Have you ever heard of the Bronx Slave Market? During the Great Depression, many people faced unemployment, foreclosure, hunger and hardship. If you were African-American, you faced the added trauma of having to deal with racism on top of economic hardship. If you were an African-American woman you had to deal with racism, economic hardship and sexism. For some African-American women, the Bronx slave market was a last resort.
Some of the most notable areas of the Bronx slave market include, the areas of Jerome avenue and Simpson avenue in New York city’s Bronx. It was a predominately, white, upper-middle class area, that also had a sizable, middle-class, Jewish population.
Before the Great Depression, many African-American women had worked as full time domestics or worked in the industrial field, such as factories or assembly lines. Others had maintained a stay-at-home life with their husbands. When the Great Depression hit, many sought out day work in the Bronx where they would wait for wealthy, white women to hire them for a few hours or maybe a day to work. They made on average between 15- 30 cents an hour.
Every morning between 8am and 1pm, rain, snow or shine, poor, displaced African-American women stood on the two corners and waited to work for meager pay. Sometimes, a dishonest client would neglect to pay the African-American women or pay them less than what they bargained for. Some clients even set back the hours on the clocks so that the African-American domestic workers had to work longer hours for less pay. The kinder clients would pay a fair price, pay for the African-American women’s carfare and allow them to have a lunch break.
Sometimes, African-American women who were literally starving were willing to take any amount of pay just to get work and a possible meal for a day. These women who were willing to work longs hours for meager and unfair pay created competition and animosity between the other African-American women who demanded the minimum wage and adequate pay necessary for their labor.
What Kinds of Work Did the African-American Women Domestics Do?
Washing windows, waxing the floors on hands and knees, doing laundry, doing dishes, washing baby linens, sweeping floors and cleaning bathrooms.
The area in the Bronx had a sizable Jewish community, so often during the Jewish Holidays, more African-American women were hired for the extra help needed. In addition to cleaning duties, some of the African-American women who worked for orthodox Jewish families had to adhere to Kosher customs and be mindful when cleaning the dishes to use a different dish cloth for each dish that they washed.
The “Other Kind of Work?”
Cleaning wasn’t the only kind of the work that some of the African-American women on the Bronx Slave Market did. Sometimes, when well-to-do housewives didn’t come by, husbands and other men did come by. This brand of customer usually wasn’t there to pick up women for cleaning, but instead picked up women for sexual services. Under the radar, many white men had sexual liaisons with the women.
How African-American Women Created a Mini-Union on the Bronx Slave Market:
Eventually, to earn fair wages, the African-American women on the Bronx slave market started a mini-union where every African-American woman who wanted to work from the corner, was required to accept no pay less than 20 cents an hour and 35 cents an hour during the Christmas and various Jewish Holidays due to the higher demand for labor and extra work they had to put in.
African-American women who stood on the corners faced not only economic hardship but faced the possibility of abuse at the hands of corrupt customers. The Bronx slave market was not an ideal situation for many African-American women, but it was a last resort in a very desperate and discriminatory time.