Segment from Rinse and Repeat

Unclean Hands

Charletta Sudduth talks with BackStory about the contradictory ways cleanliness was understood in the Jim Crow South.

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PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endownment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

BRIAN: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, here with Peter Onuf.

PETER: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN: And Ed Ayers is with us.

ED: Hey.

BRIAN: So, guys.

PETER: Yeah.

BRIAN: Have you been able to dodge the flu this year?

PETER: I don’t know. What is the flu? I’ve had terrible colds.

ED: And I feel like I’ve been on the verge of something for months, but it hasn’t actually nailed me yet.

BRIAN: Yeah. So that’s probably because you guys haven’t been washing your hands enough.


ED: Uh.

PETER: You know, well you think we’re the dirty hands people.

BRIAN: You might be.


BRIAN: Well, you know, you can’t–

PETER: –daily, man.

BRIAN: You know you can’t wash your hands enough. And the reason we think that is because of the germ theory of disease which, as you guys know, goes back more than 100 years.

ED: Must be true then.

BRIAN: But guys, as recently as the 1950s, some Americans were twisting that theory in ways that would strike a lot of people today as nonsensical.

CHARLETTA SUDDUTH: You would think that you would want someone to wash their hands before they prepped your food, anyone.

BRIAN: This is Charletta Sudduth.

CHARLETTA SUDDUTH: If I was going to allow you to cook for me, I definitely would want you to wash your hands.

BRIAN: A few years ago, she conducted oral histories with a number of African-American women who had worked as maids in the Jim Crow South. One of those women was named Vinella Byrd.

CHARLETTA SUDDUTH: Maybe I’ll just read a little piece of it, like her little introduction. And I’ll just start here. It says, Vinella Byrd, from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, born 1922.

“I work for two families. The men were farmers. For the two families, I cooked and did housework. I cooked a lot of vegetables and stuff.

They had a wash pan where you washed your hands. The man didn’t want me to wash my hands in the wash pan. After that, I didn’t wash my hands at all.

I would just go in and start cooking. He didn’t want me to use the same one that he was using.”

BRIAN: Can you explain to me why the head of the household wouldn’t let Miss Byrd wash her hands in his wash pan?

CHARLETTA SUDDUTH: Well, you know, in those days, there were a lot of unspoken rules and norms. And one of them was the notion of, I believe, blacks being somewhat unclean. I don’t know if they thought the black would wash off.

But the man felt so strongly that he didn’t want her to use the same wash basin as he did. Hey, just come right in from the field or wherever you’re coming from, and prepare our food.

BRIAN: Purely because of her color.


ED: You know, as strange as this seems to us, Brian and Peter, this is the entire pattern of the segregated South, this idea that black people and white people integrated the most intimate parts of their lives and yet segregated because of the white belief, maybe based on germ theory in some perverted form that black people were just dirty, even if they were cooking your food and taking care of your children.

PETER: Yeah. In a way, race is a vector, right?

ED: Yeah, that’s right, Peter.

PETER: This is a kind of a theory of disease, isn’t it?

ED: And what’s hard for us to wrap our minds around is that this was a relatively new idea. This isn’t just old-fashioned ideas about race. In the second half the 19th century, white South basically invented a whole system of social organization based on the idea of preventing contagion in places where–

PETER: –that segregation is a sort of a public health measure, huh?

ED: Yeah. And that’s one reason that you see so much focus on water fountains, restrooms, waiting rooms, any place where there might be a contagion based on this new theory of germ theory.

BRIAN: Yeah. And the labels were things like white and colored, but behind that colored label was these people are dirty.