On Premises

HA-Church-MothersThis is dedicated to Winnie, Mama Virgie, Aunt Mattie and Mary. These were the women who loved me unconditionally and affirmed my worth as a little black boy growing up in Miami, Florida. They were domestics and worked far away for people who did not look like me and despite returning home many days in the unrelenting clutches of bone aching exhaustion, they always had a smile and a soulful hum. This is also dedicated to the countless other black women who worked as domestics in the south during the 1950’ and 60’s.

Most mornings, they lined the sun-splashed streets in crisp white or pale blue uniforms waiting for public transportation across Biscayne Bay to Miami Beach and the families that required them. They cooked cleaned, organized, and managed households.  At a time and place when social norms demanded a rigid separation of the races, these sturdy black women brought a grace and caring into the homes of the rich, white and powerful. They held little white children close to their hearts and softly told bedtime stories; listened attentively to the inner yearnings and hopes of the women who employed them and dispensed old fashioned mother wit to husbands most often accustomed to duplicity than sincerity. Strong and endurable bonds were often formed that would last a lifetime. If, as was sometimes the practice, they lived on a limited basis with the family in their charge, they were said to be employed, on premises.

They were faithful, dependable, respectful and discrete as they were privy to the public and intimate lives of the families for whom they worked.  These wise and grounded women deftly negotiated two different worlds and intuitively understood the rules governing the interaction between the two. Each evening, they would leave homes of luxury and abundance and return to their immaculate and well kept homes and their own families who loved and cherished them. While they understood that their lives were not reflected in the lives of the people for whom they worked, they also embraced the richness of the community they left each morning.

Miami, Florida in the 1950’s and 60’s was a distinctive place. With the exception of perhaps Honolulu, the city looked unlike any other American city. Lanky coconut palms reached for incessantly blue skies to spread their majestic branches. Guava, mango, orange and banana trees were a ubiquitous part of the lush landscape and bore luscious fruit ready for picking. Blue flag irises, royal fern, canna lily, elephant ears, orange birds of paradise and milkweed were part of the flora that convinced us that we lived in a magical place. The sun shone brightly giving the city a luminous glow which ideally suited the Art Deco architecture and multi-colored houses. In the summer months, like clockwork, a refreshing deluge of rain would wash the earth and cool the day. Long lasting, bitter, biting winters were unknown. As America’s vacationland, it was a place people came to forget the mundane.

The influence of two regions, the Northeast and the Caribbean, gave the city a distinctly un-southern flavor and sensibility.  It was the winter home of wealthy, primarily Jewish New Yorkers and other Northeasterners and, in addition to native born African-Americans; it was also home to a sizeable community of Bahamians who had been in the city for many generations. In 1959, the city welcomed the first wave of Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro and Communism. It was an interesting cultural and ethnic admixture unique to the American south. Many of the families that employed black domestics espoused what were considered quite liberal views about race relations.  As a strictly practical matter, the white, wealthy class, black working class and the newly arrived immigrant class forged a mutually tolerant coexistence which initially resisted the swirling racial turmoil of the period. It was, however, a fragile coexistence as race, culture and privilege rarely coexist in communities without tension and Miami would ultimately erupt in riotous discontent in 1968.

Against this social backdrop, these women did this work with dignity, did it well and never were their own families neglected. They had enough for everyone who needed them and kept enough for themselves. In flowered sun dresses, neatly coiffed hairdos and bright red lipstick, they laughed heartily at card parties and club meetings on Saturday nights and adorned stately hats and white gloves for worship on Sunday mornings. They had full and lovely lives that were rarely seen by the families who employed them. These are the women who raised a generation of accomplished and successful African-Americans with minimum formal education and the restrictive laws of Jim Crow at their backs. These were the women who daily crossed the racial and cultural divide during often perilous times and, in their formidable presence, provided a glimpse into the soul of Black America. Theirs is a legacy worth first acknowledging and then celebrating.