The maid's narratives

Stories explore the life of Iowa women who worked in Jim Crow south

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As an educator, you never know what’s going to inspire your students. For Dr. David W. Jackson III, an African American Studies professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver, it turned out to be an extra credit assignment.

While teaching African American history at the Des Moines Area Community College, “we did a research project looking at some of the jobs that African Americans were locked into socially in the early 1900s,” he says.

“If students could identify someone who held this type of position and if that person would agree to an interview (the student would receive extra credit).”

Jackson found this project helped his students engage with African American history on a whole new level.

He’s well aware of the power of oral history, having co-produced the oral video history project African American Voices of the Cedar Valley.

For his latest work, Jackson, along with colleagues Drs. Katherine van Wormer and Charletta Sudduth, set out to record the experiences of African American women living in Iowa who worked for white families in the Jim Crow south.

Jackson and his colleagues also recorded experiences from white families who employed black domestics.

The result is “The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South.”

“It is truly a book for everyone,” Jackson says. “It’s a chance to learn about American history.”

  • What: Authors will read from and sign “The Maid Narratives”
  • When: 7 p.m. Jan. 28
  • Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City
  • Cost: Free

It’s also an important opportunity to explore a topic that isn’t always easy to discuss.

“It’s a sensitive topic for (both) African Americans and European Americans … A lot of people of European descent in America — they didn’t agree with Jim Crow and slavery and all these things, but (the white people interviewed were) kind of a product of their environment.”

The African American women interviewed also had a hard time honestly describing their experiences, feeling embarrassed or shame that they didn’t do more when faced with such oppression. Jackson says his students commonly respond to these stories with outrage:

“They say ‘I would not put up with it, I would not tolerate it.’ But it’s not true because they would. It’s survival.”

By working as domestics, Jackson explains, “(These women) are not agreeing with anything. But they’re surviving … These women just weren’t conscious of their own resilience. Do you actually realize how strong you are? You’re talking superwoman.”

There was also a connection to Jackson’s own family. Growing up, he knew his grandmother and aunt worked as domestics, but “when I began my research and my grandmother began to rattle off names … you don’t really realize how deep it runs until it hits home. You read about it, write about it, but this was the reality check for me. It was definitely empowering to know they also endured it.”

All the African American women interviewed in “The Maid Narratives” live in Iowa, making this an important book not only in regards to American History, but to our own local history as well, he says.

The power of these stories was evident back in Jackson’s DMACC classroom.

“There was an appreciation for the struggle. A lot of students began to recognize this is a part of history,” he says.

“People you see walking around in the grocery story, at the mall … these people are really important and we should take pride in our heritage, this local history. We have a story to tell.”

Related: Review - Maid’s narratives tell powerful story

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