Dilsey is thought to be based on Faulkner’s own ‘mammy’, Caroline (or Callie) Barr. This warm, vital and impulsive woman was born into slavery in 1840, under the rule of Hugh Barr, a prominent Lafayette slave owner. As a result of the limited opportunities available to blacks, she continued to work in a similar capacity as a servant after Emancipation in 1863. She joined the Faulkner family shortly after they moved to Oxford, Mississippi in 1902, when William was just five years old. A deep mutual bond developed between them that progressed from the nurturing relationship of childhood to a strong adult friendship. Though illiterate, she was a superb storyteller and her accounts of her pre-Civil War experiences and the Ku Klux Klan’s campaign of terror had a major impact on Faulkner’s portrayals of race and womanhood. Characters inspired by Callie Barr feature in several novels, including Molly Beauchamp in Go Down, Moses (1942), which is dedicated to her memory.
When, after a century-long life, she passed away, Faulkner held the funeral service in the lounge of his home at Rowan Oak. Her gravestone in St Peter’s Cemetery bears the inscription, “her white children bless her”.