Merlene Davis: Woman who was "the help" in Lexington fared better than many

As 'The help,' Greer faced her share of discrimination

Herald-Leader columnistAugust 9, 2011 

You'd never know it now, but just a few years ago, Kathryn Cotton Greer was "the help" for several prominent families in Lexington and, later, Dallas.

Some of her former employers treated her with disdain, some treated her purely as a servant and others saw her worthy of praise because of her kindness and willingness to treat their home and children as if they were her own.

"I can truly say all the families were good to me," Greer said, "but some did things that I didn't like."

And she was good at being "the help," despite the changing times and despite the innumerable times she held her tongue.

Greer remembers how demeaning it was that one employer wouldn't allow her to use any bathroom in the house except the one in the basement, even though she cleaned them all. That occurred in Lexington in the 1970s.

"The thing that amazed me is, I'm cooking your food and taking care of your children, your most prized possessions, but I had to go downstairs to use the bathroom," she said.

"They didn't know it, but I would use the one upstairs anyway," she said, laughing.

At another home in the 1990s, the husband of a woman she cared for discarded the plate she ate dinner from even though he was miserly enough to erase names on cards he had received, put his name on it, and then mail it off to other people.

He also ordered her to enter only through the home's back door.

"I said, 'I don't go in anybody's back door. I'm coming in the front door or you find someone else.'"

Talking with Greer brought back stories my mother told of the time she worked as a domestic. It also brought home some of the stories I had read in The Help, a New York Times best-seller written by Kathryn Stockett and published in 2009. The popular novel has been adapted into a movie, which will premiere Wednesday.

Told from the perspective of several black maids in Mississippi in the 1960s, the novel and the film focus on the inhumane treatment some of them suffered, and the love they had for the white families they served.

Greer's story could have been used in that novel.

"It wasn't easy," she said. "I worked long, hard hours. I'd have to pick up in a moment's notice and fly off to Egypt or Paris or somewhere. They thought it was pleasurable for me. But it wasn't. I had to work. I didn't get to sightsee.

"It was all for my children," she said. "Many a night I would lie in bed wishing I was home with them. I was taking care of somebody else's children, and mine weren't there.

"Necessity will make you swallow anything," she said.

She worked for $20 a day, hit and miss, when she started as a housekeeper in the 1970s. When she retired, though, she was earning several hundred dollars a day for cooking, cleaning and caretaking.

Greer was fond of some of the adults and all of the children she cared for.

"I just couldn't leave them," she said. "At some point in time, though, you have to start thinking about yourself. And I'm just now getting there."

Still, after moving back to Lexington when the last person she cared for died, Greer received a call from that woman's daughter. The daughter had suffered a stroke and needed someone to care for her.

Greer went back to Dallas and stayed with the woman until she died, about 21/2 years later, in 2008.

Grateful that Greer had cared for her mother and then for herself, the woman left Greer nearly everything she had.

"I thought she would be generous, but this overwhelmed me," Greer said. "I can't believe it."

It is a fairy tale ending that rarely happens. Domestic work, more often than not, was difficult and degrading.

Of course, much of that depended on the employer. My mother was a domestic for a harsh woman. I tagged along with her as a pre-schooler because I couldn't be left home alone.

When I told my father some things the woman had said, my father ordered my mother to quit. No wife of his, he said, would suffer such indignities.

In the same way, some critics have said The Help stirs up old stereotypes of black women and perpetuates those roles in Hollywood, where black women are often overlooked for meatier roles. Some say the book couldn't be authentic because it was written by a white woman.

Greer doesn't understand that thinking. She doesn't see being a domestic as demeaning. She said it is not "the help" but insensitive employers who are demeaned.

"Who do you love or treasure any more than your children and your home?" she asked rhetorically. "If I can be left with your children, who is the dummy? How bad can I be?"

I loved the book and all the characters in it, often laughing out loud because the images brought back a lot of memories.

Being a domestic is honest work and an honest living. And, as with any job, how pleasant it is often depends on the employer.

Greer worked as a domestic despite some circumstances because "I just felt a person would need me. I felt needed."

Obviously, some of those she has worked for felt the same way.

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