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America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Transportation in America before 1876 Community Dreams: Santa Cruz, California, 1876 Delivering the Goods: Watsonville, California, 1895 A Streetcar City: Washington, D.C., 1900 The Connected City: New York, New York, 1920s Crossing the Country: Somewhere in Wyoming, 1903 Americans Adopt the Auto Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927 The People's Highway: Route 66, 1930s-1940s Roadside Communities: Ring's Rest, Muirkirk, Maryland, 1930s Family Camping: York Beach, Maine, 1930s On the School Bus: Martinsburg, Indiana, 1939 Suburban Strip: Sandy Boulevard, Portland, Oregon, 1949 City and Suburb: Chicago and Park Forest, Illinois, 1950s On the Interstate: I-10, 1956-1990 Transforming the Waterfront: San Francisco and Oakland, California, 1960-1970 Going Global: Los Angeles Introduction H. Nelson Jackson: Immigrant, Migrant, Adventurer, Traveler Harry Bridges: Immigrant, Adventurer, Traveler Mary Johnson Sprow: Migrant, Commuter Fred and Maryann Knoche: Commuters, Errand Runners, Vacationers Juana Gallegos Valadez: Immigrant, Traveler
5: People on the Move

Mary Johnson Sprow: Migrant, Commuter

In 1898, at age 12, Mary Johnson, like many young rural southern African American women, was sent by her family to work in Washington, D.C., as a live-in domestic. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, thousands of African Americans migrated north, fleeing poverty and violence for the promise of economic opportunity and greater equality. While Johnson traveled north by train, others made the journey by bus, boat, or automobile.

For more on African American experiences, see the A Streetcar City: Washington, D.C., and Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina sections of this exhibition.

Mary Johnson
Mary Johnson
Johnson family house, Catalpha, Virginia
Johnson family house, Catalpha, Virginia

Out of the House

Like many other African American women in the rural South, Mary Johnson was “trained up” to domestic work out of necessity. Even as a young child in Catalpha, Virginia, Johnson had worked in white households to help support her large family and to learn the trade of domestic work. According to Johnson, “Your people all trained you to do service work. It was what they all knew you had to learn—period.”

“Then I Was Sent North to Work”

When Mary Johnson went north, her work didn’t change. After arriving in the city, she helped look after her brothers’ children and then became a live-in maid in three different households—including a senator’s house. As part of the household staff, she traveled with the family to their summer house. This photograph shows the staff at Senator John Spooner’s summer house, with Mary Johnson on the far left.

Working Out

In the 1920s, like many others, Mary Johnson became a day worker and moved into a boardinghouse with other young domestics. Traveling to work by foot, trolley, or bus, day workers enjoyed greater independence than live-in maids. They carried their maid’s uniform, a hated symbol of domination, in a “freedom bag.”

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