Dorothy Height and The Great Depression

28 Mar

Dorothy Height, an activist for civil rights as well as women’s rights, was celebrated on Google’s front page on what would have been her 102nd birthday. Height’s name is not as well-known as some other figures that were prominent in the civil rights movement, but she was one of the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington and co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus with Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.

Height was interviewed for the Blackside series, The Great Depression, and spoke about her early life as an activist in New York and her work with the organizer and politician, Adam Powell, and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Her interview is part of the newly digitized collection, The Great Depression Interviews, where researchers can watch and read the entire transcript of the interviews conducted for the series. In her interview, Height described how she worked to fight what she described as a slave market, a system of labor where people from the suburbs of New York would drive in and pick out domestic workers from a street corner. This was an exploitative system where workers would work long hours for very little pay and no benefits or any way to negotiate or improve their working conditions. Height said,

What had happened was that as more and more women came from the South, and they were in need of work, and they didn’t have references, and they didn’t have jobs, what developed what was called the Bronx Slave Market. And that meant that the women went to certain corners, and employers would come, and just as in slavery, they would look and choose the one that looked the strongest or the healthiest, take that person home with them to get their work done, and then sometimes they would turn the clock back. I got into this because at the Harlem YWCA so many girls and women, coming from the South especially, came to us with these stories of desperation, how it was they went home with the women at eight o’clock in the morning and they left their house at midnight, and she turned back the clock and said to them it was only six o’ clock, and they didn’t know until they got out into the streets. And she would only pay them what she wanted. And then, if she went to the police, they would, this woman would say, “I don’t even know this girl. She tried to get into my house,” so that we had young teenagers as well as older women who were just desperately looking for work. One time, I went before the city council, because we were protesting this. We had a small committee that was trying to see what could be done. And I’ll never forget saying to them that it was called, that it was known as the Bronx Slave Market. And the Bronx councilman didn’t want to hear that, and he said, “Well, how could you call it that?” I said, “Well, it’s not only in the Bronx, it’s in Brooklyn, too.” It was all over the city. Desperate domestic workers were simply being exploited.

Interview with Dorothy Height , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on February 25, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

The entire transcript is available, as well as the video above. More information on the project can be found here.





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