Genteel lifestyle depended on ‘Duskies’

As published by the Daily News Journal, Sunday, February 6, 2011

By Greg Tucker, President Rutherford County Historical Society

There was a vast social distance between the wealthy Rutherford County upper class of the 1900s and the slave descendants of the period,  but the practical relationships were close and often intimate.

A descendant of one of the real “first families” of Middle Tennessee and the daughter of a local bank president, Elizabeth O. Howse (Mrs. Granville Ridley Jr.), recorded her childhood memories of a period when not only cars but even bicycles (then called simply “wheels”) were  rarely seen in Rutherford County.  This was a prosperous time when most of the finer homes in town were on lots big enough for huge gardens and fruit orchards.  (Many city blocks in early Murfreesboro had only four homes.  On East Main Street the house lots often extended to the street behind the house.)

But prosperity and growth bring change, and Howse notes that neighborhoods even then were in transition.  Specifically, the neighborhood  at the north end of Maney Avenue was declining.  Her family lived on the corner of Jackson Street.  When the original 19th century residents began disappearing, displaced by working class families, and the homes began to show less care, the Howse family moved to the  northwest corner of the East Lytle and North Academy intersection.  (This historic “Doughty House” remains today, but now shares its
original lot with two other houses.)

As reflected in the Howse memoirs, significant aspects of child-rearing and domestic life were entrusted to the “duskies.”  As a result,  sensitive matters never whispered by Murfreesboro’s East Main and North Maney families were common knowledge and general  conversation in the “bottoms” where lived many of the domestic employees.  (A descriptive term popular in the period, “dusky” literally  means “dark in color, but not black.”  Howse used the term affectionately — “my dusky friends.”)

Howse devotes the final five chapters of her first book, Falling Stars (1962), to memories of her “dusky friends.”  She begins with a moment in town with her father “when a wrinkled, brown-skinned old woman came in.  She went up to my father and putting her arms around him,  gave him a hug, saying, ‘How is my dear boy today?'”  The father “proudly” explained to his curious daughter: “This is my mammy.  I love  her even if she did give me many a spanking.”

Howse remembers most fondly her own “nurse” named Mary Currin.  “I called her ‘Way-Way,’ probably in a vain attempt to say ‘Mary.’  She  was tall, rather thin, the color of warm ginger bread … her face was round, her nose large, her lips thick.  Her eyes were deep and soft and  brown.  Her voice was low and filled with melody.  She never scolded; she never preached; she just loved me.”

The nurse bathed, dressed and fed the child.  During the day she was both playmate and nanny.  Currin pushed the author’s baby carriage on long, unaccompanied walks across town and into the countryside.  Often, she took the child into her own neighborhood as she visited with her own friends and family, and tended to her own affairs.

“After my daily ride, Mary kept me happily occupied until suppertime,” remembers Howse.  “She played ball with me; we built playing card houses on the porch … She sang funny songs … (and) told me queer little stories.”  After supper, Elizabeth would go to the kitchen where her nurse was eating “to kiss her good-bye as she left for home.”

But the nurse/child relationship had its social limits.  When Howse was about 5, her father instructed: “You are no longer to kiss her
goodnight.  It is not proper.”  When the child ran to
her nurse in tears, complaining, “Papa says I can’t kiss you anymore,” Currin replied: “And he is right … (but) just because we don’t kiss don’t mean we don’t love.  You will always be my baby girl … ” At 7, Howse was taught to dress herself, but Currin continued to maintain and help select the daily wardrobe.

The Howse memoirs remind us also that vaccinations have been available for only a few generations.  While still quite young, Howse became “desperately ill with typhoid fever.”  Currin stayed at her bedside for several weeks sponging the feverish child, and took the fever herself from the exposure.  (Both survived.)

Another “dusky friend” was the cook who shopped in the early morning and prepared all the family meals everyday but Sunday, when she worked only a half-day.  Frances Alexander worked for the Howse family for 18 years.  She had one grown daughter, but during this period she lived alone.  After each school day, Howse would go to the kitchen and share with “Kank” (her “pet name” for Alexander) all that happened at school.  Kank in return shared with her young friend what she had seen and heard around the house and neighborhood.

Given these relationships, it was often her nurse or the family cook in whom Howse confided or from whom she sought counsel or  information.  These were her allies to help conceal or repair the consequences of childish or adolescent transgressions.  It was from these  friends that Howse learned of matters that her parents and their peers would not discuss, such as the “unspeakable” activity that  scandalized Soule College where she attended grammar school.

Howse writes sympathetically and admiringly of other “dusky friends” including her father’s loyal employee (John Henry), the town midwife (Margaret Stancel), the homemade candy man (Williams O’Neals), the skilled carpenter (Ben Cowan), the baker (Ben Stancel), the  backyard gardener (Fruzie Henry), the church janitor (Joe Ewing Vaughn), and talented cooks (Patsy Vaughn and Calline).  Her commentary on “the way things were” clearly reflects how the lifestyle of the upper class of the period was achieved only because of the availability of prayer.  She characterized her relationship with these special friends as an example of “many members of both races who are living in mutual respect and sympathetic understanding.”  Her prayer: “God teach us, the white people of the deep South, to be patient
and kind to those who do not understand us, as our Negro friends have been to us.”

Greg Tucker can be reached at

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