high number of African American women were unemployed or underemployed, so there would be no reason for them to unionize in the first place. All these reasons explain why Black women were untouched by union activism during the Great Depression (Malson, Mudimbe-Boyi, O’Barr,    Despite being excluded from major trade unions, African American women found ways to make their voices heard. They assembled their own caucuses in predominantly white unions. 

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Wyer, 1990, p. 288).

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BLACK WOMEN AND THE COMMUNIST PARTY    Many African American women were

of various movements during this time

drawn to the Communist Party because of

period. They argued that “the future

its “campaign against racism, inadequate

direction of Black leadership and protest

relief payments, and unemployment, as

called for new actors, political departures,

well as the communists’ commitment to

and the end of white patronage” (Harris,

uniting Black and white workers” (Harris,

2009, 25). Burroughs also gave insight into

2009, p. 24). Women like Williana

the failing education system in Harlem. As

Burroughs, a New York City schoolteacher

a teacher, she exposed the “terrible

and Harlem community leader, believed

conditions that existed in Harlem schools,

the actions of the communists to be

including the failure of the city to provide

“genuine” (Harris, 2009, p.24). Black women

free lunches to the children of the

in Harlem began to promote gender

unemployed” (Harris, 2009, p. 35). Her

equality and voice their viewpoints in

testimony was extremely unwanted by the

pages of leftist and communist

New York school system. Consequently,

newspapers such as the Harlem Liberator

Burroughs was fired from her job as a

(Harris, 2009, p. 25). Black women,

teacher for the New York City Board of

including Burroughs, powerfully utilized

Education. However, after her departure,

their words to condemn the Black leaders

she became the director for the Harlem Workers’ School (Harris, 2009, p. 35).

Louise Thompson Patterson was another

   Bonita Williams was a West Indian-

Black woman communist from Harlem

American and Harlem activist who influenced

who criticized Black leadership. Although

members of the Black community through

she developed professional and personal

poetry. Williams was a key member of the

relationships with influential Black activists,

League of Struggles for Negro Rights (LSNR), a

like Mary McLeod Bethune and W.E.B. Du

communist-sponsored group (Harris, 2009, p.

Bois, she believed that “the Negro masses

26). Many of the group’s active women

are learning that the race loyalty taught to

members were located in Harlem. These

them by their bourgeois leaders is but a

women assisted in “mobilizing Black residents

sham behind which these very leaders hold

around issues such as housing eviction, job

them back from the struggle” (Harris, 2009,

discrimination, and reduced relief allotments”

p. 29). Patterson felt that the disparity

(Harris, 2009, p. 26). Using the methods of the

between Black leadership and the rest of

major unions during the Great Depression,

the Black population during this economic

Black women in the LSNR organized “rallies

crisis hinders the Black community as a

and open-air meetings, picketed, and


coordinated mass demonstrations” (Harris, 2009, p. 26). Williams had her own unique way of communicating with the other members of the LSNR. She published poetry in the Harlem Liberator and would read her work during LSNR meetings in Harlem.  Her poetry encouraged African American men and women to unite and resist against racial and class oppression (Harris, 2009, p. 26). Bonita Williams not only motivated Black women to take action, she also led a successful

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campaign. The Great Depression interfered with many Black women’s position as a wage earner for their families. Without a steady income, Black women struggled to feed their family. On June 3rd, 1935, Williams led a protest consisting of working-class women over high meat prices in Harlem butcher shops. Black women “marched through the streets of Harlem demanding that butchers lower their prices by 25 percent” (Harris, 2009, p.27) and threatened to get violent if their concerns were not met. Williams and these women successfully persuaded store owners to lower the cost of meat by 25 percent.

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PRESENT DAY FEMINISM   The gender and racial inequalities

According to Harvard Business Review,

experienced by African American women

“assessments of subtle forms of racial

in Harlem, and other parts of the United

stereotypes and measures of unconscious

States, precede the gender and racial

bias have shown little change over time”

issues that Black women face in today’s

(Quillian, Pager, Midtboen, Hexel, 2017).

society. During the Great Depression, the

African American workers during the

African American population was no

Depression attempted to override the

stranger to racial discrimination in the

discrimination by organizing their own

work force. Race played a huge factor in

labor unions. With the prejudice that exists

the hiring process. White workers were

in the hiring process nowadays, many

hired before their African American

people advocate for affirmative action

counterparts. This type of discrimination

policies and for enforcement of

still occurs today.

antidiscrimination legislation (Quillian, Pager, Midtboen, Hexel, 2017).

During the major economic slump in the

or “the oppression and discrimination

1930s, there was also disparity between

resulting from the overlap of an individual’s

men and women. Many government

various social identities”

enacted work-relief programs did not apply

( The overlap in Black

to women. The labor unions organized by

women’s gender and racial identities led to

men rarely benefited women workers.

a plethora of social, economic, and

Women at this time started to call for

socioeconomic challenges. To overcome

gender equality. Nowadays it is commonly

those obstacles, African American women

known as feminism. Black women faced

organized themselves to form their own

unique challenges because they were both

unions and groups. Black women even

African American and women. As a result,

joined the Communist Party. They

they advocated for a combination of

expressed themselves through radical

gender and racial equality. Little did they

newspapers, like the Harlem Liberator, and

know they were introducing the American

by participating in protests and campaigns.

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society to intersectionality,

   Black women even joined the Communist Party. They expressed themselves through radical newspapers, like the Harlem Liberator, and by participating in protests and campaigns. Nowadays, intersectionality is still an issue that exists. Often times when white women are bringing awareness to the obstacles that women face and calling for equal rights between men and women, they forget to mention the obstacles that are distinct to Black women or other women of color. This type of activism is coined the term: white feminism. Even after all these years, Black women are still excluded from the conversation. However, just like decades ago, women in the Black community will not stay silent. By bringing awareness to this disconnect between Black women and their identities, people are starting to revise white feminism to be more inclusive.

Photo Courtesy:    The Great Depression transformed the social, economic, and socioeconomic climates of African American women in Harlem. The social climate of African American women in Harlem, and elsewhere in the United States, before the Great Depression was presented by the  gender roles. Black women were engaged in domestic tasks, whether it was for a wage or not. However, statistically, women in the Black community were more likely to take the position as the wage earner of the family compared to women in the white community. As the stock market collapsed and unemployment increased, there was a transformation in the gender roles. With African American men losing their jobs, Black families were even more reliant on the wages of the working woman.  

The economic climate of African American women in Harlem during the Great Depression was widely shared throughout the country. Black women faced an elevation of competition in the job market. The Depression caused white women to compete for the domestic, household jobs that were once only wanted by Black women. Although the Black community already faced economic hardships prior to the Great Depression, now both African American men and women were experiencing high unemployment rates.

Photo Courtesy: and

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   The pressure exerted on African American women from the social and economic difficulties of the Great Depression led to socioeconomic advancements. Although Black women were often untouched by union activism and by the benefits of federal work-relief programs, they organized into groups of their own. They participated in the formation of independent labor unions like the Urban League’s Negro Workers Councils, Negro American Labor Council, etc. Another way that African American women organized was by joining the Communist Party. The African American women members believed that the Communist Party held similar beliefs about the racial and gender inequalities that prevented Black women’s financial improvement during the Great Depression.

Many of the active African American

The diverse experiences of the American

members of the Communist Party were

people during the Great Depression can

located in Harlem. The experiences of

be separated into different categories:

Black women like Williana Burroughs,

race, gender, and location. The

Louise Thompson Patterson, and Bonita

experiences of women in the African

Williams in Harlem during the Great

American community during this time

Depression give insight into the ways

of economic failure in the 1930s revolved

that African American women found

around social, economic, and

empowerment. Black women would

socioeconomic hardships. Black women

find a method to have their voices heard

had to face unique challenges due to

through publishing poetry and other

the overlap of their identities as African

forms of literature in radical newspapers

Americans and as women. Nowadays,

like the Harlem Liberator. Others would

Black women and other women of color

lead or participate in protests and

are essentially advocating for the same

campaigns, like the one Bonita Williams

rights as women did back then during

led in response to drastically high meat

the Great Depression. Although the


financial panic of the Great Depression no longer exists, there still exists great inequality between white people and people of color and between men and women that needs to be addressed and fixed.

Works Cited Nelson, Cary. “The Depression in the U.S.--An Overview.” The Great Depression , Great Depression and World War II 1929 - 1945: Race Relations. Library of Congress, tations/timeline/depwwii/race/. "Women, Impact of the Great Depression on." Encyclopedia of the Great Depression. . 18 Apr. 2018<> . Ware, Susan. Women and the Great Depression. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, 20 Aug. 2012, Lashawn Harris, "Running with the Reds: African American Women and the Communist Party during the Great Depression," The Journal of African American History 94, no. 1 (Winter 2009): 21-43. Malson, Micheline R, et al. Black Women in America: Social Sciences Perspectives. University of Chicago Press, 1990. Hapke, Laura. Daughters of the Great Depression: Women, Work, and Fiction in the American 1930s. Univ Of Georgia Press, 1997.

Black women in harlem during the great depression (1)  
Black women in harlem during the great depression (1)