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In her book, Living in, Living Out: African-American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940, Elizabeth Clark-Lewis recalls going to a meeting of her great-aunt’s Bible club. A multicourse meal was served at a table whose elaborate place settings, Clark-Lewis admits, mystified her; eventually her great-aunt felt compelled to apologize for her guest’s ignorance of decorous dining.
Clark-Lewis is the director of the Public History Program at Howard University; her great-aunt labored much of her life as a live-in servant.
“These were fierce club women,” says the historian. “They were very proud and very particular about the way they presented themselves.”
This is the sort of unexpected insight Clark-Lewis sought when she set out to interview women who had worked as domestics—either “live-ins” or “day workers”—in Washington. “My mother had worked 43 years as a day worker,” she notes. “She had a lot of stories from that period.”
Those stories didn’t always accord with what Clark-Lewis was supposed to be learning as a graduate student at the University of Maryland in the early ’80s. “As an African-American student, much of what you learn,” she says, “is just not affirmed by your experience. Constantly, theory was running up against reality.”
“African-American women’s lives don’t fit into the neat historical constructs. The ways of viewing and explaining don’t work,” she says. “You know better than that. That was my gut feeling.”
“But, hey,” she remembers thinking at the time, “she wrote the book.”
Now Clark-Lewis has written the book, an oral history derived from interviews with 81 women who had worked as domestics. There was “a sense of urgency,” she notes, as many of the interviewees were in their 80s and 90s.
“I never really got the impression that these women had their “company mask’ on when they talked to me,” she says. “They had no need to do that. They realized I was very intimate with the culture. They were brutally honest.”
Sometimes, the women’s perspectives caused the historian to re-evaluate her assumptions. “They forced me to reframe what I wanted,” she admits. “Much of their life was controlled, [but] some of that may have worked. They had a lot of positives. Some of the support systems have been lost. That loss has been very serious for our community.”
Clark-Lewis cautions against oversimplifying these women’s lives, from their reasons for leaving the South—“the largest internal migration in the nation’s history”—to the advantages and disadvantages of their new urban lives.
“It’s a push and pull,” she explains of the forces that brought African-Americans north in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “The pull is the new opportunities. The push is a new round of oppression [in the South].” The explanation is not simply economics or politics, she argues. “It’s all of it.”
“White servants were the norm,” she notes, until the closing of European immigration and new career possibilities for women created a shortage of domestic workers. “Initially, [African-American Southerners] weren’t sending people out to work; they were sending them to help each other. It’s a reciprocal help network. [Traditional historians] didn’t understand how the kin helped the kin.”
One of the book’s revelations is that African-American women who grew up almost a century ago in the rural South remember their mothers as stricter and their fathers as warmer and more playful. “African-American women in the latter part of the 19th century realized the challenges that their daughters would face,” explains Clark-Lewis. “They were not indulgent. It’s very different if you read the literature about white women.”
In the city, those stern mothers were supplanted by female employers; unlike in the South, men seldom gave the orders in those Washington households that could afford servants. “They learned that women, not men, would direct their day-to-day life,” says Clark-Lewis of the new arrivals.
Since they were on call virtually all day and night, live-in workers had few boundaries between their employers’ time and their own. “They had “freedoms’—please put that word in quotes—that were possible in Washington,” Clark-Lewis notes. “There were opportunities that they wouldn’t have had in the rural South.”
“They were able to compartmentalize their lives,” she says. “They had possibilities for a richer religious or civic life.”
Those lives, Clark-Lewis found, were often based on connections made before the workers ever got to D.C. “I could never figure out why people from all over the South married people from the regions they came from,” says Clark-Lewis. She discovered that African-American churches frequently catered to people from distinct regions. “Many of [the workers’ matches] were in a sense arranged marriages.”
As the city’s grander homes gave way to smaller, less ornate ones, live-ins became rare; day workers became the rule. Even the latter, however, got an intimate view of the families they served. “I’ve gotten some interesting letters from employers,” says Clark-Lewis, including some who recognized their servants or themselves from the pseudonymous accounts in her book.
One man wanted her to interview his former servant, she marvels, “and give him the tape.”
These former employers frequently refer to their domestic workers as “part of their family,” she observes. “What other member of your family doesn’t eat at your table?”
The historian quickly changes her tone. “There’s no need to be angry at these people,” she says. “You’re talking human relations. It’s not all negative. It’s not all positive.”
For Clark-Lewis, however, Living In, Living Out seems to have been just about all positive. It put her in touch with some remarkable women and strengthened the tie connecting her great-aunt, her grandmother, her mother, and herself—and beyond. “Could you do something corny?” she asks at interview’s end. “Could you mention my daughter?” Abena, a high-school student, “appreciates the sacrifices of her ancestors,” her mother says. “She’s my inspiration.”