DETROIT — At age 9, Mary Upshaw McClendon started cleaning a white family's house near her hometown of Red Level, Ala.
Relelie Rogers (most people call her Lillie) was 15 when she took over her mother's job cleaning for a family near Birmingham, Ala. She also cared for the family's daughter, not quite a year old.
Evelyn Goff, 80, started cleaning suburban homes after she and her husband moved to Detroit from Eudora, Miss., in 1949. She retired from domestic work after 32 years.
Mildred Hooper, 86, of Detroit, puts it this way: “That's the only kind of work they had for black women back then.”
Historians estimate 70 to 90 percent of the black women who worked before the end of World War II did some type of domestic service for whites.
“The Help,” a movie based on the best-selling book, spotlights a line of work that still struggles to break free from social stigmas. The movie opened this month.
When McClendon, 87, moved to Detroit from Alabama in 1955, she carried a burning desire to improve conditions for domestic workers. She started the Detroit Household Workers Organization in 1969. The goal was to encourage fair wages, benefits and respect for women doing domestic work.
“I never shall forget I was working for one woman, and she told me to eat my food in the room where the dog was, not in the room with the family,” McClendon said. “Some of these people were treating their dogs and cats better than we were treated.”
McClendon said that when she worked in the South, she was paid “a dollar and some change,” a day. In Detroit, she earned about $12 a day.
Data from the Michigan Employment Security Commission reports that in 1971 maids were paid $15, car fare and one good meal each day for their work. If they lived with a family, they were paid $75 a week.
Goff was paid $8 a day when she started working as a maid but made $75 a day when she retired 32 years later in 1983. She said she enjoyed the work because it gave her a level of independence, and the families she worked for treated her well. “I had a key so I let myself in; I knew what I needed to do, and let myself out.”
She said she knows some people looked down on her job.
“But I didn't mind. I was making an honest living and helping to take care of my family,” said Goff, who raised five children.
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Cleaning, cooking and taking care of children
Domestic workers were often far more than house cleaners. Many cleaned the house, the clothes, took care of the children and cooked. Today, it would cost an estimated $364 a day to hire a person to do all that, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Here are the mean hourly rates from the bureau's Occupational Employment and Wages data released in May 2010:
Private household cook: $14.95
Child care worker: $10.15
Laundry worker: $10.21