Friday, January 25, 2013

Sepia Saturday: The Help


Sepia Saturday challenges bloggers to share family history through old photographs.




This week’s Sepia Saturday prompt features some well-dressed gentlemen outside a store displaying its wares: bananas, potatoes, oysters, and more.   But it’s the gentleman to the far right who prompts me to explore a topic I had not considered before:  my family’s association with African-Americans.

In the 1960s when the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum, I often heard people ask, “Aren’t you ashamed of your ancestors?”  Not me.  My ancestors were mostly poor dirt farmers and dirt poor farmers, not plantation owners by any stretch.  Census record after record indicates no one in my family owned a slave.  Once in awhile, there was a black woman in the household helping with the children or garden, but there were no families of slaves.  

Over the years my family often employed a black woman to help out, even if only for short periods of time.  As I watched The Help recently, I felt so sorry for the black housekeepers and nannies who PARENTED all those white children while their high-society parents indulged themselves in a shallow life and openly denied the Help any sort of dignity, even the use of a bathroom.  I’ve since wondered about the many housekeepers and babysitters who have passed through my life, and I pray my parents were kind.

Here they are, ever so briefly:

NAME UNKNOWN:  I was a baby when Daddy was a student at the University of Virginia and Momma worked in the Bursar’s office on campus.  She hired a young black girl to keep me during the day.  One day Momma arrived home from work to find me sitting outside in a wet diaper, all sunburned, playing in the rocks.  Inside “the Help” had passed out on the bed having tried on all of Momma’s clothes and having drunk all of Daddy’s whiskey.  Momma grabbed her by the hair and threw her out of the house.  

OK, so that’s our “not-so-good” story but one my parents did laugh about in later years.

Wendy with Fred Slade and Orvin Davis, Copely Hill, Charlottesville, VA http://jollettetc.blogspot.com
The blurry-faced cutie is Moi in the company of two doting
grandfathers, Orvin Davis and Fred Slade.
Daddy and Momma are by our little trailer on Copely Hill
in Charlottesville where many young students at
the University of Virginia lived.

MILDRED:  My parents always spoke with such fondness about Mildred who cared for me when the previous girl didn’t work out.  Just two little stories:  (1) Momma had to bake her a pie each week because Mildred loved Momma’s pies.  She would eat one slice every day while I napped.  (2) One time when Momma was writing Mildred’s paycheck, she suddenly couldn’t recall her last name.  Too embarrassed to admit it, Momma resorted to subterfuge by asking, “How is it you spell your last name?”  Mildred replied:  “G-R-E-E-N.”  

MATTIE:  Mattie took care of my baby sister when Momma returned to teaching and I was in school.  In her mind's ear Mary Jollette can almost hear Mattie singing gospel songs to soothe her while holding her in her lap.  Mary Jollette can still see Mattie’s hands with her chipped red fingernail polish, patting her leg to the rhythm. 

Mary Jollette 1959 http://jollettetc.blogspot.com
1959 - Mary Jollette could do some bouncing
in that chair in the kitchen of our apartment
above our grandparents' house on Gillis Road.

CARRIE:  I was probably in junior high or even high school when Carrie came by bus in the afternoons to iron.  I remember her eyes were the opposite of crossed, and her feet were in terrible shape with disfigured bulging heels.  But she was a fine woman, tall and neat.  I always enjoyed talking to her, and I learned a lot about ironing just watching her.  Often she rode the bus home, but sometimes Daddy would drive her. 

But did we bother taking pictures of these women who made our lives easier?  Sadly no.

However, my great-grandmother Mary Theresa Walsh (or maybe it was a great-aunt) managed to capture a picture of RACHEL, her cook, housekeeper and babysitter.  Daddy and Leo loved Rachel.  She was a good cook and genuinely nice person.  Look at that smile!

Rachel, with Leo, Fred, and Betty Slade 1936 http://jollettetc.blogspot.com
Rachel surrounded by the Slade kids in 1936
Leo, Betty, and Fred 

Judging by the impressions left behind by rusted thumbtacks, the photo of Rachel and the Slade kids remained on display for quite some time.

Now I’m wondering:  Did any of these women go home and tell stories about us?

There’s more in store at Sepia Saturday.


56 comments:

  1. “Aren’t you ashamed of your ancestors?” My answer would always be "no". I mean every ancestor has probably done something I wouldn't do but that is no reason to be ashamed, I think. Probably I will do things during my life of which my grandchildren will think "How is this possible?" And I don't want them to be ashamed on my behalf. It's not their fault!
    I loved the way your Momma solved her problem: “How is it you spell your last name?” Mildred must have had her own thoughts...

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    1. Ha - yes, I'm sure Mildred was thinking, "What's wrong with this woman that she can't spell 'green.'"

      I can't imagine your grandkids could be ashamed of you, especially if you're as funny with them as you are on Sepia Saturday!

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  2. Love your mom's quick thinking!

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  3. You have done well to remember and now record the names of your helpers. I'm sure they would have many stories to tell about your family too.

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    1. Yeah, maybe that's what I'm afraid of!

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  4. Strange how colour dissolves once you get to know a person (even a Green-Person!).Totally away from your post.....you have reawakened my memories of a holiday we had in the Dominican Republic when my son Chris was only 18 months old...he was little,cute,+blonde.All the black cleaners really took a shine to him & for a couple of weeks he had about 10 Ladies billing & cooing over him everywhere he went.They spoiled him rotten ! Happy Memories of Wonderful People.

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    1. Ah, that blond hair is such a novelty, I'm sure. And probably he was just so darn cute too.

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  5. Wendy, you ROCK. I enjoyed your pictures and memories. Besides that poor girl with an obvious drinking problem, it sounds as if you were blessed with extra love along with the extra help.

    This is one of my favorite posts of yours; and The Help is one of my favorite books. That bathroom thing was something else, but that one lady sure did get back at her boss in the end, didn't she?

    Kathy M.

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    1. Yeah, I think Momma probably made apple pies though, no chocolate. HA!

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  6. Hi Wendy,
    We had a Carrie also. She was our babysitter for a couple of years in Chicago. We loved Carrie and her little son, Butchie. She often brought him to our house to play with my brother. But really because she had no other place for him, so she had to bring him along. I also thought of Carrie when reading "The Help".
    Nancy

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  7. A post full of great photos and lovely family stories/memories. Thank you for sharing them.

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  8. You cannot be ashamed of your ancestors, they acted in the light of their times. If we continue to act as they did then they may have to be ashamed of us. Aside from the racial aspect we, here I mean the English used to treat our own families little better than the plantation owners treated slaves. This is demonstrated by this ditty;

    The wife, the dog and the walnut tree;
    the harder you beat them the better they be.

    Life has changed, it we haven't then there is something wrong.

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    1. Oh, funny ditty. I agree -- people act in the light of their times.

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  9. What a 'Turn of Words'...my ancestors were poor dirt farmers and dirt poor farmers! Most of mine were as well after the Civil War, however, before, many were Georgia Plantation Farmers, Politicians, Confederates and Revolutionaries. And as Mike (above) said, "they acted in the light of their times." Their records and wills regarding their slaves are quite interesting. I will look at them in a different light after reading this post. Very insightful and thoughtful.

    My parents never hired 'Help'...their oldest child was chief cook and bottle washer for four younger siblings, and 50 cents a week allowance always seemed to be an IOU Sue. I had 'Help' when I was teaching. She was a great ironer, hell on vacum cleaners, and made the best Enchaladas this side of Juarez, Mexico. She made more money as 'The Help' than I did teaching her six kids....Sue

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    1. Most of my friends who came from large families operated much like yours. They always were better able to take care of themselves, it seems.

      It sounds like you had some good help! I might have done her ironing in exchange for those enchiladas.

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  10. Hopefully they had good stories to tell...except for the one who left the baby in the yard and got drunk!! That gives you good stories to tell.

    We never had any help but my classmate did...and one day he and I went into the bathroom and filled the sink with water and submerged the electric toothbrush and played submarine. The maid, who was watching us, came in and made us the bedroom and SIT! We had no idea what we did wrong- duh...wasn't until later we learned that water and electricity are deadly! That was my only interaction with help...and I am sure she went home with a good story to tell that night!

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    1. Submarine toothbrush -- that's hilarious! You were lucky that day.

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  11. I was going to say that we never had 'help' but then I remembered that a neighbour's daughter, Pam, came and worked for my mum for a while when my baby sister joined our family. I remember she was there when my other sister was bitten by a snake so my parents just left us with her while they dashed off to the hospital. (I must write a blog about that story.)

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    1. Isn't it funny how visiting other blogs can trigger a memory. So many times I hear myself saying, Oh that reminds me of ....

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  12. What an interesting idea Wendy. Sad, though, that you have no photos of them.

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  13. OMG, Name Unknown was Some Help! That's the first time ever I learned about a (colored) maid that behaved that way. I wonder what would Hilly Holbrook have done if it happened to her. How nice that there's a photo of Rachel. Nice helps like her are a blessing to a family.

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    1. Apparently "Name Unknown" was very young, according to my sister who remembered hearing this story. And I'm so glad my family took a picture of Rachel. I just recently obtained a small stack of photos from my aunt, and this was one of them.

      No doubt Hilly would have been even more horrified than my mother, but she would have gotten someone else to do the dirty work.

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  14. I loved all your anecdotes Wendy and I'm glad you survived being left in the care of the alcoholic help.

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    1. Yeah, there are so many ways that story could have ended badly.

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  15. A fascinating post on such an important stage in your life. I enjoyed reading your memories and seeing the photographs.

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  16. I never had black babysitters, but when I was young it was common to have black "cleaning ladies" that came once a week.

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    1. I had some friends whose parents had regular cleaning ladies too. One in particular would have a little snack ready for us after school.

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  17. Wendy, enjoyed your memories, your story telling very much. What's past is past and we can not take it back. Different times but kindness towards anybody always prevails I was taught.

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  18. It's so special when we can recount fun memories like these. Good post.

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  19. I like the way you've told us about the 'helps' in you life. Great stories!

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  20. It's a shame that you don't have any pictures of the women who helped your household. We had an unstoppable lady who came to help Mum clean and babysat for us - luckily I have several photos of her. I bumped into her a couple of years ago, and she's just the same at 80+ :-) Jo

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    1. How interesting to still know your cleaning lady so many years later. I imagine Mildred could still be alive, but I doubt the others are.

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  21. Really enjoyed your post, which the pictures illustrate so well. It's great that at least Rachael got her smile in a picture. I don't think we had any "help" when I was small. But I did have to unlearn a term that my grandmother called the little black children who were playing around their shacks near Houston, especially when I moved to St. Louis.

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    1. I bet I've heard that term a time or two. We all unlearned some things.

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  22. What a grand post, Wendy. I suppose stories were told on both sides. I wonder, though, how the first young girl could have possibly approached her story!

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    1. I bet her story began, "Momma, that lady fired me for no reason. Just threw me out!"

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  23. Presented, recorded and archived with Uncle Frankish detail. Photograph had the habit of being all-embracing, telling the wider story and it is that which makes them great historical records.

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    1. So true, although I'm not sure what history we can glean from that picture of my sister in her bouncy chair.

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  24. Interesting how those of us who know the South picked up on the blurred figure in the Sepia photo. It was the first thing I noticed too. My wife and I also enjoyed The Help, and though the film exaggerated reality for dramatic purpose, it definitely made us reflect on the personal experience of race in our family histories. I have a friend with an old family photo album from Savannah circa 1900. It included photos of a very old black woman, the family nanny, who was certainly old enough to have once been a slave. Photos like that are exceptionally rare and document a life style that many families try to avoid remembering. But the best family historians, like you Wendy, are honest to a fault and always tell the whole truth. Bouncy chairs and all.

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    1. I was actually surprised at the number of posts reflecting on race because I had thought I'd be out there on my own. But I was in good company!

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  25. Oh thanks so much I love a good story and especially such great photos too!

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  26. Oops I had more to say before my laptop went out! I have a funny family story to share about the help too! My grandfather once owned a gas station store with his house attached. It was Arizona and he hired lots of mexican help from just across the border (to work the land) but also a wonderful mother with six children. My grandfather let her and the children live inside his house (yes with him) her husband was a ranch hand- but when we came to visit one summer my mother was so angry that "she and her children" lived inside while we were there! hahaha- but what was my grandpa to do right?!!!!

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  27. Oh boy, you just brought a very old memory to the forefront of my brain of Mrs. Stover, the woman who would come sit with us while my parents went out in the evening. She always showed up in a white nurse's dress (she was not a nurse, as far as I know) and would bring us each a full sized Milky Way candy bar. Not only do I not have any pictures of her, I don't even know her first name :-(

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    1. A FULL sized Milky Way? How fun is that! I'm a Snickers girl, myself, because I like the nuts.

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  28. Our family stories come in all shapes, sizes and colors and you tell your with honesty and humor. That's why we enjoy them!

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  29. Oh I would bet they went home telling stories about your family to theirs over dinner, retelling possibly details that escaped you and your folks. I'm not a sociologist but, given the mentality of that era, did they expect to be included in those family photographs? I think not, even if they were part of that family life. My maternal grandma had "help", but white women, who were befriended by the whole family. My mom stayed in touch with Marie her whole life, 'till Marie died of old age, and she was friend with her three daughters. I've even met Marie myself on a few occasions and her daughters too. Nice folks!! I don't think one should look down on people being "helpful" as one's life wouldn't be the same without them.
    :)~
    HUGZ

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