Mary Beth Meehan



The roots of Jane’s family were set down in Georgia just after the Revolutionary War, when a multiple-great-grandfather, who’d fought for the Colonies, was given a parcel of land. The young government granted the land to war veterans in reward for their service, and as enticement to expand the white settlement into new terrain. “They got their land in the beginning when they drove the Indians out,” said Jane with an embarrassed look, referring to the violent period that launched the Cherokee Trail of Tears. “That’s what they did – they got rid of ’em.”

It was 2016 and we were sitting in the living room of Jane’s house with her husband, a retired surgeon, and her daughter. I had first seen Jane at a fundraiser for a group that supports poor children in the county, to help them stay in school. She was trying on a cornflower-blue cashmere wrap that perfectly matched her eyes, and I asked if I might make a portrait of her. She agreed and invited me to visit her. At her house, after we’d taken the photographs, she began to tell me about her family’s history, of which she is proud. “You’re kind to listen to all this,” she said.

Jane’s ancestors were among the first settlers to plant cotton in central Georgia, arduous labor that would contribute to the South’s great wealth. I asked if those ancestors had had slaves. “I think they always had slaves; it’s like I have help,” she said, alluding to her maid. “‘Cause you had to have help. That’s why they brought the slaves over – was the help.

“We were always farmers,” Jane continued, and she described the economic insecurity of working the land, which continued through her father’s generation. “You know my daddy told me one time that he had to go out in the cotton fields and paint arsenic on the boll weevil that was in the cotton,” Jane said, referring to the insect that devastated the South’s cotton crops in the 1920s.

Jane has an ancestor who got rich by owning a cotton mill, but she makes sure to distinguish her family line from his. “We were not the brother who made it in the mills,” she said. “We didn’t see that we should have done something else, other than just farm.” Her family’s income followed the path of the boll weevil to the 1929 stock-market crash, and then the Great Depression. “One of my kin, I don’t know who, but the mother died and they did not have enough money to get a casket for her.”

Jane’s husband, too, came from humble roots. The son of a mill worker, he nevertheless became a doctor, making his way up a professional ladder available to ambitious white people in 20th-century Georgia. He worked his way through medical school, while young Jane worked as a teacher to support the family.

The couple bought their house in the 1960s, a stately dwelling built by a cotton-mill owner in 1939. Jane raised their four children there, and became a skilled bridge player, though she never really abandoned her earthy beginnings. (She’d often spend an afternoon crisscrossing the grounds on a riding mower.) “All of this is hard earned,” Jane said. “That’s why when people call him ‘Mister’ we make ’em correct it to ‘Doctor,’ ’cause it was hard come, wasn’t it?”

When they were younger, Jane and her husband loved to throw glittering parties, with guests of all ages mingling amid cut flowers and candlelight, enjoying grilled tenderloin and smoked-oyster dip. Jane’s husband would hire a team of black men to stand at the top of the circle drive and park the guests’ cars as they arrived. Jane would hire one or two more maids to assist their full-time maid of 20 years, who continues to work for them today.

“She runs this place,” said Jane’s husband. “She buys all our groceries for us and everything.” “But I’m happy for her to do it,” said Jane. “My goodness, I’m just glad to have the help. She knows what she thinks is right, and does what she thinks is right.” “Back in the times you were talking about,” said her husband, “she would have been a slave. You’d have bought her to work for you.”

In thinking of this connection they’d drawn — between a slave of yesterday and a maid of today — I asked Jane if it was still common practice for Newnan families to employ a black woman to take care of them. Her daughter said that nowadays you might hire a cleaning service – with black, white, and Mexican women working on an hourly basis – but that the days of a person serving a family full time had practically come to an end.

Since this conversation took place, in 2016, Jane’s husband has passed away. Shortly thereafter, Jane sold her house and moved into another that’s smaller, with all the rooms on one level. I’ve recently learned through her family that she’s been struggling with her health, but that she’s still playing bridge every once in a while.