Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940

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9781560983620: Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940

This oral history portrays the lives of African American women who migrated from the rural South to work as domestic servants in Washington, D.C., in the early decades of this century. In Living In, Living Out, Elizabeth Clark-Lewis narrates the personal experiences of eighty-one women who worked for wealthy white families. These women describe how they encountered - but never accepted - the master-servant relationship, and recount the strategies they used to change their status from "live in" servants to daily paid workers who "lived out."
Clark-Lewis describes the women's roots in the rural South, where limited prospects encouraged African American families to plan their daughters' migration to northern cities. While still very young, girls were trained to do household chores; as they got older, "traveling talk" began to prepare them to survive in the world of white employers. After an elaborate search for places to live with northern kin, girls were sent off with familiar folk rituals: they were given charms for good luck, blessings from the church, and fetishes for remembrance.
With candor and passion, the women interviewed tell of adjusting to city life "up North," of being placed as live-in servants, and of the frustrations and indignities they endured as domestics. By networking on the job with laundresses and at churches and penny savers clubs, they found ways to transform the master-servant relationship into an employer-employee relationship. Clark-Lewis points out that their perseverance and courage not only improved their own lot but also transformed work life for succeeding generations of African American women. A series of in-depth vignettes about the later years of these women bears poignant witness to their efforts to carve out lives of fulfillment and dignity.

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About the Author:

Elizabeth Clark-Lewis is director of the Public History Program at Howard University.

From Booklist:

Clark-Lewis conducted interviews with African American women born in rural areas of the South around the turn of the century. It is with great respect that she presents the life stories collected from these stirring oral histories. Each woman migrated to Washington, D.C., while still very young in order to find work, and in this way contributed to her family's welfare by sending money home each month. Clark-Lewis portrays the background for this vast migration, illustrating the harsh conditions that existed for the young girls once they assumed live-in positions with the families of Washington's white elite. Throughout her study, Clark-Lewis shows the strength of the African American community and the inner fortitude of a generation of women who networked in order to find the day work that would eventually lead to more independence and release from an enduring form of servitude. Alice Joyce

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Elizabeth Clark-Lewis
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