Faithful Slave Mammies of the South Memorial

A model of what the monument would have looked like had it been built via The National Archives

A model of what the monument would have looked like had it been built via The National Archives

In January of 1923 congressman Charles Stedman of North Carolina introduced a bill on behalf of the Jefferson Davis Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The Bill was seeking approval so a monument to African American woman could be built on the National Mall. This monument would be called “Faithful Slave Mammies of the South Memorial” and was intended to uplift the women who “…desired no change in their condition of life. The very few who are left look back at those days as the happy golden hours of their lives” as recited by Congressman Stedman that day on Capitol Hill. The problem is, African Americans did serve dutifully in their positions as house domestic slaves, however these were not the best years of their life. To the contrary, Black women lived under constant subjugation, hard work, threat of sexual assault and harassment, and at the end of the day they could not take care of their own children because they were forced to care for white families. This monument was a spit in the face to the experiences of enslaved Black Women and a mockery of the legacy of African American people.

Image source: Ferris State University

Image source: Ferris State University

To understand how detrimental the image of the Mammy was to African American women, you have to understand the definition of “true womanhood” in the 19th century. It has been called “the cult of true womanhood” by various history scholars, but it basically refers to the system of ideas about what women are, how they should act, and what they should look like. It successfully separated men and women along gender lines and kept women subjugated under patriarchy.  More than this, it kept women, all women, held to a standard that affected their everyday lives and that none of them would ever meet. This image was more difficult to immolate for some than others but it was absolutely impossible or Black women to live up to. In fact, a key reasoning for the inferiority of Black women was that they did not possess the characteristics of “true womanhood” and did not deserve to be treated as true women.

A French observer of American culture Alexis de Tocqueville was quoted saying in 1830 that “In no country has such constant care been taken as in America to trace two clearly distinct lines of action for the two sexes. American women never manage the outward concerns of the family, or conduct a business, or take a part in political life, nor are they, on the other hand, compelled to perform the rough labor of the fields, or to make any of those laborious exertions, which demand the exertion of physical strength. No families are so poor, as to form an exception to this rule”

This observation reveals a lot through what it says but also what it leaves out. There were in fact many exceptions to this rule, Black women being the most obvious one. Black women were majority enslaved during the 19th century, until the end of the Civil War in 1865. They were compelled, and forced, to perform the rough labor of the fields and make the “laborious exertions”  that demanded the uttermost physical strength.  Race kept them in these physical labor positions and their sex as woman kept them in constant danger of sexual assault and harassment which proved they fell outside of the traditional ideas of female purity. The image of Black woman could never live up to the standard of 19th century womanhood. Racism and sexism kept it that way.  

Image Source: Ferris State University

Image Source: Ferris State University

Enter the image of the “mammy.” In present day we associate this image with a derogatory connotation toward Black women, but for white people during the 19th century the “mammy” was a symbol of nurturing love, domestic work, and the care of white children. The image of the mammy for Black women and people represented slavery and the inability of Black women to have their own family units and take care of their own children because they were forced to do it for their White owners.

Caricatures of the “mammy” are often depicted as large, dark skinned women, with large outlandish features. Her personality was plagued with sassy remarks but at the end of the day she had the best interest of her white family at heart. No mind was paid to the possibility of her having her own family. In fact she is often presented as asexual, not having any concern past the care of her white owners.

The image of the mammy has always represented a painful time for Black women and was later used in racist memorabilia from the Jim Crow era. The suggestion of memorializing this image as the only representation of Black Women on the National Mall at that time would have been a spit in the face of Black women and Black People everywhere.

To be clear, the history of Black female domestic workers, enslaved and free, is nothing to be ashamed of. Black women cared for White children and households for centuries and exemplify the bravery it takes to operate in a world that looks down on you and threatens your existence. Even after slavery, when Black men were kept from getting jobs and it was more common to see white women as stay at home moms than in the workforce, Black women have always worked hard to provide for their families. The legacy of the “mammy” is one to be remembered, but in the proper way. Black Women in domestic work represent the hard work this country was built on and their bravery sustained the Black Community until we could usurp power for ourselves. We remember mammies, not in the foolish way suggested by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, but as the brave women they were.

 In the end, the memorial was never constructed. Had it been put on the National Mall, no doubt today there would be many issues surrounding it as there are many memorials around the US. When determining how we use public spaces to portray portions of history, we have to take into consideration the public who will be using those spaces. Monuments should be reflective of the ALL the people within that community not the result of the interest of certain groups.

Article Sources:

http://mallhistory.org/items/show/512

History in American History Textbook

Andreia WardlawComment