Drive around established Atlanta neighborhoods most weekday mornings and you’ll likely see a parade of African-American and Latina nannies and housekeepers walking the children of their employers. The images are arresting as they echo an era when domestic work for whites was one of the few jobs available to African-American women.
The movie “The Help,” which opened recently, tells the story of African-American domestic workers in 1960s Mississippi. Based on the book of the same name by Atlanta’s Kathryn Stockett, “The Help” explores the complex relationships between these employees and employers during the civil rights movement.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked present and former Atlantans to reflect on that era.
professor of history at the University of Virginia and American University and civil rights veteran
The NAACP had a screening of “The Help” at our national convention in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago. It was a big hit. But it’s complicated because there wasn’t a singular relationship between domestics and their employers. On some occasions there were people who became friends and cared about each other. Then there were examples of employers being very mean to the women who worked for them.
You know, there was a book published back in 1956 called “Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life.” It was written by a black author [Alice Childress] and it was about a black maid who worked for a white family. The title was so sarcastic and so meaningful, because the black woman didn’t feel like she was one of the family, even though her employers used to say she was “like one of the family.”
How you viewed that relationship depended on which side you were on.
After our screening you heard people say, ‘My grandmother was a maid,’ or ‘My grandfather was in service.’ So people need to share those stories.
On the other side, whites need to be able to say, ‘Yes, my family had a domestic worker and we treated her like one of the family.’ But then you’d have to talk about whether that was actually the truth.
There’s nothing to be ashamed of for being paid for an honest day’s work. If you weren’t well paid and you were treated poorly, it was a shame on your employer, not you.
60, a housewife who lives in Atlanta and Maryland
My mother, Leola Green, was a maid in Grantville in Coweta County in the 1950s and 1960s. In our community all of the women on our street worked as maids. You could point to each house and say, ‘Oh, she works for the so-and-so family,’ or ‘She works for this-or-that family.’
My mother had to work so hard. And she was always so tired. She wouldn’t talk much about the people she worked for, but she would describe the work she’d done that day. I guess she didn’t want us to know what was going on. It was segregated times and all of the black maids were intimidated in that day and age.
What I didn’t like about it was that she was always calling these people she worked for ‘Miss This’ or ‘Miss That.’ It bothered me because my mother was often older than these people and I thought it was disrespectful for her to have to call them ‘Miss.’ Not for what they paid her.
My mother told me a story once about her doing the laundry for this family and when they picked it up they tried to say that one of the pieces of clothing was missing. So they didn’t pay her for the work. Nothing was missing. But rather than say they didn’t have money to pay, which I think was the truth of it, they accused her. My mother was not a thief .
She would tell me that she was doing all of this so I wouldn’t have to do what she did.
I eventually got a degree in economics from the University of Missouri. My husband is a government consultant and we’ve traveled all over the world. My daughter graduated from Howard University five years ago.
My mother is dead now, but she got to see me in my own home and hear about the places we’d traveled. She would tell me that she was so proud of me.
And when my four siblings and I got older we took great care of our mother. We moved her into another house and filled it with everything she could have wanted.
51, Atlanta, court reporter
In the early 1990s, I baby-sat for a wealthy white family here in Atlanta. Sometimes I would cook, clean up, change the beds; but mostly I took care of the three children. The family also had a maid named Mamie. She actually had been the maid for the dad’s family and she was working for him now that he was grown. She had essentially raised him. It’s an old South tradition.
Mamie and I talked very little. She caught the bus to and from work. She was like part of the family and they always made me feel like part of the family.
Once I thought I was going to have to drop out of school because of an old student loan. That couple actually paid that $3,000 bill so I could stay in school. They made me sign a promissory note, but once I finished school they told me they had no intention of me paying them back. They were satisfied with me having a degree.
I’m a court reporter now and I’ve been everywhere from Bora Bora, Italy, Spain, to the Greek Islands, just all over. I even went to their oldest son’s wedding this summer. The family is in Montana now, and they recently asked me to come visit. If it wasn’t for them I don’t think I’d have the job I have today.
author and founding director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center at Spelman College
There is a range of responses around this issue because it is so complex. I don’t have a problem with a white author taking this on. I expect them to write about it from their perspective. But a black woman would have had a more critical perspective and not romanticize the era.
It’s a subservient relationship whether the treatment is humane and includes material support or not. We’re talking about the legacy of slavery and it has to be seen in the context of the Jim Crow South in which black women had no rights. They didn’t get to decide what their work would be, their hours, wages. They were on call on holidays and weekends. They were often vulnerable to sexual exploitation of the white men in the household. Cast-off clothing, food, or even paying for college doesn’t compensate for the low wages they got.
And we have to remember the children of these domestics and the hurt on the part of those children who didn’t have their mothers around in ways they wanted or needed because their mothers were taking care of other people’s kids.
There’s a long narrative of black women through the ages saying, ‘I don’t want my daughter doing this work.’ So those women suffered and sacrificed so their daughters could have options. And so they accepted the hand-me-downs and cast-offs because they could see a brighter future for their children some day.
64, Spalding Distinguished Research Professor, specializing in the history of Southern culture at the University of Georgia
That whole business of employing black women as domestic workers is part of the foundation for how the economy worked in the South. Having a black maid was a status symbol. A lot of whites at the time were not particularly wealthy but they were able to have help because they paid those women and men as little as they did.
I grew up in Hart County and my parents would ask black folks to help out if we were cleaning out an old barn or killing chickens. My family would want to pay them in the form of old clothes once the work was done. It was clear that the black people wanted money for their work, but they had no recourse during that time. Some people say, ‘Well if things were that bad, why did they put up with it?’ Well it’s clear that there weren’t a lot of options for them doing much else.
And for the black people doing the work, it wasn’t that they had to do it, it was that they had to act like they were grateful and happy do it. The so-called decent white folks got a lot of psychological gratification, or either willed themselves into thinking that, ‘I’m really helping these people and they are so grateful to me and I’m doing something good.’
Then you look at today and, I hate to say this, but there are academics who can be the most liberal folks and they have domestics. So you just can’t jump to judgment on somebody who has a domestic servant now. But there’s no question that things are different now, but it is a matter of class.
I would say that today having someone come in to clean your house is possibly more of a middle-class marker or benchmark in the South more so than in other parts of the country.
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