Domestic workers and their employment in Mississippi have been intimately connected with issues of race and gender. Before the Civil War, most servants were African American slaves. While some urban employers preferred white or free black workers, the vast majority employed slaves to carry out domestic tasks. Few households in antebellum Mississippi could afford a large force of domestic workers, but many families considered having at least one servant an indispensable measure of status and made serious efforts to purchase or hire household workers. In towns, many slaveholders brought in extra income by hiring out slaves to work as domestics, though the practice was less common in rural areas. On many farms and plantations, slaves often performed both field and house duties. Most domestic workers were females who worked as cooks, laundresses, maids, nurses, and in other capacities, although wealthier households might also have male slaves serving as body servants, footmen, or gardeners. While white employers spoke of a special, paternalistic bond with their household workers, the servants themselves often resented the close supervision of their work and used their positions to help their families and the larger slave community through activities such as stealing food or gathering information.
The outbreak of the Civil War brought radical changes for domestic workers and their employers. After federal troops reached the state, enslaved domestic workers, like other slaves, began to run away to Union camps. Although slaveholders deplored all such activity, they were especially affected by the desertion of servants, having believed that they felt loyalty toward the families with whom they had worked so closely. Domestics who reached the Union lines often found themselves employed in similar work in the army’s camps.
During and immediately after the war, domestic workers and their employers transitioned from slave to free labor. Many freedwomen—both domestics and field workers—initially withdrew from the labor force and dedicated themselves to working for their own families. However, women often had to rejoin the workforce for financial reasons. Postwar household workers frequently were either single mothers or married women whose husbands could not support their families. The leaders of an 1866 laundry workers’ strike in Jackson wrote a petition stating that low wages and high rents made it “impossible to live uprightly and honestly.”
Reconstruction constituted a transitional period during which many patterns established themselves. Most antebellum domestics had lived with their owners or employers but now began to establish their own households, and by the end of the nineteenth century, very few Mississippi servants lived with their employers. As in the antebellum period, however, African American females continued to comprise most of the state’s domestic workforce, performing a variety of tasks such as cleaning, laundry, child care, and cooking. Late in the century, whites began manufacturing the Mammy myth, which fondly recalled the devoted (and imaginary) domestic slave.
The twentieth century brought many more changes for domestic workers. As massive numbers of Mississippi’s African Americans migrated north, women often supported their families with domestic skills learned in their home state. World War II continued the pattern, drawing many domestics out of Mississippi in search of better jobs in the booming war industries of the western states.
After the war, the civil rights movement, too, had a tremendous impact on domestic workers. Many women began questioning not only southern institutions such as Jim Crow segregation but also the low wages and often degrading working conditions of household service, refusing to wear uniforms and demanding better pay and more respect from their employers. These developments, combined with better educational and occupational opportunities for African American women and the increased use of professional cleaning services, led to a decline in the number of black women employed as servants. However, domestic work, including in-home child care, continues to serve as a primary occupation for many Mississippi women, particularly African Americans.
Discussions about The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel and the 2011 film based on it, dramatized tensions in the lives of domestic workers in 1960s Mississippi and also raised questions about white southerners’ attempts to understand or speak for those workers.
- Ronald L. F. Davis, Good and Faithful Labor: From Slavery to Sharecropping in the Natchez District, 1860–1890 (1982)
- Tera W. Hunter, To ’Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (1997)
- Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present (1985)
- David Katzman, Seven Days a Week: Women and Domestic Service in Industrializing America (1978)
- Leon Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (1979)
- Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968)
- Julia Huston Nguyen, Journal of Mississippi History (Spring 2001)
- Rebecca Sharpless, Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865–1960 (2010)
- Daniel Sutherland, Americans and Their Servants: Domestic Service in the United States from 1800 to 1920 (1981)
- Susan Tucker, Telling Memories among Southern Women: Domestic Workers and Their Employers in the Segregated South (1988)