Thursday, February 7, 2013

Black History Month: What We Owe to the Black Domestic Servants of the Jim Crow South

Katherine van Wormer*

Cheering a speaker in a Montgomery
bus boycott church meeting. From Life
magazine, February 6, 1956.
For Black History Month, let us honor the women who worked as domestic servants for white families in the Jim Crow South. They endured the indignities of segregation to help support their families. Moving in between black and white worlds, such women played enormously important roles in the first successful Civil Rights struggle: the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56, where the young Martin Luther King, Jr., got his start. 

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). 
*Katherine van Wormer is professor of social work at the University of Northern Iowa. Among her many publications are Death by Domestic Violence:Preventing the Murders and Murder-Suicides (Praeger, 2009), with Albert R. Roberts, and Working with Female Offenders: A Gender-Sensitive Approach (Wiley, 2010).


hcr said...

This sounds fascinating. What a great idea for a book-- one of those that's so obvious you think "Why on earth didn't anyone already do this?!" Can't wait to see it.

I'll bet it says cool things about labor issues in service work. The us/them thing was really clear in restaurant work when I did it; I'll bet the same is true in systematic maid work, too. That brings up interesting things about solidarity and gender, as well as community.

What time period does it cover?

Lisa Clark Diller said...

What a great project. Thank you so much for helping preserve these stories.

That last quote where the subject was talking about how hard it is for younger people to believe these things really happened hit home with me. My students hardly believe that things like segregation were real. They have heard about this subject in school and celebrated Dr. King Day so much that it seems as mythological as the Mayflower. Meeting real people and hearing stories directly from those involved is crucial in humanizing this part of our history.

hcr said...

Wow, Lisa. Love the line about MLK Day making the subject mythological as the Mayflower. I'm with you on how hearing from the maids-- real people-- could bring the story to a human scale.

Anonymous said...

The work of these women is also relevant to Women's History Month as described in this piece on Truthout:

Katherine van Wormer