Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2015/Fall/Section 020/Rosa Lee Johnson

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Rosa Lee Johnson
Waycross, Georgia
OccupationHouse cook/Maid

Overview[edit | edit source]

Rosa Lee Johnson worked as a house cook and a maid in Alabama during the Great Depression (1921-1941). She was interviewed about her life by George S. Barnard for the Federal Writers Project.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Age[edit | edit source]

A 1912 postcard depicting harvesting pine resin for the turpentine industry

Rosa Lee Johnson was born in Waycross, Georgia. Although her birth is not documented, she claims that she was born around the 1877. She grew up with 15 other siblings in Camilla, Georgia where their family farmed cotton and corn for a white family who owned the land. At times, she would help with the field work, babysitting, or the house work for the white family. She did not graduate elementary school but could still read and write.

In an interview, she states that she was married around the year 1889 or 1890 to her first husband. The two were tenant farmers until her husband died about an year or two after their marriage. Afterwards, she moved to Ozark, Alabama and remarried. She had her only child during her second marriage. Although not divorced, she and her second husband lived separately shortly after their marriage.

Middle Age[edit | edit source]

A farmer's house in Washington County, MD.

After her second marriage, Johnson moved to the Eufaula Street of Alabama, where she worked as a cook and a maid for Laura Bames. Johnson got along with Bames. She worked alongside three other servants. Johnson had a regular daily routine for work. She woke as early as five thirty to make breakfast for both Bames and her children before the kids went to school. Afterwards, Johnson completed an assortment of tasks: the dishes from last night and breakfast, cleaning up the rooms, and sweeping the front porch and the sidewalk of the house. She served dinner as what Bames ordered her and left for home at around 1PM.

Johnson lived off a rent with her son, nephew, and with three others in a “hollow”, a four-room framed house. They had no access to the hydrant water, electricity, fireplace, nor bathtub or the toilet. They used the backyard in lieu of the toilet and they used lamps and kerosene instead of electricity[1].

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

Agriculture Life[edit | edit source]

Tenantless farm in Texas panhandle 1938

During the 1930s, 30% of the population in the rural south were farmers. Of these, 40% of the African Americans were farmworkers, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers. For those tenant farmers, “not only was a declining economy a threat to their employment, new machines, such as mechanical cotton pickers, displaced many farm workers”.

The majority of the black tenant farmers faced economic crisis for various reasons. Racial discrimination still existed at the time. Not only were the blacks not given the equal wage than that of the whites, but also the whites had more job opportunities than the blacks. Second, the farmers, during the Great Depression, generally made little profit. The crops were overproduced, resulting in the low prices of farm products. This caused the decline of economy and hence left the farmers with debts[2].

Tenants in Alabama[edit | edit source]

Farming families in Alabama went through the first drawback of the Great Depression in early 1921 when the commodity prices such as cotton fell “from a high of 35 cents per pound to less than 5 cents per pound by 1932”. Some of these farmers left for the cities while others fell into deeper debts. Although the Great Depression impacted majority of the population, white farmers owned larger and more profitable farm lands than black farmers.

During the Great Depression, many people migrated to the rural areas. “ In fact, the 1930s [served] as a demographic anomaly, as thousands of laid-off workers relocated to the countryside in the hopes of surviving off of the land”[3]. However, this sudden demographic shift caused environmental stressors on the land, which worsened the condition and resulted into inefficient farming practices. By the 1940s, the number of sharecroppers in Alabama dropped by 30% and the number of tenant farmers in Alabama dropped by 9%[4].

Marriage Conflicts[edit | edit source]

The rate of unemployment contributed to marriage conflicts during the Great Depression. The average rate of unemployment during the Great Depression went up to as high as 24.9% in 1933, compared to 3.2% in 1929[5]. After the crash of Wall Street in 1929, the unemployment rate continued to worsen. Reaching its peak in 1933, almost quarter of all the labor force population was left jobless. These financial stressors had a huge impact on psychological mental health depressions on the African American population compared to Whites. The depressions from economic concerns had impacts in families like Johnson, who, during her marriage, dealt with “alcoholism, drug abuse, foul and abusive language”[6] from her husband.

Divorce[edit | edit source]

The economic restraints had a significant influence on many of the couples, including Johnson, resulting in unsuccessful divorces. Divorce at the time of the Great Depression “[was] costly with respect to standard of living and the accumulation of wealth. These losses include court costs, lawyer’s fees,...dividing marital property, and the general loss of economies of scale associated with splitting one household into two”[7].

The average divorce rate per 1,000 people throughout 1920s to 1960s were very unstable. Statistic shows that the divorce rate was the lowest during 1930-1933 with the rate of 1.4 until it doubled up to 2.8 divorce rate during 1940-1946[8]. Overall, the divorce rate between 1929 and 1933 declined by 25%[9]. Many couples who were not able to afford such expensive divorces, like Johnson, chose the ‘poor man’s divorce’ option, physically living apart from one another without the official documents [10].

Birth Rates[edit | edit source]

A diaphragm contraceptive device, shown with its box, and a coin (it is about 3 times wider than the quarter).
Diaphragms were the most commonly used female birth control mechanism before the pill (modern example, shown with a coin for scale).

“The Great Depression depressed birth rates...between 1915 and 1930”[11]. Increased number of children in the household meant more financial strain during such a crucial period of time. During the Great Depression, many were the case of Johnson who did not support a big family. “The widespread poverty of the Great Depression caused dramatic changes to family life as young couples, worried about their finances, put off having children. The US fertility rate (the number of children born to women aged 15-44) declined by nearly 20%”[12].

Many were seeking for solutions to eliminate the ways that they can restrain from such financial crisis during the Great Depression. To avoid expenses of unexpected children, more people learned about the birth control. Although it was unconstitutional for married couples to use birth control pills before the Supreme Court ruling of Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965, the hospitality towards other ways of birth control, such as diaphragms, gradually increased decades before[13].

In 1936, the US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries that “the federal government could not interfere with doctors providing contraception to their patients”[14]. This court appealed to the American Medical Association in 1937, which triggered states to open up to the idea of birth control, allowing for the widespread of contraceptive manufacturers[15]. By 1938, female contraceptive industry revenues exceeded $250 million per year and over 400[16]. By the 1930s, the most popular prescribed form of contraception product was the diaphragm with spermicidal jelly[17]. The diaphragms "were 85% of total contraceptives sales"[18].

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Johnson, Rosa Lee. Waycross, Georgia. ”A Negro Cook's Day." Interview by author. Federal Writers’ Project.
  2. "Black Americans 1929-1941." Encyclopedia.com. 2002. Accessed October 1, 2015.
  3. Downs, Matthew L. "Great Depression in Alabama." Encyclopedia of Alabama. July 10, 2014. Accessed October 20, 2015. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-3608#sthash.Lkbf8NGF.dpuf.
  4. Phillips, Kenneth E. "Sharecropping and Tenant Farming in Alabama." Encyclopedia of Alabama. July 28, 2008. Accessed October 20, 2015. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1613.
  5. Susan Carter, Scott Sigmund Gartner, Michael Haines, Alan Olmsted, Richard Sutch and Gavin Wright. 3 Historical Statistics of the United States: Millennial Edition, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), http://hsus.cambridge.org/, accessed 17 October 2015.
  6. Jones, Antwan. 2014. "Depression, Race, Gender and Covenant Marriage: An Analysis of Newly Married Couples." Health Sociology Review 23 (3): 190-207. http://search.proquest.com/docview/1643397353?accountid=14244.
  7. Beattie, Brett, and Paul R. Amato. "Does the Unemployment Rate Affect the Divorce Rate? An Analysis of State Data 1960–2005." In Social Science Research, 705–715. 3rd ed. Vol. 40. Elsevier, 2011.
  8. 10 Historical Statistics of the United States: Bicentennial Edition, Colonial Times to 1970, Vol. 1 (Washington DC: 1975), p. 64, http://www2.census.gov/prod2/statcomp/documents/CT1970p1-03.pdf, accessed 2 February 2009.
  9. Ambrosino, Brandon. "Recent U.S. Divorce Rate Trend Has 'faint Echo' of Depression-era Pattern." The Hub. January 29, 2014. Accessed October 20, 2015. http://hub.jhu.edu/2014/01/29/divorce-in-time-of-recession.
  10. "Social and Cultural Effects of the Depression." U.S. History Online Textbook. Accessed October 12, 2015. http://www.ushistory.org/us/48e.asp.
  11. Fishback, Price Van Meter, Michael R. Haines, and Shawn Kantor. "Births, Deaths, and New Deal Relief during the Great Depression." In The Review of Economics and Statistics, 1-14. 1st ed. Vol. 89. Cambridge, Mass.: President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2007.
  12. Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Health Statistics, Vital Statistics, “Table 1-1. Live Births, Birth Rates, and Fertility Rates, by Race: United States, 1909-2000” http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/statab/t001x01.pdf, accessed 12 O 2009.
  13. McBride, Alex. "Expanding Civil Rights." PBS. Accessed October 20, 2015. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/supremecourt/rights/landmark_griswold.html.
  14. "Biographical Note". The Margaret Sanger Papers. Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Mass. 1995. Retrieved 2006-10-21.
  15. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Family Planning," accessed on 12 October, 2015.
  16. Engelman, Peter. A History of the Birth Control Movement in America. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger, 2011. 167.
  17. Tone, Andrea. Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America. 6th ed. Vol. 48. New York: Journal of Midwifery & Women's Health, 2001. 117.
  18. "History of Contraception-Cervical Caps and Diaphragms." History of Contraception-Cervical Caps and Diaphragms. Accessed October 20, 2015. http://www.case.edu/affil/skuyhistcontraception/online-2012/Cervical-Caps-Diaphragms.html.