Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2017/Fall/Section 26/HesterFrye

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Hester Frye
BornUnknown
Sumter County, Alabama, United States of America
DiedUnknown
NationalityAmerican
OccupationDomestic Servant
ChildrenOne Daughter

Overview[edit]

Hester “Hessie” Frye was a domestic servant working in Sumter County, Alabama in the late 1930s.

Early Life[edit]

Frye’s mother, a slave named Lucy Frye, was relocated to Alabama from Charleston, South Carolina before the Civil War. Hester Frye was born at a home called in Tishabee, Sumter County, Alabama, on an unknown date. Lucy and Hester Frye worked for Bob Johnson, his wife, Caroline Frye, and their sons, Joe and Johnny. Frye did not know any of her family other than her mother, due to Lucy's relocation. For the Johnston family, Hester performed duties such as ironing and looking after the house. [1]

Later Life[edit]

Frye worked at the same home and never married. She had one daughter, Rose, of mixed racial heritage, whose father is unknown. After the deaths of both her mother and the Johnston family, Hester worked as domestic servant for Mr. Charlie. She performed household duties, though complained that there was not much of a house to take care of, because the Old Johnston Place had fallen into a state of disrepair as both Frye and Mr. Charlie aged. Frye was never religious, and confessed that she did not believe in God because she had never been taught how. Frye’s many masters and employers did not have faith in God and discouraged her education. Frye, though she did not know her own age, talked about her own death often and believed she could feel her death coming. Her death date is unknown. [2]

African American maid works in a kitchen with her employer[3].

African Americans Working in the South[edit]

After the Civil War, segregation in the manual labor and domestic service industry was enforced by paternalism. White people depended on black people to perform manual labor, work they considered to be beneath them. Employers used relationships founded in love, affection, and praise as an insidious way to establish an unequal relationship that forced black workers into subordination.[4] This relationship was possible through the failure of Reconstruction. When the Reconstruction era ended, the South returned to self-rule. Using Jim Crow laws and preventing African Americans from voting through various methods such as literacy tests and threats of physical or financial harm, Southern whites created a class system that placed even the poorest whites at an advantage over all African Americans [5]. This system, along with lynching and other ways of instilling terror, made the respite seemingly provided by paternalism attractive to the African American population. [6]

Domestic Labor in the 1930s[edit]

After the Civil War, African Americans turned to manual labor and domestic service for employment. Increasingly, African American women, especially in the South, took on the role of domestic servant. African American women were pigeon-holed into domestic service by their supposed inherent skills in serving others and the typical lack of an extensive education[7]. White women, especially if Native born, often rejected the role of domestic servant, because they equated it to slavery[8]. In this role, African American women often worked for little or no pay. They were also subject to many abuses, such as long working hours and incredibly arduous tasks [9]. On top of the difficulties in their work, these women also dealt with the daily oppression that came with their skin tone and with their sex. A permanent position in a household was difficult to obtain. Most women paid fees to employment agencies and would obtain work for a day or a week at a time. When a household position could not be obtained, female laborers would sometimes work for commercial laundry businesses, where they were forced to compete with each other by undercutting their prices so that a white housewife would hire them to do her laundry [10]. Abuses such as these were prevalent in the industry.

Forced Labor After the Civil War[edit]

In the 75 years from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of World War II, it is estimated that thousands of African Americans were members of an involuntary work force, despite legally being free. This servitude was accomplished through the courts—white landowners and government officials, motivated by their own extreme prejudices and a perceived economic need, used the law to punish African Americans for arbitrary actions. For example, every Southern state except Arkansas and Tennessee by the end of 1866 had passed “vagrancy” laws as a part of Black Codes, and used a wide definition of those laws to arrest African Americans for any behavior that could be perceived as idling, suspicious or not [11]. Four states passed a law that freed slaves could not get another job without “discharge papers” from their former employer, which often forced them to remain at their former plantation [12]. This process of using the law to force African Americans into labor was a result of a provision in the Thirteenth Amendment[13]. The Thirteenth Amendment states: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."[14] The provision "except as punishment for crime" allows the use of involuntary servitude as a penalty for breaking the law.

References[edit]

  1. “No Lawd I Ain’t Ready” in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. Ibid.
  3. John Vachon, “San Augustine, Texas. Mrs. Thomas, the wife of a wholesale grocer, in her kitchen with her maid,” Library of Congress, 1943, http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/res/071_fsab.html
  4. Katherine Van Wormer, David W. Jackson, and Charletta Sudduth. "What we can Learn of History from Older African American Women Who Worked as Maids in the Deep South." Western Journal of Black Studies 37, no. 4 (2013): 227-235. http://bsc.chadwyck.com/search/displayIibpCitation.do?SearchEngine=Opentext&area=p&id=00447715
  5. Horace Mann Bond. "Social and Economic Forces in Alabama Reconstruction." The Journal of Negro History 23, no. 3 (1938): 290-348. doi:10.2307/2714686.
  6. Van Wormer, Katherine, David W. Jackson, and Charletta Sudduth. "What we can Learn of History from Older African American Women Who Worked as Maids in the Deep South." Western Journal of Black Studies 37, no. 4 (2013): 227-235.http://bsc.chadwyck.com/search/displayIibpCitation.do?SearchEngine=Opentext&area=p&id=00447715
  7. Claudia May. (2015). “Airing dirty laundry: Representations of domestic laborers in the works of african american women writers” 1. Feminist Formations, 27(1), 141-166.http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1683316384?countid=14244
  8. Enobong Hannah Branch, and Melissa E. Wooten. "Suited for Service: Racialized Rationalizations for the Ideal Domestic Servant from the Nineteenth to the Early Twentieth Century." Social Science History 36, no. 2 (2012): 169-89.http://www.jstor.org/stable/23258091.
  9. Claudia May. (2015). “Airing dirty laundry: Representations of domestic laborers in the works of african american women writers” 1. Feminist Formations, 27(1), 141-166.http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1683316384?countid=14244
  10. ibid.
  11. Brent Tarter. “Vagrancy Act of 1866.” Encyclopedia Virginia. August 25, 2015. Accessed October 10, 2017. https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Vagrancy_Act_of_1866
  12. D. A. Blackmon (2013, Jan). “America's twentieth-century slavery”. The Washington Monthly, 45, 22-26.http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1283762536? ccountid=14244
  13. James Gray Pope. "Contract, Race, and Freedom of Labor in the Constitutional Law of "Involuntary Servitude"." The Yale Law Journal 119, no. 7 (2010): 1474-567. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25681947.
  14. U.S. Const. amend. XIII. Sec. 1.