CLARIFICATION on THIS STORY: This article notes Katherine Van Wormer is the author of the upcoming book, "The Maid Narratives." While she is the primary author, her co-authors include Charletta Sudduth and David Jackson, both previously named only as collaborators.

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- Charletta Sudduth didn't know her history as well as she thought.

Sure, she knew her mother was a teenage maid for white families in Mississippi. She knew it was a difficult job for anyone, especially for a young girl.

But it wasn't until she sat down to interview her mother, Annie Stevenson, that the University of Northern Iowa social work instructor knew the hardships black domestic workers faced in the Jim Crow era:

  • Getting to work late because the bus refused to pick you up.
  • Arriving and departing only through the back door of the house.
  • Getting a scolding because you called a child by the wrong name.
  • Sneaking little luxuries, like a dip in the bathtub, aware that if you got caught, you could be fired.

"Really, words cannot describe the tenacity, the will to survive, the drive," Sudduth said. "They just had to go in and do what they had to do to provide for their families."

If it sounds like "The Help," the Academy Award-nominated movie and novel, that's because it sort of is.

The big difference, however, is it's not fiction.

Sudduth and a colleague at UNI, Katherine van Wormer, also a professor in the social work department, put together "The Maid Narratives: African American Domestic Workers and Their Employers in the Jim Crow South" over the course of several years.

The book will be released by LSU Press in September.

Van Wormer came up with the idea for the book after growing up in New Orleans and fondly remembering her family's own cook, Elizabeth Griffin.

"The Maid Narratives," written by Van Wormer, features interviews from both black former maids and white families who employed maids --- 46 narratives in total, including several from Waterloo.

Many of the photos in the book were taken by David Jackson, an assistant professor in the Department of African and African American Studies at the Metropolitan State College of Denver.

Van Wormer, who is white, enlisted Sudduth's help talking to the former maids.

"I wanted a black person to do the interviews, because the stories wouldn't be believed if they gave them to a white person," Van Wormer said.

She cited accounts of former slaves given to white interviewers in the late 1800s being disbelieved by the general public because they were too positive.

"I wanted the good and the bad," she said.

Sudduth got both when she interviewed her mother and great aunt, who she found out actually worked for the poet William Faulkner, who lived in Oxford, Miss., for a time.

"If they can go through all of that, I definitely know that somehow, through them, I was able to get my doctorate," Sudduth said.

(1) comment


I know blacks had it tough as domestic help and I know they were treated poorly in some cases. However, if someone is taking a bath when they are being paid to work, they are lazy and need to be fired. I hope you have better examples of being treated poorly than this.

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