Making a Living

A vast number of African Americans turned to domestic service for a living. An 1897 survey determined that Richmond and Washington, D.C. tied for the highest domestic employment rate among all major American cities. That year in Richmond, there was on average one servant for every thirteen people.

Finding Employment

Black workers struggled with poor education, limited job training and opportunities, and racial discrimination. Many took jobs in agriculture or industry—like the thousands who worked in Richmond’s tobacco factories. A vast number, however, turned to domestic service for a living. Richmond maintained a high demand for household workers in the Maymont period.

Workers could wield some degree of control through mobility. When conditions or wages weren’t good, they looked elsewhere. They also shared information about jobs and employer reputations. Most preferred to find employment by word of mouth. Networks of family and friends, both white and Black, placed workers within known households. For example, Maymont head cook Frances Twiggs Walker was able to help place a daughter and niece in other upper-class households. Others located jobs through employment agencies, churches, the YWCA, the Urban League and newspaper classified ads.


The Dooleys’ employees received wages comparable to—or slightly higher than—domestic workers in other upper-class Richmond households. Surviving documents recorded the payroll for one month in 1923. Variations indicate a differing pay scale between white and black employees, male and female, skilled and semiskilled.

C. Hamilton Fitzgerald, chauffeur/mechanic, $140
William Dilworth, butler, $100
Justin Simms, second butler, $60
Frances Walker, head cook, $43
Fannie Waddy, lady’s maid, $30
Rosa (no last name given), house maid, $30
Kitchen maid,unnamed, $20
Laundress, unnamed, part-time, $15

Making Ends Meet

At the top of his profession in 1923, head butler William Dilworth earned a wage of $100 a month—the highest of Maymont's black employees.

Compare his wages to the average monthly income of other African American men in Richmond:
Other butlers, $68
Unskilled iron workers, $76
Black teachers in city schools, $91
Tobacco factory laborers, $78
Skilled ironworkers, $109

Mr. Dilworth's pay ranked just above that of the average unskilled male laborer ($95). Could William Dilworth support his wife and three children? His annual income of $1200 fell below a living wage of $1400 for a family of five at that time. His wife, Mary Fields Dilworth, supplemented his wages by taking in wash.

Summers Away

One time, Papa carried me upstairs [in our house] and said, "Now, I’ll be away for the summer. I want you to look out for the family and look out for Mamma." When he was gone, he would write every week and send home his check.
—Harold Bailey, grandson of head butler William Dilworth

Like many upper-class families, the Dooleys left the city’s oppressive heat for the cooler temperatures of country retreats or hotels. After 1913, the couple summered at Swannanoa, their estate in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Many of the household employees traveled with them, leaving their own families for up to five months at a time. Other staff were left behind on reduced “board wages.” Each year, the butler would supervise the staff in “closing” Maymont for the summer, which meant removing heavy carpets and curtains, draping furnishings with dust sheets and packing employers’ clothing and provisions. It was a long process they reversed on their return in the fall.