Thursday, January 17, 2013

Black Women Face Barriers to Clerical Training & Jobs in 20th Century Washington, D.C.

Barbershop near urban hub at 14th  & U Sts., N.W.
Part 4 in a series commemorating the birth of Dr. King and the second inauguration of President Obama on January 21. 

Many African-Americans living in the District of Columbia today can trace their roots to the inception of the Nation’s Capital in 1791. By 1800, the majority were slaves until 1830 when most were freed. 

During the Civil War and Reconstruction (1865-1877), more than 25,000 African-Americans converged on the Nation’s Capital, many looking for federal jobs. Families gradually moved into the Caucasian neighborhood surrounding 14th & U Streets, N.W., and by the dawn of the 20th century the U Street corridor had become a vibrant urban hub for African-Americans with construction of a streetcar system making it convenient for government employees to travel to work. 

It was an exciting time in the nation's capital with completion of Union Station in 1907, presentation of a gift of cherry blossoms for the Tidal Basin by the people of Tokyo in 1912 and dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922.

Still, clerical jobs remained almost exclusively the domain of men, with African-Americans subject to segregationist policies. Although streetcars and public libraries were integrated, public schools, restaurants, movie theaters and other recreation facilities were not. When Woodrow Wilson became President in 1913, he implemented segregationist policies at the U.S. Post Office Department which resulted in the demotion, and even termination, of many African-American workers. Employees in the Post Office Department and the Department of Treasury were forced to do their duties in screened-off working spaces, and to use separate lunchrooms and toilets.

World War I opened the doors for women of all races when men were drafted and forced to leave their jobs. Responding to a national recruitment campaign, “For Girls Must Work That Men May Fight” women traveled from all corners of the country to assume Civil Service jobs previously held by men. 

Those gains were lost after the war when men returned to their Civil Service jobs, creating a glut of unemployed women who were released from federal service. 

“We are swamped with inquiries from these women in regard to new government opportunities and we cannot begin to place them all, very few in fact, it is still a great puzzle what to do with them,” said Mrs. Helen Gardner, who was appointed the first woman Civil Service commissioner. “The majority are from small towns and from families in moderate circumstances. Their only experience previous to government service was in helping with the family housework and the family sewing. Now, with the clerical market overcrowded, they have no other field to which they may turn.” 

On June 4, 1919 Congress passed the 19th amendment guaranteeing all American women the right to vote, and on August 18, 1920 it was ratified. 

Also in 1920, Dr. Richard T. Ely, a former economics professor of President Woodrow Wilson’s, opened the new Washington School for Secretaries to provide these women, and men, with business training to keep pace with the modern office. 

Washington’s segregationist policies left many African-American women out in the cold.

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