This event takes place in Mobile, AL around 1948. Alice (my mother) was 13 years old, and Eva Jasper (my grandmother – Mom’s side) was 51 years old. Eva worked for a white family as a house keeper. During this time, Jim Crow laws were still in effect and the civil rights movement was not officially active (check out the history section at the end of this post). In Mobile, Negroes worked low paying jobs, and one of the primary sources of income for Negro women was cleaning the house and keeping the children of white people.
On this day, Alice went to visit her grandmother. However, this day was different because when she arrived at Eva’s house, she had a bandana tied around her head. Alice asked, “Momma Eva, what’s wrong?”
Eva responded with her head hung low, “I’ve got a real bad headache. This bandana will help it go away. Only problem is I have to go to work today.” Without hesitation, Alice said, “What if I go for you today? I don’t mind!”
Eva and Alice discussed the possibility of her granddaughter going to Mrs. Wilson’s home. Finally, Alice begged so much that Eva agreed. Alice was so excited! She finally had a paying job, even if it was just for one day!
With her left hand, Eva held her head steady while she walked to the phone to call her employer. “Good morning Ma’am. This is Eva Jasper. How are you today?” There was a pause in the conversation.
“Good to hear. I wanted you to know that I’m not feeling too good today so my granddaughter will be coming in my stead. Is that ok?”
Alice waited anxiously as Momma Eva listened to what ever Mrs. Wilson was saying. Eva said, “Yes Ma’am. You won’t regret it. She will be there within 30 minutes. Thanks again for understanding.”
When Alice heard that Momma Eva had worked it out, she rushed to her grandmother and gave her a big hug. “You won’t regret it Momma Eva! Tell me where to go!”
“Today should be a light cleaning day. Just make sure to do what Mrs. Wilson asks. That’s very important!” instructed Eva.
Eva gave Alice the directions. Alice left the house bubbling over with excitement. She noticed it was a beautiful summer day, with a nice breeze. A perfect day to work. She felt like a big girl. Not only was she going to be a freshman in high school in the fall, but she was going to her first job!
Alice almost ran to Mrs. Wilson’s house. She scurried up Weinacker Ave, crossed Virginia Street, and headed four blocks across the railroad tracks. When she arrived, she knocked on the front door. Mrs. Wilson opened the door and said, “Are you Eva’s granddaughter?”
Alice responded with enthusiasm, “Yes!”
Mrs. Wilson said with determination, “The help can’t come in the front door. Go around back and I’ll let you in.”
Alice lost some of her enthusiasm, but she ran to the back door, still looking forward to the job. Mrs. Wilson looked out the back door and opened it.
Mrs. Wilson said, “Come on in. First thing I need you to do is to clean that gas stove over there. Here’s a bucket. Fill it with warm water. Here’s the soap and some rags. Let me know when you are finished.”
Alice came in the house as directed. She followed Mrs. Wilson’s instructions very carefully, remembering what her grandmother told her. Alice was a little scared because she never cleaned a stove before. She pushed her fears aside, prepared the bucket, and began to clean the stove.
Alice could feel the breeze come through the windows. It was so refreshing as she continued to clean. The more she cleaned, the more grease she encountered. It seemed to be everywhere! Also, there were dried food particles, and other things that were hard to identify. Alice carefully continued to clean. She wanted to do a good job for Momma Eva. It took her about an hour and a half to finish, but she was proud of her work! She looked around and noticed Mrs. Wilson was behind her.
“Are you finished child?”, asked Mrs. Wilson.
“Yes Ma’am,” Alice said as she lowered her head in respect to her employer.
“…Good…Let’s move upstairs. I need you to remove the dirty linen from all three bedrooms, and bring it downstairs to the car parked out back. Mr. Wilson will be waiting for you. Come back upstairs when you’re done.”
Alice removed the linen and did as she was told. When finished she returned upstairs to find Mrs. Wilson.
“Child, get your bucket and put clean water in it. Put this in the water. I want you to damp mop all the floors on this level.” Mrs. Wilson was good at giving orders, thought Alice.
Alice mopped the floors. Her arms and legs were starting to feel weary. She wondered if Momma Eva did this every day. She thought not only am I beat, but I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten since breakfast and it’s almost noon. Alice started to feel light-headed from lack of food. She finished the mopping and turned to find Mrs. Wilson behind her.
“Are you finished child?”, said Mrs. Wilson.
“Yes Ma’am,” Alice said.
“We are going to eat lunch, then you are going with us to Dog River”‘ said Mrs. Wilson without emotion.
Alice started to get excited. Sounds like I will have an opportunity to rest and go to the beach! Alice thought…I didn’t bring my swim suit. She always brought her swim suit when they went to Dog River.
When Alice came downstairs, Mrs. Wilson handed her a ham sandwich with a six and a half ounce bottle of coke.
“Here you go. You can eat outside in the shade.” Mrs. Wilson did not smile. She was a stern lady that kept everything business, no play. Alice found a nice spot to eat her lunch even though it was starting to get hot outside. After eating, she wanted to ask for seconds, but felt uncomfortable.
The family packed the car and Alice rode in the back seat with the kids. It was a tight fit with everything that was packed.
Upon arriving at Dog River, Mrs. Wilson said, “You need to clean the porch next, and I want the floor mopped as well.”
Alice wondered when would it end. She didn’t protest, only keep her thoughts to herself. She was taught that you could not decline any requirements imposed by the employers.
The woman told Alice where everything she needed was located. She swept the porch to remove all the sand. After filling the bucket with warm water and cleaning supplies, Alice headed to the porch to start the next job. She removed the trash, mopped the porch, and arranged things as necessary.
She was pleased with her work until Mr. Wilson spoke. “You didn’t mop under the furniture. You must mop everywhere on the porch.”
Alice obeyed and started to move the furniture. Her hip felt like it slipped out-of-place, and the pain started! Alice was scared to let Mr. Wilson know that she was in pain so she decided not to lift but to drag the furniture where she needed it.
Mr. Wilson screamed at Alice, “Don’t drag the furniture. It will scar the floor!”
Alice replied, “…then you need to move it yourself!”
Alice was shocked the words she was thinking actually came out her mouth! She wondered how her comments would affect her pay. Would Momma Eva find out? The more she pondered, the more confidence she gained. Alice worked all day without breaks and she was tired. She decided enough was enough and she sat down on the porch chair.
The kids noticed Alice. Since she was not working, they thought it was ok to play, so they headed in her direction. Alice’s face must have shown the small, angry growl that was growing in her belly because the man told the kids, “Leave her alone. Its time to head back home.”
Alice was relieved! The day was finally over and she was ready to get paid and go home! She felt she earned a lot today. At least she did a lot and should be compensated.
When Alice and the family arrived home, the woman paid Alice $1.50!
Disappointed, Alice slowly walked to Momma Eva’s house. When she arrived, she noticed the bandana was no longer around Momma Eva’s head. Alice said, “Are you feeling better?”
Eva responded, “Yes, Sweetheart. Thanks for going to work for me today. How did it go?”
Alice was almost too tired to talk, but she told Momma Eva everything. Eva thanked Alice again for taking on her job for the day, and gently took one dollar from Alice’s earnings!
History: For those desiring a deeper understanding of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement for African-Americans, see the short descriptions below.
- Jim Crow – Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a struggling white actor, became famous by performing in blackface makeup as “Jim Crow,” an exaggerated, highly stereotypical black character. By 1838, the term “Jim Crow” was being used as a collective racial epithet for blacks, not as offensive as nigger, but as offensive as coon or darkie. The popularity of minstrel shows aided the spread of Jim Crow as a racial slur. By the end of the 19th century, Jim Crow was being used to describe laws and customs that oppressed blacks. Jim Crow Timeline
- Civil Rights – In the 19th and 20th centuries, the resistance of African-Americans to their oppression was expressed in three general approaches, as illustrated by prominent leaders. Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) stressed industrial schooling for African-Americans and gradual social adjustment rather than political and civil rights. Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) called for racial separatism and a “Back-to-Africa” colonization program. W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) argued that African-Americans were in the United States to stay and should fight for their freedom and political equality; it was this approach that laid the foundation for the American civil rights movement. Civil Rights Timeline
Between The Dashes