African American Lives
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African American Women at Work

For African American women who were part of the Great Migration, domestic service proved to be the major occupation and source of income. In the North, exclusionary hiring practices in the service industries -- nursing, sales, secretarial and restaurant work -- limited employment options, especially for African American women, who might have expected to find such jobs. Industry was hungry enough for manpower that some black men could find work in factories, but black women could not follow suit.

As domestic workers, African American women faced physically taxing, difficult working conditions for little pay; many women were also subjected to sexual harassment by their employers and long hours of drudgery that required separation from their own families and friends. But domestic workers' wages, small as they might have been, were essential contributions to African Americans' households in the North and to larger familial networks that extended to their Southern and rural homes.

Some leaders, such as Nannie Helen Burroughs, sought to train black women in domestic work at her National Training School for Girls in Washington D.C. where the curriculum steeped students in the importance of the "3 Bs": Bible, Bath, and Broom. Others, like local chapters of the National Urban League, organized clubs and associations to help recent arrivals get acclimated to northern communities. While their schedules demanded long periods of separation from their children, African American women who lived out prized their ability to maintain daily contact with their children, friends, and families. Black women who were employed as domestic workers, joined churches, fraternal organizations, social clubs, and mutual benefit societies.

Dr. Ben Carson's mother, Sonya Copeland, shared the experiences of many African American women who found work as domestic workers in the urban North during the Great Migration. Dr. Carson's mother left Georgia and moved to rural Tennessee where she met Robert Carson. Like many other African Americans, they eventually migrated from Tennessee to Detroit where he worked in a factory. After their breakup, she worked long hours sometimes from 5:00 am to 11:00 pm -- as a domestic. Sonya Copeland, who attended school only through the 3rd grade, emphasized the importance of education for her children. Despite her own illiteracy, she devised elaborate reading pantomimes to impress upon her sons the importance of reading. Although separated from her children while she worked in other peoples' homes, Dr. Carson recalled how she left detailed instructions for them to complete in her absence before she returned. She also maintained relations with her siblings who left their rural home in Georgia for other cities across the Midwest and South.
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