The struggle for labor rights in the United States has been a long and arduous journey, defined by the relentless fight of dedicated activists and organizers. Despite facing the double jeopardy of gender bias and racial discrimination, Black women set the pace.
The women who are on the frontlines today, holding our nation to greater standards of accountability and equality, are backed by the abolitionist movement. As a nation, it’s past due we shed light on the untold stories and remarkable contributions of 5 fearless, unsung women who have been instrumental in advancing workers’ rights in America!
Lucy Parsons: Firebrand And Union Co-Founder
Born into slavery in Virginia in 1851, Lucy Parsons became a fearless advocate for labor rights. Alongside her husband, Albert Parsons, she co-founded the International Working People’s Association (IWPA) in Chicago-a significant organization in the labor movement.
She even organized Chicago’s May Day parade in 1886, demanding reform. She led an 80,000 group of working men and women to petition for better working conditions! Lucy’s radicalism knew no bounds, and her dedication to workers’ rights led her to fight for an eight-hour workday.
Sylvia Woods: Young Protester Turned Union Activist
Unable to enjoy the beautiful park she and her siblings walked through each day to get to school, Sylvia Woods realized her Blackness defied whites-only spaces. At the age of 10, Sylvia responded by remaining silent during the “Star Spangled Banner,” protesting what she knew to be a lack of equality. Sylvia reminds us that many of the youngest members of our community possess the greatest courage.
Later in her life, she led protests during the Depression era, organizing laundry workers at her job. While working at Bendix Aviation during World War II, she led the local United Auto Workers union. Her groundbreaking resolution prohibiting discrimination based on sex marked a significant step forward in the fight for workplace equality.
Nannie Helen Burroughs: Suffragist And Organizer
Nannie Helen Burroughs was a multifaceted activist who left an indelible mark on the labor movement. In 1921, she organized the National Association of Wage Earners (NAWE), explicitly speaking to the experience of Black women’s labor dilemma.
Burroughs was a suffragist and a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. She aimed to insert labor reform into the broader conversations around voting rights. Appointed by President Hoover to chair the Committee on Negro Housing in 1931, Burroughs documented systemic inequalities that plagued Black communities.
Dora Lee Jones: Champion Of Domestic Workers
In 1934, Dora Lee Jones played a pivotal role in establishing the Domestic Workers Union in Harlem, an organization developed to end the exploitation of Black domestic workers who were vulnerable to abuse and low wages.
Their efforts led to the union’s association with the American Federation of Labor and helped secure minimum wage and other benefits for domestic workers. Dora embarked on erasing domestic slavery and changed the course of labor rights!
Coretta Scott King: Beyond A Label
While Coretta Scott King is often remembered as the wife of Martin Luther King Jr., her legacy stretches much further. She symbolizes the countless Black women who tirelessly led the Civil Rights and Labor Movement while remaining in the shadow of their male counterparts. Coretta’s passion for unionizing hospital workers, recognizing their underpaid and arduous labor, resonates with the ongoing fight for fair wages today.
Her statement, “the Black working woman is perhaps the most discriminated against of all of the working women” echoes into today’s battles for defending Black women. Her dedication led to the establishment of the King Center and the eventual recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday.
In spite of their accomplishments, Black women often are lost to the shadows of history. In sharing their stories, we imbue their names with power. Just as their legacies enrich our perspective, we are guided by their tried and true methods for advocacy and activism.
These five women are amongst an unending list from history that demonstrates the sheer power of our #Queens and the potential for our future leaders. Their collective efforts have forever left a lasting mark on history, defining efforts to improve working conditions, fair wages, and dignity in the workplace. #BankBlack