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Gilding the Dishrag

New exhibit at the Black History Museum explores black domestic workers of the South's Gilded Age.

An old adage instructs us not to guild our lilies — an expression that encourages appreciation over desire. That’s why a new exhibit at the Alexandria Black History Museum invites us to explore the years after the Civil War — and particularly post-Reconstruction — when many American blacks toiled in trying times as post-Civil-War animosities were codified in the Jim Crow South.

“Anybody can tell you that housework is not easy,” said Lillian Patterson, curator of the museum. “And if you can get somebody else to do it for you, so much the better.”

Stripping away the superficial gloss and hazy nostalgia of the Gilded Age, the exhibit invites an appreciation for the men and women who carried the backbreaking weight of irrepressible desire and conspicuous consumption. Titled “From Morning to Night: Domestic Service in the Gilded Age South,” the show features local artifacts and Virginia photographs documenting a time of dramatic social, economic and technological change. It includes a set of china that was given to Patterson’s grandmother, who worked as a live-in cook on Massachusetts Avenue.

“People would give their employees leftover dishes as a benefit,” said Patterson. “She gave this set to me as a wedding present.”

IN AN ERA before Social Security, when workers were forced to live at the behest of whatever benefits their employers saw fit to provide, Patterson’s grandmother received the set of china in a spirit of gratitude and forbearance. It was a time now known as “The Gilded Age” — the title of an 1873 novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, which has forever stamped an indelible mark on the late 19th century. To this day, people use the book’s title as shorthand for a era that was fraught with corrupt politicians, segregated cities, crooked land speculators, racial animus, ruthless bankers and — perhaps most importantly — boundless optimism. Ruth Bolton, the heroine of the novel, embodies the mixed emotions of the era.

“She had, for some time, been beaten her wings against the cage of custom, and indulged in dreams of a new social order, and had passed through that fiery period when it seemed possible for one mind, which has not yet tried its limits, to break up and re-arrange the world,” wrote Warner.

Determined not to abandon her dreams, Bolton puts off marriage in order to pursue a career in medicine. Arriving in Washington, she finds a dishonest city with rigid racial boundaries. Blacks were relegated to the background, serving meals and cleaning house. In the novel, they appear as spittoon cleaners and — significantly — cadavers.

“The black face seemed to defy the pallor of death, and asserted an ugly lifelikeness that was frightful,” Warner wrote. “Perhaps it was the wavering light of the candles, perhaps it was only the agony from a death of pain, but the repulsive black face seemed to wear a scowl that said, ‘Haven’t you yet done with this outcast, persecuted black man, but you must now haul him from his grave, and send even you women to dismember his body?”

THE INEQUALITY OF THE Gilded Age was nowhere more evident than in the domestic servitude that was foisted upon blacks after slavery was ended in the smoldering ruin of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s infamous “March to the Sea” in the autumn of 1864. By the time that the 19th century was ending — an era marked by a certain fin de siècle decadence — many blacks felt an overwhelming sense of helplessness.

“We cannot reach the top of the ladder at one bound,” wrote the editor of the Richmond Planet, a leading black newspaper of the era. “Bow low and work! Stoop and conquer. You do the stooping, and your children will do the conquering.”

This quote, appearing in one of the panels of the exhibit, illustrates the duality facing black Americans of the Gilded Age. While they needn’t gild the lily, they also were reluctant to draw too much attention to themselves. And so many blacks found themselves acting as butlers, chauffeurs, cooks, nursemaids and laundresses.

“These are the people who made the home work,” said Audra Davis, assistant director of the museum. “It’s a time when blacks were moving out of slave labor into paid labor, but it was an incredibly hard life because mast African-Americans were working as domestic workers.”

CAROLYN MCCRAE is a native Alexandrian. She has fond memories of Jennie Cantey, the woman who raised her in a small house on Gibbon Street. Canty’s photograph and a collection of her purses are on display at the museum as part of the exhibit, lending an unmistakably local angle to endeavor. At an opening reception for the exhibit earlier this month, McRae recalled how she refused to let a life of working as a domestic worker break her spirit.

“She used this flat iron until the day she died,” said McRae, pointing to an iron in a display case at the museum “She was like that, you know? She refused to use an electric iron because that was who she was.”

McCrae recalled how Canety told stories about her childhood in Little Washington, Va., after a long day of domestic work cooking and cleaning for white families in Old Town. Her stories were inextricably bound with religious undertones, McCrae said, and she was a longtime member of Roberts Chapel — now known as Roberts United Methodist Church. But her careful ear and rich storytelling abilities belied a lack of formal education.

“Had she been able to read and write, she would have been a very smart person,” said McCrae. “She loved people, and she loved to relate stories about the people she had known.”