Dorothy Bolden and the National Domestic Workers Union of America: How one woman’s experience led her to better the experiences of many (by Thea Barovick)

OVERVIEW:

The topic of this lesson is going to be Dorothy Bolden and the National Domestic Workers Union of America. Bolden was an African American woman born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, who began domestic work at age nine. In 1968, she founded the National Domestic Workers Union of America, which served the Atlanta female domestic worker community in several ways. The lesson will focus on the implicit and explicit benefits of Bolden’s NDWU. Students will learn about services and events that the NDWU provided, such as Maids Honor Day and the Homemaking Skills program, as well as other benefits that came from the union, such as a support network and a sisterhood. Students will also learn about the impact the NDWU had on the outside world, such as raising the local minimum wage and increasing local election turnout by requiring all union members to be registered to vote.

The lesson will also emphasize how and why stories like Bolden’s are oftentimes overlooked in standard history curriculums. Unfortunately, Bolden is not the only woman of color whose contributions to American history have not been justly acknowledged. For example, the document included in the lesson titled “The Civil Rights Movement Overview” states that Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. instantaneously sparked the entire Montgomery Bus Boycott, and therefore the entire Civil Rights Movement, the moment Parks refused to give up her seat. This narrative ignores the significant contribution of many women of color: Claudette Colvin was a high schooler who was arrested for not giving up her seat months before Parks was, and much of the boycott organizing was done in advance by Jo Ann Gibson Robinson and the Women’s Political Council.

Overall, students will come away from this lesson with a better understanding of how a working class black woman, who had no high school diploma and no formal organizing experience, was able to unite her fellow domestic workers and create meaningful changes with lasting impacts that were felt both within and beyond the NDWU. By analyzing primary sources and secondary sources from both Bolden’s time and today, students will recognize how impactful NDWU was back then, and how its legacy has continued.

QUESTIONS

  • Why did the National Domestic Workers Union of America (NDWU) need to be created?
  • How did the work of the NDWU extend beyond the scope of a traditional workers union?
  • How did the work and the impact of the NDWU affect people beyond its membership?
  • How does the work of the NDWU continue to be relevant today?

ESSENTIAL UNDERSTANDING:

Students will understand why and how Dorothy Bolden created the National Domestic Workers Union, and the impact her actions had back then as well as the impact they have today.

STANDARDS:

History-Social Science Content Standard for Grade Eleven

  • 11.11: Students analyze the major social problems and domestic policy issues in contemporary American society.
  • 11.10: Students analyze the development of federal civil rights and voting rights.

Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12

Key Ideas and Details:

  • Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
  • Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
  • Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.

Craft and Structure:

  • Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

  • Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

GLOSSARY:

Workers Union: An organization of workers formed to improve members’ wages, benefits, and working conditions.

Domestic Worker: A person who works in another person’s home, performing tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and caring for children.

INTRODUCTION:

I’m sure you’ve learned in school about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who fought for the civil rights of African Americans in the south in the 1960’s. I’m certain you’ve learned in school about Rosa Parks, the outspoken African American woman whose refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus sparked a boycott and a movement that worked toward desegregating the south. These well-known figures are often attributed to leading the Civil Rights Movement toward victory, yet they did not do it alone. The voices and actions of many are sometimes, unfortunately, forgotten, when an entire generation of organizing and protesting is condensed into an hour-long lesson plan, or a couple of paragraphs in a textbook. This week, you will be zooming in on an important, yet overlooked, figure in the fight for equal rights for African Americans. Her name is Dorothy Bolden, and she was a maid.

Having worked in domestic service since the age of nine, Dorothy witnessed firsthand the kinds of injustices that were faced by African American women who worked in white homes, cooking their meals, doing their laundry, cleaning their bathrooms, and raising their children. At the time, white families could hardly have functioned if it weren’t for the immense contribution of time and labor put in by their “help.” African American domestic workers did so much, yet were given so little in return. Many had low wages and poor working conditions. They had households and families of their own to take care of. On top of all that, many, like Dorothy, didn’t have an education, and therefore had very few options when it came to wanting a different career.

Dorothy Bolden knew something had to change. She asked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for his help, but he encouraged her to organize on her own. And so she did. Dorothy founded the National Domestic Workers Union of America, designed to help its members lead more meaningful and more just lives as domestic workers. The NDWU also benefited its members far beyond the traditional scope of a workers union, with worked that extended to helping employers, helping the local community, and changing local laws.

Domestic workers felt the positive impact of the National Domestic Workers Union, as did the local community. The NDWU was far more than a traditional workers union, as it not only improved working conditions, but also created a tight-knit sisterhood that felt the union’s impact in a spiritual and emotional way. This week, you will learn all about how one woman’s work transformed and benefitted an entire trade, and continues to have an impact on domestic workers today.

MATERIALS:

The Civil Rights Movement Overview

The Help Movie Trailer

Dorothy Bolden, Organizer of Domestic Workers

Overlooked No More

Excerpted Statistical Example of Domestic Workers in the City of Atlanta

NDWU and The War on Poverty

Power, Intimacy, and Contestation

NDWU Flyer

Out of the Shadows

Maids Honor Day Photo

Maids Honor Day Letters

Dorothy Bolden Oral History Interview

ACTIVITIES:

DAY 1: Introduction to Dorothy Bolden

  • In preparation for this lesson, have students read “The Civil Rights Movement Overview” the night before DAY 1.
  • Ask students, “What do you know about the Civil Rights movement?” and allow students to call out their answers, for about a minute or so.
  • Ask students, “Who led the Civil Rights Movement?” (You’ll probably get answers like MLK or Rosa Parks).
  • Ask students, “What kinds of jobs did black people have in the south during this time?” Hopefully someone will give an answer such as “maid” which will serve as a transition to the focus of the lesson.
  • Watch trailer of The Help, a fictional movie about black domestic workers in the south.
  • Then distribute and read “Dorothy Bolden, organizer of domestic workers.”
  • In smaller groups, have the class compare and contrast the fictional world of The Help to the actual world that Dorothy Bolden lived in.
  • The goal of DAY 1 is to have students realize that we are often presented male leaders (i.e. MLK) or white saviors (i.e. non-racist southern whites) in the history and the media surrounding the Civil Rights Movement, and how critical work such as Dorothy Bolden’s is left out of textbooks and educational materials.
  • HOMEWORK for students: read “Overlooked No More,” a New York Times obituary of Bolden. Do a little digging on the NYT “overlooked” project and think about why Dorothy Bolden might have been “overlooked.”

DAY 2: Introduction to NDWU

  • Break off into small groups to discuss “Overlooked No More” and why Dorothy Bolden might have been initially “overlooked.”
  • Distribute copies of “Excerpted statistical example of domestic workers in the city of Atlanta” and allow students about 10 minutes to read through.
  • Ask students to break into small groups to highlight what data stood out to them. Then turn this into a class discussion where the main stand-out pieces of information are written on the board.
  • Discuss as a class what conclusions can be drawn from this data (specifically from the ‘attitudinal profile’– do we think these answers are 100% truthful or did those surveyed fear the repercussions of telling the truth?) .
  • Read pages 203-205 in “NDWU and The War on Poverty” (stop at Maid’s Honor Day) to learn more about the services provided by the NDWU.
  • Connect what was gathered from the primary source to the information learned in the secondary source. Which of the needs of black domestic workers in Atlanta were filled by services described in the journal article?
  • HOMEWORK: read “Power, Intimacy and Contestation” for another historical perspective on the NDWU.

DAY 3: NDWU and Beyond

  • Distribute “‘NDWU Flyer” and have students talk in small groups about how the NDWU saw itself and how it was marketed to the outside world.
  • Read pages 205-208 in “NDWU and The War on Poverty” as a class.
  • Discuss the services, training, and advocacy provided by the NDWU. How did these reach beyond the typical definition of a workers union?
  • Also discuss: Bolden required all NDWU members to register to vote, and worked to increase the minimum wage. How did this benefit those outside the NDWU membership?
  • Celebrating Maids Honor Day: project the “Maids Honor Day photo” at the front of the class, and break the class into four groups, distributing to each group one of the “Maids Honor Day letters” to read and later share about to the class.
  • Discuss as a class: What was the purpose of Maids Honor Day? How did Maids Honor Day change the relationship and dynamic between black domestic workers and their white employers?
  • HOMEWORK: Have the class read “Out of the Shadows.”

DAY 4: Back to Today

  • The last day of the lesson is meant to tie what we’ve learned about Dorothy Bolden and the NDWU to today, and the continuing struggle for domestic worker rights, using “Out of the Shadows” as your guide
  • Spend most of class time comparing and contrasting the struggle in Bolden’s time and the work done by the NDWU to the struggle today and the work being done today. How has domestic work evolved in the past 50 years? How far have we come? How far do we have to go?
  • To end our lesson, have students listen to the brief audio clip from the Dorothy Bolden Oral History Interview, starting at 1:50:52 (“If you could stand in front of a room full of young people…”)

ADDITIONAL SOURCES:

“National Domestic Workers Union (U.S.) Records.” Georgia State University Library.http://digitalcollections.library.gsu.edu/cdm/landingpage/collection/ndwu

“National Domestic Workers Alliance.” https://www.domesticworkers.org/

Laura Bassett. “Georgia Domestic Workers Mobilize for Stacey Abrams in the Birthplace of their Movement.” The Huffington Post. October 31, 2018. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/stacey-abrams-georgia-domestic-workers_n_5bd8a9cbe4b0da7bfc14a210

Eileen Boris and Premilla Nadasen. “DOMESTIC WORKERS ORGANIZE!” The Journal of Labor and Society, vol. 11, (2008).

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