A Revolution Comes Home

How wage relations evolved after emancipation compelled slave owners to pay the domestic workers they had once enslaved.

Winslow Homer's 1876 "A Visit from the Old Mistress" depicts a tense meeting between a group of newly freed slaves and their former slaveholder.
Winslow Homer’s 1876 A Visit from the Old Mistress depicts a tense meeting between a group of newly freed slaves and their former slaveholder.

Smithsonian Museum of American Art

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Adapted from Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household by Thavolia Glymph. Published by Cambridge University Press.

The assumption of freedom by domestic slaves shook white households in the spring of 1865 and into the fall, winter, and spring of 1866, cutting to the quick of southern fantasies of devoted domestic servants. For the first time in their lives, elite women performed household tasks formerly delegated to enslaved women. For the first time, they entered the marketplace as employers of free labor—of washers, cooks, cleaning maids, and nurses. Nothing had prepared them for these roles.

In the last month of her pregnancy, this realization hit Lizzie Roper as she began making preparations to hire a nurse, something she would not have had to worry about before the war. Roper called on a friend for help in securing the services of Mary Jones, a black woman known to be an experienced nurse. Matters she would have previously taken for granted, she now had to consider. Would Jones be available at the time she expected to give birth? If so, how much would she charge? Roper could no longer assume the availability of a slave woman to help her. Nor did she any longer have the option of ignoring market considerations. Forced to become an employer of free labor, Roper, unsurprisingly, objected to the entire process. It was “provoking to be dependent upon these miserable free negroes,” she wrote.1

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Under Dutch colonial rule, historian Ann Laura Stoler argues, “domestic and familial intimacies were critical political sites in themselves where racial affiliations were worked out.”2 This was also true in the American South. Former mistresses understood that the making of free black homes threatened the reconstruction of white homes as privileged social, political, and economic spaces. They also saw the destruction of the white home as the destruction of the black one as well. From their perspective, the two were one and the same. The black family was an invention, their own, and it existed at their will.3 Independent of white will and direction, it would cease to exist, and former slaveholders stood ready to lay the blame for that expected outcome at the feet of black women.

In freedom, the self-will that black women had demonstrated while enslaved had room to blossom. In slavery, black women and mistresses argued and fought over the terms under which enslaved women labored and white women supervised them. Once free, black women who had labored in planters’ homes—like slaves who labored in the South’s cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco fields—drew on a long tradition of struggle and negotiation. In some ways, the particularity of the struggle within the plantation household gave former household slaves an advantage over field hands in postwar negotiations and over their former mistresses as well. Masters and overseers kept records—how much labor to an acre of rice, how much time to a task of hoeing, et cetera—that made them better equipped to navigate in the free labor economy. Mistresses had no such paper trail to guide them in marking labor to time. Because they had done the actual work, freedwomen had the advantage of knowing, or being able to better estimate, how much time it took to perform a particular task.

What constituted a day’s labor or a fair wage for nurses, cooks, or washers? How much time had they actually spent malingering or in other ways undermining the system’s capacity to exploit them? In answering, black women brought their own sense of the value of their labor based on their experience as slaves. Washerwomen and ironers who as slaves had insisted that it took a day’s labor to perform a certain amount of work, might as free workers calculate their time differently. Time marked as a slave was not the same as time marked as a free worker. Former mistresses learned how little they knew about slaves’ time. They learned they were far less well equipped to make such calculations, and it was a shocking revelation.

In freedom, black women fought to maintain the separation of tasks that had characterized prewar forms of domestic labor. Cooks hired to cook and washers to wash rebuffed attempts to turn them into all-purpose servants, to put “something more” on the table than had been agreed to. Cooks whose work took no more than two to three hours a day refused to perform additional work when they had completed the work they had been contracted to do. This attitude left former mistresses perplexed and angry.4 Testifying before the Senate Committee on Labor and Capital in 1883, a number of white witnesses held that former slaves could not be trusted to honor a contract, and that the South’s labor problems stemmed from that supposed fact. When it was the turn of the Rev. E. P. Holmes to testify, he rejected that reasoning and quite bluntly: “An employer hires a colored person to cook. Now, when I am hired to cook I want to cook. I don’t want to go and clean up the house and do a lot of other things … ”5

Former mistresses resisted this understanding of wage relations. Meanwhile, domestic servants pushed for personal autonomy, improved working conditions, and a voice in determining the terms of their work. They fought off efforts to increase individual workloads amidst a dwindling domestic labor supply. They worked to establish, formalize, and regularize standard rates of pay, and demanded formal written contracts.6 Turning to the judicial system, they sued former mistresses for unpaid wages, a step that one observer branded “a most unwarrantable procedure.”7

Over time black women workers organized and systematized this struggle. They built support groups—informal and formal combinations—in defense of their freedom and the associated right to refuse to work for abusive or miserly employers. White women employers labeled these organizations subversive, and declared them a contributing factor in the shortage of domestic labor. As Mrs. George Ward told the Senate Committee, “there is a society organized among them to look after and provide for the wants of those who are out of a job,” organizations with “funny” names that made black women “perfectly independent and relieves them from all fear of being discharged, because when they are discharged they go right straight to some of these ‘sisters.’ ” She mentioned the Immaculate Doves, the Sisteren, and the Beloved Disciples.

Black women also adopted less formal designs against the symbolic and material standing of white homes. Gossip did important work. As one white woman employer admitted, “one of the chief grievances of white ladies since the war has been the way in which house servants who leave them and hire to others gossip about them or slander them to their new employers.”8 Gossip about white women’s character as human beings circulated far and wide and gave black women seeking employment critical information. Freedom gave black women the right to move around, and that new mobility enabled them to carry such information further abroad than before.9

Bargaining with free black women was different from bargaining with slave women. Just as importantly, it felt different. Even when a mistress gave in to the refusal of a slave cook to making beds, she could still keep calm in the knowledge that the woman remained her slave. Not so, however, if the same woman made the same refusal after slavery was over. “It seems humiliating,” Eliza Andrews wrote, “to be compelled to bargain and haggle with our own former servants about wages.”10 But her only alternative was to do the work herself.

In the early 20th century, employers of domestic labor sought to arrest black women’s mobility by creating such organizations as the Domestic Efficiency Association. Members agreed to only hire women who could give evidence of having given a week’s notice to their previous employer, to require “a full reference.” They were encouraged not to “tempt” servants from each other by, for example, offering higher wages. They were also instructed on how to handle the problem of gossip.11

But in spite of employers’ resistance, the regularization of rates for the various components of domestic work began to take shape. Left with only one elderly servant in her home by October 1865, Elizabeth Porcher was forced to put out her washing. She discovered that not only would she have to pay the market rate of $1.25 for six dozen pieces, but that she would be responsible for supplying the wood, soap, and starch. Porcher was appalled at what she considered an excessively high rate, but the option of doing the laundry herself was even more unattractive.12

Black people, no matter their gender, fought efforts to re-establish white supremacy. They fought individually and collectively, as families and as communities, and the efforts of black men and women were joined. In the arrangements former masters and mistresses hoped for in the postwar world, the subjugation of black women—as workers and as women—was as important as the defeat of black men’s political rights. In leaving white homes and in demanding reduced hours and a reorganization of household work, black women accomplished part of the interconnected work of claiming their freedom and, in consequence, reconstructing notions of southern womanhood.

Adapted from Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household by Thavolia Glymph. © Thavolia Glymph 2008, published by Cambridge University Press, reproduced with permission.

1. Lizzie Roperto Mrs. Mordecai, August 21, 1865, Cameron Papers, SHC. Thenurse Lizzie Roper sought to hire was clearly neither “miserable” nor in desperate need of employment. See A.K.C. [Annie K. Collins] to Aunt Milly [Mildred C. Cameron], August 14, 1865, Cameron Papers, SHC. 

2. Ann Laura Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), p. 310. 

3. Herbert G. Gutman dismantled this notion in scholarly circles over a quarter of a century ago. See Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925 (New York: Pantheon, 1976). New work in the field, however, has challenged Gutman’s thesis, questioning the extent to which black families in slavery were able to surmount the barriers slavery erected in building and sustaining strong family relationships. 

4. See, for example, the Testimony of Mr. Frederick A. Eustis before the American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission [ June 1863], LR, ser. 12, RG 94, in Ira Berlin, Thavolia Glymph, Steven Miller, Joseph P. Reidy, Leslie S. Roland, and Julie Saville, eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867, ser. 1, vol. 3, The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Lower South (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 246 and 248.

5. Testimony of Rev. E.P. Holmes, Senate Committee Report, IV: 609. 

6. On contracts, see, forexample, Mary Jones to Charles C. Jones, Jr., August 18, 1865, in Children of Pride, ed. Myers, p. 1291; Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), p. 136; Daniel E. Sutherland, “A Special Kind of Problem: The Response of Household Slaves and Their Masters to Freedom,” Southern Studies 20 (Summer 1981): 158–162.

7. Charles C. Jones, Jr. to Mary Jones, July 28, 1865, in Children of Pride, ed. Myers, p.1284.

8. South Carolinian, “South Carolina Society,” The Atlantic Monthly 39 (June 1877): 675. On gossip and workingclass women’s culture, see Melanie Tebbutt, “Women’s Talk? Gossip and ‘Women’s Words’ in Working Class Communities, 1880–1939,” in Workers’ Worlds: Cultures and Communities in Manchester and Salford, 1880–1939, ed. Andrew Davies and Steven Field- ing (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1992), pp. 49–73. White women employers tried to combat the problem of gossip through organizations established to find solutions to the “servant question” generally. The Domestic Efficiency Association movement served this purpose. On the Domestic Efficiency Association and kindred organizations, see the Epilogue. 

9. White women did not object, however, when black women gossiped to them about the lives of black people. (See, for example, Eliza Frances Andrews, The War-Time Journal of a Georgia Girl, 18641865, ed. Spencer Bidwell King, Jr. [Macon, GA: Ardivan Press, 1966], p. 320). For two excellent examinations of the power of gossip and the work it does in making homes witnessed, see Carolyn Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987), and Elizabeth Madox Roberts, The Time of Man (1926; reprint, New York: Viking Press, 1963), pp. 150–51. See also the Introduction and Chapter 7. 

10. Andrews, War-Time Journal of a Georgia Girl, p. 319. 

11. This now common process has important roots in domestic labor. Important precursors to the system that evolved in the United States were the networks of patronage and recommendations used by Englishwomen at least as early as the eighteenth century.

12. Elizabeth P. Porcherto Hattie [Harriet R. Palmer], October 25, 1865, in World Turned Upside Down, ed. Towles, p. 488.