“It’s Something Inside You”

Black and white family photo of Black woman with four young children sitting on a couch inside a home.

Fred Baldwin & Wendy Watriss

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 4 No. 4, "Generations: Women in the South." Find more from that issue here.

Throughout the long history of racial and sexual discrimination in the South, women have found ways to survive with a sense of purpose and self worth. For most women, the struggle has been private rather than public, set amidst the commonplace circumstances of our lives and overshadowed by the more dramatic episodes of social change. This is the story of one such woman: Anna Mae Dickson, a black woman, a maid, born in a rural East Texas county 55 years ago. Her life might go unnoticed in the framework of the modern struggle for women’s rights, yet it is a significant example of how one woman survived 40 years of domestic servitude and was able to turn that experience to the service of her family and her community. To put her story in perspective, one must understand the world in which she lives. 

Seventy miles northwest of Houston, between the piney woods and the rich bottom lands of the Brazos River, lie the small towns and farms of Grimes County. Nineteenth century planters found the county’s blacklands ideal for large-scale cotton farming, and many brought slaves with them from the old South. From pre- Civil War days to the early 1900s, blacks were a majority of the county’s population. The Reconstruction era brought about the emergence of strong and vocal black leaders, and the Populist movement attracted strong support in the county. At the end of the century, however, this activism ended. Five months of terrorism and the murder of two prominent black politicians brought victory in local elections to a “White Man’s Union.” Shortly after, a shootout on the main street of the county seat ushered in a new epoch. Black voting stopped, and no black took part in county politics until the election of a black school board member in 1972. 

The exodus which started in 1900 was only the beginning of a long outmigration which decimated black leadership and left blacks a minority of the county’s 12,000 people. Few whites or blacks living today remember that blacks once held public office or were important in the political life of the county. For most people, black history is limited to recollections of slavery and the teachings of Booker T. Washington. 

Sixty years of political rule by the White Man’s Union also insulated the county against social and economic change. A corn, cotton and cattle economy prevailed through the 1950s. Large farming and mercantile interests, often linked by family connections, succeeded in keeping industry out of the county until 1960. Social relations remained static as well. Only in the last 15 years, for example, have Polish and German families, brought in as sharecroppers in the 1870s and ’80s, started to mix socially with the old Anglo-American families. 

For blacks, economic survival has been a major issue. After the imposition of New Deal farm policies, it became almost impossible for most blacks to escape the sharecropping system. Even those who had been able to buy land earlier found themselves unable to make a living as small independent farmers. Although nearby oil fields and the growing industries in Houston became an escape valve for many blacks after the Depression, the move was not always easy for those who had grown up in close-knit rural family groups. Roads were bad and communications difficult in most farm areas through the 1940s. Unless relatives or friends lived in the city, finding work and a place to stay became a deterrent to moving. 

For a black woman growing up in the ’30s and ’40s, it was particularly difficult to break out. The white, male dominated environment shut off black women from a meaningful role in public life and limited the possibilities for leadership within the black community itself. In fact, as late as 1960, a young woman raised in Grimes County with only a few years of formal schooling could look forward to little other than farming or working in white homes. Industrial jobs in Houston were open primarily to men, and competition was tough for the better paying urban jobs in hotels, boarding houses and affluent private homes. Farming itself was limited because landowners were reluctant to rent land to families headed by women. The only women who escaped the economic bind in Grimes County were teachers and the black home demonstration agent. Most of them were daughters of the small landowning and professional class which began to develop in the post- Reconstruction era and which could afford the cost of education and the necessity of paying off local school trustees for a job. 

Women, particularly the daughters in large families, often received more schooling than men, but few could gain financial independence. Domestic work was plentiful in the county; it frequently meant steady employment, but rarely paid a living wage. Even with the various fringe benefits that went with working in white homes, most women could not make as much as a man. In 1960, for example, the average income was $1,445 for a working man in the county and $629 for a woman. In most black families, money matters were handled by the men. Banks and stores generally required the co-signature of a man when granting credit to a woman. Even in the old Baptist churches, women were given little voice in business matters. 

With the rise of the civil-rights movement and the integration of schools and public agencies in the county, however, a number of black women, like Anna Mae Dickson, have emerged as community leaders. Now a grandmother in her mid-fifties, Mrs. Dickson has worked as a cook, babysitter and housemaid since she was 13 years old. In recent years, she has become president of a newly integrated PTA and a spokesperson for the black community. In the small brick home she and her husband recently built, constant activity marks the day: there are several families to feed, meetings to plan and two grandchildren demanding attention. The phone rings all day - women seeking aid on home demonstration programs for underprivileged children, a school benefit, an immunization clinic, a church project. Between meetings, Mrs. Dickson caters weddings, sometimes for as many as 1000 guests, and cleans other people’s homes. 

As she tells her story, there are no dramatic climaxes, no acts of heroic grandeur — just the day-today effort to survive and maintain her sense of self-respect in a world which consigned her to a position of servitude. In the search for maneuvering room for herself, she found she could step out and help others in the struggle for respect in a white-controlled world. 

“After 40 years of working in other people’s homes, you learn that you never know what’s in a person’s mind. It’s true for them. It’s true for us. As I heard one old preacher say about one time in slavery when they were whipping his mother - they were whipping her about praying. He said she looked at the master and said: ‘You can’t tell if I’m praying or not. Because I may not be speaking it out, but you don’t know what my heart is doing.’ 

“They may keep you from speaking out, but they can’t keep you from thinking. It’s something on the inside of you, that’s what keeps you going. And you learn to be two persons to live through it all.” 

Growing up during the ’30s and ’40s, Mrs. Dickson chopped and picked cotton for 75 cents a day and helped her grandmother wash and iron for a living as well as raise hogs and vegetables. The grandmother who raised her had never been more than 20 miles from home and applied strict standards to the young Anna Mae. 

“In those days, you know, a lot of our people didn’t let the girls get out much. I got many a whipping for slipping off and easing on into town to the ballgames on Sunday afternoons when we had nowhere else to go. When we got basketball, and I wanted to play on the team, Mama didn’t want me to. She didn’t even like girls to wear those short-sleeved dresses that would show the pits of your arms. And you better not be caught with a dress above your knees! The closest I got to a dance was when she’d take me to Saturday night suppers. There was dancing and gambling all right, but she put us where we couldn’t see it. 

“We were taught there were good girls and bad girls. If a girl made a mistake 'and got pregnant, we weren’t supposed to associate with her. I remember my grandmother saying, ‘If you fall, don’t wallow. Get up, brush yourself off and get a new start.’ Even when a girlfriend got married, we that weren’t married couldn’t run with her anymore — if the older heads were around to see it. 

“I look at children today and wonder what kind of children were we. Why didn’t we have enough sense to be nosy and try to know what was going on? Now, I was a toughie, and I wasn’t afraid of nobody. But sometimes I wonder what went on in my mind. You know, I thought for a long time that babies came out of tree stumps. That’s what they told us at home. Imagine! With my grandmother and great-grandmother both being midwives! 

“I look back and say what an awful way to grow up. But we didn’t know it then. Now I know that people had a hard time, but as children we didn’t think about it. A half-gallon syrup bucket was as good for us as lunch boxes are for children today. And we didn’t think anything of walking three miles back and forth to school.” 

But when the chance came, it didn’t take long for her to learn there were other things to do. Anna Mae was 17 when she finished the ninth grade at the three-room country school and went to town to the county’s only colored high school. By her own admission, she was “green as a pea” — a girl who had never danced and never seen a victrola. She stayed in Navasota with an aunt because her grandmother couldn’t afford to send her back and forth on the bus everyday, and she earned pocket money working in a nearby cafe which catered to black teenagers. Her best friend was a girl who had grown up more freely than she and whose mother made a living selling bootleg whiskey. 

Halfway through the tenth grade, finishing school became secondary to other concerns. “I didn’t have clothes like the other children at school because Mama wasn’t really able to give them to me. I felt if I went out and worked, I could get some of the things I wanted. I wanted to get out in the world! It was an adventure to get away. 

“I had wanted to be a secretary for a long time because once I saw the secretary to the high school principal and that seemed to be the most important job I saw a black woman have. But if you lived where I did, you did domestic work or farming, even if you finished high school. If you married, you worked for a chance to get on somebody’s place that had real good land that you could farm and make good crops. For a black girl, there wasn’t anything like working at the stores. They weren’t open to us at that time, in the late ’30s. And I don’t remember any registered nurses that was colored working in the hospital then. The only nursing that you did was taking care of people’s children. It was easy to find a job babysitting, or somebody to cook for and houseclean. So that’s what I did. And I didn’t leave Navasota because I was scared to go to a big place like Houston. I worked for $2.50 and $3 a week back then in 1938. And by the end of the 1950s, I was making $ 10 to $ 12 a week. 

“Starting off, I was lucky because the lady I stayed with in town had worked for a lot of the doctors’ families. She was elderly, and she knew most of the old settlers in town. If such and such a person would call and wanted me, she’d say: ‘Now, Anna Mae, they ain’t going to pay you. You just call them back and tell them you got another job and you can’t help them out.’ That way I didn’t have much trouble finding good families. 

“I learned to take what opportunities I had. For a long time, for example, I wouldn’t work for families that didn’t have children because I found out there was more opportunity working in homes where there were children. If you were real good to the children and took care of them well, you could do more things and the people would help you. I first got to know Houston because I worked for a family that had a little boy that took sick. They carried him to Houston to stay with his relatives, and that little boy didn’t want to leave me. So I went too. The relatives saw how well I looked after that boy, and one day, to my surprise — because I wasn’t getting very much from them — they took me to a big store and bought me some real fine underwear. It was the first time I ever had good underclothes. 

“You could learn a lot about cooking in some homes. I’ll never forget the first time I had to cook and serve a dinner by myself. I was 13. It was my first steady job — working summers between school. The lady was having 15 people for Sunday dinner. She was having these little birds they call ‘quail.’ I had never seen them before. Well, she showed me the recipe book, explained it to me, and said to have it ready when they came back from church. I was so scared I must have cried the whole time I cooked those birds! But I served them. And that lady didn’t let anyone say anything bad about the food or the way I was serving it. I’ll never forget that day, and she wouldn’t even let Mama come and be with me. But when people praise my cooking now, I think of that lady because she taught me everything I know about cooking for white people. 

“I felt like this in my work: I felt like if I were trustworthy and were kind to the people I was working for, they would allow me more opportunity and help me. I found out it worked to the good. Like another family I worked for, they had a store. Now I always liked to know what happens on the inside of things. And stores were important in those days because we got our credit and everything there. So I got this family to let me go and work in the store Saturday afternoons when I finished the meal at home. I’d hang up the garments that customers tried on so the clerk would be free to wait on them. They didn’t hire colored girls as clerks then. But I’d watch how they did things, and I learned how those stores operate on the inside. 

“Conditions changed from family to family. I’ve worked for people I would go back and work for anytime because they treated me as a member of the family. They didn’t treat me like a servant. You’d try to find the people who seemed like they’d help you get ahead. But actually people chose us most of the time, rather than we choosing them. You’d get jobs by somebody recommending you. So I’ve had to work for people that treated you like they didn’t have any feelings for you. Some people, I don’t care what you did, it was never right. 

“Like this banker’s wife, one day I was serving a lunch for her. She had all the bankers there, and she was the only woman. She had her meals served in courses. We had got to the dessert and coffee. I came in with the coffee cups — I used to be able to tote 12 cups of coffee on one hand and serve with the other. Well, I went in this day and it’s a wonder I didn’t scald two of those men and scald them good! When I set the first cup of coffee down, Mrs. Thompson hollered: ‘Anna Mae, goddamnit, you’re serving that coffee on the wrong side!’ Boy, I just started to shake. One of the men just caught the tray and set it on the table. 

“I went back in her kitchen, and I looked at the dishes stacked from one end of that room to the other. I took off her dainty little apron and her dainty little hat piece and folded them up in the drawer. Then I put on my old straw hat, and I walked out.” 

Working in private homes, a black woman was exposed to many kinds of personal indignities. Mrs. Dickson set her own limits. 

“I’ve seen girls, they’d go to the beauty parlor and get their hair pressed and curled and then go to work, and the white children would take dirt and throw it all over their head. They wouldn’t say anything. But I wouldn’t stand for things like that. 

“When I went into a family, I’d tell them the children had to obey me. One family I worked for had a little boy, and I guess he just hated black folks. He would spit on us and do things like that. I said to the lady: ‘Now I want to tell you there’s one thing I cannot tolerate: I cannot stand for anybody to spit on me. If he does that, you may hate me for the rest of your life, but I will whip him good.’ 

“Well, one day I went to work, and I was wearing one of those blue uniforms. And, girl, when I ironed one I thought it shouldn’t have a wrinkle in it anywhere! So I thought I was looking pretty cool that day. The lady was sick when I got to work, and she asked me to dress the little boy for school. I dressed him and brushed his hair. When I turned around he spit right on the back of my dress. I grabbed him down in that bathtub and whipped him good with a rough towel he had there. His mother started yelling: ‘Are you whipping him?’ I said: ‘I sure am!’ She started to say something, and I said: ‘Don’t bother, I’m leaving anyway.’ I left and never went back. 

“Another time I was called a thief. You know that is something you never want on your record. Stealing is one thing I never did. I never even wanted to break anything. I hate to break things. And I sure didn’t need to steal. I was working for a salary, and I knew what I was working for, and that’s what I planned on. 

“Well, I was working for this schoolteacher, Mrs. Reagon, and she had some beautiful pocket handkerchiefs. One Sunday, she went to church and later on she couldn’t find the handkerchiefs she took with her. She said: ‘I know I came home with that handkerchief. Anna Mae, I know you got it.’ 

“Oh my God, I just flipped! I started yelling at her, telling her what I thought, and you could hear me down the road! ‘If I were stealing and I had to take a pocket handkerchief, I’d be a pretty poor thief,’ I told her. ‘What in the world would I do with one of your pretty little handkerchiefs, other than wipe my sweat with it? If I were stealing, I certainly wouldn’t take something that you’d miss right away.’ I quit right then and there and walked out. 

“Her daughter came up to the house before I left and said she would look for it because she didn’t believe I took it. Sure enough they found it the next day in Mrs. Reagon’s coat sleeve. Mrs. Reagon called me at home and said she and her husband would like me to come back to work. I said: ‘I’m glad you have cleared my record, but you’ll have to find yourself another Anna Mae, because this one won’t be back.’” 

It wasn’t always possible to walk out, however, and many things had to be suffered in silence, even when they hurt inside. 

“A lot of times I didn’t let myself think about the negative side. When you grow up into something all your life, you don’t always think about it. Like coming in the door — all our lives we’d been going to the back door, so I never fretted much about it. But some things did bother me. Why could I go out the front door to sweep the porch, but couldn’t go through that front door for any other reason? 

“Or you would go in the kitchen and make biscuits and rolls for people because they weren’t buying bread in those days. Now you know you got to put your hands in it to make it. All right, you’d make the bread and then after it would get brown and ready to eat, they wouldn’t want you to put your hands on it. And it was the same thing with meat. You could touch the meat before it was cooked, but after it was done, don’t you touch it! Oh, that would get me mad! 

“But you’d go on because you needed the work. But there were mornings I hated to go to work. I’d be saying to myself: ‘Why don’t they do their own work? I do mine, why don’t they do theirs?’ Then I’d get angry with myself - thinking about dropping out of school. Thinking if I had gone on to school maybe I wouldn’t have to be doing this kind of work. Wouldn’t have to be going to the back doors to work. 

“It was like leading two lives. I’d be down there all day working in those houses and then I’d come back home and I’d look around and think: ‘Oh my God, why do I have to live this way?’ I’d walk around and look at my floors when all we had were those little patches of linoleum, and I’d think of their floors. Then I’d have to haul and heat our dishwater when right down there where I’d been all day they’d have more hot running water than they could use. Sometimes when I was driving home, I’d be saying to myself: ‘Now if I just had such and such a thing. And oh, my God, if I could only have a bathtub.’ 

“But you did what you had to and didn’t feel sorry for yourself. We just had to make a living and that was the only way to do it.” 

In 1942, when a friend told her about a job opening in Houston, Mrs. Dickson left Grimes County. She spent three years working in a Houston boarding house, cooking and waiting on tables for $13 a week. But when she separated from her husband after becoming pregnant with her second child, her employer wouldn’t keep her on. So she went home to have the baby. 

During the time she’d been away, the county’s population had shifted dramatically, with many of the poorer farming families — both white and black — leaving for jobs in the city. But this movement of people did little to change the economic environment. In fact, from the late ’40s to the mid- ’60s, local economic opportunities were even more restricted than they had been two decades earlier, especially for poorer people. Industrial representatives looking for new places to locate factories during World War II were allegedly turned away by the bigger landowners around Navasota. At the same time, government support programs helped drive tenant farmers off the land, while technological changes and the distribution of cotton allotments made it almost impossible for a small independent farmer to make a living. It was not until the late ’60s and early ’70s that black people in the county began to see the economic benefits of the civil-rights struggle. 

The return home and the coming of a second child were the beginnings of a change in Anna Mae Dickson’s life. 

“I used to be a devil. I didn’t bother anybody because it was my life when I was off work, but I used to drink heavily. As I told a lady once: ‘I’ve drinked everything but beat-up glass and strychnine.’ I did that for almost ten years - after I dropped out of school, while I worked in Houston and when I came back. Right up to when I had my second baby about 1947. 

“I’ve known what it's like to drink the blues away. One night I got so sick and when I stopped and looked back on what I was doing, I dreaded the life I was living. I was ashamed. From that day to this, I haven’t drunk anything. The only thing I thought I could do about it was to go on and help somebody else to straighten out their life. I wanted to get out and work with people, my own people.” 

In 1950, she joined the church again. Through her work in the Baptist missionary society, Mrs. Dickson discovered her own organizing skills. When she spoke, people listened. This experience strengthened her sense of responsibility and from the church she went on to other community activities. She directed home demonstration programs for black girls and helped establish one of the county’s first clubs to raise funds to support school athletics. 

“Then I’ve been president of PTAs at three schools — two colored schools and the one which I helped organize after we integrated with the white school. I have helped with rodeos for our people, the 19th of June celebrations, health programs and the organization of a volunteer fire department for the whole community. 

“Now it looks like the more I do, the happier I am and the better I feel. My children, they worry about my health and tell me to slow down. I tell them I ain’t ready to die yet. My husband he won’t say anything because when we got married that was one thing I had him to understand: If I go honky-tonking and he don’t like it, let him speak his mind. But if I go to church or some organization to help somebody to do something good in the community, don’t let him say a word to me!” 

In a county where there was little black activism during the '50s and ’60s and where many black people are still reluctant to work with whites in community activities, Mrs. Dickson is regarded as a leader by both groups. She thinks it is important to maintain links with the white community and to have the black representation in community organizations. She is the first to say that conditions have improved for women and for blacks, but she has no illusions. She sees a need for blacks to stand up for their rights, but she has no patience with those she sees as an embarrassment to her race or an impediment to long-term progress. 

“We abuse the opportunities we have gotten. Since we have got integration, we don’t want to take our time to come up anymore, to do the little jobs that need to be done. We just want to zoom to the top. And then when you get to the top, you don’t know what to do to stay there. I don’t mind starting up from the bottom. That’s what my life has been about. I take time to learn. Before I jump into something, I get all the information I can. Whatever 1 do, I want to show progress. I tell people all the time: ‘I’d rather be asked up anyday than have to be asked down.’ 

“Too many of us do not understand what this integration means. Take when our schools in a northern part of the county integrated in 1968. They were the first, and we had a meeting with the superintendent. Well, the colored people— most of them — were only interested in their children getting over to the white school where they could get hot lunches and all. They weren’t thinking about what would happen to our teachers, how many colored teachers was going to be out of work. 

“We had the meeting, and none of the other colored would say anything. I got so tired of getting up and down that I asked the superintendent would he please let me talk sitting down. I sat there and fought for our teachers all night! And our bus drivers. And, girl, I fought alone. Then when school started, and they didn’t have a job, they were wondering why. Out of nine or ten of our teachers, three was hired back. You’ve got to watch, and you’ve got to learn. 

“I’ll tell you this. I don’t care whether I’m with them (the whites) or not. If they had given my schools the same things they had in their schools, I figured we had the teachers that could teach. I felt like this: Give me what you got, and I’ll stay where I am. Pay me what you get, and I’ll stay where I am. If you build them a brick school, build us one. That’s all the equalization I’d like to have. I don’t care about sitting in the classrooms with them and being around them. That's the only thing I would like to have, equal opportunity. And then we will have to learn to cope with it.” 

To Mrs. Dickson, who is bringing up a second generation of children in her home where she now has a bathtub and hot running water, there is hope for change, particularly for the younger people around her. 

“I have tried honestly to teach my children to get whatever in life they can that will help them benefit themselves, to make them be better citizens. I have taught them what I know, and I have asked that they help me. Now they get out on their own. They are not afraid to mix. “The only thing I really did — because I never finished high school - was to insist they get a better education than I did. I made them finish high school. The two oldest girls did finish and started college, but they got married and quit. The youngest two are both in college now. 

“With both my children and my grandchildren, I have encouraged them to reach high — not to think about what somebody else is doing but about what should be done. And I have always told them that the only way to do it is to start within yourself first. And then your family. And then just spread out! 

“Sometimes people don’t know what they are doing. What did I know when I went to Navasota from the countryside? You go along and it’s like sometimes when you’re driving and thinking about other things and then come back to yourself suddenly and look at the speedometer, and you’re way over the speed limit. You weren’t doing it intentionally, it’s just that your mind was drifting somewhere else. That’s what 1 think we do with our lives. We let our lives go. We follow the gang. We don’t think about how precious our life is or what we can do with it. 

“Like the old slave woman said when she was being whipped: ‘You don’t know what my heart is doing.’ You have something inside of you. They can never take that away from you.”