History gets help

Monday Book Review

March 27, 1995|By L. D. Buckner

LIVING IN, LIVING OUT: AFRICAN AMERICAN DOMESTICS IN WASHINGTON, D.C., 1910-1940. By Elizabeth Clark-Lewis. Smithsonian Institution Press. $26. 242 pages.

THE BUTLER did it.

Well, at least he got his day in the sun. The same can't be said for the countless African-American women who toiled in the shadows, tending the every need of wealthy white families in Washington in the early part of this century. They were chambermaids, waitresses, nurses, cooks, pantry girls who remain nameless, even faceless in most chronicles of history.

Enter Elizabeth Clark-Lewis and her mission to fill a gap for historians and "give voice to elderly African-American women." "Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940" certifies these women as national treasures. Ms. Clark-Lewis knits together personal accounts from 81 black women born in the rural South between 1882 and 1911.

Migration north for these women was just like most everything ZTC else: It happened to them as a result of family will. As individuals, they may have had aspirations for a better life, but dreams didn't put food on the table; their trained hands did. "The Migration Experience" chapter is almost lyrical in its engaging descriptions of the pre-migration customs. In short, a relative up North had a need, so a Southern daughter was sent, but not before the balletic "pleading process." The male head of the Northern family network came to his counterpart among Southern kin to persuade him that the child's labor was desperately needed. The father would say how cherished the child was at home, but eventually, and with great drama, he would agree.

So the Southern daughter, "toting 'freedom bags' full of blessings and tears," was off to Washington.

The black women -- whose influx helped the near doubling of Washington's black population in the first 10 years of the century -- found no time to be wide-eyed. For them, the domestic work that began hours after arrival was just more of the same drudgery but in a bustling, alien place.

Seeking familiar intimacy, they turned to church but found that "city-fied religion" and its massive congregations fell short of their spiritual needs. Smaller community-based churches were born. The significance of church in these women's lives is addressed with such continuing depth that this volume proves a compelling reference on the institution. A great irony is that for all the women's devotion to God and family, as live-in servants, they were granted no day of rest. Unlike in the South, Sunday was merely another workday.

Training had made these women strong, but not powerful. Their experiences related in the chapter devoted to live-in service, command empathy. The black women found themselves paying the price for society's discrimination against white women, as frustrated mistresses exercised the only power they had. The elderly ladies speak passionately about endless workdays and the humiliating uniforms that symbolized their place at the bottom of the food chain. Says 81-year-old Rowena Morgan: "I guess it [the uniform] made them seem big or they thought we was just they toys."

Time, the church and penny savers clubs allowed these women eventually to move on to live-out work. Penny savers clubs were mutual-benefit associations, Ms. Clark-Lewis writes. Small groups of women, usually from the same Southern state, would invest a small amount weekly and have social functions that would raise money for sick and death benefits. With the tiny return on their investments, the prospect of "living out" could be realized.

Live-out or daywork was prized at least in part because then the women got to wear their own clothes instead of the hated uniforms. It brought African-American women into the commuter age. It gave them choices, pride and chances to find "more jobs at more places," says Nettie Bass. The self-esteem that came with the defined workday was the launching pad for independence. The most cherished perk: church on Sundays.

Much of the joy of "Living In, Living Out" is that it is written with a gentle sense of awe. Ms. Clark-Lewis, director of the Public History program at Howard University, is the daughter of a dayworker, the granddaughter of a live-in servant and the great-granddaughter of a slave turned servant. She has compiled the vignettes of "Living In, Living Out" with a scholar's hand and a proud daughter's heart. She remains true to her mission with neither melodrama nor sensationalism.

Also, information in "Living In, Living Out" is scrupulously documented: The last 41 pages of the book are notes and indexes. It's doubtful that the casual reader will want to read every line, but there are interesting facts amid the bibliographic details.

The author mixes textbook style with breezy, ornamental observation. It takes about half the book to get used to switching mental gears, breeding the temptation to skim. Resist. Give these women and Ms. Clark-Lewis their due. A good look at help is hard to find.

L. D. Buckner is a features copy editor for The Evening Sun.

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