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'The Maid Narratives' a collection of stories from black Iowa women during Jim Crow era to be digitized, transcribed

The Maid Narratives by Katherine van Wormer, David Jackson III and Charletta Sudduth.
The Maid Narratives by Katherine van Wormer, David Jackson III and Charletta Sudduth.
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Eight years after the book “The Maid Narratives” collected stories from black Iowa women who were domestic workers in the Jim Crow era, those narratives are finding new life at the Iowa Women’s Archives at the University of Iowa.

“The importance of these interviews really rests in the fact they’re representative of the thousands of African American women who worked in domestic service,” said Janet Weaver, assistant curator at the Iowa Women’s Archives. “We’re delighted to preserve these stories in the Iowa Women’s Archives.”

The archives, which are housed in the UI’s Main Library, is in the process of digitizing and transcribing the narratives. Originally recorded on cassette tapes, they’re currently available to listen to at the archives, but once the process is complete the full transcripts will be available to read online. They include interviews that weren’t included in the book, which was published in 2012, as well as the full length, unedited versions of the interviews the book included excerpts of.

In recognition of the effort and to mark March as Women’s History Month, the Iowa Women’s Archives are hosting a discussion March 3 about the book and the stories it tells, in partnership with the Iowa City Public Library and the UI Obermann Center for Advanced Studies.

The books authors, Charletta Sudduth, an early childhood consultant with the Waterloo Community School District; David Jackson III, an adjunct assistant professor in the UI African American Studies program; and Katherine van Wormer, professor emeritus at the University of Northern Iowa Department of Social Work, will participate in the conversation, along with Sudduth’s mother Annie Pearl Stevenson, a Civil Rights activist and former domestic worker who was interviewed for “The Maid Narratives”; and Cornell College history professor Catherine Stewart, who currently is an Obermann fellow-in-residence and working on a new book on the topic, “The New Maid: African American Women and Domestic Service During the New Deal.”

Stewart said hearing from the women directly about their experiences is important to understanding the full picture of what life was like for everyday people in this period of history, and she’s excited the full transcripts will be available to the public, especially since many of those interviewed in the book have since died.

“I think these interviews are invaluable for the ways they give us a sense of what relationships were like in Southern households,” Stewart said. “One of the things that’s so valuable about (“The Maid Narratives”) is they really understood time was of the essence to get these stories down.”

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The stories in “The Maid Narratives” come from interviews with women who grew up in the South and later moved to Iowa, with most of the interviews from women in Waterloo and Des Moines.

“Women’s History Month is a time to honor these women. It was the women who were servants who were at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement,” van Wormer said.

She talked about one story from the book, of Irene Williams, who told stories of her own mother leaving to be a live-in nanny for a white family and being gone for weeks at a time.

“Irene lived with her grandmother. She described herself crying and crying. You could almost hear the voice of a heartbroken child in those words,” van Wormer said. “She would tell her stories to her grandbabies, as she called them, and they would kind of fuss at her and say, ‘We wouldn’t have stood for that.’ She wanted to give that interview so the next generations would know what it was really like.”

“I hope people take away an understanding of the resilience of the women, an understanding of how they survived,” van Wormer said. “It’s what Irene would say to her grandbabies: ‘We did what we had to to survive.’”

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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