Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105/Section071/Gretchen Branch

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Overview[edit | edit source]

Gretchen Branch was an African American music teacher in Fayetteville, North Carolina as of May 30 1939. She was interviewed, at the age of 26, by Nancy T. Robinson as a participant in the Federal Writers’ Project.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Gretchen Branch was born sometime in the year of 1913 in the small town of Phaetonville, a town that no longer exists. She had two sisters and one brother who, unfortunately, died a few days after he was born. Branch grew up in a presbyterian household; her father was a preacher and her mother was a teacher, both of whom were very religious. At the age of eight, Branch knew she wanted to play the violin, however there were no black violin teachers in her town and the single white teacher refused to train black students. After much persuasion from Branch’s father, Miss Gustav, the violinist, finally agreed to be Branch’s teacher under the presumption she would only have a month to prove her worth. Branch worked hard on her instrument, Miss Gustav, so impressed with her artistry, kept Branch as a student for three years before having to return home to Belgium. Miss Gustav wanted to take Branch with her to continue her lessons, she even offered to adopt her, however, Branch’s mother refused. After Miss Gustav left, Miss Hudnell, the new violin teacher in town, took over all of her students. Over the next 7 years, in which time Branch finished high school, Branch grew tremendously as a musician. Her high school honors and musical ability lead her to be offered a $150 scholarship to Hillsdale College in Michigan.

College Life[edit | edit source]

In the family, only Annabelle, Branch’s younger sister, and her went to college. Branch was a full-time student at Hillsdale College, a private conservative college in Michigan. She entered college life “smart, young, and very playful.” She would stay up at night playing cards with her friends, cooking or ironing clothes in her rom. Branch often found herself avoiding going to church or out to eat breakfast as the matrons of the institution strictly enforced everyone’s attendance. To avoid the scrutiny of the matrons, Branch found solace at the top of her schools’ clock tower. Unfortunately, she was caught coming down one day and as punishment she was forced to erase the vandalism at the top of the tower, a job that took her until night fall.

Gretchen Branch attended Hillsdale College (established 1844) for about a year before her expulsion.

Gretchen Branch majored in music, as a result she was a member of the choir and in turn she met Ramon. Ramon was her first official boyfriend, as their love grew, she found herself doing dangerous activities, that if caught would get her expelled from institution.

Branch was a star member of the choir, when she was denied the opportunity to go sing abroad with her college, Branch lost interest in obeying the policies of the school. She could be heard playing her instrument at all hours of the night, however, the one of the matrons deciding it to be disruptive so the dean told her to go play in the church instead. When a woman heard her playing one night and came to investigate, she was most disturbed to find Branch there and complained once more to the dean that the church had been donated on the basis no stringed instruments could be played there. Upset about how controlling college had become, Branch missed a solo performance for her choir one night, for is she was too young to go abroad, she was too you to sing solos. When the matron checked in that night, she informed Branch that she was not the girl Hillsdale wanted and she would be expelled.

After the expulsion, Branch informed her mother that she wished to go to state school instead, to which her mother consented unaware of Branch’s previous expulsion. There, she met many new friends, a new boyfriend, Jim, and joined a sorority. Branch was voted the most popular girl on campus her senior year and graduated with honors and a scholarship to study in New York.

Career[edit | edit source]

Branch started her career in New York City and found herself auditioning for the role of Prima Donna in the city’s production of “The Blackbirds.” Hugh Wesley offer Branch the role and a decent salary. The show opened up in Boston with much praise, before returning to New York to be on Broadway for a year. Branch’s mother criticized her greatly claiming the “the show business was indecent,” she said that Branch would reflect poorly on her father and when Branch’s contract ended, she went back home to be with her.

The following fall, Branch got a job teaching in a mining section of another state. Her first year there, she became very sick from the coal dust in the air. She only stayed there for one more year, then the following summer she found a job in Wormly. There she dealt with an unfortunate misogynistic principal, who would sexually harass his teachers. Branch was stuck there or two years before receiving a job offer to teach music at a state college in the South. The principal was angry with Branch for leaving and said that if she didn’t return to school by the end of term, he would use her sister to fill her job at the school. Under the impression she was helping her sister get a job closer to home, Annabelle accepted the position. Branch was not the only person he let go when she left, he fired six other teachers and refused to provide recommendations out of vengeance. As of 1939, Gretchen Branch was still teaching at the college (Branch 1939, 1-14)[1]

Social Issues:[edit | edit source]

Mistreatment and Disrespect of Teachers in the 1930s[edit | edit source]

Many women in the early 20th century, regardless of their race, were being controlled by men in power who believed that the way female teachers presented themselves reflected how well students learned. Therefore, women all over the United States were forced to adhere to ridiculous rules enforcing dress codes, weight limits, even their make-up routines. Summer activities and extracurriculars were monitored to ensure women were fit enough and presentable enough to be teachers. Henry Curtis, author of Recreation for Teachers announced, “’No teacher is in condition to teach school, or be married, unless she can walk ten miles a day without undue weariness.’”(Orgen 2018, para. 20)[2]. Curtis, as well as the article as whole, speaks to how female teachers in this time frame had little respect and were often under the grasp of powerful men who wanted them to reach a certain physical standard. A women’s social standing in the early 1900s was dictated by the male population and enforced through both physical and social manipulation.  Jane Adams, a member of the Chicago Board of Education in 1905 stated, “‘teachers were so restricted that they had no space in which to move about freely and the more adventurous of them fairly panted for light and air'” (Orgen 2018, para. 3).[2] Teachers are only one subset of women who were subjected to the manipulation and repression of men in the 1900’s. Their lack of control formed a creative null within the entire community.

Struggles of Black Musicians in the Early 1900's[edit | edit source]

In the 1900’s, black female musicians have had to face different conflicts than their male counter parts and in order to thrive and find validation within their life, they have had to work together. Black women had very little respect and social status throughout history, so they have often used music as a means to express themselves and develop a “social and political consciousness” in their community. These women created homosocial networks that “stimulated knowledge acquisition and the development of wisdom.” (Kernodle 2014, 33).[3] Unfortunately, black women everywhere, not only in the music industry, faced a stigma that no other community can experience. Melba Liston, a trombonist and arranger found that the social and professional networks these women created “‘facilitated the development of a social knowledge base that would frame how they engaged not only in one another but also in the make-centered spaces they inhabited’” (Kernodle 2014, 38). [3] At the bottom of the social food chain, working black women had to fight and fight hard for their place in a male centered society, the networks and support systems they created helped them to find validation and a community. However, through their fight, African American musicians helped to forge American culture during the Jazz Age and the Great Depression through their hard work and the production of their music. These artists helped create the current occupation standards by implementing “individual training, family mentoring, and peer group networking”; they created their own path to success and fame. Struck by the harshness of their past and their need to find community, African Americans found safe spaces where they could share “‘the sometimes tragic memories of southern life” that were “relived in the blues notes played by musicians in taverns and dance halls’”(House 2012, 104). [4]The musicians of their community served as a social glue holding the members of the community together. For the musicians of the African American community, music provided “a personal outlet, freedom of movement, potential earnings.” Their skills allowed for them to be acknowledged and their work helped to define the standard around the jazz and blues community (House 2012,106).[4]. Through the struggles they faced, African American musicians in the 20th century helped to forge the level of music and creativity people hear today.

Difference in Education of Black Students and White Students in the Early 20th Century[edit | edit source]

Segregated School in the South: Circa 1930s

The education between black students and white students was stark in the early 1900’s. As segregation and Jim Crow Laws were still in effect, black students were put at a disadvantage against white students, not only in their environment they learned in but all the condition and treatment of teachers. Statistically, white teachers are less likely to believe in an African American student than they are in a Caucasian one. Studies shows “the white teacher is 30 percent less likely to believe that the student will graduate from a four-year college” and “40 percent less likely to believe the student will graduate from high school” if the student is black (Brown 2016, para 3)[5]. These statistics were taken in 2016, in the 1930’s, historical knowledge can infer that the racism faced by kids today is a fraction of what kids in the 20th century experienced. In addition, “black students taught by white teachers are less likely to be identified for gifted programs than black students taught by black teachers” (Brown 2016, para 9)[5]. The condition of black segregated schools in the South were in extreme poor condition compared to their white counterparts. There was no state funding for black high schools and they often lacked basic necessities, such as running water or indoor plumbing. Many of the teachers were poorly trained and making less money than a lot of day labors. “In 1930, the average black teacher in the South earned roughly 45 percent of what a white teacher earned, compared to the 60 percent that he or she had earned in to 1900.”(Patterson 2007, para 7).[6] Some African American teachers in the early 1900’s were supporting themselves, either because they didn’t have husband or their husband made very little. Even if these women chose to speak up and ask for a raise, African American teachers in the South worried about losing their jobs if they rebelled against the social oppression (Patterson 2007, para 9).[6]

Resources[edit | edit source]

  1. Gretchen Branch “Work, Luck and Play.” Interviewed by Robinson, Nancy T. May 30, 1939, Folder 715, Federal Writers Project Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC Chapel Hill.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Ogren, Christine A. “Revitalising Teachers’ Bodies: Prescriptions for Rest and Teachers’ Summer Activities in the United States, 1880s–1930s.” Paedagogica Historica. 54, no. 1/2 (2018): 154–68. https://doi.org/10.1080/00309230.2017.1397714/hist.2018.658.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Kernodle, Tammy L. “Black Women Working Together: Jazz, Gender, and the Politics of Validation.” Black Music Research Journal 34, no. 1 (2014): 22–55. https://doi.org/10.5406/blacmusiresej.34.1.0027.
  4. 4.0 4.1 House, Roger. “Work House Blues: Black Musicians in Chicago and the Labor of Culture during the Jazz Age.” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 9, no. 1 (2012): 101–18. https://doi.org/10.1215/15476715-1461140.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Brown, Emma. “White Teachers and Black Teachers Have Different Expectations for Black Students.” The Washington Post. March 31, 2016.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Patterson, James T. “Stand and Deliver; How African American Teachers in the South Undermined Jim Crow.” The Washington Post. February 11, 2007.