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White author scores a winner writing about black maids in ‘The Help’

What would a white guy who grew up in the South of pre-civil rights days know about how black people felt as they watched “The Help,” a movie just out this month? I grew up in those days, attended white public schools until college, and watched black people endure the indignities of the “separate but equal” era. But I couldn’t get inside their heads, and I wondered how lily-white Kathryn Stockett could.
But she came close in her first novel. And so did the movie.
At least that’s what Myrtle Figueras thinks.
“I thought it was beautiful,” Figueras, an African-American, said in a telephone conversation after seeing the movie with several friends. “I had read the book, and so the movie just made it come to life for me.”
“The Help” is the story of a young white woman, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, who comes home to Jackson, Miss., in 1962, fresh out of Ole Miss, eager to make her name as a writer. Eventually, she persuades Aibileen, a black maid — and later many of Aibileen’s friends — to share stories about cleaning the homes of white people and raising their kids. Those stories — warm, heartbreaking and downright hilarious — become Phelan’s book.
Myrtle Figueras said she could identify because her mother, Beola Forrest Woodard, was a domestic worker, better known as a good maid by whites in Thomas County and Thomasville, Ga. She worked until she died at 57.
“It was no big thing to me because everybody knew their place,” Figueras said.  Her mama’s place was eating in the kitchen, not in the dining room with the white folks. But she was allowed to use the regular bathroom, unlike some of the black characters in the movie.
Watching her mama work for $15 a week — even though “she was like one of the high-class maids” — convinced Figueras she needed to go to college. Born sixth in a family of eight kids, she was the first to go off and get a degree. She taught French in school for 30 years, was elected to the city council in my hometown, Gainesville, Ga., served as mayor and on practically every committee the city ever devised.
And one day, she said, she’s going to really retire and write her own books.
Meanwhile, she’ll reminisce and write about her mama and the sacrifices she made for her family.
Of course, not all white Southerners disrespected their black maids in those times. Figueras said a white woman who accompanied her to the movie said the black woman who raised her was seen as a member of the family. That also was the case with Julia Brown, the black maid who served my wife’s family for many years, a lady my wife loved and respected.
I never knew a black maid growing up. Neither did any of my friends. But after reading “The Help” and seeing the movie, I have a renewed appreciation — and regret — for what some of them and their kin went through. They and the South deserved better.

Phil Hudgins’ column is published in many newspapers around the Southeast.