Parlor Ladies and Ebony Drudges: African American Women, Class, and Work in a South Carolina Community

By Booker, Jackie Robinson | South Carolina Historical Magazine, October 1999 | Go to article overview

Parlor Ladies and Ebony Drudges: African American Women, Class, and Work in a South Carolina Community


Booker, Jackie Robinson, South Carolina Historical Magazine


Parlor Ladies and Ebony Drudges: African American Women, Class, and Work in a South Carolina Community. By Kibibi Voloria C. Mack. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999, Pp. xviii, 233. $34.00, cloth.)

Nearly fifteen years ago, Orville V. Burton broke important ground in community studies with his work, In My Father's House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield, South Carolina. This work compared black and white families, focusing on class, values, occupations, growth, and other variables. Subsequent research expanded upon this model by Burton. In Mack's Parlor Ladies and Ebony Drudges, we now have another breakthrough in community studies, one which significantly adds to our understanding of a long-neglected racial group-African American women.

Following lines of scholarship established by Darlene Clark Hine and others, Mack analyzes the complexities of race, class, and work in Orangeburg, South Carolina, a semirural community between Columbia and Charleston from 1880 to 1940. Nine chapters cover such topics as class divisions, occupations, avenues of upward mobility, home life, marriage, and related issues in a comparative context.

Parlor ladies or elite African American women lived in a small but tightknit circle. Most were dependent on the incomes of their husbands to maintain their status but some upper-class black women worked outside of the home as teachers. Between 1900 and 1940, more elite black women became teachers but some remained home and contributed to household income through work. Upper-class black women aided their community by performing volunteer work, taking active roles in their churches-usually Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Methodist Episcopalian, and by joining social clubs that denied membership to their poorer, dark-skinned sisters.

Skin color also distinguished these elite black women from others in the social pyramid. Group endogamy was the norm; light-skinned men were more desirable. Elite women wanted to maintain the status of their children and that included skin color. Thus, wherever possible, elite women relaxed their hair and bleached their skin.

Middle-class black women in Orangeburg outnumbered their elite sisters and were more likely to work outside of the home. Two incomes were crucial to the stability of middle-class black women. Even with their status, black women in this class were divided between the upper and lower middle-class. Work and education separated these two groups with these having attended Claflin College and S.C. State A&M College, historically black institutions, in a more privileged position. Upper middle class women engaged in teaching, dressmaking, and some were domestics. Lower middle-class women labored on farms, worked as cooks, domestics, and in other positions which did not require much education. Middle class black women did volunteer work, joined clubs open to them, served on church committees, and otherwise sought to elevate their race.

Ebony drudges, dark-skinned working class women in Orangeburg clearly stood apart from their sisters. Often from rural backgrounds, lowerclass black women experienced more racism and had harsher lives.

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