I Married a Black Man
As a white college student in the 1960s, I married my anthropology professor who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. In Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia, which we published in 2009, he shared his experiences in the Negro community during the 1950s. Below is an excerpt from that book in his words about black day workers.
What Black Day Workers Thought of Their White Employers
At Central Baptist Church in St. Louis, I listened to the Negro day workers as they talked on the church steps before and after church.
One woman said, “They think we’re dumb bunnies. Girl, we know more about them than they’ll ever learn in a generation about us. My boss is so nice but she’s naïve. Do you know she can’t even make toast? She burns it every time. Her husband tells me secretly, ‘Thelma, you make the toast. Don’t let Mary touch it.’ Sometimes Mary slips something in my hand sayin’, ‘That’s just between us. I appreciate your work.’
Another woman said, “Girl, white people are wasteful! Those teenagers put a lotta food on their plate. They take two bites and want desert. Then they scatter. Since there’s seven in the family, they leave enough food to feed an army. My boss says, ‘Gwen? I know you have a lot of children. Please take what’s in the pot. Otherwise, it’ll just get thrown away.’ One or two times a week I take food home and we can’t even finish eatin’ it.”
Another woman said, “Girl, that house looks like a hurricane has been in it every mornin’ you go there. There’s underwear from the bathroom to the bedroom – things scattered all over. I have to put all that stuff in the hamper before I can do anything. Those people should go into the trash business. All the baskets are full. Sometimes I say, ‘Do you mean to throw this away?’
“They throw clothes out because they have a little spot on ‘em. One day my boss gave me a dress. When I took the spot out and took it back to her, she said, ‘Are you sure that’s the same dress?’ Girl, I tell you they’re all a bunch o’ dummies. But don’t tell ‘em that. Let ‘em believe they’re smart.’ ”
Another woman said, “I go there to work but I spend most of my time takin’ care of the baby. My boss is in her thirties. They wanted this baby so much but she doesn’t know how to take care of it. I was sixteen when I had my first baby.
“When I went in yesterday, the baby was cryin’ his head off. She told me, ‘He’s been cryin’ since my husband left for work. I gave him a pacifier and warmed a bottle but he just keeps cryin’.’ Girl, you know what was wrong? That baby was dirty! I smelled it right away! Maybe her long nose can’t smell. I cleaned him up and gave him his bottle. In five minutes, he started cooin’. My boss said, ‘You’re a lifesaver.’ Girl, I tell you, these white folks are so stupid.”
Black Day Workers Wanted Their White Employers to Have a Good Opinion of Them
One Sunday, a day worker said, “Girl, I was so surprised to see Mrs. Sherman comin’ to my house the other day. You could see her jaw drop. She said, ‘Where’d you get all these good things? Everything’s so clean and orderly. And you have five children in the house?’
“I told her, ‘Yes, Ma’am. Those who are eight years and up have their chores. Even the babies pick up stuff.’ ”
Another day worker said, “My boss took me home last week and I told him, ‘Come on in and see where I live.’ When he did, he said, ‘What’re you working for? You must have money stored somewhere.’
“I told him, ‘We’re so busy workin’ just to get by, we fight hard to keep things in good order. We can’t afford any new thing. These children have to eat.’ ”
Another day worker said, “Girl, I almost fell over. My boss came just as I was about to leave and said, ‘Girl, where’re you goin’? Oh, no you’re not.’
“I told her, ‘Well, Ma, I’m through. Your brother and his wife are comin’ over so I’d better get outta here. I’ll do the dishes tomorrow morning.’ You know what she told me? ‘You’re part of the guests this evening! I want my brother and his wife to meet you.’
“Girl, I tell you. They didn’t put me in the kitchen. I ate with ‘em.”
One of the women said, “What’d you do? How’d ya eat?”
She said, “I was watchin’ ‘em like a hawk. The same thing they did, I did. The way they ate, I ate. Girl, I was kinda nervous at first. But nothin’ to it! I tell you, they eat just like we eat!”
I Wrote our Love Story
These stories fascinated me because they gave me an intimate picture of Black women at that time – something I would never have access to. When my husband died in 2009, I coped with my grief by writing our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief.”