Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105/Section071/Odessa Polk

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Odessa Polk
BornCharlotte, North Carolina
NationalityAfrican American
OccupationDomestic Worker

Odessa Polk was an African American woman from Charlotte, North Carolina. She was a hard-working single mother to three daughters who also were single mothers. They all lived under one roof and never finished school. She was interviewed by Cora Lee Bennett on May 9, 1939 for the Federal Writers Project.[1]

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Odessa Polk was an African American woman from Charlotte, North Carolina. She was the youngest of three siblings. Her mother married again when Polk was three years old.[1] Together her mother and father had a second set of children, eleven more kids. Polk was never close with her half-brothers and half-sisters. This was due to her mother sending Polk and her siblings to live with their grandmother because her new husband was not fond of Polk, her sister, and her brother. Polk spent much of her early life living with her grandmother. Her grandmother was too old and unable to work so Polk’s older sister took up jobs while her brother soon moved Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Polk regards her religion as one of her passions. She recalls the moment when she wanted to get involved with the church.[1] Her and her family were not able to attend Sunday School much because they did not have any nice-looking clothes. There was a lady who belonged to her Baptist church and was a missionary. This lady would help kids who did not have a way of getting clothes for church. She provided Polk and her siblings with clothes. This act inspired Polk to do good, assisting deeds for others and she soon became heavily involved in her church for the rest of her life.

Polk’s first job was at age nine, washing dishes for twenty-five cents a week and occasionally receiving some clothes from the woman she worked for. Polk also worked after school hours at the old Myers Street School. She never had the opportunity to finish school since she had to help provide for the family. She only completed fifth grade before dropping out to work full-time as a domestic worker. Her grandmother did not see the importance in completing school.

When her grandmother passed away, Polk went to live with her mother's sister for a short period. Everything was relatively the same for her, as her aunt was also unfit to work or provide any for the Polk siblings. They were able to do whatever they wanted.

Later Life[edit | edit source]

When she was older, she had three daughters: Madeline (oldest), Wootsie, and Sarah (youngest). Polk never knew who the fathers of her children were. She felt alone and not cared for so she would blindly get misled by whatever man she was with. She kept her first pregnancy a secret and did not know who to seek for help. The burden became so unbearable, she quit her job at the time and stayed at home. She never told her boss at the time of her condition, but she would visit Polk and bring her things after Madeline was born. Before the birth of Sarah, she moved into three rooms of a two-family house. After her third child was born, she sought out help from her sister as Polk could not keep working away from home while taking care of her children.

Her situation remained tough, struggling to provide for her children. She never gave up and wanted to give her daughters a fair life that was not like hers growing up. She sacrificed for them on many occasions. She would buy them clothes without being able to buy her own and she would not attend church on some Sundays because she was working, was sick or fatigued, or did not have any Sunday clothes. Her daughters had children as well but never married nor were able to finish school for the same reasons as herself, something Polk never wanted to see happen.[1] She especially regretted how Sarah was unable to receive a higher level of education. Polk saw Sarah as a bright young girl and was hoping for her to go on to a university.

At the date of the interview,[1] there were eight of them living in a four-room house with no electric lighting. Madeline had two children named Juliet and Sonny. Wootsie had a daughter named Beulah Mae and the father of her child would sometimes take care of Beulah Mae and send Wootsie money. Sarah had a daughter named Jean who she was trying to get into a good Catholic school. Sarah worked for a doctor that would take care of the family and have them only pay for prescriptions. Polk made $9 a week as a cook, washing clothes, and working in her church. The household, collectively, made $23 a week. It was harder to make money during this time due to the same issues that were prevalent in her early life. The Great Depression was another issue that had the family struggling to maintain a steady income to bring back home.

Social Context[edit | edit source]

Jim Crow Laws on Education in Late Nineteenth-Early Twentieth Century[edit | edit source]

This is a "Colored School" in South Carolina, ca.1878 by J.A. Palmer

Based on a character of the same name, the Jim Crow laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States. While African Americans were getting introduced into American society after slavery had been abolished, these laws put many road blocks on African Americans to make sure they were not equal to White Americans. One area these laws impacted was education. It was believed education was a "power" to create change and society did not want African Americans to receive that capability.

There was a plethora of factors that affected an individual’s success in colored schools. Schools for white children received more money, black children would be pulled from school to help with work on the farm or get a job to help the family, schools for blacks were scarce, and in rural areas, schools in general were seldom in quantity in comparison to urban school systems.[2] The underfunded conditions of colored schools were in terrible quality. Most buildings were not to standard, no materials colored schools used were new, and since these schools were far and few, classrooms were usually crowded and had only one teacher teaching multiple grade levels.

This trend remained constant until around the late 1930s.[3] More African Americans were completing school.

African American Domestic Workers in the Early Twentieth Century[edit | edit source]

One of the only jobs available for women in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century was doing domestic work. For African American women, this was usually the only option of work. A domestic worker is an individual who is paid for doing tasks involved within the scope of one's residence. During the time, this profession was called "Women's Work."[4]

During the Great Depression, the African American unemployment rate rose to 50 percent in 1932 due to African Americans being devalued over whites.[5] The population of single women and mothers grew, especially in the African American community as sharecroppers were moving north, in what was called the Great Migration. This event meant that women needed a method of providing for themselves and their families. With more women needing jobs, employment rates for women rose by 24 percent.[4] Domestic work's payment was small enough for its availability to be large in the South. Thus, domestic work was being taken by white women, making it even harder for black women to find employment.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4     Polk, Odessa. “Bachelor Mothers.” Interview by Bennett, Cora L., and Northrop, Mary, May 9, 1939, Folder 294, Federal Writers Project Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC Chapel Hill.
  2. "The Education of Black Children in the Jim Crow South". America's Black Holocaust Museum. 2012-09-12. Retrieved 2020-10-22.
  3. Hout, Michael, and Alexander Janus. “Educational Mobility in America: 1930s – 2000s.” Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality. University of California, Berkeley Survey Research Center, 2008. https://inequality.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/Education%20Mobility%20Since%20the%201930s.pdf
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Underpaid, But Employed: How the Great Depression Affected Working Women - HISTORY". www.history.com. Retrieved 2020-10-22.
  5. "Last Hired, First Fired: How the Great Depression Affected African Americans - HISTORY". www.history.com. Retrieved 2020-10-22.