Saying Thank You

February 6, 2012 § 2 Comments

Jane Dalrymple-Hollo and Dezzie McIntosh grew up in rural north Mississippi, but in different generations.  Jane was from a well-to-do white family and Dezzie was a black domestic servant in Jane’s household throughout most of her childhood.  Their relationship deepened after Jane spent a long evening in Dezzie’s living room in December, 1999, and recorded an informal oral history in which she asked Dezzie to describe her childhood, her relationship with Blues music and  her family life.

Jane and I had been friends for several years, but in March of 2010 we happened to meet at an art opening, and I told Jane that I was ready to begin working on the “Just Like Family” documentary.  Unfortunately, Dezzie had passed away the year before, but Jane and I had already agreed that the relationship between the two of them would be an interesting one to explore.  To my amazement, I received a call from Jane the very next day.  “Felicia, you won’t believe who’s here in Boulder, right now–Dezzie’s son, Pierce McIntosh.”

Pierce, a large congenial man in his fifties, was a natural in front of the camera.  He said he knew he would call Jane when he got to Colorado, but he didn’t know what to expect.  Jane told Pierce about the “Just Like Family” project and they both agreed to let me film them as they reminisced about Pierce’s mother.  After a little searching, Jane came up with the cassette tape she had recorded with Dezzie ten years earlier, and I was able to film Pierce and Jane as they listened to Dezzie’s familiar voice.  The day before, I had interviewed Pierce, and he told me that, to him, the most important thing about Jane’s relationship with his mother was that she had thanked Dezzie.

It is clear from these segments that Jane and Pierce are fond of each other and listening together to the recording of Dezzie talking about her life seemed to deepen their connection.  In these scenes, you’ll see them respond to the poignant, funny and sad incidents in the life of the woman who essentially raised them both, but in very separate circumstances. 

After Pierce returned to Mississippi, Jane looked at the video of his interview.  From it, she told me that it gave her new insights into Dezzie’s real life–with her own husband and children.  We will continue the exploration of these relationships with an interview of Jane.  We will also provide an audio file of the oral history and a letter Jane wrote about this special relationship that was read at Dezzie’s funeral.  Stay tuned.

“Just Like Family” seeks to provide a more comprehensive portrait of African American women who raised white children–to give name and place to people whose history may not be recorded, whose impact on US culture and white people might not be recognized.  Few of these relationships between whites and their African American caretakers have been documented; the relationships have not be acknowledged.  “Just Like Families” offers a space within which to tell the stories of these caretakers from both black and white perspectives in order to honor and give thanks to these unsung mother/caretakers.

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§ 2 Responses to Saying Thank You

  • What a wonderful site this is.
    Thanks, Felicia (and all contributors) for this enlightening endeavor.

  • In my first post to “Just Like Family,” I related a story in which my mother told me that maids had to have a health certificate to work in a white person’s home. I scoffed at this and asked her if any of the people who worked for her had shown her a health card. She didn’t reply.

    However, I have some new information that suggests blacks might have had to get a health card. In the 1940s, Alice Childress, an African American Southern playwright, wrote a scene in the play, “Like One of the Family,” where the white employer demands that Mildred, the maid, supply her with a “health card.” Mildred retorts by insisting her employer and her family also get health certificates to prove they did not have strange white diseases, since she was working closely with them–cooking, cleaning, bathing children, doing laundry–all would put her in close contact with white disease.

    Another reference to health cards is made in the book “Battling the Plantation Mentality: Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle,” (University of North Carolina Press, Lauri Bush Green, 2007, p. 96). The author recounts a time in the 1940s after WWII when the local Venereal Disease Department of Memphis provided testing for returning servicemen. But local police singled out and arrested African American women and forced them to be evaluated for syphillis.

    The irony of this is that my mother told me that our grandmother’s maid, Llewellyn Hopkins, had a syphilitic heart, which was discovered later in her life. She had “was sent up” from the family plantation in the 1950s, three hours away, to work for my grandmother.

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