Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105i/Section 026/Lucy Thomas

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Lucy Thomas
BornUnknown - 1859(?)
Other names"Aunt Lucy"
Home townEufaula, Alabama

Overview[edit | edit source]

Lucy Thomas was a colorful, although tiny, addition to the Federalist Writers' Project Papers. Her interview gives a glimpse into her essentially anonymous, monotonous daily life with sprinkles of flair. Yet, her story demonstrates the overarching social, cultural, and political trends black laundresses faced in late 1930s Alabama.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Life[edit | edit source]

Although there is no exact record of Ms. Lucy Thomas’s date of birth, she was most likely born in 1859 in Alabama. Ms. Thomas - known to her community as Aunt Lucy - was once renowned as the best wash woman in all of Eufaula, Alabama.  Aunt Lucy’s days were defined by her work: Monday was wash day; Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were ironing days; Friday was delivery and pay day; Saturday was for her own pleasure; Sunday was for meeting with others; and then the process started all over again (Couric 1939, 2-3). Aunt Lucy worked strictly for white families who paid her eight dollars a week and provided her starches and soaps- Aunt Lucy regarded this as “good money” (Couric 1939, 6).  Aunt Lucy had no husband, children, or extended family to call her own; however, she became a strong maternal figure in the Eufaula black community.  It is unclear when Ms. Lucy Thomas died given a lack of records, but she is immortalized forever in the Federalist Writers’ Project Papers.

File:Eufalua alabama.png
A postcard of Broad Street, Eufaula, Alabama. Aunt Lucy may has used Broad Street to deliver and pick up her white costumers' clothing.

Character[edit | edit source]

While little is known about the basics of Aunt Lucy’s life, her personality is memorable and continues to be an inspiration.  Aunt Lucy was the epitome of a gossiping glamor girl in Eufaula, Alabama: She knew whose husband was in jail, who had recently died, and whose children she was looking after and why they had pierced ears.  Aunt Lucy knew her community like the back of her hand, and they became the family she could call her own (Couric 1939, 1-6).  It is clear that Aunt Lucy’s days could certainly be mundane, yet her spunky sense of humor brought fun into her life.  When asked how old she thought she was when she was clearly elderly, Aunt Lucy sassily replied “‘bout twenty-one!" (Couric 1939, 2). Despite the hardships and unknowns throughout her life, Ms. Lucy Thomas knew who she was, and always stayed true to her character.

Social and Political Context[edit | edit source]

Black Extended Family[edit | edit source]

The black extended family is a term coined to describe black family and community dynamics in the 1930s.  Formally, a black extended family is “a built-in mutual aid welfare system for its members” (Martin 1978, 1). Black extended families gave oppressed black people an emotional safe haven as well as economic stability (Martin 1978, 1).  Black extended families were interdependent and multigenerational - oftentimes grandparents would look after their children and grandchildren simultaneously (Martin 1978, 6). Mothers and fathers down on their luck knew they could always send their kiddos to stay with grandma and grandpa for a while: They would be safe and would become best friends with their cousins. As such, black extended families provided their members with a great sense of security - people to rely on.   Within a black extended family, there is a  “ dominant figure [who] provides leadership which gives family members a sense of security, a sense of family, and a sense of group direction and identity” (Martin 1978, 10). The leadership position is critical to the inclusivity found within a black extended family, particularly on a community scale. As a whole, the black extended family became an oasis for black people and black communities during the Jim Crow era. Although white and black families and communities were clearly segregated, interdependency thrived within black communities and families.

Black Washing Women in the Jim Crow Era[edit | edit source]

File:Jim Crow Cartoon.png
A cartoon of character Jim Crow who became a symbol for southern racism and segregation following the Civil War until the 1960s.

Reflecting back to the 1920s, it seemed women were on the path to gaining true equality - women’s suffrage had finally been instituted and more opportunities arose for women in careers outside the house.  However, as the article "The 1930s: Women's Shifting Rights and Roles in the United States" reveals, “The 1929 market crash and the onset of the Great Depression, for most women, the cultural pendulum swung backward. Domesticity, motherhood, and homemaking once again became regarded as the only truly proper and fulfilling roles for women” (Lewis 2020).  As a result, the majority of women became domestic servants, but what often goes overlooked is how black women didn’t have access to any other sort of work in the first place. In fact, one black laundress stated that  “‘more than two-thirds of the negroes of the town where I live are menial servants of one kind or another, and besides that more than two-thirds of the negro women here, whether married or single, are compelled to work for a living...we are literally slaves…” (Kantzman 1981, 25).  The slave-like working conditions of black washing women were common in the 1930s due to Jim Crow Laws.  Slavery was outlawed after the Civil War, however through Jim Crow Laws southern states “legalized racial segregation, [including] denying African Americans the right to [white] opportunities” (History.com Editors).  Aside from restricting career mobility for black women and men, Jim Crow Laws attempted to disenfranchise black people and permitted violence against black people (History.com Editors).  While black women were certainly victims of Jim Crow Laws given their labors as servants, there was a certain pride that went into being a working woman who knew how to take care of domestic affairs. These women worked according to their own mandated schedules, rain, snow, or shine, for long hours in order to complete their tasks.  They held themselves to high standards, and became masters at specific skills, demonstrating dedication and perseverance. In other words, “Hard work and self-sufficiency were important cornerstones of respectability...reinforcing ideas o[f] the dignity of labor” (Shaw 1996, 26).

References[edit | edit source]

Broad Street, Eufaula, Ala. Eufaula. Alabama Pioneers. Accessed October 20, 2020. https://www.alabamapioneers.com/eufaula-alabama-10690/.

Couric, Gertha. Transcript of interview “My Time is Mighty Nigh Out” by Gertha Couric. 1939. 03709. Folder 15. Federal Writers Project Papers. Southern Historical Collection from Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States. https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/03709/id/962/rec/1.

History.com Editors. “Jim Crow Laws.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, February 28, 2018. https://www.history.com/topics/early-20th-century-us/jim-crow-laws.

Katzman, David M. Seven Days a Week: Women and Domestic Service in Industrializing America (version Third Paperback Printing). Google Scholar. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1981. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=_WbYwqkhbR0C&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=black+laundresses+1930s&ots=5BeNblp8YK&sig=Hrj2v6abey-T80uIUDeiQOETP6Y#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Lewis, Jone Johnson. "The 1930s: Women’s Shifting Rights and Roles in the United States." ThoughtCo. October 12 2020. https://www.thoughtco.com/womens-rights-1930s-4141164

Martin, Elmer P., and Joanne Mitchell. Martin. The Black Extended Family. Google Scholar. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1978. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=8xSQEZejTk4C&oi=fnd&pg=PP11&dq=black+family+life+1930s+alabama&ots=ohyiTqyqkF&sig=huXXlIcraGRivQANySI-eq5UsA8#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Shaw, Stephanie J. What a Woman Ought to Be and to Do: Black Professional Women Workers during the Jim Crow Era. Google Scholar. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1996. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=2gizxSnFQTgC&oi=fnd&pg=PP5&dq=jim+crow+laws+women%27s&ots=loVwvbG2hP&sig=R-jAiveFn4Tj60_k0IMh34sZdAQ#v=snippet&q=wash&f=false.

Thomas Rice Playing Jim Crow in Blackface, New York City, 1833. 2017. Jim Crow: Now and Then. https://cibonayrae.github.io/jimcrow/.