Skip to content

University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

When one door closed, another opened for Helen Marsh

Marsh (photo by Sara Cowell)

Helen Marsh doesn’t go to movies much, but when “The Help” came out this summer, she knew she had to see it.

Based on the 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett, the movie tells the moving story of African-American maids working in white households in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s.

A story, Marsh said, just like her mother’s. Marsh’s mother worked as a maid for two white families in Siler City during the Jim Crow era when “separate but equal” remained the norm.

The 65-year-old Marsh ended up following in her mother’s footsteps when her longtime job at the hosiery mill ended. For the past five years, she has worked as a housekeeper at Carolina.

But the world she grew up in is different from the one she works in now, Marsh said. Some of the students she sees in the residence halls she cleans look like her, for instance. Almost everyone treats her with respect, even affection.

And since “The Help” came out, some students have seen a glimpse into “the olden days” of Marsh’s past. “I was talking to one of the little girls who saw that movie,” she said, “and I told her, ‘That picture put me so much in mind of my mama. That is what she did.’”

From the 1940s through the 1960s, her mother worked for two white families, and while she was raising their children, Marsh said, “Our grandma was raising us.”

One of six children, Marsh was the second oldest of four girls. The only time the children could spend with their mother was Sunday afternoon, her day off.

The house had no electricity or indoor plumbing, and the family gathered straw from a nearby field to make brooms to sweep the floor.

“We really had a hard, hard life,” Marsh said. “Our two uncles worked at a feed mill and they would come by with pretty feed sacks. My mama would save those sacks and when she had a chance, she would make us little dresses to wear to school. Kids used to make fun of us for the way we dressed.”

And many days, the siblings went to school with no lunch money and nothing to eat.

But, Marsh said, she had a solid upbringing. “My mama never had to go to the jailhouse, she never had to go to the schoolhouse after one of us got into trouble because we didn’t get into trouble,” she said.

And she has never been bitter about the way she grew up, because her grandmother and mother did their best, which, she said, was pretty good.

“I don’t have any ill feelings,” Marsh said. “It was just the way it was. To me, the way I grew up taught me how to appreciate stuff. It taught me how to raise my kids. My mama told us, ‘Always be respectful of other people and be respectful of yourself.’ She said, ‘Regardless of what kind of job you do, as long as you are making an honest living, be proud of what you do.’”

And Marsh has always been proud of her work, whether it was working in the “hog house” in Siler City after finishing high school, or during the 35 years she worked at the hosiery mill there.

No doubt, she still would be working at the mill, Marsh said, if the last company that took over hadn’t closed it down.

“It hurt me at first when they told me that,” she said. “I said, ‘Lord, one door is shut, another one is going to open.’ I set my mind to that. I knew I did not want to sit home and I did not want unemployment.”

The week after she lost her job, she found a new one in Chapel Hill as a temporary housekeeper.

From the day she started working, she added, she wanted to prove to her supervisor that she merited being hired permanently. And after two months on the job, she worked up the nerve to tell him.

“I am not trying to be ugly. I am not trying to be smart, but do you know whether you want to hire me or not?” she asked, before adding, “I am not lazy. I come to work every day. Every day.”

With her characteristic directness, she said, “If you are going to hire me, go ahead and hire me. If you are not going to hire me, go ahead and tell me so I can move on and find something else.”

She received the permanent offer the following week.

Five years later, the C. Knox Massy Distinguished Service Award came out of the blue, she said. She feels deeply grateful, but unchanged, because the pride that endures comes from within – pride earned from a hard day’s work.

“I am no different today than I was before,” Marsh said. “From the first day I set foot on this campus, I did a good job. I didn’t half-step. The day I walk out of here, I will still be doing it.”