Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

When Black Women Worked from Home

November 1, 2023
Mattox Family Home in Greenfield Village, 1991

Mattox Family Home in Greenfield Village, 1991. / THF250591 

Starting in the Reconstruction Era, multiple generations of the Mattox family would live in the Mattox Family Home, a farmhouse located in Bryan County, Georgia. At a time and place when African American land ownership was rare, the Mattox family was able to farm their own land into the 1930s when the family was led by Amos and Grace Mattox. Grace Mattox’s story gives us a unique glimpse into what labor looks like for an African American woman and her family just one generation removed from slavery.

To be an African American woman working in agriculture, to tend a crop or to look after livestock was not new — the labor of entire African American families was used for generations by plantation owners looking to get wealthy from cash crops. Looking at Grace Mattox’s life, we can see what farming looked like without that layer of economic exploitation. What did farming mean for an African-American family that owned their own land instead of sharecropping? Or who farmed to put food on the table rather than to turn a profit? What changes when the person doing the farming gets to benefit from their own labor?

These were questions that followed African American women in post-Civil War society. Enslaved women who were used to working in fields right alongside their fathers, brothers and husbands would often have to tend small allotment gardens near their cabins to supplement meals, balancing farming food for survival with farming a cash crop for their enslavers. Once freed, many preferred to withdraw their labor and focus on just their homes and families, frustrating both southern plantation owners and northern Freedman’s Bureau agents alike. The Freedman’s Bureau was a federal government agency meant to provide social welfare for newly freed people, but it was often tasked with facilitating a transition to freed African American labor as the new status quo. An 1866 complaint from a planter about African American women’s labor stated: “Their husbands are at work while they are as nearly idle as it is possible for them to be, pretending to spin-knit or something that really amounts to nothing.” The planter then asked if African American women could be compelled to work through the new vagrancy laws that made being unemployed a criminal offense.

The “idleness” he refers to was already a myth — housekeeping was its own form of labor, one that kept African American women employed as domestic help in homes throughout the North and the South — but it does expose the double standard in play over this claim to African American women’s time and energy. The Victorian ideal was female domesticity and typically would’ve celebrated a woman occupied with feminine pursuits in the home, but this did not apply to these newly freed women. The institution of slavery limited African American women’s value to what their labor could do for the economy.

While many African American women still found themselves drawn back to agricultural labor as sharecroppers or contract farmers, at its most ideal, freedom meant the freedom to decide where and when they used their labor and who would benefit. As a subsistence farmer in the 1920s and 1930s, Grace Mattox’s life reflected gains made post-slavery and this new freedom. She worked with her family, for her family, on family-owned land. Their farm required the whole family to pitch in- father, mother and children- and with Amos Mattox’s heart troubles, it would have required even more effort from the family to do their parts. But it was her husband, her farm, her livestock and her crops. Between farmwork and housework, Grace was never idle, but she could — and would — get up to her own “spin-knitting or something” by crocheting and quilting too!

Mattox Family Home in Greenfield Village, September 2007

Mattox Family Home in Greenfield Village, September 2007. / Photographed by Michelle Andonian. / THF53418 

Sage Sampson is supervisor of living and inspiring history at Greenfield Village.