Above: Members of the two families celebrate Josephine Hurt’s retirement.
By Patrice Worthy
Sitting in a high-rise in the heart of Buckhead are two women in their late 80s, laughing over stories of their friendship. They met in Atlanta as young women when Josephine Hurt needed a job and Virginia Saul needed a housekeeper.
Hurt applied for the job and was hired on the spot, and for 65 years she remained the housekeeper for the Saul family. She retired in August, and recently the two women discussed the 6½ decades they spent together.
The women — one white and Jewish, the other black and Christian — were in their early 20s when their story together began in postwar Atlanta before the civil rights movement.
At the start, the employer-employee relationship was like the blind leading the blind.
“It was a relief having her helping,” Saul said. “I didn’t know anything, and she didn’t know anything, but we learned together.”
The lives of these two very different women of the same age evolved into a complicated friendship.
Saul is the wife of Milton Saul, who built a fortune as the owner of Saul’s Department Store. She dedicated much of her time to the Jewish community by volunteering for Hadassah and serving as chapter president in 1964; she was one of the three honorees at Hadassah Greater Atlanta’s centennial celebration in late October.
She was the vice president of the Women’s Division of the Atlanta Jewish Federation and eventually served as board chair.
Saul’s roles in the Jewish community put demands on her time, and she needed help maintaining her home, so she hired Hurt.
The two women laughed as they recalled fumbling through child rearing and cooking, a task neither woman knew much about. It was Saul’s father, Ben Diamond, who taught Hurt how to cook kosher.
“Virginia wasn’t much of a cook; the kids wouldn’t eat her cooking,” Hurt said with a laugh. “They would eat my cooking and Mr. Saul’s cooking, but not hers.”
Hurt, a self-described country girl from McDonough, was accustomed to being treated as inferior to whites. Fighting for civil rights was unheard of when she was growing up in Henry County, and as a young woman she shied away from the progressive politics of Atlanta.
“I had never been around that many black people,” Hurt said. “I was used to the way things were.”
During her time as a housekeeper, Hurt did all the laundry, cooking, cleaning and child care. Saul had one child, Karen, when Hurt took what felt like a dream job. “She had this cute little girl with these big curls. She took to me, and I took to her.”
Over time, Hurt became more than the help; she was the backbone of the family. As a staple in the Saul household, Hurt was well known in the Sauls’ social circles. She was treated well by family and friends, and no one ever criticized Saul for their closeness.
Saul said the two were the envy of her friends.
“Everyone wished they had a relationship like I did with Josephine,” Saul said. “Everyone thought it was great. In all the years she worked for us, she never missed a day of work, and you just can’t find good help like that anymore.”
Hurt attended get-togethers with Saul, but, like any friendship, it was complicated. Hurt was an employee, and her status came with certain boundaries even though she was considered a part of the family. She did not participate in Rosh Hashanah or Passover, for example, because she was busy cooking and serving the meal.
And, as an employee, she did not join the nightly family dinners.
“She did not eat at the dinner table with us because she was an employee,” Saul said. “It’s like my husband’s employees did not eat dinner with us, but when it was just the two of us, we ate together.”
“Why come you never learned me to speak Jewish?” Hurt asked Saul.
Saul answered with a laugh: “Because I didn’t know how to speak it either.”
Asked if she regrets anything about their relationship, Saul said she wishes she had guided Hurt in a different direction.
“It was an unequal friendship, and I wish I would have pushed her more to get an education so she would have had more,” Saul said. “I felt guilty because she had so much to offer, and she was working as a housekeeper.”
Hurt didn’t want to get an education. She even passed up a job at BellSouth because she valued her relationship with the Sauls.
As the housekeeper, she received the same monetary bonuses as the employees of Saul’s Department Store.
She ate at whites-only establishments such as the Colonnade restaurant with Saul’s parents, and if anyone complained, Theresa Diamond, Saul’s mother, quickly put the offender in his or her place.
Hurt lived with the Sauls for several years. She had her own side of the house, but the living arrangements led to Hurt’s hours being extended.
“I loved working for the Sauls, but the only thing I didn’t agree with was them going out every night while I was living there,” Hurt said.
At a time when many blacks relied on the bus and boycotts required them to walk to and from work, Hurt enjoyed the luxury of driving. She drove Saul’s car on her weekends off and even received multiple cars from her employer.
Hurt said she was sheltered from the racism that affected most blacks in the 1950s and ‘60s because she didn’t ride the bus and spent most of her time in the Saul household.
“I never thought she was going to learn how to drive,” Saul said, but “she’s had five cars.”
The two women smiled but wouldn’t disclose what happened to each of the cars. Instead, they laughed and kept talking.
Hurt needed a driver’s license to shuttle the kids to and from school. She got them ready for school in the morning and cooked all their meals. She also took them on excursions during the weekends.
Hurt never had children but views the three Saul children, Karen, Michael and Barbara, as her own. The children come to visit her at her senior citizen residence in the Atlanta neighborhood of Mechanicsville, call often and send her money.
The Sauls continue to pay her a salary as long as she needs it.
Still, when she was alone, with her thin, gray hair combed back and slightly curled and the wrinkles on her 88-year-old face reflecting a lifetime of hard work, she acknowledged that her time as a Saul employee wasn’t perfect.
“Have you ever been in a work situation and you hoped it would get better?” Hurt said. “Virginia was never with the children. She loved to play cards every day she could, and her special day was Wednesday.”
While Saul attended social engagements, Hurt had the burden of raising three very different children with individual preferences.
“It was hard raising three children,” Hurt said. “I had two sets of diapers because Michael and Barbara were a year and a day apart, so I was potty-training two babies.”
Because of his demanding work schedule, Milton Saul left the household duties to Hurt and his wife, but he was well aware of Hurt’s contributions.
“She was a mind reader. She knew what you were thinking, and you couldn’t fool her,” he said. “She gave me advice more than I gave her. One time I asked her opinion, and she told me things about my children I didn’t know.”
Hurt’s workload lightened when the children left for college. By that time she was raising six of her great-nieces and -nephews and caring for a dying brother.
She took in the six children when her niece became addicted to drugs. It was a move that required the help of Milton Saul.
“I knew if the kids went into foster care, they would separate them. I didn’t want that to happen, so Mr. Saul did the paperwork so I could have them,” Hurt said.
Milton Saul said Hurt deserves everything the Sauls have done for her.
“She was a member of the family,” he said. “Whatever we’ve done for her, she would’ve done for us if the shoe was on the other foot.”