My mother grew up running through the orange clay of Buford, Georgia, a small town northeast of Atlanta. Though I’ve heard stories about their beloved black maid, Sadie, her father’s house calls as the town doctor and her attending boarding school to avoid the chaos of integration, I wanted to know more. Especially now, as I’m discovering the cost of a whispered history. We sat in her home in the mountains of Colorado this afternoon and had a chat while the kids napped.
Me: Do you remember specific ways you saw segregation in Buford?
Most of the blacks lived on one side of the train tracks and the whites lived on the other. I really don’t remember seeing many black children. We all kept to ourselves and went to different schools on different sides of the city. My dad was a doctor and I remember there being separate waiting rooms for whites and “coloreds,” as we called African American people then. My dad’s nurse, Katie, was black, though, and she was a close friend of our family. I don’t think she had much education, but was trained by my grandfather, who was also a doctor.
I don’t remember much overt racism growing up, but I do remember it was illegal for African Americans to even go to the next county over, Forsyth [We stopped and looked up more information on this at this time and found this Fresh Air podcast about the racial cleansing that went on in Forsyth county in 1912.]. Once when we were driving through Forsyth with my dad’s black nurse, Katie, I remember she had to lie down on the floor of the car because it was illegal for her to even be in that county. She also came on vacation with us, which always felt a bit clandestine because it wasn’t like she could even eat in restaurants with us.
Me: What was the perception of Martin Luther King, Jr.? What do you remember hearing about him? How did you feel during the Civil Rights Movement?
It was a bad time. I can’t believe my mom even let us kids watch the news during that time. Although he was respected for his non-violent stance, I just remember my mom telling me that it wasn’t going to end well for Martin Luther King, Jr. because the cops certainly weren’t taking the same nonviolent stance. I didn’t do any marches at that time, but I did do a march later when we lived in Florida for MLK day to become a national holiday. I remember the private Christian school your brother went to for a while voted not to observe MLK day.
Me: Can you tell me more about your house help growing up?
So our main interaction with African Americans was through our maids. Sadie was our maid for 23 years and was like family to us. The day my father told us she had terminal pancreatic cancer was the only day I remember my father crying. We loved her.
She would come to our house every day from 9 AM to 5 PM except Wednesdays and Sundays. We all came home for lunch since our school and my dad’s office was so close and we’d have traditional southern food. When we ate, Sadie would sit in the kitchen just a few feet away while the rest of us ate at the huge round table. Sadie would also do our laundry, clean and come on Saturday mornings to make us pancakes. Since I had four sisters, I remember her chasing away neighbors who were bothering us with her broom. We always hated Wednesdays when Sadie had the day off because the house just felt emptier somehow.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I realized Sadie couldn’t read or write. I also eventually found out she had a daughter being raised by relatives in the north. Because she worked full-time with our family, she wasn’t able to take care of her daughter.
We went to Sadie’s funeral in the black church when she died. We were the only white people there and they had us sit in the front row.
My best friend growing up also had house help. Their family was even more well-off than ours, so they had a live-in upstairs and downstairs maid. And their maids wouldn’t just put the food on the table for them to eat family-style, but would serve them at every meal. They also had a chauffer.
My aunt and grandmother had house help, but they would mostly just clean for them, not cook for them like ours did for our family.
Me: Do you feel like the portrayal of house maids in the book and movie The Help was realistic?
Yes, it was. In that movie, the help wasn’t supposed to use the bathroom in the house. Our maids did use our bathroom, but my wealthy friend I was talking about had a separate bathroom in the garage. And your dad’s grandmother in Jackson, Mississippi, had a bathroom out in the shed for her house help.
Me: What do you remember about the schools being integrated?
It was my junior year of high school and instead of continuing in the public schools, my mom decided to send me to a private boarding school. There was just a big fear that the schools would be violent when they went through the transition to integration. My sister who was five years younger than me did eventually attend the public schools and observed some violence, but it wasn’t as bad by the time she graduated. I don’t remember there even being many black people when I went to college at the University of Georgia, though I’m sure there were some.
Check back tomorrow for the last post in the series! (Woot!) I’ll be doing a bit of rehashing, reflecting and ruminating on how to move forward from here.
New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).
During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.
*Includes Amazon affiliate links