Maid in Atlanta: Tara is behind her. But it’s a long road to where she wants to go.


Anne Rivers Siddons Maid in Atlanta 1971 Atlanta MagazineThis article was originally published in our November 1971 issue.

Late spring. Long shadows on a vast velvet lawn. White columns shimmering deep in a twilight cave of sweet new green. Banjo music, soft and aching, from somewhere behind the big house. A warm fog of fragrance from the kitchen, from the Cape Jasmine bushes, from the magnolias, incandescent in the sea-green, underwater dusk.

A heavy, middle-aged black woman in starched white trundles ponderously after a streaking, sleep-querulous small blond boy, capering across the lawn. She scoops him up, scolds him softly as she bears him, wriggling, back to the house.

“I’m gon’ skin you alive if you do that again. What your mama gon’ say? You a trial to me all my days.” She kisses him. Pauses to listen to the sounds of adult laughter on the lanterned veranda. To watch the ridiculous jeweled peacocks fanning on the grass. To think about the narrow white bed in the small, neat house behind the big one.

Gone with the Wind? Song of the South? No.

Habersham Road, Atlanta, 1971.

The banjo is in the teenager’s room upstairs. The fragrance may be jasmine, may be pot. (“Wonder do they know he smokin’ that stuff? Should I tell Miss Sally?”)

The laughter is from some 50 tennis-tanned adults, drinking scotch and water at a pay-back cocktail party. The black woman made the canapés; she will serve them after she tucks the toddler back in bed; she will wash up after the last “Glory, Glory to Old Georgia” is sung, and the last guest is borne off by his tight-mouthed wife. It will be late when the black woman crawls into the white bed in her room over the garage. (“Dear Lord, just listen to them sorry peacocks. Sound like souls in hell. Wonder did I forget to feed ’em?”)

On her Sunday and Monday off she stays with her sister across town in the Southwest. But she hasn’t been home in three weeks. May is party time on Habersham Road…

The maids. Minnie, Fannie, Rosie, Annie. (Why do all maids’ names seem to end in “ie”?) Laughing, crowing, jostling (“jollyhopping,” they call it) in black, solid shoals at the corner of Broad and Walton downtown every morning at 8:30, waiting for the maids’ buses to the Northside. Patient in late-model Buicks and Oldsmobiles outside Westminster and Lovett every afternoon when school is in session, waiting for the rangy children they have diapered and swatted and bathed and fed from babyhood. In supermarkets. In small yards off Piedmont, and in Morningside and Druid Hills, sweeping walks and pinning up laundry, one practiced eye on scabby-kneed children. Walking down the green canyons that sprout off Peachtree Road, stolid in sensible flat shoes and accoutered with the inevitable shopping bag and umbrella.

Bones, flesh and spirit of one of the sweetest, most cherished and last-to-die myth-realities that sustain the Old South—the mystique of the devoted, wise, child-like and supremely contented Southern maid.

Anne Rivers Siddons Maid in Atlanta 1971 Atlanta MagazineThe song is ending. The Mammies of Gone With the Wind and the Calpurnias of To Kill a Mockingbird are not very real any more—if they ever were. The maid of the South, the patient, loving black woman who literally raised so many of us, who worked for our mothers in somnolent small towns and sheltered suburbs was real—her body, her hands, her toil, her ties to us and ours. But it was romantic fiction, largely—fiction and economic necessity—that supplied the relationship with its idyllic contentment and gaiety and simple, sunny charm.

That book is closing. Another is opening.

Excerpt from the new book: In Washington, D.C., an angry black woman tells a meeting of the National Committee on Household Employment that of the nation’s 1.7 million domestic workers, two-thirds are black, 98 percent are women, and median income is about $1,800 a year—$600 lower than President Nixon’s proposed minimum for the unemployed. The woman knows: She is a maid.

Chapters are being written in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and New York, the only three states to include domestic workers in minimum wage legislation. Written by newly formed domestic workers’ organizations which are straining and slashing at yoke of inequities: no job security, no paid vacations or paid sick leave, no workmen’s compensation or unemployment benefits, and no pensions, since many domestic workers are paid to little that they are not covered by Social Security.

(Not so oddly, perhaps, many maids who do earn enough to qualify for Social Security don’t want their portion of the quarterly payment deducted from their wages. Security at age 65 may seem academic to a woman who can’t pay the rent now. But the law does provide coverage if she earns above a certain amount per quarter. And if she does, her employer must file a quarterly report, complete with a check representing 10.4 percent of the total wages paid to her each quarter. Many employers, knowing their maids’ financial straits, are willing, even happy, to pay the entire 10.4 percent, in addition to their maids’ full wages, and do not withhold from their salaries the 5.2 percent that represents the employees’ half.)

Chapters are being written in Alexandria, Va., where SURGE—Services United for Responsible and Gainful Employment—has evolved from a Labor Department-funded training program for domestics to an employee-owned corporation.

And in the South, which employs 54 percent of the nation’s domestic workers; where, in many states, prevailing wages are as low as 50 cents an hour, more chapters in the new book are being drafted. The Domestic Workers of America, formed in 1968 and piloted through its organizational phase by the Atlanta Urban League, now numbers about 3,000 members from the ranks of Atlanta’s 30,000-plus domestic workers.

To the average worker, demands of these new groups seem elementary, basic. They are the things taken for granted in even the lowest-paying of most jobs: insurance coverage, workmen’s compensation, unemployment benefits, a basic living wage—in the words of Mrs. Edith B. Sloan, executive director of the National Committee on Household Employment—pay, protection, professionalism.

The Three Ps. But behind the Three Ps, the col statistics, the neatly drafted demands for tangible, workadays benefits, is the cry for what hasn’t been in the kitchen with Dinah for all these years…respect. Dignity. Simple, garden-variety humanity.

Charles Stinson Jr., director of community services for the Atlanta Urban League, knows the territory: He helped inaugurate the infant Domestic Workers of America in May, 1968.

What these women are fighting—have fought all along—is a lack of basic awareness that they’re highly skilled workers, human beings of dignity, productiveness and standing. Until they’re spelled out, their employers usually don’t stop to assess the skills they have—and neither do they. The maid’s a capable human being, working for a living like you and me, and she does her job like nobody on earth.

“She cleans and cares for a big house, every piece of fine furniture and porcelain and silver in it. She’s a chauffeur—and a good one. She knows how to take care of expensive clothing and fabrics, she runs sophisticated appliances, she cooks large meals, sometime gourmet meals. She serves at parties and does a mountain of dishes afterwards. And she does everything for those children, from seeing that they’re safe to applying emergency first aid, to listening to their homework, to disciplining them, to helping them make moral and ethical value judgments.

“You think that doesn’t take skill and sensitivity and dedication? Would you do it for seven or eight dollars a day and no protection or job security? Because, until 1968, that’s what an average Atlanta maid earned.

“But you still hear women saying, ‘Why is she always asking for money? Why does she fuss about working a little later some days? She just doesn’t want to work. Mother’s maid wasn’t like that.’

“I’ll give you an example. Back when the union was first organized, and were getting a good bit of publicity, this guy call and he says, ‘Look, I’m good to my maid, but I want to tell you something. Her husband picks her up after work, and sometimes if she’s not finished, he pulls a few weeds for me. Well, I always give him a nice plate of something, a nice meal—same thing we eat—whenever he does. And now they’re both mad at me.’”

Stinson laughed softly, helplessly, in angry defeat.

“‘A nice plate of something.’ Does his boss dock his salary on payday because he took him to lunch the day before? When people start really seeing their domestic employees, seeing them as people earning a living in the same world and paying the same prices that they themselves do, instead of thinking of them the same way their parents and grandparents did—then it will come, all of it. The money, the working conditions, the respect. But not ’til then.”

Slowly, ponderously, to the accompaniment of a litany of frustration, things are changing, thanks mainly to organization and perseverance.

A domestic workers’ union in New York State won inclusion in the state’s minimum wage legislation. In Massachusetts, a group successfully pressed for inclusion in the state’s labor laws. Domestics in the Charlotte, N.C., area won shorter hours and higher pay. A bill before Congress includes domestic workers under the Federal minimum wage, but it is still wrapped in the tendrils of committee bureaucracy.

In Atlanta, public awareness has grown, and with it, the pay scale has risen from $7-$8 a day to the current average of $12 (lower than their hoped-for $15), but little has been done in the way of legislation. [Editor’s note: $8 in 1971 is about $51 in 2019. $12 is about $72. $15 is about $95.]

A bill proposed by state Sen. Leroy Johnson in February, 1969, to establish a minimum wage for domestic workers, was defeated. A carefully drawn training program, in which 25 domestic workers were to be recruited and trained every eight weeks in all phases of domestic work, was drafted in a proposed contract between the Urban League and the U.S. Department of Labor, but was turned down for funding because there was, at the time, a pilot domestic training program in progress in Washington, and the Labor Department wanted to evaluate it before funding new projects. The tabling of the training program was especially painful to Lyndon Wade, executive director of the Urban League, who believes strongly that sophisticated training is the most workable answer to the domestics’ employment dilemma.

“People have said to me, ‘Why bother with domestics? Why don’t you design training programs for future bank presidents, high-potential people who can really contribute to society?’ The training of domestics, though, is something that in a short time can make a lot of people employable. It’s logical, it’s feasible. It could really raise salaries. It could be done here and now. We want to concentrate on this area because the future bank president can and will get his training somewhere else. But who’s giving these people a hand?”

In a tiny, cluttered, mercilessly fluorescent office at 5 Forsyth Street, a soft-voiced, steel-spined dynamo of a woman is giving them a hand…and heart and soul and every ounce of energy and time she has. Mrs. Dorothy Bolden, former maid, longtime president of the Domestic Workers of America, and the most vocal champion of the Southern maid, has taken their cause to the public, via TV, to city officials, to MARTA officials, to Washington, as a delegate to a domestic opportunities conference (“And do you believe it? I was the only maid there.”), to the state legislature, to a spate of local, state, and federal agencies; to utility companies, rental agencies—and to towns and cities the South over, where she helps other domestic groups to organize. (“I need to do a lot of work in some of those places, but I figure my mouth ain’t gonna make it any cooler for the maids there. I’ll go when the time is right.”) In addition, she operates a domestic workers’ placement agency, strictly within the new guidelines of the union.

“I have three rules for ladies hiring a maid. And the first is, I don’t want to see any maid down on her knees. Maids have been exposed too long to bad weather and cold water. They have arthritis so bad they cannot bend their knees and legs and feet. Once that woman is down on the floor, she can’t get up. I have arthritis in my knees because I’ve stayed on my knees on scrub pads all my life. And those pads were so thin that the water came through. No, honey, I been on my knees. And so have those women. No more.

“The second rule is, she doesn’t wash windows. Those ladies don’t carry insurance on their maids, in case she falls. No paid sick leave, either. You’ve got to realize, most maids are heads and sole supports of their household.

“And third, I don’t want her to reach up way over her head. She’s got arthritis in her arms and shoulders, too. People who hire maids just don’t think about things like arthritis. If you live on the Northside and you got arthritis, you didn’t get it from scrubbing floors.”

Like a sweet-voiced bulldog, Mrs. Bolden will tackle every inequity that confronts her flock. And at this point in time, she believes that the right tack for her union is heightened public awareness of domestics’ rights, instead of truculent militance—awareness and independence.

“We organized this union ourselves, because who knows our positions better than we do? Female domestics fear outside organizations, big unions. I did. We know we have to do it on our own, not merge with any other national union. A lot of unions have been bugging me to merge. But who can tell the truth about these women, who can honestly represent them, but maids themselves? No outside could know.”

Probably not. These placid, self-contained women are so much a part of the furniture of our world that it’s easy to take them for granted. They are not given to talking about their problems. Or ours.

“Maids are dignified women,” said Dorothy Bolden. “You don’t see them participating in unrest. They go through town on the way to their jobs, and they mind their own business. If they jollyhop, they jollyhop on the bus with each other. This is the way they get along. They stick together. They may think old Mary up there at the front talks too much, but they don’t throw her off the bus.

“Something that has been overlooked for a long time is the act that maids have more integrity than most people. A maid will not betray a confidence, I don’t care what she sees or hears. A lot of her times, her lady is waiting when she comes in the door, to tell her everything about what Mr. John did to her. And the maid consolates that lady. She says, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad.’ She does not go back and tell her friends what her lady said. And she won’t tell her employer her problems with her money, or her kids, either.”

On a clear fall night recently, a group of maids met in Dorothy Bolden’s tiny office—and they did talk about their problems. Like an ageless, resigned, Greek chorus, punctuated with flashes of soft, matriarchal, mordant humor, sparked with low, musical, indulgent laughter at “Miss Sally,” they talked—and the timeless agonies and frustrations came clear: neglected families. All had children of their own. No other adult guidance. All were divorced, or widowed, heads of household, sole wage-earners. Niggling, day-to-day indignities. And never, ever enough money.

Mrs. Lovett: “It’s kind of hard to be away from your children all day. There are so many things you could be doing for them, you’re doing for a white lady’s children instead. But you just learn not to fret about it, or you’ll be crying all the time you’re taking care of her kids. And then she’ll say you’re too sad to be around the children.”

Mrs. Evans: “I won’t leave my child at a day nursery. Way we do it, we pay a little something to a neighbor, or there’s an aunt or grandmother, or sister. We help each other with our children. It just works that way. You leave your own with your own.”

Mrs. Reese: “I didn’t put mine in a nursery. An elderly lady kept him for me. Somehow or another, it look like he turned out pretty good.”

Mrs. Bolden: “You all are being too easy. Look at your boy. He’s swamped with women. There’s his mother. She’s everything to him—mother, father, wage-earner. Then, he goes to school and he’s got a woman teacher. His counselor is a woman—when he can get to see her. Usually there’s 10 kids ahead of him. Do you wonder why, when the man on the street corner says, ‘Hey, you wanna turn on?’ he’s willing, even anxious, to do it? That man may be the wrong kind of male figure, but he’s the only one that boy has.”

Mrs. Bolden: “Low pay is the worst thing, of course. Let me explain this to you. Some of these women want a maid to work, but they don’t want to pay her. Honest to God, they know better than to pay their maids so bad. But it’s a marketplace. Any woman’s going to shop for a bargain, and that’s how she’s going to shop for a maid. They shop through bridge clubs, through garden clubs. I got a letter I could show you, I got from a woman back during Maids’ Honor Day. It says, the going price on this street is eight dollars. Going price! For a human being!”

Mrs. Beckham: “It’s bad when you’ve got a family that’s not concerned about Social Security and things like that. Because then, what are you doing to do when you’re retired? I wish people could understand that if you can’t manage on what you are making, you might as well not work. Almost enough just isn’t enough.”

Mrs. Evans: “I had to tell a lady not long ago that I was sorry, I just couldn’t work for eight dollars and car fare, because I have to support my family. I don’t have any income but what I work for.”

Mrs. Bolden: “$12 a day is average; it’s what we established in 1968. And it ought to be at least $15. But we still have people making five, eight, ten dollars a day—and no car fare. But if you think that’s bad, think about this: There are people out in Fayette, Coweta, counties like that, making seven or eight dollars a week. Why do they stand for it? Who in that county is going to pay them more?

“Let me tell you something else about money. It’s not only that they don’t pay their maids enough. It’s that they don’t pay them often enough. What happens to that maid when Miss Sally is on vacation for three, six weeks? I’ll tell you. She hurts. I placed a maid once in one of the most beautiful houses in this city, and those folks would go off all summer and leave that woman without anything. She and her sister were buying a home over on Boulevard, and then her sister got sick and couldn’t work, and that woman didn’t have anything coming in ’til her folks got back. They’re living in Capitol Homes now. Lost their house. Well, I finally got that maid five days a week somewhere else, and you know? That first woman called up and raised cain with me.”

Mrs. Adams: “Another thing: A maid sees this low utility bill come in to this white lady’s big house. She thinks, ‘This lady runs everything in this house all day and all night long. Why is her bill so low? Mine’s $40.” [Editor’s note: $40 in 1971 is about $253 in 2019.]

Mrs. Bolden: “I figured that one out, honey. That meter reader isn’t going to walk ’way round your house to read your meter if you aren’t home to make sure he does. He’ll estimate. And then, you can see for yourself how those maids’ houses are wired. The heat’s going out the cracks and the cold’s coming in. You huddle together to keep warm and you pay more. I once asked the gas company to let some of us retired maids read those meters. Well, they say, they don’t discriminate against anybody. I haven’t stirred that up yet, but I’ll get to it.

“It makes me so blue. People say, ‘She don’t manage her money right. She don’t shop for bargains.’ When is she going to shop for bargains? She’s just got time to run to the closest store when she gets home, and that’s the one that’s charging her an arm and a leg. Sure, she’d do better at Richway. How’s she going to get to Richway at seven at night with no car? From one loan office to another, that’s how she lives, and you know what those interest rates are.

“But the thing that really gets me boiling is when they say, ‘Look at her, she’s got two TV sets in that little old run-down house of hers, and yet she doesn’t fix up that house decent. I’m tired of hearing that. Does that maid go out to dinner, does she go to the theatre? Does she go to the movies with her husband? She hasn’t got the husband, and she hasn’t got the money. What else is she doing to do but watch TV? She knows what her house looks like. But that house is clean.”

Mrs. Evans: “You wouldn’t believe what some ladies’ houses are like. They’re filthy. You go in, and those dishes been piled up all weekend, and they look like somebody spit in ’em. And some of ’em got dogs, and you got to get up that dog hair off everything. It takes all day to get dog hair off a good carpet.”

Mrs. Bolden: “Another rule I have, and that is that no maid has got to clean up dog and cat droppings. We’ve been treated too much like animals ourselves. Some of those ladies think more of their dogs than they do of their maids. I’ve worked in a home myself where they fed the dog off a plate and I ate off a napkin. And I’ve seen the time that the dog got the steak they had for dinner while I ate a baloney sandwich.”

Mrs. Reese: “You haven’t heard the half of it. A lot of maids have to bring their lunch. A lot of people won’t feed their maids.”

Mrs. Adams: “I’ve often said that if I had to carry me a sandwich, I wouldn’t work there. I feel like if I work for you, you should feed me.”

Mrs. Bolden: “You always have been an independent soul. You started this protest business before this union ever got born.”

Mrs. Adams: “That’s right. I was getting up at four in the morning to catch my bus and get there in time to cook their breakfast by 6:30, and one day I just said, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore.’ Well, I think they respected me for that. You know, I worked for them for 30 years.”

Mrs. Bolden: “But I have had maids call me and say, ‘My lady doesn’t want me to touch anything in her refrigerator. What should I do?’ I try to find another place for that maid. But before this, there wasn’t much a maid could do if she was mistreated, except maybe try to stick up for herself a little.”

Mrs. Lovett: “And you smiled while you were sticking.”

Mrs. Bolden: “Well, if it gets too bad, a maid can quit. The word gets around; maids know who’s good to work for and who isn’t. Pretty soon that lady’s having a might hard time getting a maid. She’s going to be better to her next one. Maids are getting scarce. That one thing alone is going to make folks treat their maids better. I found out that nearly a million maids left their jobs last year, and there aren’t many young women going into the field. Why would they, if they can do something else? Maids are mostly older women who got to work. They’re widows, or they’re separated. The average maid is about 46 years old.”

Mrs. Beckham: “This young generation, they don’t have any patience. Most of them are looking to find the dollar and cut the time. They go to factories. To be a maid, you got to be able to love that lady’s children. I know I nursed children for 25 years, and I had time left over to love my own children. This younger generation, look like they don’t even love their own children.”

Mrs. Bolden: “Another thing that’s changing, everybody wants a live-in maid. But they’re not getting live-in help much any more. I know, all the ads in the paper are looking for live-in. But I’m not placing them. A person’s leisure time is her independence; she’s got to be with her family some time. Those weekends off, lots of times they turn into half a day, or Sunday, and when is she going to do her shopping? There’s a high city official right now, you couldn’t get much higher, and he’s looking for a live-in maid. He’s going to have a hard time.”

Mrs. Evans: “But it’s mainly a question of respect. I left a job not long ago because a lady was trying to make me get down on my knees with a brush to scrub the floor, instead of using a mop. And I told her I was sorry, but I got on my knees for one thing—to pray—and then I used a pillow. And I took off that uniform and left. I wasn’t making but $7, anyway.”

Mrs. Bolden: “That’s right, honey. Some women just like knowing they’ve got the power to get another woman down on her knees. Well, that’s going to change. It’ll be slow, but it’s going to change. You know, this union doesn’t serve me. I don’t get paid. But it’s serving these sisters of mine, and so it really does serve me. I see, I know the pride that maids can take in their work, if people will let them. And as I tell them, if I fall dead tomorrow, this must stand.”

This article was originally published in our November 1971 issue. Inflation rates calculated here.