Juneteenth: A Conversation About Race, History and 'The Help'
The third annual community event took place Saturday at the Sewickley Community Center.
Florence Cuspard was 17 years old and fresh out of high school when she began working for a young Beaver family and caring for their 18-month-old daughter.
That child is now in her 70s and Cuspard, who is 86, said Saturday that she’s forever grateful for the experience.
“It was life-changing for me,” said Cuspard of Bridgewater. “I learned so much.”
About 100 people attended the panel discussion called “The Help: Who’s Story Is It?” The conversation was based on Kathryn Stockett's novel-turned-movie The Help, a discussion that served as one of the biggest highlights at the day-long event, which also included re-enactments, singing, drumming and other family-oritented activities.
The Help chronicles the lives of black domestic servants working in white Southern households in the early 1960s. The lead characters portray a strong sense of bravery in deciding to share their stories with Miss Skeeter Phelan, a white woman with writing ambitions. She embarks on the risky endeavor in Mississippi during a time of segregation enforced through Jim Crow laws.
For those who attended Saturday's Juneteenth discussion, feelings toward the book varied, from the light-hearted and sometimes comedic take on such a complex topic to the lack of positive black male characters in the story.
"They were hard-working and they had families, but the book did not show that," one woman said.
Jonelle Henry, international producer at C-SPAN, served as the facilitator for the discussion, posing questions to the panel and to audience members. Henry is also host and founder of Districtly Speaking, a monthly town hall group that discusses social and political issues in Washington, DC.
Panelists included Terry Bradford, president of the Daniel B. Matthews Historical Society, recent Quaker Valley graduate Harley Skorpenske, Betty Douglas, a local artist, singer and poet, and Lee Berry, who owns a local cleaning business.
Berry said it's important to note that there are good and bad people in every category, and that today she can choose which families she wants to work for.
"I have many families that I work for who will treat me with respect," she said. "We do have a choice. These women didn't have a choice."
And when it came to the life of domestic servitude, personal experiences also varied. One woman recalled having her school guidance counselor suggest she take a home economics course to learn to be a good maid.
George Dudley of Aliquippa said he held resentment for years based on his mother's domestic work for a judge that she took up when his dad became ill.
Bradford said her mom, now 88, also took care of families and cleaned their houses. She remembers kids would call their home asking where their belongings were because their parents didn’t know, she said.
“Sometimes we need to reflect back to know where we’re going,” Bradford said.
Back then, Cuspard said young black women couldn’t get jobs doing much else.
“Naturally, we did what we could,” she said.
This meant working as a domestic, raising other people’s children, cooking for other families and cleaning their houses. Young people were often referred to these jobs by the older women in the church, Cuspard said.
“The older women, they kind of watched out for us,” she said.
But while black women didn't have much of a choice, Cuspard said working as a domestic also presented opportunities to learn skills such as French cooking that she otherwise wouldn’t have had because her family didn’t have the resources.
Cuspard said her employers always had dinner parties so she also got to know their friends. One day while scrubbing floors on her knees, one of those friends told Cuspard to stand up, that she had another job for her.
“She put me in an office,” said Cuspard, who went on to work in the mental health field and later received her master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh.
Cuspard spoke Friday to the woman she once cared for as a child to let her know she planned to attend Juneteenth to speak highly of her former employers.
"I just want the young people to know," she said.
"The discussion was fabulous," Rosalind Santavicca of Pittsburgh said afterward. She and her daughter read The Help and Santavicca said she keeps encouraging other white women to do the same.
"I think that people were getting to the real point, while we've come a long way, there's growth to be made,” she said. “We can't forget what happened."
Did you attend Juneteenth? What did you take from the discussion?