Cooking in Other Women's Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960

By Rebecca Sharpless; Waldo E. Martin et al. | Go to book overview

3
Long Hours and Little Pay
COMPENSATION AND WORKERS’ RESISTANCE

In 1938, Roxanna Hupes of Galveston, Texas, wrote to “President Rosevelt,” feeling as many of her peers did that the president was likely to read her entreaties and make needed changes in American society. Detailing her workday, which began at 6:30 in the morning with a mile’s walk to her place of employment, Hupes efficiently summarized the situation for most domestic workers in the American South: “The wages that we get, so small and the hours is so long.”1 In an oral history interview, Alice Adams praised her longtime employers in Atlanta in almost all ways: “They was lovely people to work around. They treated you as peoples. I had vacations with pay and sick leave with pay. She was one of the loveliest people you could be around. She’d help me if I needed money for house rent or if I needed money for clothing.” But there was a catch, said Adams: “The onliest objection was long hours and little pay. She was willing to do anything to help me—but the money. Four dollars a week. Just no money. And everybody was doing the same.”2 “Long hours and little pay” ruled the days of African American cooks.

Sociologist Mary Anderson published in 1936 the results of a survey of working conditions around the South, aptly titled “The Plight of Negro Domestic Labor.” Anderson found wages, hours, and tasks to be extremely uneven, varying erratically between location and employer: “The household employee finds no definite wage scale based on experience, skill[,] or amount of work required.” No job descriptions or limitations on tasks existed, resulting in inexact expectations and crazily shifting hours. Anderson observed, “There is no standard for the length of the working day nor for the amount of work to be accomplished during that day. Overtime is rarely computed or paid for. Many workers are expected to perform any service that may be required from

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