Stewart’s research released in The Journal of American History
Cornell College Professor of History Catherine Stewart’s research is providing new clues to how Black domestic workers in Southern households during the Great Depression found ways to survive their jobs and enjoy their lives.
And what she found wasn’t what many historians assumed was true. That’s why the Journal of American History recently published her findings.
The journal released “Household Accounts: Black Domestic Workers in Southern White Spaces during the Great Depression” on Dec. 1, 2021.
Stewart’s research stems from her work on her second book about Black domestic workers during the Great Depression, which she’s currently writing. She says there’s a gap in the history books about what happened in Southern households during the 1930s.
“There’s an archival bias and silence about workers who were experiencing inequity and discrimination as a result of both of racial prejudice and their status as ‘menial workers,’ as domestic servants,” Stewart said. “That has led to an absence in archival records from the 1930s of the voices of domestic workers, particularly those who did not participate in the Great Migration to the urban north.”
During the research for her book, Stewart stumbled upon a unique set of 92 essays written from 1928 through 1940. While challenging to read, she combed through each one of the hand-written essays on microfilm. They were written by undergraduates in a sociology course at a small, Southern white women’s college in Georgia.
The students were assigned to write about the domestic workers in their homes. Stewart says these essays provide a window into the power dynamics of the Southern home.
“Unfortunately, it’s not the first-hand perspective of the domestic workers themselves,” Stewart said. “So, I had to use the first-person narratives of these privileged Southern white students and push through their framework, their biases, and their lenses to try to pull out the experience of African American workers from those fragmentary, unreliable, biased narratives.”
Stewart explored the essays with a question: How did domestic workers in the South, where Jim Crow laws were prevalent, maintain their employment during the Great Depression and still find ways to enjoy their lives and survive the job?
And what she discovered alters how we think of the past.
“Historians tend to think that once there has been a certain amount of literature generated on a subject that says a particular truism, we can all fall into the rut of believing that, assuming it, and repeating it until it becomes its own kind of unverified truth,” Stewart said. “And I think when you go back to the archives, you can always uncover new insights and new clues that can challenge those traditional assumptions.”
And that’s exactly what Stewart’s research does. She says her findings are different from those assumptions about domestic workers during the 1930s.
“One of those main assumptions is that African American women who were laboring as domestic workers during the 1930s, and even before that, were usually working in isolation,” Stewart said. “One of the interesting things about the student essays is that they talk about their household staff.”
The students wrote about a cook, a maid, a child caretaker, a butler, a yardman, and sometimes a laundry woman. Stewart says not every home had multiple staff members, but the essays suggest there were many situations where individuals worked alongside others.
The second big finding was that there were a number of Black men employed as domestic workers.
“I think traditionally the stereotype and the assumption has been that it was always women doing domestic work, and I think it really changes the picture when we think about African American men working in private households as domestic staff and domestic laborers,” Stewart said. “This alters our conception of what the power dynamics and relationships were like with employers and between coworkers themselves.”
A third discovery showed that household workers would sometimes fight back against oppressive situations to limit employers’ demands. For example, they would refuse, either directly or indirectly, to perform certain tasks outside of their job description or refuse to use honorific titles such as “Mr.” when addressing their employer’s growing children.
At the same time, workers were also finding ways to enjoy their lives as much as possible, such as taking Sundays off for church and using amenities in white households such as the telephone or piano for their own purposes.
“While I found evidence of forms of overt resistance to white supremacy and Jim Crow, I also found more covert means of resistance and individual forms of negotiation with employers that were beneath the radar,” Stewart said. “In addition to that, I discovered all of these other creative ways in which this group of workers found ways to labor for themselves. They took a job that seemed like a dead-end job, a job that was disregarded, and they took the worst of possible circumstances and still found creative ways to move their own aspirations, dreams, and objectives forward, even in the most limited of contexts. I find that very moving.”
Stewart is looking forward to tying these new findings into her history classes at Cornell College. In addition, these essays will be expanded upon in her upcoming book.
It’s a topic that she knows is important to continue studying as another way to expose the truth of what’s happening both then and now.
“This legacy of inequality, discrimination, and oppression, was the result of not just race, but sometimes gender and also class,” Stewart said. “It all contributed to this group of workers really being demeaned, exploited, and dismissed. That legacy, unfortunately, carries on, even today. There’s a new national, and even international, awareness of the ways in which sometimes the most essential workers, and certainly in this case domestic workers, who contribute to the economic success of the nation at the most critical level, have for too long been historically underrepresented, underpaid, and unrecognized in different national, regional, and local contexts.”
And as for Stewart, herself, she’s grateful for the support she received from her colleagues at Cornell and for the publication of her work in the Journal of American History.
“I still think back to my graduate school days when my retiring mentor gave me his entire collection of the Journal of American History,” Stewart said. “I remember receiving that and thinking this is something that I will never be able to publish in. This is the star out of reach. To have reached it is an incredible and humbling experience.”