BY DR. RACHEL CLEVES
NEW YORK IN 1905 WAS A CITY FULL OF WOMEN LIKE ESTHER, THE HEROINE OF LYNN NOTTAGE’S PLAY INTIMATE APPAREL. At the turn of the century, young single Black women, born in the U.S. South after the Civil War, pulled up stakes and travelled north by the thousands looking to escape violence, overwork, and closed horizons. Between 1890 and 1900, the city’s Black population doubled. Many of the women, like Esther, were illiterate and left behind only photographs as records of their lives, like Nottage’s own grandmother who inspired her play. It takes imagination to recapture their stories, but not as much imagination as it took for these young women to invent new lives and stories for themselves.
They arrived in New York by steamer, by train, and on foot. Some had family to stay with or had lined up domestic jobs in advance that came with room and board. Others had nowhere to stay. The unlucky were preyed upon by the hustlers who stalked the docks and train stations, looking for newcomers to recruit to the city’s sex trade. Doing battle with the procurers were do-gooders like Victoria Earle Matthews, who ran the White Rose Mission, a “Christian, nonsectarian Home for Colored Girls and Women.” Matthews and her volunteers waited at train platforms for new arrivals and invited them to stay at the Mission, where they received training as seamstresses, hatmakers, and cooks. From this safe landing place, the young women might secure lodgings in a respectable boarding house, like Esther finds in the home of Mrs. Dickinson.
Coming north might have saved migrants from the debt peonage of the Jim Crow South, but it didn’t free anyone from the burden of hard labour. Making ends meet as a single Black woman in turn of the century New York required constant toil. Most jobs were closed to Black workers. The majority of Black women worked as domestics. Even a skilled seamstress, like Esther, had to work nonstop to earn enough to pay rent. But Black women migrants refused to be limited to a life of labour. They came to New York for something more. The historian Saidiya Hartman writes that “at the turn of the twentieth century, young black women were in open rebellion.” They were chasing after love, pleasure, and excitement. “A small rented room was a laboratory for trying to live free in a world where freedom was thwarted.” Their intimate acts were acts of revolution.
Esther takes a risk on a man she doesn’t know, George, a Barbadian labourer who writes her letters from Panama, where he works on a crew digging a canal to cross the continent. Other women found lovers closer to home, not only men but other women and genderqueer folk as well. But if love was an act of resistance, it was not a panacea. Through such acts of rebellion as leaving home and taking lovers, Esther and her sisters imagined the modern world into being.
To learn more about Black women like Esther in turn-of-the-century New York, I recommend Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals (Norton, 2019).
Dr. Rachel Cleves
A historian and professor at the University of Victoria, Cleves is the author of three books, Unspeakable: A Life Beyond Sexual Morality (2020), Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America: Visions of Violence from Anti-Jacobinism to Antislavery (2009). Her research has been featured in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, salon.com and brainpickings.org. Her current project is titled “A Historian’s Guide to Food and Sex.”
She writes in a treehouse in Oak Bay, British Columbia.
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