Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105i/Section 026/Millie Dawson

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Millie Dawson
Greene County, Georgia
EducationUniversity of Atlanta
SpouseName Unknown
ChildrenTwo Deceased, Names Unknown

Referred to as Millie Dawson, but cited as Minnie Davis, Dawson was interviewed as a part of the Federal Writers' Project.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Millie Dawson was born in Georgia c.1861, possibly in Greene County, but she grew up in Athens, Georgia1. She was 78 years-old and retired at the time of her interview1.

From a young age, Dawson was exposed to education. The children of who she described as "her white folks", likely the owners of the land her family worked on, taught her to read, and "her white folks" themselves taught her to write1. She also received an in-class education. Dawson graduated from the University of Atlanta in 1881, which later combined with Clark College to become the historically Black university, Clark Atlanta University1.

Dawson began teaching at the age of seventeen in a "little country school" and started teaching in Athens soon after1. Dawson taught for 48 years. She loved teaching, she called it "the grandest thing a body can do"1. After she retired, Dawson received $13.33 from the city of Athens every month1. During World War 1, Dawson worked for the Red Cross, serving food and coffee to soldiers1. In her elderly years, her former students would sometimes stop by her house to give her money, fifty cents or a dollar1.

Dawson's husband, who was deceased at the time of the interview, owned a newspaper that did well1. After he passed, Dawson sold the newspaper business. However, because of her poor health, she spent most of that money on doctor's visits1.

In her old age, Dawson did not care about politics. She sometimes voted, but only if someone came to take her to her polling location1. In what were likely her last years, she lived in a home described as shabby with expensive furniture and rented a room out to a 65-year-old unemployed barber1. Whether or not he paid rent is unclear.

Millie Dawson's date and cause of death are unknown.

Social Context[edit | edit source]

Education for Black People in the Post-Civil War South[edit | edit source]

In the post-Civil War south, it was often dangerous for both Black people to seek education and teachers hoping to educate Black students. There was a calculated effort to terrorize these groups into becoming discouraged.

According to a study issued in 1917, many school buildings for Black students had awful conditions such as “leaking roofs, sagging floors, and windows without glass2.  They are said to have ranged from "untidy to positively filthy”2.

Teachers[edit | edit source]

Black woman teaching children numbers and alphabet in home of sharecropper by Russel Lee11.

Many White Southerners were against Black people receiving an education and went great lengths to prohibit it from happening. White teachers were openly harassed and ostracized for teaching Black people3. The Ku Klux Klan and other groups who were opposed to Black education resorted to fear tactics and violence to get their way. Many teachers found it nearly impossible to rent spaces for freedmen's schools3.

When teachers managed to find a building to use, arson was a commonly implemented deterrent for both teachers and Black students3. "Perhaps hundreds of black schoolhouses were put to the torch in the 1860s and 1870s"3. In a period of four months, around 40 schools were set ablaze in Tennessee alone in 18693. There were also physical attacks on both teachers and students, that many times ended in their deaths3.

In public schools, salaries for teachers who taught in Black schools were less than that of their counterparts who taught White students4. The school term was shorter for Black schools as well, so public school teachers teaching in Black schools made significantly less money than those who taught in White schools4.

Students[edit | edit source]

Black students in the South faced dangers similar to those of their teachers. “White opponents of black education also terrorised black students in a bid to discourage school attendance”3. Students were threatened, verbally and physically attacked, and shot at3.

Public education was structured in a manner that particularly disadvantaged Black people. Public schools showed a significant gap in productivity, as schools for Black people struggled to get funding. "By 1980, less than one percent of black children attended high school and two thirds of those attended a private school"4. Most of the Black population lived in rural areas, and rural schools were open for fewer days than city schools2. "As a result, many black children went to school only two or three months out of the year”2.

Health and Medical Care for Black People in the Post-Civil War South[edit | edit source]

Hospital for Black people in 1943 Daytona, Florida12.

In the post-Civil War South, there were striking health inequities. During Reconstruction, some of the first efforts were put towards improving healthcare for Black Americans5. Hospitals, clinics, and medical schools that were accessible to Black people began opening in the south because of Freedmen's Bureau legislation5.

After the end of Reconstruction, most Freedmen's Bureau health activities were terminated, and many health facilities and personnel refused to serve Black people5. Black Americans faced worse living conditions, making them more susceptible to illness. On top of this, they had almost no access to medical care, putting them at an extreme disadvantage6.

Over the course of the 19th century many technological and medical advances were made and as a result, white health improved dramatically5. The health of Black Americans saw no such improvement, "remaining the worst of any racial or ethnic group as they continued to receive little or deficient healthcare, especially in rural areas"5. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a 15-year gap between life expectancies for Black and White Americans6.

In the 1800s, there was a prevalent idea that Black people had different and inferior bodies in comparison to White people7. These ideas were even taught as fact in medical schools across the country. They were also built into the very medical equipment used to examine patients. One example of this is the spirometer, which measures lung capacity. From its creation, it featured a race correction feature that was programmed into the instrument8. Most spirometers used today still have a built-in race correction function. This function assumes that Black people inherently have less productive lungs, making it more difficult for Black people to receive treatment for respiratory related illnesses. Though scientific racial inferiority was disproven by the 1920s, medical procedures did not change and were still taught in schools9. Racist practices ran amuck in the early 1900s, making seeking medical care difficult and sometimes dangerous for Black Americans.

In the early 1900s, compulsory sterilization laws were passed in many states9. This put many groups at risk, one being Black women. Black women and other women of color would go to the hospital for unrelated causes and wake up to learn that a hysterectomy had been performed on them10. In North Carolina alone, 7,600 people were sterilized between 1929 and 197410. "Out of those sterilized, 85% were women and girls, while 40% were minorities (most of whom were black)"10.

References[edit | edit source]

1Davis, Minnie. “De Luck is in De Lawd.” Interview by Bradley, Leola T. and Booth, August 29, 1939. Folder 158, Federal Writers Project Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC Chapel Hill.

2Brooker, Russell, Adekola Adedapo and Fran Kaplan. 2013. “The Education of Black Children in the Jim Crow South.” https://www.abhmuseum.org/education-for-blacks-in-the-jim-crow-south/.

3Butchart, Ronald E. 2010. “Black Hope, White Power: Emancipation, Reconstruction and the Legacy of Unequal Schooling in the US South, 1861-1880.” Paedagogica Historica 46 (1/2): 33–50. https://doi.org/10.1080/00309230903528447

4United States Department of the Interior. National Park Service. National Register of Historic Places. Multiple Property Documentation Form. (Public Elementary and Secondary Schools in Georgia, 1868-1971). NPS Form 10-900. Accessed October 11, 2020. https://georgiashpo.org/sites/default/files/hpd/pdf/Historic_Schools_Context_0.pdf

5Smedley, Brian D., Adrienne Y. Stith, Alan R. Nelson, W. Michael Byrd, and Linda A. Clayton. 2003. “Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Healthcare: A Background and History.” In Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care, 455–527. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/12875.

6Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “Black Americans See Gains in Life Expectancy.” The New York Times, May 8. https://nyti.ms/1q7lLyx.

7Kretchmer, Harry. 2020. “A Brief History of Racism in Healthcare.” World Economic Forum, July 23. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/07/medical-racism-history-covid-19/.

8Braun, Lundy. 2015. “Race, ethnicity and lung function: A brief history.” Canadian Journal of Respiratory Therapy 51 (4): 99-101. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4631137/

9Byrd, W. M., and L. A. Clayton. 1992. “An American health dilemma: a history of blacks in the health system.” Journal of the National Medical Association 84 (2): 189-200. https://www-ncbi-nlm-nih-gov.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/pmc/articles/PMC2637749/

10Nittle, Nadra Kareem. 2020. “The U.S. Government’s Role in Sterilizing Women of Color.” ThoughtCo. January 9. https://www.thoughtco.com/u-s-governments-role-sterilizing-women-of-color-2834600.

11Lee, Russell. 1939. "Negro mother teaching children numbers and alphabet in home of sharecropper. Transylvania, Louisiana." Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division Washington, D.C. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017781947/

12Parks, Gordon. 1943. "Daytona Beach, Florida. City hospital for Negroes." Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division Washington, D.C. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017845215/