The Help

Zaneta J Smith
Sep 2 · 3 min read

Labor Day is upon us and I am thankful for a day to slow down.

I can’t help but think of both my black grandmothers who were domesticated workers at some point in their lives. I remember my mother picking my paternal grandmother up from her employer’s house on multiple occasions. She must have talked about us frequently because her employer often sent CD’s (remember those?) and trinkets with her to give to us. My grandmother was from Tennessee and as far as I know had no formal higher education. She did not talk about her past so I am unclear if she even had a high school diploma. I wonder what went through her head as she cleaned other people’s houses? Unfortunately, I’ll never know. She died in 2005.

Black people have been cleaning houses since we came to this country. Depending upon our class status, some of us may have been cleaning houses in parts of Africa too but I’ll stick to the United States history lesson.

The “house slaves” had domestic duties around the slave master’s house performing tasks such as cooking, cleaning, caring for the house and the children. House duties had its “own set of demands, hazards, and perks regarding not only labor, but also the quality of food, clothing, and shelter received” (Thirteen/WNET, 2004).

Once black people were technically freed by law, they engaged in work where they still seemed enslaved. Jobs like sharecropping and working as sailors where they continually faced large amounts of discrimination did not seem like a level up.

In California, a guy named Col. Allen Allensworth noticed similar struggles for black people. Issues like the fact that CA needed more black school principals however, the challenge was getting hired. To solve the matter, he sought to create an all-Black community where Black people could see their potential through their work. The community also sought to be a safe haven for Black soldiers returning to civil society. The community would provide the opportunity for soldiers to be provided with a home, a support system, and acknowledgement of their service (HistoryNet, 2019).

Allensworth made the dream a reality and it was a success marked in various newspapers including the LA Times which stated the community as “an ideal Negro Settlement” (HistoryNet, 2019). Black people tended to their lots, houses, the local general stores and a post office. Occupations of community members included, “farmers, storekeepers, carpenters, nurses” (HistoryNet, 2019) generating approximately $5,000 monthly from business dealings (California African American Museum).

While the community declined because of discrimination along with the sudden death of Allensworth after being struck by a motorcyle, its existence suggests the power of labor.

I am thankful to those who came before me who worked, suffered discrimination, and fought for changes so I could indulge in the labor holiday. I am aware of my social and cultural responsibility as well as the possibilities of what concentrated labor toward a mission can accomplish.

Zaneta J Smith

Written by

Coordinates operations of an African American civic engagement & public opinion research organization, the California Policy & Research Initiative. calpri.org

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