Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105/Section071/Mary DeRoy

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Overview[edit | edit source]

Two young children relying on the comfort of their mother during the reat Depression era.

Mary DeRoy was a Belgian immigrant in the South during the Great Depression era. She lived in Alabama with her husband and children on a small farm. DeRoy was interviewed by Nettie S. McDonald on July 14th, 1939 for the Federal Writer's Project.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

DeRoy was a teen mine worker in Belgium who went through many hardships in her youth and young adult years. In the mines there was a lot of excess dust in the air which caused many mine workers to develop black lung disease. The young workers were expected to use dangerous machinery and some even considered their lives dispensable. She worked almost every day in the mines as a young teenage girl while being married and having kids at a very young age. Just 5 months after she had her first child she went back to walking miles everyday to go work in the harsh conditions of the mines which took a toll on her body. She continued to do the demanding labor asked of her and took pride in the fact that she was one of the strongest girls in the mine. DeRoy had four children but lost the first two in a unknown accident and then shortly after their family home burnt down. After getting a letter from her in-laws talking about the opportunities in America they packed up and left everything they had ever known behind to move to Birmingham, Alabama.

Later Life[edit | edit source]

DeRoy continued her hard work after moving to the U.S. balancing life as a wife, mother, and doing odd jobs. She did anything she could to prevent her children from becoming mine workers like she was. She continued to speak positively about their new life in Alabama but did mention there were aspects of life in Belgium that she definitely missed. In Belgium she felt like a strong independent woman with her different businesses and work in the mines and felt like she could be successful in multiple different realms of life. In the U.S. being an immigrant woman in the South she felt like there was not much for her to do besides helping around the house, farm, and doing small nanny jobs. Although she wouldn’t trade her new life, she does feel held back by the opportunities for her in the U.S.

Social Context[edit | edit source]

Single women protesting for jobs during the Great Depression era.

Gender Roles in the South[edit | edit source]

When DeRoy was in search for work, she found that most job positions preferred men because they did not want a woman taking a position away from a man who needed to support his family. [1]This was a struggle for her because she had a job back in Belgium that was a large part of her identity and wanted to continue that in the United States. She was a mine worker in Belgium and felt very prideful in the work that she did. After moving to the United States she was forced to stay at home and be a housewife due to lack of jobs available for immigrants and women. DeRoy like many other women experienced feelings of being unfulfilled because her lack of work opportunities and ability to contribute to the family. This was very common for farm women in rural areas during this era.[2] She also felt the shame of being unemployed, being a housewife, and failed to recognize her own contributions. Her new life was totally different from her life in Belgium where women were expected to work the same and it was a large part of who they were.[3]

Immigrant Life in the United States[edit | edit source]

DeRoy really struggled as a Belgian immigrant to the Southeastern United States, specifically Alabama. The southeast during this time had a very distinct culture of its own which could be hard to adjust to if it was completely different from her life in Belgium. Guns were very common, life was based around agriculture and farming, slavery had recently been abolished, and everyone had a very conservative mindset which was all new to her and her family. Very few Americans during this time were accepting of immigrants for fear of them taking up essential job positions and especially not in the Southeast.[4] According to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, “…Regulations, forcing potential immigrants to prove they were financially stable and could support themselves indefinitely without getting a job, limited the number of applicants who qualified for immigration visas.” Life was hard for immigrants who were still adjusting to the distinct culture of the Southeast, facing financial hardships and also not feeling accepted by American citizens who were competing for the same job positions. Another factor that contributed to DeRoy's struggle was the continued decrease in farm pricing that caused massive waves of people immigrating in and out of the deep South.[5]

References[edit | edit source]

Helmbold, Lois Rita. “Beyond The Family Economy: Black And White Working-Class Women During The Great Depression.” The Intersection of Work and Family Life, 1987. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110969467.539.

Lindell, Lisa R. “‘So Long as I Can Read’: Farm Women's Reading Experiences in Depression-Era South Dakota.” Agricultural History 83, no. 4 (2009): 503–27. https://doi.org/10.3098/ah.2009.83.4.503.

Milkman, Ruth, and Ruth Milkman. “Women's Work and Economic Crisis: Some Lessons of the Great Depression.” Review of Radical Political Economics 8, no. 1 (1976): 71–97. https://doi.org/10.1177/048661347600800107.

Encyclopedia H. The Great Depression. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. [2016 Accessed Oct  8  2020] https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/the-great-depression

Historical Association A. Migration and the Twentieth-Century South: An Overview: AHA. Migration and the Twentieth-Century South: An Overview | AHA. 2020 [accessed 2020 Oct 8]. https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/teaching-resources-for-historians/teaching-and-learning-in-the-digital-age/the-history-of-the-americas/migration-and-the-american-south/migration-and-the-twentieth-century-south-an-overview

  1. Hembold, 1987
  2. Lindell, 2009 (503-27)
  3. Milkman, 1976 (71-97)
  4. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2016
  5. Historical Association, 2020