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Life Upstairs, Downstairs at Maymont House

Author Elizabeth O'Leary and Doris Walker Woodson.
Tracy Wahl, NPR
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Author Elizabeth O'Leary and Doris Walker Woodson.

On the banks of the James River in Richmond, Va., an opulent turn-of-the-century mansion epitomizes the Gilded Age. For decades, visitors to Maymont House have soaked up the excesses of the time -- a period marked by railroad barons and tobacco tycoons.

Now, the newly renovated basement of Maymont provides a glimpse into a different life then: that of of the domestic workers -- mostly African Americans -- who continued to serve rich, white families one and two generations after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Doris Walker Woodson's mother and grandmother were cooks at Maymont, but Woodson forged a far different path in life, becoming a professor of art.

For most of her life, Woodson had nothing to do with Maymont House. In fact, she didn't even know about her family connection to it. That's because Woodson barely knew her mother growing up. She was a live-in cook, and Woodson was shuttled among a succession of relatives and boarding houses.

She had mixed feelings when she found out that Maymont wanted to turn its servants' quarters into a museum. But she eventually decided to help.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.