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Let Me Help You Get More Complex Look at The South

Sharecroppers in the South circa 1938 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)  

The movie The Help portrays white female bosses as racist and intolerant of black employees. That’s just too simplistic. I learned through oral histories with southerners that during the Depression southern hospitality sometimes prevailed over Jim Crow in the lives of some southern whites who cooked for and ate with the African Americans they knew intimately such as the cooks, live-in domestic servants, chauffeurs, laundresses, and agricultural workers they employed. As the child of a tenant farmer in South Carolina, Nora Burns White procured at least one big meal a week by wandering over to the landlord’s door about a block away at mealtime on Sundays to take advantage of his southern hospitality. The water pump for both houses was naturally next to the landlord’s house. So, she would time her trip to the water pump based on when the landlord’s family, the Rosses, were seated to eat their Sunday meal. “I would sit my pail down at the pump and go on up to the kitchen and open the door and say ‘good evening.’ Mrs. Carrie Ross would say, ‘come on in Nora, sit over here.’” Nora sat down to a typical Sunday meal in South Carolina of collard greens seasoned with salt pork, peas and rice, corn bread, ham, and fried chicken. “I’d get up when I was finished and say ‘thank you ma’am’, get the pail of water, and go on home.”  This went on for years during the Depression before her mother figured out what was going on. “It seemed like their food was better . . . The best corn bread.” In addition to feeding the children of their tenants, some southern planters provided meals for their black laborers. For example, Monday through Saturday Carrie Ross distributed freshly baked corn bread and coffee to the black farmhands that worked for the family in Blaney, South Carolina.  As a result, Ms. Carrie became an expert at baking large batches of mouth-watering corn bread. Similarly, in Alabama, the parents of James Warren, born in 1925, regularly fed black hands on the family’s cotton farm near Birmingham. “They would sometimes come in for dinner on Sundays. They would always ask mom to cook black-eyed peas.” In short, race relations and employee and employer relations were far more complex than one sees in the movie The Help.





Tera Hunter, To 'Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors After the Civil War http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?recid=26520&content=toc

Let Me Help You Learn about Black Women's Organizations in the South

White Employers, Black Domestics, and Infrapolitics