Jun 7, 2024 - News

Play shines spotlight on Atlanta washerwomen strike

Actors take part in rehearsal for "The Wash."

Actors take part in rehearsals for "The Wash." Photo: Casey Gardner Ford

A play inspired by the historic Atlanta washerwomen strike of 1881 is coming to a stage near you.

Driving the news: Production of "The Wash" starts Friday and runs through June 30 at Synchronicity Theatre in Midtown and July 11-28 at Impact Theatre at the Academy in Hapeville.

What they're saying: Kelundra Smith, the journalist and playwright behind the show, told Axios she started working on the script during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. It's set inside a laundry co-op, and follows the lives of the women who work together.

  • While the women are battling for better wages, Smith said they are also contending with hurdles in their personal lives.
  • "I just thought it was so amazing that in the 19th century, Black women and white women came together and went on strike for 90-plus days before the International Cotton Exposition came to town, and were demanding fair wages for themselves," Smith said.

Flashback: Twenty Black women convened in July 1881 at a church in Summerhill to form a union, which sparked a political movement in Atlanta history, Axios' Emma Hurt previously reported.

  • After trying to force a wage increase, the women — known as the Washing Society — organized and set pay at $1 per dozen pounds of wash.
  • Black ministers spread the word around town, women went door-to-door recruiting members, and the society elected officers and created subsidiary societies in different city wards.
  • Membership grew to 3,000 within weeks, including a small number of white women.

Threat level: As Atlanta was preparing for the much-anticipated International Cotton Exposition, the women called for a strike.

  • The strike got the attention of the white Atlanta establishment, as visitors coming to the city would need to have their items washed.
  • Some white residents tried to raise money for a commercial steam laundry machine to circumvent the women.
  • The society was even threatened with an annual $25 license tax by the City Council.
  • In a letter to Atlanta Mayor Jim English on Aug. 1, 1881, nearly 500 members countered that they would agree to the $25, but as a "protective fee" to ensure their self-regulation.
  • The council gave in, but it's unknown how many customers agreed to pay the higher fees.

What's next: Smith said 'The Wash" is part of a trilogy she's planning, with future productions focusing on a love story set after the Civil War and the 33 Black men who were elected to the Georgia General Assembly during the Reconstruction era.

The bottom line: Smith told Axios that while the play is set in the 19th century, "it feels very 21st century" because it explores unionization, workers' rights and women's personal struggles.

  • "People are going to fall in love with the characters," she said. "They're going to see their mothers, their cousins, their aunties, their grandmas in these characters."
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