Previously published in Examiner
Part 3 of The Forgotten Women of the Great Depression series
African American Women Could not Find work during the Depression in America, later on we will see that the could not find work in Montreal either.
According to Kathy McMahon, Psy.D, it was almost impossible for African American single women to find any work in America. McMahon, states that even middle class African American women were reduced to working for whatever they could get. She states there were what was called “slave market” street corners where the African American women would wait on these corners for wealthier white women to come by and pick and choose which African American domestic they wanted for the lowest bid they could get away with. Once hired the domestic was on call 24 hours a day and was subject to anything that her employer expected of her.
All women had to adapt to the work that was available, namely, waitressing, domestic work, and factory work especially in the garment sweatshops.
African American women as entrepreneurs
It was during this time that an interesting occupation originated serviced mainly for African American women. African American women became beauticians and hairdressers. The occupation of hairdressing and barbering was a protective African American occupation because white hairdressers and barbers did not know how to cut, treat, and style African American people’s hair. These African American women became self-employed to be able to make a living and thus started a new working model known in that time as “survivalist entrepreneurs.”
Furthermore, beyond the beauty aspect, it was stressed by African American organizations that newly African American newcomers from the South would have to groom themselves appropriately if they expected to find jobs in the North. They would have to have their hair styled and have clean nails and clothes and they were not to wear head coverings known as “head rags” or “dust caps.” African American women expecting any white collar jobs such as secretarial had to be light skinned and have their hair straightened. Incredible as it sounds for the poor economic times, because of the necessity to find decent work, these beauticians and hairdressers had a thriving business.
Concordia University University has a wonderful women’s studies program for Montrealers