The Bronx Slave Market
Ella Baker, the great socialist and civil rights organizer, was born this day in 1903. Here's her classic 1935 article on economic exploitation and black domestic workers in Great Depression–era New York.
The Bronx Slave Market! What is it? Who are its dealers? Who are its victims? What are its causes? How far does its stench spread? What forces are at work to counteract it?
Any corner in the congested sections of New York City’s Bronx is fertile soil for mushroom “slave marts.” The two where the traffic is heaviest and the bidding is highest are located at 167th street and Jerome Avenue and at Simpson and Westchester avenues.
Symbolic of the more humane slave block is the Jerome Avenue “market.” There, on benches surrounding a green square, the victims wait, grateful, at least, for some place to sit. In direct contrast is the Simpson Avenue “mart,” where they pose wearily against buildings and lampposts, or scuttle about in an attempt to retrieve discarded boxes upon which to rest.
Again, the Simpson Avenue block exudes the stench of the slave market at its worst. Not only is human labor bartered and sold for slave wage, but human love also is a marketable commodity. But whether it is labor, or love that is sold, economic necessity compels the sale. As early as 8 AM they come; as late as 1 PM they remain.
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. If not the wives themselves, maybe their husbands, their sons, or their brothers, under the subterfuge of work, offer worldly wise girls higher bids for their time.
Who are these women? What brings them here? Why do they stay? In the boom days before the onslaught of the Depression in 1929, many of these women who are now forced to bargain for a day’s work on street corners, were employed in grand homes in the rich Eighties, or in wealthier homes in Long Island and Westchester, at more than adequate wages. Some are former marginal industrial workers, forced by the slack in industry to seek other means of sustenance. In many instances there had been no necessity for work at all. But whatever their standing prior to the Depression, none sought employment where they now seek it. They come to the Bronx, not because of what it promises, but largely in desperation.
Paradoxically, the crash of 1929 brought to the domestic labor market a new employer class. The lower-middle-class housewife, who, having dreamed of the luxury of a maid, found opportunity staring her in the face in the form of Negro women pressed to the wall by poverty, starvation, and discrimination.
Where once color was the “gilt edged” security for obtaining domestic and personal service jobs, here, even, Negro women found themselves being displaced by whites. Hours of futile waiting in employment agencies, the fee that must be paid despite the lack of income, fraudulent agencies that sprung up during the Depression, all forced the day worker to fend for herself or try the dubious and circuitous road to public relief.
As inadequate as emergency relief has been, it has proved somewhat of a boon to many of these women, for with its advent, actual starvation is no longer their ever-present slave driver and they have been able to demand twenty-five and even thirty cents an hour as against the old fifteen and twenty cent rate. In an effort to supplement the inadequate relief received, many seek this open market.
And what a market! She who is fortunate enough to please Mrs Simon Legree’s scrutinizing eye is led away to perform hours of multifarious household drudgeries. Under a rigid watch, she is 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.
Fortunate, indeed, is she who gets the full hourly rate promised. Often, her day’s slavery is rewarded with a single dollar bill or whatever her unscrupulous employer pleases to pay. More often, the clock is set back for an hour or more. Too often she is sent away without any pay at all.