Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2015/Fall/Section 020/Marguerite Clark

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Marguerite Clark neé Wilson was an African American house cook from New Orleans, Louisiana during the Great Depression. She began working and married the habitually unemployed Buster Clark at a young age. Her husband was employed by the Works Progress Administration during this time but he was unable to keep his various jobs. She was interviewed about her life by Robert McKinney for the Federal Writers' Project between 1936 and 1940.

Marguerite Clark
New Orleans, Louisiana
OccupationHouse cook
SpouseBuster Clark

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Marguerite Clark was born in New Orleans, Louisiana to Marguerite Wilson, a single mother. Wilson worked as a cook in other people's homes, but still found time to take her young daughter to church every Sunday.

Clark did well in school. However she claimed that she would have done even better had it not been for math, in which she was not proficient. Around this time her mother fell ill and Marguerite started working as a cook and quit school.

Working[edit | edit source]

Clark worked for a woman whom she called "Miss Graves" for two years for only five dollars a week. She brought home leftover food, which she referred to as slingin' pans," from Graves' house to feed her mother and herself.

Marriage and Home Life[edit | edit source]

During her adolescence, boys often accosted her, telling her to "lift up her dress" for them. She claims that she refrained from doing so until Buster Clark asked. Claiming that she had given up her "dignity" for him, Clark then coerced Buster into marrying her. Clark wanted to marry while they were still young to prevent Buster from "runnin' away with 'nother woman." Clark and her husband never had children.

Zion Travelers Baptist Church today

Clark believed that "people should marry young and belong to a church." She herself attended Zion Traveler's Baptist Church regularly. Although she was not on the church's executive board, neighbors referred to her as an influential member of the church. However her fellow church-goers expressed their disapproval of Buster Clark.

A W.P.A. work card issued to workers like Buster Clark

Early in their marriage, Buster held a job in a cotton warehouse. He sent most of his money home to his parents, but Buster turned to spending the money on himself. Marguerite provided food for her mother, Buster and herself through the "pans" she brought home. Around this time Marguerite left Miss Graves and began working for a white woman by the name of Mrs. Jacobs, who agreed with Clark's stance on the church and marriage.

Buster turned to drinking and could not hold a job as a result. Clark called him "W.P.A. man," in reference to the Works Progress Administration, because it was a job he had held. She claimed that he was always waiting for his W.P.A. card so he could work his next job and earn more money to spend on alcohol and gambling.[1]

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

African Americans and the W.P.A.[edit | edit source]

Established in 1935 to create jobs during the Great Depression, The Works Progress Administration had about 2,112,000 people working for them on any given month beginning from its establishment until 1941 and it helped lift the spirits of unemployed and impoverished citizens.[2]The W.P.A. also provided African Americans with a source of jobs that they might have been excluded from in the private sector.

African Americans were overrepresented in the W.P.A. where they made up 14% of the employees in 1939 but only 11% in the general labor force in 1940.[3] The W.P.A. constructed homes, hospitals, and schools in black communities. And in their clinics, they hired both black and white doctors to treat the residents of these black communities.[4] African Americans were also a higher percentage of workers than relief participants in the South.[5] President Roosevelt and W.P.A. directorsHarry Hopkins and Aubrey Willis Williams condemned discrimination on any grounds, which also provided more opportunity to black workers.[6] However, W.P.A. officials still engaged in discriminatory practices. Since wage scales of the W.P.A. were adjusted to the area, workers in the South, where 75% of the black population resided, were paid significantly less than their northern counterparts.[7]Southern W.P.A. employers cut costs caused by the National Recovery Administration and minimum wage legislation by laying off primarily black workers.[8] Instances of black workers being paid less than their white counterparts were frequent across the East coast. However there are records of black W.P.A. workers protesting discrimination in the forms of segregated work programs and nepotism by white politicians.[9]

Education during the Great Depression[edit | edit source]

During the beginning of the 1930's, many educators failed to recognize the impact of the Great Depression. As time progressed, enrollment rates plummeted as the birth rate started to decline due to financial hardships.[10] Many schools closed down due to lack of financial support from the government, which also led to many uneducated young children.[11] By 1934, roughly twenty thousand rural schools were forced to close and some districts had to shorten their school years to save money. [12]

An informal school formed after a rural school was closed down due to lack of funds.

However federal agencies like the W.P.A., C.C.C., and N.Y.A. helped setup and run vocational classes to teach unskilled laborers.[13] The School Machinery Act was established in 1931 and was created by the North Carolina General Assembly. The School Machinery Act provided education for all children in North Carolina for free. Legislation like this along with support from New Deal programs such as the Federal Emergency Education Project kept education alive during the Great Depression. [14]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Interview, Robert McKinney interviewing Marguerite Clark, folder 271, Coll. 03709, Federal Writers' Project Papers, 1936-1940, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  2. McElvaine, Robert S., ed. Encyclopedia of the Great Depression. New York: Gale, 2004.
  3. Amneta, Edwin, Bold Relief: Institutional Politics and the Origins of Modern American Social Policy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.
  4. New York Public Library Staff, The New York Public Library African American Desk Reference. New York: The Stonesong Press Inc., The New York Public Library, & John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1999.
  5. Amneta, Edwin, Bold Relief
  6. New York Public Library Staff, African American Desk Reference
  7. New York Public Library Staff, African American Desk Reference
  8. Badger, Anthony J., New Deal / New South: An Anthony J. Badger Reader. The University of Arkansas Press, 2007.
  9. Lumpkins, Charles L., American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2008.
  10. McElvaine, Robert S., ed. Encyclopedia of the Great Depression
  11. "How the Lack of Education During the Great Depression Affected Southern Society." 123HelpMe.com. 08 Oct 2015 <http://www.123HelpMe.com/view.asp?id=70340>.
  12. McElvaine, Encyclopedia of the Great Depression
  13. Hanes, Richard Clay & Gale Group, Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression: Gale Research International, 2002
  14. Peterson, Michelle. Education Relief Programs in St. Clair County During the Depression: 1998