|Cheering a speaker in a Montgomery|
bus boycott church meeting. From Life
magazine, February 6, 1956.
David W. Jackson III, Charletta Sudduth, and I (one the descendant of Louisiana slave owners, the others the descendants of slaves) have written a book based on interviews with former housekeepers, caretakers, and cooks and members of the white families they worked for, The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim CrowSouth (Louisiana State University Press, 2012).
What was segregation like for black families in rural Mississippi and Louisiana? What was the daily life of a maid? And how do the women who benefited from the social norms of white supremacy explain their complicity with those norms today? These are among the questions that we set out to explore.
From dozens of tape recordings of women who recalled their experiences working for white families, we obtained rich details about maid/mistress relationships and other facets of a society built on principles of white supremacy. Each story fits a general pattern, yet each is unique. We are told by Ruthie O’Neal from Taylor, Mississippi, of her shock on discovering that she was referred to behind her back as “Darky.” Annie Victoria Johnson of Ripley, Mississippi, tells us about wet-nursing practices in the 1930s. We learn from white narrator Milner Smith of Birmingham, Alabama, that she was addressed as Miss Milner even as a small child. Our oldest white storyteller, Elise Talmage, recalls that maids were forced to go under the house (which was raised high off the ground) as the family’s bathroom was off-limits for them.
History comes alive in these accounts—the brutal realities of sharecropping and the cheating of blacks that was commonplace; the sexual vulnerability of the servants and the threat of mob violence faced by their menfolk; the enduring friendships that sometimes formed across racial lines.
Our goal, like that of the black narrators, is to preserve the unique history of southern oppression so that future generations will know and understand. Here are the words of Irene Williams from Springhill, Louisiana:
You know sometimes I set up here and tell my grandbabies how we used to
have to do. You know what they tell me? ‘That was back in the olden days.’ I
say, ‘No, Honey, you just don’t understand. This was real.’ They say, ‘No; I
wouldn’t have took it.’ But I say, ‘No, you would have took it, what we did
because there was nothing you could do about it.’ The kids today, they think
it’s a joke, but it’s no joke, it was real (169).