“You’re the real Miss Skeeter!” people often exclaim upon meeting Susan Tucker. Little known outside circles of African-American or women’s studies, Tucker assembled, in the late 1970s, an important collection of oral history narratives about black domestic workers in the segregated South, which preceded and later contributed to “The Help.”
Interestingly, Tucker’s personal history closely resembles that of Skeeter Phelan, a central character in Kathryn Stockett’s novel. Tucker began working on her book at age 29.
The experience of researching and writing “Telling Memories Among Southern Women” established Tucker’s life’s work. In 1985, she became a fellow at the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women. She is currently the archivist at the Newcomb College Institute.
Tucker was born in Mobile, Ala., into a wealthy family, not unlike many of the white families she interviewed, employing both a cook and chauffeur.
Her father, Dr. Tucker, would often remind: “I hope you girls know not everyone lives like this.”
Her grandmother’s maid frequently brought the sisters to her home in the black neighborhood to play with other children.
“It seemed somehow an adventure, and looking back, I see that this was because such a visit entailed both curiosity and fear,” Tucker recalled.
“Social racial custom was inextricably a part of any relationship I had with a black woman,” Tucker wrote in the book’s preface. The unspoken rules had been made long before for reasons no one would discuss.
Tucker gained insight into the lives of domestic workers after college when she went to France to work as an au pair girl. Besides minding three small children, she straightened their bedrooms, “ironed socks and polished shoes.” Cohabiting the attic with other domestics, she got a real insider’s perspective.
“I thought a lot about social conditions. I thought about the Alsatian woman who was doing work at an advanced age,” she said.
By the time she returned to Alabama, Congress had passed the Equal Rights Amendment and the Women’s Movement had begun.
A history major at Newcomb, she struggled to make sense of the feminist revolution. Curious why white women in the South seemed less angry than their northern counterparts, she concluded Southern women maintained the status quo because they had inexpensive staff raising their children and doing their housework.
In 1973, Tucker took a job with the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), a federal survey research project. There, she met Mary Yelling, a black social worker. When Tucker launched her book project in 1979, she engaged Yelling to conduct many of the 92 interviews in Florida, Alabama and Louisiana.
“As a black woman talking with black women, she was able to establish a rapport more quickly than I was and one of a somewhat different kind,” Tucker said.
|Mary and Alonzo Jr. Yelling|
Yelling recorded stories that revealed the tensions between black and white women. “Everybody that I knew had done domestic work at one time or another,” said Yelling, 70. “I was in the mix,” she added.
Yelling had been brought-up by her great-grandparents because her mother moved to New York and Cleveland to find higher paying work.
“Nobody wanted their children to grow up and be a domestic, even if it paid more,” Yelling said.
Tucker faithfully recorded and carefully edited the oral histories, in a style similar to Studs Terkel’s “Working,” published in 1974, and “My Soul is Rested” by Howell Raines, published in 1977.
“My book tells the story as it really happened,” Tucker said. The women’s lives are not romanticized.
“Telling Memories” includes 21 interviews with domestic workers born between 1882 -1960, as well as 21 white employers.
“The oral history in this book is of a special kind, the kind that employs the recording of memories as the only means to ensure that those who are involved in a particular facet of history be included if not in the writing of that history, at least as historical sources,” according to Oral History Association guidelines.
After each interview, Tucker transcribed the tapes in longhand, requiring between 15 and 30 hours apiece. Names were changed and interviews edited as if presented in a single, long monologue. Every narrative was reedited from eight to 10 times to capture the attitudes and feelings of the speaker.
“I’d never seen a white woman work that hard,” Yelling said.
“Telling Memories” remains an important resource for historians of African-American culture and women’s history.
“Every single year, something happens with this book,” Tucker said. “It won’t go away.”