Abena Productions


Living In, Living Out, 1st Edition

Living In, Living Out, 2nd Edition

Living In, Living Out


This study is based on interviews with Southern-born "African American women who served the homes of whites in Washington, DC in the early 20th century." (Choice) Index.


This oral history portrays the lives of African American women who migrated from the rural South to work as domestic servants in Washington, D.C., in the early decades of this century. In Living In, Living Out, Elizabeth Clark-Lewis narrates the personal experiences of eighty-one women who worked for wealthy white families. These women describe how they encountered - but never accepted - the master-servant relationship, and recount the strategies they used to change their status from "live in" servants to daily paid workers who "lived out." Clark-Lewis describes the women's roots in the rural South, where limited prospects encouraged African American families to plan their daughters' migration to northern cities. While still very young, girls were trained to do household chores; as they got older, "traveling talk" began to prepare them to survive in the world of white employers. After an elaborate search for places to live with northern kin, girls were sent off with familiar folk rituals: they were given charms for good luck, blessings from the church, and fetishes for remembrance. With candor and passion, the women interviewed tell of adjusting to city life "up North," of being placed as live-in servants, and of the frustrations and indignities they endured as domestics. By networking on the job with laundresses and at churches and penny savers clubs, they found ways to transform the master-servant relationship into an employer-employee relationship. Clark-Lewis points out that their perseverance and courage not only improved their own lot but also transformed work life for succeeding generations of African American women. A series of in-depth vignettes about the later years of these women bears poignant witness to their efforts to carve out lives of fulfillment and dignity.


From Alice Joyce - BookList  

Clark-Lewis conducted interviews with African American women born in rural areas of the South around the turn of the century. It is with great respect that she presents the life stories collected from these stirring oral histories. Each woman migrated to Washington, D.C., while still very young in order to find work, and in this way contributed to her family's welfare by sending money home each month. Clark-Lewis portrays the background for this vast migration, illustrating the harsh conditions that existed for the young girls once they assumed live-in positions with the families of Washington's white elite. Throughout her study, Clark-Lewis shows the strength of the African American community and the inner fortitude of a generation of women who networked in order to find the day work that would eventually lead to more independence and release from an enduring form of servitude.

From J.H. Smith - Choice  

Recounted through extensive quotations, {this} story reveals the nature of the migration from the South, the symbolism of the hated uniforms, the pride of moving from living in to working out, the preparation for doing good housework, the special role of the laundress as cultural facilitator, and the work ethic of proud women who had to be servile. This basic study will be a foundation for broader subsequent interpretations of urban labor, women, and African American history.

From James Borchert - The Journal of American History  

The research is heavily based on the author's extensive interviews with ninety-seven women. . . . The study also draws effectively on a wide variety of other primary and secondary sources. This is an excellent book; it is a masterly use of oral history to develop an ethnographic account. . . . Clark-Lewis especially effective in identifying the language and folkways of migrant servants; she demonstrates respect for these pioneers' lives as well as important insight into their experience. The study is rich in ethnographic detail and well organized and written. There are minor problems; it is unclear how typical the Washington experience is, and the larger context of Afro-Washington remains obscure. Although well illustrated, the captions often lack important information, while interviewee descriptions disrupt the flow of the story.

From Booknews  

This oral history portrays the lives of African American women who migrated from the rural South to work as domestic servants in Washington, D.C. in the early decades of this century. Clark-Lewis (Director of the Public History Program at Howard U.) engagingly narrates the personal experiences of 81 women who describe their roots in the rural South, their training for future work in the homes of wealthy whites, the ways they coped with the master-servant relationship, and the strategies they used to change their status from "live-in" servants to daily paid workers who "lived out." Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com).


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