“Miss Phelan,” Elaine Stein said, and I knew it wasn’t a question, “this Negro actually agreed to talk to you candidly? About working for a white family? Because that seems like a hell of a risk in a place like Jackson, Mississippi.”1
Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help takes place in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s as Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan interviews African American maids working in white households in her community. Throughout the story, Skeeter, who comes from a privileged white family, forms a bond with the “colored” maids of Jackson as they collaborate to write a book exposing their horrendous, hilarious, and sometimes even happy experiences working in a Southern community extremely segregated by race.
Because of the controversial subject, Stockett had difficulty getting her novel published. However, once it was released, it quickly became a New York Times Best Seller, where it remained on the list for over 100 weeks. In 2011, a film adaptation of The Help was released due to the success of the book. Parts of the film were actually shot in Jackson, Mississippi, while some scenes were shot in the nearby Greenwood, Mississippi, representing Jackson in the 1960s.
Jackson, Mississippi, has a rich history regarding the American Civil War. Jackson’s location made it an ideal manufacturing and railroad center for the Confederate states of the South. In 1863, the Union forces successfully captured Jackson before and after the capture of Vicksburg. In fact, the Confederacy built fortifications around Jackson to prepare for their counterattack on the Union’s siege on Vicksburg. Once the South gained news of the Union’s success in Vicksburg, the the Confederates retreated into Jackson. However, the Union released artillery bombardments for about a week in the Siege of Jackson, and on July 16, 1863, the Confederates fled Jackson and crossed the nearby Pearl River to safety, signifying another win for the Union.
Jackson’s history of racial segregation continued after the Civil War, lasting all the way through the Civil Rights Movement. In 1961, the arrests of over 300 Freedom Riders took place in Jackson. In 1963, in the year that Stockett’s novel is set, Civil Rights activist and leader Medgar Evers was killed returning to his Jackson home. The city was the home of many Civil Rights marches and protests and had a long history of racial discrimination and persecution. Although Stockett’s novel is fictional, it was heavily influenced by many real-life occurrences in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s.
1 Stockett, Kathryn. The Help. New York: Penguin Group, 2009. Print.
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