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Narratives of Women Who Worked as Maids During the Civil Rights Era
By Katherine van Wormer, Professor of Social Work, University of Northern Iowa
Introduction: Before “The Help” was well known, three of us were gathering the real stories of women who worked for white families in the segregated South. They say that fact is stranger than fiction, and so it is with the 50 or so interviews that we obtained from women who worked in white families during the Jim Crow era and from members of the white families. The stories are now preserved in “The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South” (2012, LSU Press, co-authored with D.W. Jackson, III and C.Sudduth). Among the contributors are social work practitioners and educators. The African American women mostly come from rural Mississippi and part of the Great Migration to Waterloo, Iowa.
The stories personalize the sufferings by these southern black women who worked as young children in the cotton fields and who managed somehow to raise their children and protect their men folk in a racially hostile environment. The economic oppression they endured was echoed by legal constraints that always favored the dominant race at their expense. The norms of segregation, as the book explains, were enforced by white men bent on suppressing black men and keeping them away from their women. At the same time, these men had access to black women, a fact of which they often took advantage. The term segregation to the extent that it means separation of the races does not really apply. In any case, the social system that evolved following slavery. Consider the tremendous legal battles that ensued to keep the races separate in the schools and universities.
I grew up in white New Orleans and heard all the talk concerning integration of the schools. There was a kind of phobia expressed by white people about mixture of the races. Families were divided on the issue, however, as accurately portrayed in the film, The Long Walk Home, starring Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg. In the conversations I heard, and many were heated, the word sex was not mentioned, but that was what was behind the strong resistance. When orders came to integrate the public swimming pool at Audubon Park, the pool was quickly closed down.
Segregation, in actuality, was a continuation of the same social system as had existed under slavery except that sharecropping in the cotton fields had replaced slavery and the house servants were now domestic servants or maids. The journey was from slavery to feudalism. But there was one big difference: the blacks could quit and work for some nicer “white folks” and they were free to move up North. And move they did.
Living in Iowa and hearing of African Americans in the next town who had come up from Mississippi in the ’40s and ’50s, I felt compelled to record their stories. Two African Americans also expressed interest in the project, and over the period of a few years, they were able to obtain around 40 interviews. Meanwhile, I researched the history and gathered as many white women’s narratives as I could get, several from my own family, and many others following a last-minute solicitation on a social work listserv.
Our goal, like that of the black narrators, was to preserve the unique history of southern oppression and of how a race of people survived so that future generations will know and understand. As stated by narrator 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.” (p.169)
The stories from these survivors are every bit as gripping as those of the slave narrators that were recorded by the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s. The Jim Crow narrators, in their own often colorful language, take us with them on their journeys to the land of long-ago. Thus we hear from Elra Johnson at age 100 describe how she defied the old norms of segregation and walked right through the front door of a local building and faced off the Ku Klux Klan for her civil rights activities. “They didn’t want no Negroes to have no freedom, “ she explained. And we hear from Ruthie O’Neal who described a typical example of how the servants were instructed to abide by the norms of segregation: “She’s 12 years old,” the lady of the house would say, “call her Miss Nancy.” And then there was Melvina Scott who described the intimacy between her mother and her white boss, and one of her brothers turning out to be curiously different in color and otherwise from the rest of the family.
In this paper, since space is limited, I will focus on one major theme that emerged in the interviews–the theme of resilience. Resilience showed in so many ways. One that impressed me was the use of humor about some of the goings-on in the white families and some of their pretensions in showing their neighbors that they ran a respectable household. Part of respectability meant having a maid in uniform, one who came in through the back door, and served the meal with proper etiquette.
The paradoxes of historic southern etiquette are striking and emerge in such statements as “I would not only clean the bathroom but I’d take a bath in the bathtub” as recalled by Hazel Rankins. Another example is offered by Vinella Byrd who said, “The man didn’t want me to wash my hands in the wash pan.” The bathroom was off limits as well. So she was forced to cook the family dinner without being able to wash up.
The resilience came through in a more significant way as the narrators described their success in successfully rearing a family while they served another family, and their active participation in community life, often centering around the church.. Several of the major themes of resilience commonly found among older African Americans were evidenced in the interviews—respect for family and elders, valuing education, strong religious faith, and a belief in the meaning of life.
Let’s hear from a few of these women now living in Waterloo, Iowa. We start with Annie Victoria Johnson, now in her late 80s and Annie Pearl
Stevenson, both of whom expressed a value for education. First from Mrs. Johnson:
“My daddy could read. There’s always a way for everything. My daddy had to work instead of going to school. He always said, “You don’t have to be crazy; you don’t have to be ignorant. If you know your ABC’s you can read.”
And in response to a question of whether black people learned from the whites about religion, Mrs. Johnson was emphatic:
“No! The whites learned from the blacks. Blacks might have had something to do with the whites—where I come from—becoming Christian. We used to—not in churches—but there used to be a white man who came to the house all the time with his Bible, and he and my daddy would sit and read the Bible.”
Mrs. Stevenson, similarly, revealed a great deal of agency in her handling of affairs. On the subject of education, she said:
“I know I always wanted to go to college. Always. At that time I really wanted to enroll in Ole Miss, which we couldn’t because of the color of our skin. Only whites could go there. So I turned my mind to Jackson State. I never wanted to just do that kind of work (domestic service) all my life. I wanted a better job so I could provide for my family like the couple I worked for who were going to college to better themselves.”
Even as only a high school student, this interviewee who was also the mother of the third book author, took a strong and highly risky stand for civil rights. in the historic event in 1962, when James Meredith enrolled against Mississippi law and in defiance of the whites who rioted at the University of Mississippi:
“The elderly people didn’t want us to go as teenagers, and they didn’t go. One of the bus drivers took us down there to stand with James Meredith when he enrolled. Rocks were thrown at the windows; glass was shattered and everything. People were calling us the N word name—“Turn this bus around. Go home!” So we went, said no. Most of the busloads didn’t make it, had to turn around. But we did.”
Looking back on her life back then, Mrs. Stevenson is reflective:
“I wouldn’t trade nothing for the experience. I learned how to treat people. It was a learning experience, and by the way, I don’t hold any animosity. I often wonder why not. It just made me the person I am today. Like that incident with the floor (she learned to tell the truth after she falsely claimed to mop the floor and was caught). I love everyone. Some of the things we went through—if there ever was a time to have hate in your heart that was it. But we didn’t. Because that was the way of life and we adapted to it.”
Resilience, such as that demonstrated by the lives and philosophies of the older African Americans who participated in this study, had its roots in their upbringing in the rural South during the days of segregation. The two women whose quotes I have used here are fairly representative of the older African American respondents who shared their stories. Taken as a whole, the resilience of these women shines through their stories. In the words of Pearline Jones who worked for a period in the home of William Faulkner and other prominent people in Oxford, Mississippi, “The way I got through all this was I made poems; I wrote poetry out of them jobs. I am old now, but I still have some of these poems at the house.”
To see representatives photographs from the book, go to The Maid Narratives Facebook (there are actually two of them) and share your own memories and comments.
Source: Katherine van Wormer, Professor of Social Work, University of Northern Iowa