Reclaiming Women’s Stories of the Segregated South

Before The Help was well known three of us, David W. Jackson III, Charletta Sudduth, and I, were gathering the real stories of women who worked for white families in the segregated South. Now our book, The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South is out from LSU Press.

Based on interviews with more than 50 people with intimate knowledge of what it was like to live in the Jim Crow South, the storytellers are black women of the Great Migration to Iowa from Mississippi and other southern states as well as southern white women who grew up in homes that employed domestics. In the interests of accuracy and completeness, the interviews were conducted by members of the same race as the narrators.

(Jane Talmadge Burdon and Elizabeth Griffin)

The first section of the book provides a historical and cultural context for what follows in the next two sections, discussing concepts such as paternalism and maternalism which made the “southern way of life” a distinct and especially insidious form of racism unique to its time and place.

The phenomenon of “maid/mistress” intimacy in a society built on norms of segregation was confusing to outside observers and rarely captured in southern films about the era. The bonding that sometimes ensued between white and black women was more puzzling still. Domestic workers were often placed in an emotional bind, loved on the one hand and rejected through custom on the other. To try to make sense of what one of the white interviewers called “the dark past” we authors drew on literary documents and sociological studies written at the time. To quote a passage from the book on the unique status of the black domestic workers:

“Aligning themselves with whites of the professional class, black women often earned the respect of members of the white community and formed alliances that could render them and their families a certain degree of protection. Black domestic workers moved freely between the white and black communities. Dressed in a maid’s uniform, they had a mobility denied to others of their race. Domestic workers often fell into the role of go-betweens, as interpreters of black life to white people and of white life to black people.” (p.33)

Part II of The Maid Narratives takes the reader into the first-hand storytelling by the African American women who are now a part of the Great Migration. Because of their long absence from the region of their upbringing, their memories are frozen in time, and the past becomes the present in their telling. 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.”
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.

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 have some poems at the house.”

“Part III: The White Family Narratives” gives the perspective of those who grew up in homes that employed domestic workers and were largely raised by these women. Many are filled with regret that they never showed their gratitude to these women who were often like second mothers to them and sometimes even more. Now most of these women who cared for them are dead. One white narrator, now age 90, shares her poem entitled, “Were Our Sins So Scarlet?” In a poem that describes servants going under the house “while white folks flushed” she concludes that they were.

~ Guest blogger, Katherine van Wormer is Professor of Social Work at the University of Northern Iowa


  1. That’s a great question. The main difference is knowing these stories are real and most are from the black perspective as African Americans did the interviews with women who recalled their memories. Then the truth is more complex than fiction. The whites who expressed their love for their servants come across in our book as good people caught up in carrying out the cruel customs of the day. Some tried to get around the restrictive laws and norms; others internalized them, but they are nothing like the silly, stereotypical whites in the movie, The Help. Our black storytellers, amazingly lack bitterness for all the losses they endured living in a society that held them back. Also our narrators have found their sharing a healing experience; they are very anxious for their grandchildren and descendants to know what they survived and how they overcame hardship. In The Help, the storytellers lost their jobs so that the white woman could publish a tell-all book and please her publishers. They seemed to be taken advantage of. Our narrators have emerged as heroes in the local communities in Iowa. They love the book.

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