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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Mabel Williams, August 20, 1999. Interview K-0266. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Racial discrimination in a wealthy home

Williams's mother worked for the Belks, a wealthy white family in Monroe, Williams recalls, and in their home she endured many indignities. Williams remembers that her mother's treatment brought her mother to tears and describes two particularly stinging incidents: a thirteen year-old white girl's demand that her mother address her as "Miss" and the family's direction that she serve their dog bacon and eggs for breakfast, a lavish meal they knew Williams's mother could not provide for her own family. This lack of respect was tempered somewhat by the treatment Williams received for her association with the Belk family, but it was a curious kind of respect.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Mabel Williams, August 20, 1999. Interview K-0266. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Other people just look at it and pass by and maybe think no more about it. I remember the incident when my mother was working for the Belk family. And she had been working for the family—I guess she'd been working for the family—I don't know how many years. But there was one daughter in the family and her name was Sarah. And I used to love to go to the Belk home. And Sarah would give me toys and she'd go in—. She had dollhouses with all this little miniature furniture in it, and stuff, you know. And she would go in and—everybody called me Little Miss Mabel, including her, Little Miss Mabel, you know. And she would go in her dollhouse and give me stuff: little chairs and little miniature stuff. And sometimes her mother would come in and say, "Well now, you've given Miss Mabel enough now. That's enough. Don't give her anymore. That's fine." [Laughter] But Sarah became—. I guess when Sarah turned thirteen or twelve or thirteen, I remember my mother coming home from work one day and she said, said, "Well, Miss Mabel, today told me off." We said, "Told you off how, you know what?" She told me now that Sarah has become thirteen years old I have to call her Miss Sarah. And she said, and "I wanted to say to her, is she going to call me Mrs. Barber?" That was my mother's married name. But my mother was crying that day. And that was something. That hurt my heart. And I remember another time she came home from work. And she said that Miss Mabel had gone out of town. But she had me to go shopping and buy, I forget how many pounds of bacon. And told me, "Now, Emma you feed the dog every day." And the dog was to have bacon and eggs every day for breakfast, which that was what they fed him anyway. And indicated to her not outright, but almost accusing her or letting her know that she was not to take the bacon home to us. But she was to feed the dog the bacon and the eggs. And that's what she bought it for and that's what she wanted her to do. And I remember my mother telling dad. And feeling hurt that she would think that she would take the bacon and the eggs home even though we didn't have bacon and eggs everyday for breakfast, you know. So, even though they were good to us in a way that—. Well, one, they gave my mother a job. Her father had bought my mother and father a house to live in when my real father was alive. And every year she would buy an outfit for me for school, to go to school. And those were some of the positive things that they did for us. But my father worked for her for—I think—. I was talking to Gwen today about a living wage. He worked for her for a wage. I don't know if it was a living wage or not. He could not—if he had had a living wage, he would have been able to provide those things for his family himself. And my mother the same thing. If she had had a living wage when she was working for them, she wouldn't have had to depend on them to give us second-hand clothes, and even buy clothes for us from the store, if they had been.
Did your daddy work for the Belks, too?
My father who passed away when I was not two years old. Yeah. But then my stepfather worked for the railroad, yeah. So we were able to—. We had a better economic situation once we were with my father who worked for the railroad. But, at the same time, because my mother came into the marriage with three children, she felt an obligation to help to support the family. And so she continued to work the whole time.
[unclear] in your place [unclear] within limits. I mean, I'm sure that many people considered him very lucky.
Oh, yes, yes. And when I'd go to the Belk store even the white sales people would refer to me as Little Miss Mabel rather than Mabel because they didn't want to disrespect the Belk family. And she would take me herself to the store to buy the things. And I was privileged to have that connection with her that she was going to give me that stuff. But then I would get teased from the kids at school because of it, you know. [Laughter] "Yeah, Little Miss Mabel, Little Miss Mabel." But, anyway—. So I had some mixed memories, mixed emotions about all of that connection. And I realize now that we still were not looked at as deserving human beings, you know.