In 1918, a group of black women banded together against Pine Bluff city officials to increase their meager wages and succeeded against all odds.
Cotton picking, Pulaski County, Arkansas
Image Credit: Library of Congress
In 1918, cotton prices had tripled to at least $3.00 per one hundred pounds picked by World War I. Nevertheless, black women in Jefferson Country cotton fields were still being paid the same $1.00 per one hundred pounds of picked cotton they had received five years before. With black men off fighting in the war, these women were the city’s main source of cotton laborers during the war years. Armed with the knowledge of their worth, these women demanded higher wages but were harshly dismissed by white planters. Determined not to accept these low wages, the black women of the Delta proved extremely resourceful. These women received a monthly allotment from the federal government because of their husbands’ military service during the war. These allotments would not cease until their husbands returned home from the war. After looking over their household budgets, the women realized it would be better to stay at home and survive on these military checks than to work in the cotton fields for such low wages.
Suddenly, the white planters had almost no one to pick all the cotton they were growing. With their money withering in the cotton fields, the white planters were furious. They decided to enlist the help of local politicians and business leaders to get these women back into line. Their first tactic was launching an attack on the character of these brave black women. In a press conference, the Pine Bluff mayor, Simon Blum, called them “Plantation Negresses”, who discredited their race through their laziness. The deputy sheriff then arrested 13 innocent black women (all of whom happened to be cotton laborers) for “prostitution”, though he couldn’t provide a single shred of evidence.
These tactics proved unsuccessful in forcing black women back into the fields, so the Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution stating that these black women violated the federal government’s “work or fight” rule. This industry-specific policy ensured that laborers couldn’t just quit jobs necessary to the war effort and the production of war equipment. The Chamber petitioned the U.S. Secretary of War to grant them the authority to arrest and imprison the black women who refused to work in the cotton fields. They claimed that since soldiers’ uniforms were made of cotton, these women were endangering the troops.
Conversely, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) decided to make a case for these black women by gathering evidence to send their own petition to the Secretary of War. So, they sent Walter White, a young black staffer, who could pass as white to investigate the situation. White conducted interviews and recorded his observations as he documented the threats, intimidation, and coercion attempts that these black women in Pine Bluff endured because of their stance. White blended in so inconspicuously that the local white population never caught wind of his effort, and he was able to return to the NAACP headquarters without incident. Once there, they compiled an extensive report and sent their findings to the U.S. Secretary of War.
That April, the U.S. Secretary of War determined that the refusal of these black women to work in the fields was not related to “work or fight” war statutes but was a local Pine Bluff labor dispute based on low wages and poor working conditions. They even lectured Pine Bluff officials about the need for planters to increase wages, so they could compete with other local industries that paid more. Consequently, they determined that the city of Pine Bluff had no grounds to imprison these women based on federal statutes. The Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce was forced to withdraw its petition, and white planters were forced to raise the wages of their cotton laborers. The mayor and other city officials also grudgingly stopped their intimidation tactics. This legal victory set a precedent for many other cases in which white southern officials tried unsuccessfully to use federal statutes against black sharecroppers and workers for the benefit of white landowners.
Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard