The Servant in the South (1912)

The Servant in the South (1912)

During slavery days the house servants were rewarded with extra privileges, among which were the left-over food and cast-off clothing of the “big house.” This easily became, under the less rigorous forms of serfdom, a sort of payment in kind for personal service, and now and then “tips” in actual money were given. When formal emancipation came the servants were promised wages, but as a matter of fact the wages were seldom paid in cash, while a money value was often given to the food and old clothes. This old custom could easily degenerate into something very like stealing, and yet the custom could seem justifiable in the eyes of the ignorant, especially when their wages were low and often unpaid, and when they saw mistresses wink at and even expect peculations of this sort. On the other hand, colored servants are not dishonest; money, jewelry and the like are safe in their hands with few exceptions.

The result of the old system was unrest among servants, and the more intelligent and thrifty escaped from domestic service into the care of their own homes or day’s work or other industrial avenues. Or if they continued in service they went North, where instead of receiving $1.50 a week in old clothes and cold victuals, they could earn $5 and $6 a week in cash.

Moreover, the conditions under which a colored servant in the South must work are the worst in the civilized world. The hours are endless, the quarters are poor, the deference demanded is unbearable to people of the least spirit, and the assumption of the natural inferiority of the servant is almost universal.

Not only this but there is in the majority of cases in the South absolutely no protection for the black girl’s virtue in the white man’s home. Everybody knows that the mulatto both before and since slavery was the outcome of house service.

What is the result? Poor and un­willing service. The best Negroes are withdrawing their sons and daughters from house service just as quickly as they can, and they deserve commendation for so doing. Even those Negroes who publicly commend house service are curiously careful to keep their children out of it. Those who cannot escape are demanding shorter hours, proper wages and better treatment. And those Southern families who can keep their black servants but three weeks would better ask advice of their neighbors who keep good and faithful black servants for ten and twenty years.

Instead of responding to a legiti­mate demand for change in working conditions, the majority of South­erners take their usual refuge in whining and shrieking “Negro” problem. Every time that the white South runs head foremost into the inevitable laws of nature by trying to keep slavery, establish peonage, deny manhood rights to men and de­grade decent women—every time the South tries this there is a mawkish sentimentality throughout the North to encourage the idea that these laws are not human but peculiar or racial.

If people pay their laborers low wages and cheat them out of even these, they will get cheap labor, whether that labor be black, white or blue.

If the South or the North wants de­cent domestic service it must

  1. Pay decent wages.

  2. Give shorter hours and more definite duties.

  3. Treat servants as men and women and not as cattle.

The people that are unwilling to do this will find the “servant problem” always with them, even though they nickname it a “Negro” problem.

Citation: Du Bois, W.E.B. 1912. “The Servant in the South.” The Crisis. 3(6):200–201.