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

4
Creating a Homeplace
SHELTER, FOOD, CLOTHING, AND A LITTLE FUN

With their paltry earnings, cooks provided for their families as best they could. All those hours in front of stoves bought food, clothing, shelter, and sometimes a little recreation for cooks and their loved ones. The small houses of segregated African American neighborhoods sheltered a population working diligently to make their ways in southern society. In meeting the essential needs of the next generation, African American women opposed the dominant culture that slighted the requirements of black children. In the Jim Crow South, survival was tantamount to resistance. Poor pay made providing the basics of food, clothing, and shelter a significant accomplishment. Mrs. H. A. Clement, from Baltimore, summarized the situation in 1939 in a letter to Franklin Roosevelt: “I am a [domestic] worker and have three children no body to support them but my self my husban is dead ben dead 4 years…. Core fair [carfare] to pay my rent insurance and three children to clothes and fead…. Sometimes supthing to eate and some time nuthing…. I am all most to my roes in [rows end].”1

In most Western societies, servants have historically lived on the premises of the places that they served, and in the nineteenth-century South, the practice was called “living in.” In the lean decades immediately after the Civil War, a significant number of cooks lived on the premises of their employers’ homes. Increasingly, however, African American women created a new paradigm for domestic workers, insisting that they live in homes of their own. “Living out,” as this new phenomenon was called, had incalculable effects on the lives of southerners, both African American and white. African American women, as never before, had places of their own, however spartan or shabby. Their employers had to adjust to a new type of servant, one who was not at their beck

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