"You all got to get done and get out of my kitchen"
African American servant cleaning a fireplace
Public DomainAfrican American servant cleaning a fireplace - Credit: Library of Congress

Dilsey’s injunction reflects the equivocal power that could be attained by black women in the post-Emancipation South. Though technically ‘free’, the daily lives of African Americans after the Civil War differed little to those under slavery. The majority of women held positions as domestic servants in the employment of white middle- and upper-class families. These jobs were extremely ill-paid, and access to left-overs was often all that stood between the servant’s own family and starvation. Nonetheless, whites were highly reliant on servants for the maintenance of their households and the upbringing of their children: like Dilsey, many were able to exploit this dependency to gain a considerable degree of power and influence in the domestic sphere.

 

Hannah Pine, an African American servant photographed in 1902
Public DomainHannah Pine, an African American servant photographed in 1902 - Credit: Alexander Allison