Unraveling Workers’ Letters: The Voices behind Nelly Don

On Pins and Needles: A Segregated Work Force

The Donnelly Garment Company (DGC) was no exception to the racial discrimination and segregation that was pervasive in the U.S. in the first half of the twentieth century.  Only janitorial jobs at the DGC were available to Black men and women. Though the white women who worked as seamstresses were effusive in their praise of the clean, safe working conditions at the DGC, there is no evidence they challenged the injustices experienced by their Black coworkers. Indeed, the segregation of the workforce may have contributed to some white workers’ perceptions that DGC was an ideal workplace community.

Maids & Janitors, Letters, page one

Letter by Maids & Janitors at Donnelly Garment Company

Despite their limited job opportunities at the DGC, the Black workers did write a letter in1937 that reverberates with many of the same themes and sentiments found in the letters penned by the white workers. The two-page  letter acknowledges that the DGC offers “a good salary” and “favorable working conditions.” And the letter praises Nell Donnelly Reed as a kind and generous employer; “Long live Nelly Don” is the final sentiment expressed in the epistle.  The only collaboratively-written text among the more than 700 letters, there are twelve names—janitors and maids--listed as comprising “The Colored Force.”