'The Help' in real life: 5 locals share their stories of time as domestic workers

  • Posted: Wednesday, August 10, 2011 12:01 a.m., Updated: Friday, March 23, 2012 10:25 p.m.
Mary Jane Foreman

Dale Robinette/Dreamworks/MCT

Viola Davis (right) stars in “The Help” with Emma Stone (left) and Octavia Spencer.

One said her boss tried to keep her in her place. Another said her boss suggested she aim higher in life. The experience of black domestic workers during the ’50s and ’60s depended on who the boss was.

The film adaptation of “The Help,” which opens here today, shines a light on days when African-Americans were expected to clean white people’s homes, and more. We talked with five Lowcountry people about their experiences:

Mary Jane Foreman started working in houses on the Isle of Palms in 1956. She was 15 and took domestic jobs during summers while in high school. Foreman, who comes from Mount Pleasant, now lives in Hinesville, Ga.

“It was not an option at the time,” Foreman said. “I worked to supplement the family income. The work provided money to buy school clothes and supplies. I would clean and babysit and some days you had to do breakfast for the family.

“It kept you off the farm,” Foreman said half-jokingly. “You could work in an air-conditioned house or 110-degree heat. I was a house black. My salary was $3.50 a day. That was almost like the top salary at the time.

“The people I worked for did not have a problem with what door you came through, they just wanted you there. I worked for a doctor and that made life easier for me. He was an inspiration. It was because of him that I became a nurse. He said I should not spend my life working as domestic help.”

Foreman studied practical nursing at Roper Hospital, then married and moved away at 20 because her husband was in the Army. She obtained a degree in education from the University of Maryland, but continued to work as a nurse for the Army.

When Catherine Frasier was 14, she caught the maids’ bus from Mount Pleasant to Sullivan’s Island. Once there, she knocked on doors looking for a job cooking, cleaning or baby-sitting in one of the houses.

That was the late ’40s and it was a summer job.

“They hired me to babysit. Then they added on cleaning the house. But they didn’t increase the money. I was getting about $10 a week, which was considered good money. They would never say, ‘Well Catherine, you get yourself something to eat.’ You’d have to sneak and eat out of their pots.

“They had a special bathroom in the house. Some had rooms out back for the maid to change or use the bathroom. Some had special plates and forks for the maids to use.”

Frasier said she worked in four houses during summers. She graduated from Laing High School in 1949, then trained to become a hairdresser and set up shop in the back of her father’s store.

Sherman Pyatt of Charleston was taken to work with his grandmother when he was 9. It was the late ’50s and Emma Pyatt cleaned, cooked and sometimes babysat grandchildren at a big house on the Battery.

Pyatt’s job was to polish all of the brass he could find. When he was 10, he used a stepladder to reach and polish the chandeliers.

The wife in the house was distant, Pyatt said. She would nod her head or grunt when she encountered him. If the woman drove Emma Pyatt home, his grandmother would sit in the back seat.

In March, Pyatt received an email from a member of that family. It was just before his book, “Emma’s Cast Iron Skillet: Lowcountry Recipes and Untold Stories,” featuring his grandmother’s recipes was released. The woman said his grandmother had worked for her family and wanted to know if his grandmother’s corn pudding recipe was in the book.

He didn’t respond.

“She really brought back memories,” he said. “Some of the food my grandmother cooked for them, she did not prepare for us. She did not have the ingredients because they were expensive. She would bring home the leftovers in a brown paper bag ... a portion of a broccoli casserole or baked chicken.

“By the time I was 12 my grandmother had a stroke. She probably stopped working for them in the ’60s and was making less than minimum wage. My grandmother died in 1968 and I don’t recall anyone from that family sending any condolences.”

Jeanette Lee of Mount Pleasant worked beside her mother, Martha Gaillard, in a home on the peninsula as a teen in the late ’50s. While her mother had a key to the house and was not expected to use the back door, there still were rules.

“She had her own dressing room. It was a little place built in the back of the house with a bathroom. You know, that was just the rule back then. My mama worked for them for 35 years. She started off at about $3 a day. Mama left in 1981. She might have been making $35 a week for three days work. They paid her Social Security and they left money in the wills for her. One left more than $20,000 and the other about $5,000. Their son came to her funeral.”

Albertha Williams worked in North Charleston and peninsula houses from 1955 to 1964. They weren’t paying enough, she said.

“I worked for three people and I quit all of them.”

She usually left because her employers’ lists of duties were too long, including one she remembers well.

“She wanted me to polish the furniture, do the laundry, make the beds, dust the furniture, run the vacuum, sweep off the porch and the sidewalk, and polish the brass outside, because her neighbor’s maid did that.”

Yet, things had improved from the generation before.

Women of her mother’s generation used the back door, carried their own lunch, couldn’t eat at the kitchen table and used separate bathrooms. And their employers tended not to make Social Security payments.

Williams, a nurse, said she now has her own health care business and loves the work.

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