Perhaps the most unsung and underappreciated laborers in America are the Black women domestic workers. They were (and are) often referred to as housekeepers or day workers in Detroit back in the day, as they were probably called in many cities across the nation. These women were up at the break of day and often returned home at sunset.
In 1968, the visionary Dorothy Lee Bolden and seven other women met with the purpose of discussing an organization to represent domestic workers in Atlanta. Such an idea was in Bolden’s wheelhouse, so to speak, since she had worked as a maid for nearly 40 years. She came to mind the other day on reading the list of activists and scholars who had been removed from the Advanced Placement curriculum in Florida by the College Board at the insistence of Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Bolden was mentioned directly—Darlene Clark Hine said it was from her book, “Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia,” which cited Bolden in an entry about the National Domestic Workers Union (NDWU). According to Hine’s profile of the organization, “The women continued to hold meetings at the Butler Street YMCA, and as the group[,] grew they moved to the Wheat Street Baptist Church.” Although Bolden had in earlier years sought advice from organized labor representatives in Atlanta, “the group decided not to affiliate with any existing labor organization but to create their own group, the National Domestic Workers Union.”
Born on Oct. 13, 1923, in Atlanta, Bolden was the daughter of Georgia Mae Patterson and Raymond Bolden. Her mother was a housekeeper, which may have played a vital role in Bolden’s later activism, and her father was a chauffeur. Early visual problems hampered her educational opportunities; a damaged optic nerve delayed her vision until she was nine. With her sight regained, she began working as a domestic, an occupation that would absorb much of her later life.
She obtained only minimal education because of the need to support herself. Later, as a teenager, she traveled to Chicago and attended a school for dress design. But once again, her poor eyesight made it difficult for her to continue this craft.
It was during her work experience at Sears and the National Linen Service when World War II raged that she recognized a need for unionization and a fight for labor rights. Fortuitously, she lived near Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who became an influential person in her life and inspired her activist impulse.
While King would be a guiding light for her involvement in the civil rights movement, Bolden had already expressed a concern to speak out against unfair labor practices as early as the late 1940s. Once when asked by an employer to stay late and do some dishes, Bolden refused. Her boss called the police and had her arrested and placed in the county jail for a psychiatric examination.
“They told me I was crazy,” Bolden recounted during an interview in 1993, “because I had talked back to a white woman[,] and called in psychiatrists to prove it.” She said the assumption was that any Black woman who refused the orders of a white woman must have been insane. “A white woman’s word was gospel,” she continued, “and two psychiatrists actually thought I was crazy…This was the way you got locked up…This was the system.”
King helped Bolden in her dream to build a union, and to expand her reach for potential members who were dissatisfied with 13-hour workdays at $3.50 an hour in the late 1960s. Eventually, she was able to gather 13,000 women from across the country and thereby helped to increase wages and working conditions. Soon she was deemed an icon in Atlanta and her leadership of the NDWU grew exponentially. (Much of the history of the union can be found in the Southern Labor Archives at Georgia State University.)
Bolden was instrumental in changing the working conditions of domestic workers, particularly in the increase of wages by 33 percent over two years. She also won workers’ compensation and Social Security rights for all domestic workers.
Along with her commitment to the union, she was active in registering thousands to vote. Her prominence gained a plateau when President Nixon appointed her to an advisory committee on social services and welfare.
Bolden married in 1941, but it ended in divorce. She later married Abram Thompson and they had six children together. She died in Atlanta on July 14, 2005.
“How can we honor Dorothy Lee Bolden and so many other Black women who have started desperately needed conversations in history?” Loftis Partners asked in 2021. “First, we can listen. Dorothy listened to her colleagues over and over again to learn about their lived experiences. Second, we can support Dorothy’s work. While the federal minimum wage lies in political debate, we can support cities and states that are making changes now…Finally, we can organize and advocate for living wages. If you work for a company, ask them how they calculate a living wage. If you give to a nonprofit, ask them if they pay their employees a living wage. People like Dorothy Lee Bolden have fought for some of the privileges we experience today. Let’s honor her.”