Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105i/Section 026/Ned Davis

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Ned Davis
BornAugust 13, 1897
Hartsville, South Carolina
ResidenceCharlotte, North Carolina

Ned Davis was a Black American businessman and educator. He was interviewed by Cora Lee Bennett in Charlotte, North Carolina on May 3, 1939.

Born on August 13, 1897, in Hartsville, South Carolina, Davis came from humble beginnings. His mother died when he was an infant and his father was a sharecropper. His father often had to travel to find work, and at times Davis was left to be raised by relatives. Davis’ father briefly remarried when he was 8 years old. His stepmother taught him how to harvest a root that he would later use as a quintessential ingredient to his hair products. Davis and his father continued to move around South Carolina once this marriage ended in 1908. Davis worked many odd jobs from this point: he worked as a caretaker, cook, concierge, chauffeur, waiter, and farmer. He married twice and had two children. He briefly sold whiskey in his second marriage due to financial difficulties. This was lucrative and dangerous given that this was during prohibition. He was eventually caught and fined, but the money he made from alcohol sales gave him the capital to start his business. He created and patented the popular “Gypsy Touch Up” product. Davis and his wife then opened the first Gypsy Beauty Shop at an undisclosed year in Gastonia, North Carolina. In the early days of the parlor, Davis' wife ran the shop while he traveled the U.S to sell hair products. He eventually returned to work at the parlor full time. According to Davis, business was initially slow but the parlor gained popularity through its array of products and fast services. At the time of the interview, Davis said that there were at least 6 other Gypsy Beauty Shops across the East. After becoming one of the first Black people to get a state-certified degree in beauty in 1933, Davis opened a Black beauty school that ran from 1933 to 1938. Davis then opened the “Servants Clinic” to teach Black Americans domestic skills.

Prohibition's Impact on Employment[edit | edit source]

Prohibition agents destroying barrels of alcohol (United States, prohibition era)

Prohibition in the United States was a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933. The ban did not outlaw the possession or consumption of alcohol in the United States (Lerner 2011).

Thousands of jobs for barrel makers, truckers, and waiters were phased out due to Prohibition. The closing of breweries, distilleries, and saloons similarly resulted in the elimination of thousands of jobs (Lerner 2011). There were 1300 beer U.S. breweries in 1919; 10 years later there were none. The number of liquor wholesalers and legal retailers  reduced by 96% and 90%, respectively. Federal tax revenues from distilled spirits in 1919 were $365 million, in 1929 they were less than $13 million.  Revenue from fermented liquors was nonexistent by 1929, a stark contrast from its 1919 total of $117 million (Blocker 2015).

While the sale of alcohol was generally banned, pharmacists were still allowed to dispense prescription whiskey. Pharmacies soon became a front for bootleggers. Illegal liquor trade was rampant (Lerner 2011). Historian Jack Blocker (2015) writes, "Prohibition included flourishing criminal activity centered on smuggling and bootlegging and the consequent clogging of the courts with drink-related prosecutions." (238) Prohibition made criminals out of many Americans, and courts could not keep up with these growing numbers (Lerner 2011).

Black American Beauty Culture in 1920s-1930s[edit | edit source]

Madame C.J Walker, the first woman self-made millionaire. Walker made her fortune selling Black hair products. Her success was a major inspiration to Black beauticians.

Domestic and agricultural work employed the majority of Black women in this period. These were not desirable fields to work in, given the long hours, little pay, and vulnerability to employer abuse. Beauty culture was seen in a much more favorable light. Historian Susannah Walker writes that, “In the 1920s and 1930s, black–owned beauty product companies promoted their hair care systems as the route to economic prosperity and independence. They promised that black women could easily learn beauty culture and make good livings as hairdressers and sales representatives.” (63) Working underneath White people would no longer be obligated; beauty education was seen as an easy option to living comfortably and independently. Aside from the financial appeal, beauty culture was advertised as an artistry that required creative and scientific skill. This dynamic appeal attracted Black people regardless of class (Walker 2008).

Unsurprisingly, the Great Depression resulted in less demand for beauticians. Beauty shops often had to cut prices and staff numbers. Minimum wage legislation under the National Recovery Administration required beauty shops to raise standard prices and wages. This caused a decline in home salons and caused many shops to close. Some business owners were unable to pay higher wages without raising prices, and raising prices meant a smaller consumer base (Walker 2008).

Black American Employment during The Great Depression[edit | edit source]

The Great Depression denotes the global economic crash that began in 1929 and lasted until 1939. The depression caused sharp declines in output, high unemployment, and acute deflation in almost every country in the world. As the originator of the crisis, the U.S was certainly not absolved from the Great Depression's impacts. Widespread American impoverishment resulted. President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted a variety of social and economic policies that ushered the U.S out of the crisis (Pells & Romer 2020).

File:Black tenant family.jpg
Black Tenant family, 1941, Greene County, Georgia

Prior to the Depression, domestic and agricultural work were considered to Black occupations. Following suit, the majority of Black Americans were employed in these fields. This cultural norm was destroyed by the desperation caused by the Great Depression. In both the North and South, there were no jobs that white workers refused to do. This cultural shift resulted in even more employment insecurity for Black Americans. Black farmworkers that kept their jobs were met by the challenge of lowered wages. Due to the surplus of labor wrought by farm foreclosures, the average agricultural wage dropped from $47 per month in 1920 to $15 in 1933. Simply put, there were too many workers available for the decreasing number of farms. This disconnect resulted in unemployment or underpayment (Poole 2006). The 1935 Social Security Act included a range of social programs to support Americans, but farm and domestic work were not included in the act. This gap allowed domestic and agricultural employers to pay employees at various rates, which disproportionately disadvantaged Black people. As a result, many Black Americans did not have equal governmental support during this crisis (History.com Editors 2009).While there were some federal relief programs that included Black people, they were marked by discrimination in practice (Greenberg 2009). Historian Cheryl Lynn Greenberg explains this when she writes, “Local officials administered these new federal programs, the same white people who had overseen the patterns of racism and segregation they were now supposed to reject. Despite federal guidelines, most local programs continued to discriminate on racial grounds, especially those in the South.” (44). All in all, the social programs of the Great Depression emphasized white male industrial workers and made a little positive impact on the lives of marginalized Black workers. Implicitly or not, Black Americans were largely excluded from the social development of this period (Poole 2006).

References[edit | edit source]

Blocker, Jack S Jr. 2006. “Did Prohibition Really Work? Alcohol Prohibition as a Public Health Innovation.” Am J Public Health 96 (2): 233–43. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2005.065409.

Boyle, Kevin. 2020. “African-Americans in the New Deal.” The New York Times, May 12, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/12/books/review/the-black-cabinet-jill-watts.html.

Davis, Ned.  “A Race Man Th'ough an Th'ough."  Interview by Bennett, Cora Lee, May 3, 1939, Folder 280, Federal Writers Project Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC Chapel Hill.

Delano, Jack. Negro tenant farmer family, 1941, 1 negative: safety ; 3 1/4 x 4 1/4 inches or smaller, Library of Congress, Greene County Georgia, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/item/2017795059/

Greenberg, Cheryl Lynn. 2009. To Ask for an Equal Chance: African Americans in the Great Depression. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Accessed October 12, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.

History.com Editors. 2009. “Great Depression History.” HISTORY. A&E Television Networks. October 29, 2009. https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/great-depression-history#section_6.

Lerner, Micheal. 2011. “Unintended Consequences.” Prohibition: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick. Public Broadcasting Service. 2011. https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/unintended-consequences/.

Poole, Mary. 2006. Segregated Origins of Social Security: African Americans and the Welfare State. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. Accessed October 12, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Pells, Richard H., and Christina D. Romer. 2020. “Great Depression.” Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica. September 10, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/event/Great-Depression.

Scurlock Studio. Madam C.J. Walker. [Black-and-white photoprint.] Between 1905 and 1919. Silver gelatin on paper. 6" x 4". Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History : Archives Center. P.O. Box 37012

Walker, Susannah. 2008. "“Independent Livings” or “No Bed Of Roses”?: How Race and Class Shaped Beauty Culture as an Occupation for African American Women from the 1920s to the 1960s." Journal of Women's History 20, no. 3: 60-83. doi:10.1353/jowh.0.0030.