Race, Class and Prostitution in the City: Washington DC’s Black Madam- Odessa Madre


For @AlaiaWilliams for continuing to remind me to write this. Readers are a precious commodity.

In the essay “Working for Nothing but a Living” Dr. Sharon Harley describes the life of  Odessa Madre, a dark skinned Black woman who became a Madam in the 1940′s because as a high school graduate, who as dark skinned and described as “not attractive, but smart” by her peers, being a madam was one of the major options available for her to make decent money in Washington, DC in the 1940′s.

Born in 1907 her mother was a seamstress and her dad and uncle operated a Madre Brothers barber shop and a pool hall.

During the 1940′s Madre was estimated to have had controlled six prostitution houses, employed twenty women and garnered a net annual income of $100,000.

What is fascinating about this essay is that Harley shows how even though Madre was born in a working middle class family, and that she went to Dunbar, and when she graduated from high school her parents gave her a car, Madre felt that the main job open for African American women- being a teacher was not an option for her. So she chose to become a madam instead. To be clear, Madre was not a member of the Washington, DC elite. However Harley theorizes that Madre’s skin color and looks would have prevented her from joining if she desired.

Color, race, class and the politics of the city are all at work here.

Harley describes Madre saying,

Odessa Madre was a prominent figure in mid twentieth century black Washington, D.C., underground economy. As a graduate of Washington’s elite Dunbar Senior High School, she could have found employment in the legal labor economy or lived comfortably due to her parents financial success….For good reason she recognized that the few professional and clerical jobs available to educated black women  were more likley to be filled by  light skinned, so called attractive women or to have a predominance of such women.

Skin color and earning power is central to my research. Recently I have been looking at the erotic capital of strippers. By erotic capital I mean the ways in which skin color and body size translates into higher earning power for women.  I am really interested in the erotic capital of video vixens and waitresses.

While erotic capital isn’t at work with the Madre’s own personal narrative. Harley does touch on it she writes about Ceclia Scott, a black businesswoman who operated a bar on U street next to the Howard theater. According to Scott,

 Attractive light skinned young women…were good for business because her patrons who spent freely on liquor and tipped handsomely, preferred such women. Indeed some of her friends approached her about hiring their daughters because as she stated she “paid a decent wage and because of the type of clientele we attracted- doctors and big time hustlers who paid large tips. Besides they knew we would take care of their daughters.

So parents sought out Scott, because their daughters, working as waitresses and barmaids would be compensated for their work. #Interested.

The line between legitimate and illegitimate business practices is being blurred here as well. Harley writes,

It is a story of how certain resourceful, ambitious, and courage Black women with limited legal economic opportunities resorted to criminal activities to earn a living for themselves and support kin and Black institutions- goals which they shared with their law-abiding neighborhoods and family members.

Another aspect of this narrative that I found interesting is how race relations between Madre and her young white male peers played a role in he ability work as a madam.

Madre was raised in neighborhood off  of Georgia Ave which was mixed with Irish folks on one side of the street and African Americans on the other.  The young Irish boys who were Madre’s playmates as a little girl went on to become members of the Metro Police Department, and they “proved invaluable to Madre’s eventual rise to the top of the underground hierarchy.”

Madre died penniless in 1983, having been in and out of jail for drug dealing and possession. African American’s in DC, remembering how Madre had historically shared with low income and impoverished families and children in DC- collected the money to bury her.

Did you know of Madre?

What do you think of the idea of a woman madam? Does it seem more insidious than a man who is a pimp?

Skin color limiting employment options? What do you think? Have your Aunts or Grandmother’s ever talked about how their skin tone shaped their job options?

She needs a documentary, doesn’t she?

Comments

  1. msdailey says:

    This a post I’ve waiting for since you 1st mentioned her. I’ve never heard her story before, I would def watch a documentary about her life.

    I find it very interesting about Scott and the families that wanted the women to work for her, I assume b/c they felt the women would be in a secure and safe working environment.

  2. As a 4th generation DC native (and fellow Dunbar HS alumna), I’ve never heard of Madam Odessa Madre. I’m sure if I asked around in my family or some of the older Black people that are still in the neighborhood, I could probably hear a few stories. I’d love to watch a documentary about her life.

    I’m pro-sex worker. I think a person should be able to do as they please w/their body, including profit.
    In the case of women sex workers, I am much more comfortable with the idea of them working under the supervision and protection of another woman, a madam, versus a pimp given the hetero-patriarchal framework of American culture in particular. Women tend to be more caring and considerate of each other and generally, situations of intimate work (like the child/family care and domestic work that I do), we tend to work better together. I can’t imagine this being much different.

  3. Wow, I had never heard of Odessa Madre, I would love to watch a documentary about her.

  4. I’d never heard of Madre, but my mother was born and raised in DC so I’ll have to remember to ask her if she’d ever heard of her.

    It depends on the madam, of course (I’m sure that there are women who can be just as cruel and controlling as pimps), but I think that a sex worker would be much more likely to find a better situation working for a madam.

    I really haven’t heard or read much about how skin tone can limit option, I’d like to learn more about it. I know people who do organizing work around the theory that in every country on Earth the poorest people are also the darkest people.

    She most assuredly needs a documentary, if not a TV mini-series.

  5. Yes I think she needs a documentary about her life and I’m sure people will watch that.