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The Maid Narratives

Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South

384 pages / 6.00 x 9.00 inches / 28 halftones

ebook available

Southern History | African-American History

  Hardcover / 9780807149683 / September 2012
  Paperback / 9780807162361 / October 2015

The Maid Narratives shares the memories of black domestic workers and the white families they served, uncovering the often intimate relationships between maid and mistress. Based on interviews with over fifty people—both white and black—these stories deliver a personal and powerful message about resilience and resistance in the face of oppression in the Jim Crow South.

The housekeepers, caretakers, sharecroppers, and cooks who share their experiences in The Maid Narratives ultimately moved away during the Great Migration. Their perspectives as servants who left for better opportunities outside of the South offer an original telling of physical and psychological survival in a racially oppressive caste system: Vinella Byrd, for instance, from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, recalls how a farmer she worked for would not allow her to clean her hands in the family’s wash pan. These narratives are complemented by the voices of white women, such as Flora Templeton Stuart, from New Orleans, who remembers her maid fondly but realizes that she knew little about her life. Like Stuart, many of the white narrators remain troubled by the racial norms of the time. Viewed as a whole, the book presents varied, rich, and detailed accounts, often tragic, and sometimes humorous. The Maid Narratives reveals, across racial lines, shared hardships, strong emotional ties, and inspiring strength.

Katherine van Wormer, who grew up in New Orleans, is a sociologist and professor of social work at the University of Northern Iowa. She is the author or coauthor of sixteen books, including Death by Domestic Violence; Human Behavior and the Social Environment; Confronting Oppression, Restoring Justice; and Addiction Treatment: A Strengths Perspective.

David W. Jackson III is assistant professor in the department of African and African-American Studies at Metropolitan State College of Denver. He is co-producer of the oral video history project African-American Voices of the Cedar Valley. In 2006, he received the Trio Achiever of the Year award for the State of Iowa.

Charletta Sudduth is an early childhood consultant for the Waterloo Community School District. She earned a master’s in social work and a doctorate in education, curriculum, and instruction from the University of Northern Iowa.

Praise for The Maid Narratives

“This book is a good account of the first-hand experiences of the people who actually lived through and worked in domestic service, making it a good addition to the literature focused on the Jim Crow-era South.”—Oral History Review

“A well-documented and insightful book. . . the methodologies and theories used in researching, framing, writing, and compiling this collection are appropriate and capture stunningly well this aspect of America’s past.”—Annals of Iowa

"Van Wormer, Jackson, and Sudduth present a moving and disturbing portrait of the Jim Crow South as experienced by the African American women who worked and lived in the homes of southern white families."—North Carolina Historical Review

"Regardless of our own racial background, this volume opens our eyes to the daily lives of thousands of African American women absent from history books. Working as domestics in the North and South, women were sometimes treated with regard and even loved by their employers, but often barely respected as human beings...The Maid Narratives fills a great historical void. As the first sentence of the introduction says, it is 'intended to take its readers on a journey back in time to a place that, to many, will be a foreign country. We will travel there with the help of our storytellers."—Friends Journal

The Maid Narratives offers a rich resource to undergraduate classrooms in demonstrating the complicated history of race and women’s labor. The book also provides detailed primary source material for schol­ars interested in the history of domestic work, segregation, and the civil rights movement.”—Labor

“The Maid Narratives is a beautiful, well-illustrated book paying tribute to a painful past.”—Journal of Comparative Social Work

"The cultural differences so exquisitely articulated in this excellent volume continue to be a part of who we are as a society. So if you saw The Help and thought you had a clue about what the Jim Crow South was really like, think again. Pick up a copy of The Maid Narratives. It is one of those rare books with the potential to change your worldview."—Bowling Green Daily News

"A volume that contributes to deeper analysis and, perhaps, a bit of discomfort for all."—The New Social Worker

“This collection of oral history narratives fills a significant gap in U.S. social history. The book tells the story of those women who remember both segregation and domestic work in the South and took an active part in their migration to the Midwest.  No person attempting to understand the popularity of books such as Gone with the Wind and The Help should be without it.”—Susan Tucker, author of Telling Memories Among Southern Women

Links for The Maid Narratives

What 'the maids' teach us (The Gazette, Iowa)

Unclean Hands — Charletta Sudduth talks with the guys about the contradictory ways cleanliness was understood in the Jim Crow South (BackStory)

Snakes, liquor, war, slavery, Yellow fever and country music populate fall books about the SouthAtlanta Journal Constitution

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