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."

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Atlanta.

More Atlanta stories