The Mammy Washington Almost Had

In 1923, the U.S. Senate approved a new monument in D.C. "in memory of the faithful slave mammies of the South."
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Hattie McDaniel as Mammy in Gone With the Wind (MGM)

If I say the word "Mammy," you're likely to conjure up the character from Gone With the Wind. Or, you may think of Aunt Jemima, in her trademark kerchief, beaming from boxes of pancake mix.

What you probably won't picture is a massive slave woman, hewn from stone, cradling a white child atop a plinth in the nation's capital. Yet in 1923, the U.S. Senate authorized such a statue, "in memory of the faithful slave mammies of the South."

As a Southern Congressman stated in support of the monument: "The traveler, as he passes by, will recall that epoch of southern civilization" when "fidelity and loyalty" prevailed. "No class of any race of people held in bondage could be found anywhere who lived more free from care or distress."

Today, it seems incredible that Congress sanctioned a monument to so-called Faithful Slaves -- just blocks from the Lincoln Memorial, which had been dedicated only months earlier. But the monument to the Great Emancipator masked the nation's retreat from the "new birth of freedom" Lincoln had called for at Gettysburg, three score and ten years before. By 1923, Jim Crow laws, rampant lynching, and economic peonage had effectively reenslaved blacks in the South. Blacks who migrated north during and after World War One were greeted by the worst race riots in the nation's history. In the capital, Virginia-born President Woodrow Wilson had recently segregated federal facilities and screened Birth of a Nation at the White House. The overtly racist movie exalted the Ku Klux Klan, which peaked at two million members in the 1920s and won control of mayors' office and state legislatures across the land.

"We have this image of the 1920s as the Jazz Age, the birth of the modern, a world of skyscrapers and flappers," says David Blight, a Yale historian and leading scholar of race in the late 19th and early 20th century. "But white supremacy had few better moments in our history."

The early 1900s were also the heyday of Old South nostalgia. Popular songs and bestselling novels depicted antebellum Dixie as a genteel land of benevolent "planters" and happy "servants." Central to this idyll was the figure of Mammy, who in popular imagination resembled Uncle Tom's wife, Aunt Chloe, a cheerful, plump slave in a checked kerchief. White performers blackened their faces to tell stories and sing spirituals in the style "of the old time 'house darkey.'" The ready-made pancake mix of Aunt Jemima -- a "slave in a box," as one historian puts it -- quickly became a national sensation; a "biography" of her was subtitled "the Most Famous Colored Woman in the World."

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In reality, the pancake mix was the creation of two white men in Missouri, and they named it after a character in a minstrel song, not an actual slave cook. Similarly, there is more folklore than fact underlying the stereotype of matronly slaves nursing young whites. "I went in search of the mammy and couldn't find her," says historian Catherine Clinton, whose books include Tara Revisited and Plantation Mistress. "Most slaves who looked after white children were very young." In other words, more like Prissy in Gone With the Wind than Mammy.

Or even younger. Harriet Tubman, for instance, was seven when she began caring for a baby and was whipped if the infant cried. Ex-slaves interviewed by the WPA in the 1930s also told of nursing babies as girls themselves, while the older black women of mammy lore looked after slave children whose mothers labored in the fields. These interviews also cast a harsh light on the supposedly privileged status of "house" slaves. One former slave recalled a "Mammy" being lashed "till de blood runned out"; another described a rape by the slaveowner's sons. "I can tell you that a white man laid a nigger gal whenever he wanted," said an ex-slave from Georgia who "went into the house as a waiting and nurse girl" between the ages of nine and twelve.

These and other routine cruelties didn't figure in the moonlight-and-magnolia romance that seized white imagination in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nor was the Mammy craze of that era confined to literature, song, and marketing. It was fostered by groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), which sought to recast the "Lost Cause" as a noble defense of a Southern utopia. If slaves had been loyal, well treated, and content, it followed that emancipation and Reconstruction were calamitous -- just as portrayed in Birth of a Nation. The ladies of the UDC honored aged blacks as "faithful Confederates" and even ghost-wrote testimonials such as "What Mammy Thinks of Freedom," in which an ex-slave says, "w'en I gits ter hebben, Lord, I hope I'll find its slabery."

This reactionary crusade culminated in a UDC campaign to build monuments to slaves who remained faithful out of "love of masters, mistresses and their children." Initially, this effort was confined to the South. But black migration to the North, race riots, and growing anxiety about what whites called the "Negro problem," made the nation more receptive to Southern images of bygone racial order.

So did the ubiquity of nurturing mammies in popular culture.

"Mammy was appealing at a particularly fraught time in national history," says Micki McElya, a historian at University of Connecticut and author of Clinging to Mammy: the Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America. "Mammy represents paternalism and affection between the races, a world where everyone understands their places."

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Tony Horwitz is a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who has written for The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker. His books include Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War and Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War.

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