Tenement Museum Collections

Communipaw’s “The Washerwoman”


On June 17, 1852, James McCune Smith – the first Black doctor in the United States – published his essay, “Heads of the Colored People – No. 3: The Washerwoman” in Frederick Douglass’ Paper, a publication run by the formerly enslaved writer and abolitionist. It was part of a series of essays that highlighted the lives of working class Black New Yorkers that argued both explicitly and implicitly that all forms of labor are respectable and meaningful.


“The Washerwoman” essay holds particular significance for the Tenement Museum.

A vivid and powerful portrait, it was one of the few resources our researchers found that described Black tenement life from the perspective of a Black author rather than from an account published in a white-authored newspaper. It was the first source we could find that portrayed these tenement apartments as homes for the people who lived in them.

McCune Smith wrote of the change in the apartment from Saturday, when the woman’s work overtakes the space, to Sunday, when she has transformed the apartment for her one day of rest. His sensory descriptions of the home and details about the woman’s life inspired us when recreating the home of Joseph and Rachel Moore, the latter of whom worked washing clothes before she married Joseph.

Read Dr. McCune Smith’s essay below. If you’ve been on our A Union of Hope: 1869 tour, see if you notice any details that popped up in our recreation of the Moore apartment! You can also check out our Virtual Visit, where Tenement Museum staff take an up-close look at key collection objects in the family’s recreated home.

Communipaw (James McCune Smith) to Frederick Douglass, June 17, 1852, published in Frederick Douglass’ Paper

Heads of the Colored People.—No. 3.


Saturday night! Dunk! goes the smoothing iron, then a swift gliding sound as it passes smoothly over starched bosom and collar, and wrist-bands, of one of the many dozen shirts that hang round the room on horses, chairs, lines and every other thing capable of being hanged on. Dunk! dunk! goes the iron, sadly, wearily, but steadily, as if the very heart of toil were throbbing its penultimate beats! Dunk! dunk! and that small and delicately formed hand and wrist swell up with knotted muscles and bursting veins! And the eye and brow, chiseled out for stern resolve and high thought, the one now dull and haggard, and the other, seamed and blistered with deep furrows and great drops of sweat wrung out by over toil.

The apartment is small, hot as an oven, the air in it thick and misty with the steam rising from the ironing tables in the corners, under the tables, and in all out-of-the-way places, are stowed tubs of various sizes, some empty, some full of clothes soaking for next-week’s labor. On the walls hang pictures of old Pappy Thompson, or Brother Paul, or Sammy Cornish: in one corner of the room, a newly varnished mahogany table is partly filled with books—Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Watts’ Hymns, the Life of Christ, and a nice ‘greasy novel’ just in from the circulating library: between the windows stand an old bureau, the big drawer of which is the larder, containing sundry slices of cold meat, second handed toast, ‘with butter on it,’ and the carcass of a turkey, the return cargo of a basket of clothes sent downtown that morning. But even this food is untasted; for, the Sabbath approaches, and the old Zion, and the vivid doses of hell fire ready to be showered from the pulpit, on all who ‘do labor’ (saving the parson, who does pound the reading board in a style which, to the unsanctified, looks like hard work) on the Day of Rest. Dunk! dunk!! goes the smoothing iron, the frame of the washerwoman bends again to her task, her mind is “far away” in the sunny South, with her sisters and their children who toil as hard but without any pay! And she fancies the smiles which will gladden their faces, when receiving the things she sent them in a box by the last Georgetown packet. Dunk! dunk!! dunk!!! goes the iron, this time right swift and cheerily, shot away and back, under thy smile, Oh Freedom! No Prie Dieu, in reverential corner, no crucifix and lugubrious beads pendent from the sidewall, no outward and visible sign, but the great impulse of progressive humanity has touched her heart as with flame, and her tried muscles forget all weariness, the iron flies as a weaver’s shuttle, shirts appear and disappear with rapidity from the heated blanket and at a quarter to twelve, the groaning table is cleared, and the poor washerwoman sink upon her knees in prayer for them, that they also may soon partake of that freedom which, however toilsome, is yet so sweet.

Once lighted up, the imagination ranges over the possibilities of their enfranchisement. Each one of her three sisters had been brought North with the white family, and went back, for their children’s sake, into bondage. She alone had remained North, from her girlhood, as a slave, until one day, when she had reached woman’s years, her so-called master, with much bustle, with whip in hand, had called her upstairs for punishment. The scene was short and decisive the tall, stout man had raised his arm to strike—”see here!” fiercely exclaimed the frail being before him, “if you dare touch me with that lash, I will tear you to pieces!” The whipper, whipped, dropt his uplifted arm, and quietly slunk downstairs. There had been unseen by either of them, a silent witness of the scene, who, looking through a glass door, ready to stay the arm of his uncle, had felt a terrible fear, and a terrible triumph.

Yes! well, I had forgotten to say, that, alongside the ironing table, was a good-for-nothing looking quarter grown, bushy-headed boy, a shade or two lighter than his mother, so intent upon “Aladdin; or, the Wonderful Lamp,” that he had to be called three or four times before he sprang to put fresh wood on the fire, or light another candle, or bring a pail of water. A boy there, but no evidence around the room, that he called any one father, nor had he, ever, except the unseen, universal “our Father, which art in Heaven.” A sort of social Pariah, he had come into the world, after the fashion which so stirs up Ethiop’s pious honor. And yet, genial, forgiving Nature, with a healthy forgetfulness of priests and the rituals, had stamped this boy’s face with no lineament particularly hideous, nor yet remarkable, except a ‘laughing devil’ in his eye that seemed ready to “face the devil” without Burn’s prophylactic.

Sunday evening! Can it be the same apartment? No sign of toil is there; everything tidy, neat and clean; all the signs of the hard week’s work stowed away in drawers or in the cellar. The washerwoman dressed up in neat, even expensive, garments; and her boy with his Sunday go-to-meetin’s on, one of the pockets stuffed with sixpence worth of ‘pieces,’ (candy,) which he had made Stuart the Confectioner (corner of Chamber and Greenwich, father of the present millionaires) rouse up, at day light, and sell him, as he came back from carrying home clothes, that morning.

But I must break off this sketch halfway, lest Ethiop should tire wading through it….