Slavery in the South: 1912

May 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

 In 1912, an article entitled More Slavery in the South was published by The Independent. (The online source, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, does not give the location of The Independent, but I assume they refer to the New York newspaper that was published from 1848 to 1921. The newspaper covered social topics, primarily opposition to slavery and religious subjects.) The article was written by a reporter from a transcription of an interview with an anonymous African-American domestic worker living in Georgia. The interview documents the other side of the loving and loyal mammy myth.

The worker describes the varied roles that must be taken on by “two-thirds of negro-women” compelled to domestic work “…as wet nurses, cooks, washerwomen, chambermaids, seamstresses, hucksters, janitresses, and the like.” She says that “the condition of this vast host of poor colored people is just as bad as, if not worse than, it was during the days of slavery.” One of the chief concerns of this African-American woman was that she would be fired and dispatched to “the ‘State Farm,’ where we would surely have to work for nothing or be beaten with many stripes.”

Particularly vexing was the requirement that she had to sleep in the house and was only allowed to go home to see her own children every other week on Sunday afternoons. One of her several complaints were the unwelcome attention of “madam’s husband.” She learned early on that “a colored woman’s virtue in that part of the country has no protection. “I know at least fifty places in my small town where white men are positively raising two families—a white family in the ‘Big House’ in front, and a colored family in a ‘Little House’ in the backyard.”

At the end of the article, she suggests that Southern white women should be allies of their black domestic workers. “If none others will help us, it would seem that the Southern white women themselves might do so in their own defense, because we are rearing their children—we feed them, we bathe them, we teach them to speak the English language, and in numberless instances we sleep with them—and it is inevitable that the lives of their children will in some measure be pure or impure according as they are affected by contact with the colored nurses.” What a reasonable but naïve proposal!

This article made wonder why whites surrendered the raising of their children to people they saw as inferior, people whom they felt no need to treat fairly? Other questions the article suggests to me are: Can love and affection ever really exist in the presence of inequality and exploitation? (Certainly not in the case above.) What were the lessons learned by the white children who were raised by someone their parents considered inferior? Did they simply adopt the racism of their parents or did the connection with their black caretaker change their view of African-Americans and the illogic of segregation? How might the dichotomy between a child’s affection for a loving caretaker and parental attitudes towards that same woman form the personality and beliefs of a child raised in these highly-charged circumstances? (See post on Epigenetics.)

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