DETROIT — At the age of 9, Mary Upshaw McClendon started work cleaning a white family’s house near her hometown of Red Level, Ala.
Relelie Rogers (most people call her Lillie) was 15 when she took over her mother’s job cleaning for a family near Birmingham, Ala. She also had to care for the family’s daughter, who was not quite a year old.
Evelyn Goff, 80, started cleaning suburban homes after she and her husband moved to Detroit from Eudora, Miss., in 1949. She retired from domestic work after 32 years.
Mildred Hooper, 86, of Detroit puts it this way: “That’s the only kind of work they had for black women back then.”
Historians estimate that 70 percent-90 percent of the African-American women who worked before the end of World War II did some type of domestic service for whites.
“The Help,” a movie based on the best-selling book, shines a spotlight on a line of work which still struggles to break free from social stigmas. The movie opened Wednesday.
When McClendon, 87, moved to Detroit from Alabama in 1955, she brought with her a burning desire to improve conditions for domestic workers.
She started the Detroit Household Workers Organization in 1969. The goal was to encourage fair wages, benefits and greater respect for women doing domestic work.
“I never shall forget I was working for one woman and she told me to eat my food in the room where the dog was, not in the room with the family,” McClendon said. “Some of these people were treating their dogs and cats better than we were treated.”
McClendon said that when she worked in the South, she was paid “a dollar and some change,” a day. After moving to Detroit, she earned about $12 a day.
Data from the Michigan Employment Security Commission reports that in 1971 maids were paid $15, car fare and one good meal each day for their work. If they lived with a family, they were paid $75 a week.
After Goff moved to Detroit with her husband, she worked as a maid for more than 30 years. She was paid $8 a day when she first started, but $75 a day by the time she retired in 1983.
Goff said she enjoyed the work because it allowed her a certain level of independence and the families she worked for treated her well. “I had a key so I let myself in; I knew what I needed to do, and let myself out,” she said.
She said she knows some people looked down on her job; she could tell by their reactions when she told them she did domestic work.
“But I didn’t mind. I was making an honest living and helping to take care of my family,” said Goff, who raised five children.
Book clubs and church groups are making movie-dinner dates to see “The Help.” The Home Shopping Network has featured a collection of beauty products, home decor items and fashions inspired by it. The August cover story of “Food & Wine” magazine examines the authenticity of the gorgeous soul food served in the movie, and “The Help” social action campaign has launched a three-part contest encouraging people to share their stories the way the characters do.
Women who worked those jobs and historians who study domestic workers then and now say they hope the reality of the women’s experience and contributions isn’t glossed over in the Hollywood hoopla.
Melba Joyce Boyd, chairwoman of Wayne State University’s Department of Africana Studies, said that people should be aware of the challenges that confronted domestic workers of that time period.
“It was extremely difficult work,” Boyd said. “They worked long hours for very little pay. But these women’s work and determination helped to make a way for future generations to live better lives.”
The threat of sexual abuse was ever-present, said Wayne State University history professor Danielle McGuire.
“Every time a girl or woman took a job, she had to be very careful about what could happen there in that home,” said McGuire, author “At the Dark End of the Street,” a book examining sexual abuse of black women and how it played a role in propelling Rosa Parks’ activism. Just last week, new reports surfaced of a handwritten essay in Park’s personal papers telling how she was nearly raped while working as a housekeeper in 1931.
“I heard a lot of stories of abuse,” McGuire said. “One can only wonder how many women were assaulted and kept silent because they didn’t want to risk their family’s lives and livelihoods.”
Arizona State University professor Mary Romero, who has done extensive research on domestic workers, said the majority of the women doing domestic work these days are Latina.
“It’s difficult to count exactly how many because much of it remains underground work,” said Romero, who authored “Maid in the U.S.A.,” and “The Maid’s Daughter: Living Inside and Outside the American Dream” (NYU Press, $27.95), which will be released next month.
“A great deal of it remains part of the underground economy, so a lot of employers don’t think of themselves as employers, so they don’t offer any kind of benefits. If (the workers) get Social Security taken out, that’s a luxury. There’s no sick leave, so if they’re ill or someone in their family is ill for a long time, they risk being fired.”
Romero said there has been limited progress in the field — mostly for white women.
Many women have turned the cleaning field into lucrative professional businesses. “These women get bonded, start companies and own their own equipment, but what you find is that many of those actually doing the work are Latinos,” Romero said.
Rogers, 68, said cleaning house suited her because she developed a fondness for cleanliness and orderliness from her mother, who couldn’t stand a nasty house.
Rogers quit working for one woman because that woman couldn’t keep the house clean even for a day.
“I’d clean the house one day and go back the next day and the house don’t look like nothing I did the day before,” Rogers said. “Each day it was just like you ain’t cleaned up.”
Rogers went on to work for another family for 16 years. Her primary assignments were cleaning the house and helping to care for two elderly women who lived there.
“When they went to the doctor, I’d have to watch their stories (soap operas) until they got back,” she said.
Though she remained friends with the women and their families, she eventually left their employment and cleaned at Thorn Apple Valley and later Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan. She retired in 2008.
Rogers said she always took pride in her work and is grateful that it helped her raise five children.
“I’ve always liked for things to be clean and organized,” she said. “I like everything in its place. That comes from the way I grew up. My mother could smell dirt a mile away.”
Cleaning, cooking and taking care of children
Domestic workers were often far more than house cleaners. Many cleaned the house, the clothes, took care of the children and cooked. Today, it would cost an estimated $364 a day to hire a person to do all that, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Here are the mean hourly rates from the bureau’s Occupational Employment and Wages data released in May 2010:
- Private household cook: $14.95
- Maid: $10.17
- Child care worker: $10.15
- Laundry worker: $10.21
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic: Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2010.