8 Black Women Labor Leaders You Should Know

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This blog originally appeared on the U.S. Dept. of Labor blog on Jan. 17, 2024.

Black women have been on the forefront of the fight for labor rights for decades, helping improve conditions for all of America’s workers.

Historically excluded from many good jobs, they’ve performed much of the essential but difficult work underpinning our economy without the protections afforded to other workers. For example, the Social Security Act of 1935 initially excluded domestic workers — the majority of whom were Black women.

While there are countless women who have organized and advocated for better working conditions, here are a few you should know.

1. Dorothy Bolden

Photo: President Carter presents a Maids Day Proclamation to Dorothy Bolden in 1970. Source: U.S. DOL, citing Georgia State University.
Photo: President Carter presents a Maids Day Proclamation to Dorothy Bolden in 1970. Source: U.S. DOL, citing Georgia State University.

Dorothy Bolden began helping her mother with domestic work at age 9. She was proud of her work but also knew how grueling it could be, and wanted domestic workers to be seen and respected as part of the labor force. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., her next-door neighbor, encouraged her to take action. In 1968 she founded the National Domestic Workers Union, helping organize these workers on a scale never seen before in the U.S. The union taught workers how to bargain for higher wages, vacation time and more. She also required that all members register to vote, helping give workers’ both a stronger voice on the job and in Georgia policy.

2. Nannie Helen Burroughs

Nannie Helen Burroughs was a suffragist, educator and organizer, as well as a mentor to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who worked to integrate labor reform into the movement for voting rights. She launched the National Association of Wage Earners in 1921, a labor union for Black domestic workers. Burroughs also established the National Trade School for Women and Girls to combat labor exploitation through education, helping improve working conditions and expand career pathways for Black women.

Nannie Helen Burroughs (center) and other women at the National Training School in Washington, D.C. Source: Library of Congress.
Photo: Nannie Helen Burroughs (center) and other women at the National Training School in Washington, D.C. Source: U.S. DOL, citing Library of Congress.
Photo: Melnea Cass receives an honorary degree at Northeastern University's 1969 commencement. Source: U.S. DOL, citing Northeastern University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections Department.

3. Melnea Cass

Known as the “First Lady of Roxbury,” community organizer and activist Melnea Cass helped provide social services, professional training and labor rights education that empowered Boston’s most vulnerable workers. One of many examples is a program she co-created that provided childcare for working mothers. Her advocacy also helped achieve a major legislative victory: In 1970, Massachusetts passed the nation’s first state-level minimum wage protections for domestic workers since the Great Depression.

Photo: Melnea Cass receives an honorary degree at Northeastern University’s 1969 commencement. Source: U.S. DOL, citing Northeastern University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections Department.

Photo: A portrait photo of Clara Day. Source: U.S. DOL, citing Teamsters
Photo: A portrait photo of Clara Day. Source: U.S. DOL, citing Teamsters

4. Clara Day

As one of 11 children – including three sets of twins – Clara Day took naturally to collective action and coalition building. As an information clerk at Montgomery Wards, she resented the segregation of white and black employees, which led her to push for change. Clara Day first began organizing co-workers at Montgomery Ward in 1953 and went on to hold several roles in the Teamsters Local 743. She also helped found the Coalition of Labor Union Women and the Teamsters National Black Caucus. A passionate advocate for labor, civil and women’s rights, she helped bring attention to issues like pay equity and sexual harassment.

Photo: From left: A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Anna Arnold Hedgeman plan the route for the March on Washington. Source: U.S. DOL, citing New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress).

5. Anna Arnold Hedgeman

A civil rights activist, educator and writer who helped organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Anna Arnold Hedgeman was a lifelong advocate for equal opportunity and employment. She persuaded the organizers to include economic issues in the demonstration (the “Jobs” part) in addition to civil rights. The only woman on the event’s administrative committee, she also fought to ensure women were included women in the day’s program.

Photo: From left: A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Anna Arnold Hedgeman plan the route for the March on Washington. Source: U.S. DOL, citing New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress).

Photo: The women in this photo are domestic workers hoping to be hired for a day’s work, as captured by Robert McNeill for Fortune magazine. Source: U.S. DOL, citing Robert McNeill, Make A Wish (Bronx Slave Market, 170th Street, New York), 1938, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

6. Dora Lee Jones

Dora Lee Jones helped found the Domestic Workers Union in Harlem in 1934 in defiance of New York City’s “slave markets,” as they were known. With few employment options during the Depression, Black women would gather daily in the morning at certain locations and wait for white middle-class women to hire them, typically for terrible wages. The union called for a minimum wage, overtime, two weeks’ notice for termination – and no window washing. (Workers were regularly asked to perform the dangerous task of cleaning the outside of upper-floor apartment windows.) The DWU eventually affiliated with the predecessor to today’s Service Employees International Union.

Photo: The women in this photo are domestic workers hoping to be hired for a day’s work, as captured by Robert McNeill for Fortune magazine. Source: U.S. DOL, citing Robert McNeill, Make A Wish (Bronx Slave Market, 170th Street, New York), 1938, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Photo: Source: U.S. DOL, citing ILGWU Photographs #5780, P. Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library.

7. Maida Springer Kemp

Maida Springer Kemp worked as a labor organizer in the garment industry and became the first Black woman to represent the U.S. labor movement overseas in 1945 when she visited post-war Britain on a labor exchange trip. She went on to spend many years liaising between American and African labor leaders as a member of the AFL-CIO, affectionately known as “Mama Maida” for her work. Throughout her life she advocated for civil rights and women’s rights in America and internationally.

Photo: Source: U.S. DOL, citing ILGWU Photographs #5780, P. Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library.

Photo: Rosina Tucker (right) with Helena Wilson and A. Phillip Randolph. Source: U.S. DOL, citing Dellums (Cottrell Laurence) Papers, African American Museum and Library, Oakland Public Library, California.

8. Rosina Corrothers Tucker

Rosina Corrothers Tucker helped establish the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters — the nation’s first predominantly Black labor union — and its International Ladies’ Auxiliary Order. The BSCP became the first Black union recognized by the AFL-CIO in 1935. She also organized workers in the laundry trades and domestic service industries, fought for racial and economic justice as part of the March on Washington movement, and lobbied Congress for labor and education reforms.

Photo: Rosina Tucker (right) with Helena Wilson and A. Phillip Randolph. Source: U.S. DOL, citing Dellums (Cottrell Laurence) Papers, African American Museum and Library, Oakland Public Library, California.

These leaders improved working conditions, wages and rights for America’s workers, often at great personal cost. We honor them by continuing the fight for a fair and just workplace for all.

Editor’s note: Want to learn more? Read about these labor leaders and pioneers: Mary McLeod BethuneHattie CantyFannie Lou HamerDorothy HeightMaggie Lena Walker and Addie Wyatt.

Workplace Fairness advocates for diverse workspaces. Learn about employment laws on discrimination here.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.