In 1952 when I was 9 years old, my father was stationed at an Air Force base in Atlanta, Georgia. Soon after we moved into a new house there, other officers’ wives started suggesting to my mother that she hire a “Negro” maid (at that time, “Negro” was the polite term for African American people). For some weeks, my mother rejected these suggestions. She could certainly care for her own household and children. She changed her mind, however, when she found out she would only have to pay a dollar an hour for help. A small amount to her, $8 a day might be all a Southern Negro family would have to live on. So, she hired a very nice lady named Suzy to come clean our house twice a week.
Suzy’s first day at our house was interesting. Come lunchtime, for example, Suzy informed us that she had to have a different set of dishes than those we used. My mother had to rummage around to find dishes with a different pattern than our dishes, so the dishes “fo dah coloreds,” as Suzy said, could be kept separate from the dishes “fo dah white people” like us. What she found that was different were my brother’s well-used plastic plate and cup. My brother, who until that day had not known he was white, would not be using his Lone Ranger dishes any more.
That wasn’t all: Suzy also had to have different kitchen and bathroom towels to dry her hands on, which we could no longer use. And she got to sit in the cheerful kitchen to have lunch, while we now had to sit in the dining room, where we had to practice our manners.
My brother and I understood less than nothing about what the color of one’s skin meant in those days. My mother, however, was learning how much damage slavery, poverty and racism had done to this woman who had come into our lives.
Over the next few weeks, my mother tried several times to treat Suzy as an equal, but each time she succeeded only in upsetting her. On these occasions, Suzy would say, “Yes’m, but you don unnerstan. Dat be what is.” My mother realized she would have to go along with the status quo.
Then came a day my mother would always remember.
It rained that morning, and Suzy showed up with her uniform soaked and dripping. My mother asked her how she’d gotten to work and was shocked to learn that the trip from Suzy’s home to hers was eight miles, only six of it by bus. This woman had walked two miles in 90-degree rainy weather and then stood on a steaming crowded bus for six miles. She would have to clean house, cook, do laundry and iron all day and then make the same exhausting trip back home. All for $8.
At the end of the day, my mother didn’t want to hear about any dat-be-what-is stuff and insisted upon driving Suzy home. When they arrived at Suzy’s little house, they found her son in the front yard. Suzy introduced him: “Miz Senneville maam, dis my son, Larry. Larry, say hello to Miz Senneville.”
Larry stood up very straight and said carefully, “How do you do, Miz Sent-Fill, maam.”
My mother replied, “Very well, thank you, Larry.” And how old are you, may I ask?”
Still ramrod straight, Larry replied, “I be 10.”
Quick as a flash, Suzy reached out and slapped her son so hard he actually fell in the dust at my mother’s feet. “I be 10, MAAM,” she commanded. Larry scrambled to his feet, tears in his eyes, and repeated, “I be 10, ma’am.”
My mother was mortified. She turned to Suzy and said, “Surely he doesn’t have to say ma’am to me.”
“Yess’m,” said Suzy, “but Miz Senneville maam, I know you don unnerstan how it be, but dis here Nigra boy, he learn to say maam to white womens or he wine up in jail or dead. He cannot forgit, evah.”
She was absolutely right. In the South of this country fifty years ago, dat be what was. Martin Luther King would not have a dream for another 11 years.
Suzy cleaned our house for five years until my father was stationed elsewhere. My mother picked her up every morning and took her home every evening that she worked for us. Because in my mother’s house, that was the way it was.