Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105i/Section 026/Odelia "Odessa" Lester Anderson

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Odelia Lester Anderson
Born1902
Eatonton, Georgia
ResidenceAthens, Georgia
Other namesOdessa Anderson
EducationThrough 6th grade
OccupationMaid, Domestic Worker
ReligionChristian
SpouseJim (Divorced)
ChildrenThree (Names unknown)

Overview[edit | edit source]

Odelia "Odessa" Lester Anderson was a working class African American woman who lived in the U.S. South during the Great Depression. She was interviewed for the Federal Writers' Project in March of 1939 by Sadie Hornsby, Sarah Hall, and John Booth. The interviewers identified her as "Odelia" in the title of the interview and referred to her as "Odessa" in the contents of the interview.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Odessa Anderson was born in 1902, on a small farm outside of Eatonton, Georgia, as the second youngest of eleven children.[1] She was baptized as a young child, and she continued going to church throughout her life.[2] At the beginning of World War I, Anderson’s older siblings left the farm to get married or serve in the war, so she did most of the work on the family farm, with help from her younger brother.[1] She also walked five miles to school each day, where the children were sometimes whipped by the teacher.[3]

She stopped attending school after the 6th grade, when she married her husband Jim at age fourteen.[4] For a few years after their marriage, they worked for a wealthy white family at a farm called Breezy Hill, where Anderson helped with cooking and cleaning.[4] Anderson had two sons and a daughter with Jim, but they soon divorced due to his alcoholism.[5] As a young woman, Anderson was worried that her husband “wouldn’t take keer of us and was drinkin’ up everythin’ we made.”[6]

Photograph of the city of Athens, Georgia in 1936, showing a street corner with several shops.[7]

Later Life[edit | edit source]

After Anderson divorced her husband, she moved to Athens, Georgia and tried to save money for a medical operation.[8] She got a job cooking and cleaning as a house maid for a wealthy white woman, being paid only $2.50 a week.[8] She managed to save up enough money to remove her tumor, but wasn’t able to feed three children on top of it, so she sent her sons to live with relatives in the country.[8] Remaining in Athens, she lived with her daughter in a predominantly black neighborhood, where they rented a couple of small rooms.[9]

She then procured a job at Georgia State Teachers’ College, with a salary of $16 per month to clean 49 dorms and several recreational rooms.[8] She worked from 7:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. every weekday, and also worked on Sunday mornings.[10] Anderson spoke fondly of the girls at the dormitory, because they often gave her tips to run errands for them.[11] She was allowed to do her laundry at work, and the staff were provided meals, which Anderson considered a luxury.[10] After 13 years of working for the same college, she earned $2 more per month than she did when she started.[10] At the time of the interview, Odessa Anderson was still working as a maid for the same college.

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

Education Inequality[edit | edit source]

After the Civil War ended, an attempt was made in the late 1800s through early 1900s to provide African Americans with proper primary and secondary schooling. While this endeavor had seemingly good intentions, the education system for black people during this time was affected by racist views in the U.S. South.[12] State-controlled public education was influenced by white supremist ideologies that aimed to keep black people economically and socially subordinate to their white counterparts.[12] Schools remained segregated by race, and the quality of education differed greatly because the government provided substantially more funding to white schools.[13]

Photograph from the 1930s depicting an overcrowded, racially segregated school in the U.S. South.[14]

Rural Education[edit | edit source]

It was already extremely difficult for black people in the South, particularly in rural areas, to receive an education. Those that did receive any level of schooling attended places that were under-funded and under-staffed.[13] Because farmers in rural areas desired low-cost black labor, “white planters who dominated local governments in the rural south generally resisted universal public education, particularly when it applied to rural blacks.”[15] Hence, many rural areas in the South did not even provide schools for black people, and those that did usually stopped after primary school.

Urban Education[edit | edit source]

In urban areas, the "undesirable" jobs filled by black people were now becoming desirable to white people needing employment during the Great Depression.[16] Because they didn’t want job competition, white urban workers took the stance that “blacks should be disenfranchised and remain permanently in lower-class status.”[17] However, urban workers wanted to mitigate the effects of the Great Depression on the economy, so they supported educating black people to a certain extent, because “a proper system of universal education would improve the economic productivity of rising generations.”[17] The education of black people was allowed, as long as it didn't encourage them to gain economic status.

Employment of Black Women[edit | edit source]

Graph of U.S. unemployment from 1910-1960, with the years of the Great Depression highlighted in pink.[18]

Black Urban Workers[edit | edit source]

During the Great Depression, racial discrimination caused unemployment rates for black individuals to be consistently higher than unemployment rates for white individuals.[19] At the peak of the Depression in 1932, the unemployment rate for black Americans was 50% in comparison with the 25% unemployment rate for the total population.[16] This gap in unemployment suggests that discrimination played a role in the labor force, especially with unskilled service jobs.[19] The term “Last Hired, First Fired” was often used to describe the experience of black workers, because white people were prioritized in the workforce regardless of skill or previous experience.[16]

Economists state that the black experience during the 1930s can be characterized by a “higher incidence of unemployment and public relief” and “the displacement of black workers by unemployed whites.”[19] This is especially true for black women, because an influx of white women into the labor force resulted in black women, who were already part of the labor force, being pushed out of it.[20] History books often comment that employment rates increased for women during the Great Depression, but census figures show that “black women did not share in the expanding women's labor market and that unemployment was higher among blacks than among whites.”[21] Black people were cast out of the labor force during the Depression, but this was an especially common experience for working class black women in the 1930s.

Photograph documenting a Works Progress Administration program that trained black women to be maids and domestic workers in 1939.[22]

Women in Georgia[edit | edit source]

The economic trends of women's employment in 1930s Georgia were similar to other places in the U.S. South. In Atlanta, Georgia, the amount of women in the workforce grew substantially, but “the expansion in jobs did not keep pace with the rapid flow of women into the labor market.”[21] Just like in other areas of the U.S. during the Depression, staying employed in Atlanta became more difficult for black women. Those who were previously employed in the city at the time of the Wall Street Crash lost their jobs in the 1930s, when more women began to crowd the labor market.[21] Women entering the labor force for the first time found it increasingly difficult to get a job, and women who were previously part of the labor force were unsuccessful in securing a new job.

When analyzing women in Georgia specifically, “race was the primary determinant of a woman's place in the work force and of her access to public and private relief.”[23] Black women were typically “last in line” to be considered for a job during the Great Depression, which is part of why their unemployment rates higher compared to white women of the time. This was true regardless of how much previous experience they’d had in the workforce, or their level of skill in a particular occupation.[24] Whether looking at unemployment trends for black workers or employment trends for women, it's clear that black women struggled immensely with job discrimination.

Domestic Workers[edit | edit source]

Domestic work is an occupation characterized by performing household services, such as cooking and cleaning. In 1930, one-fourth of the labor force were domestic workers and “three-fourths (74%) of Atlanta domestics were female, more than four-fifths (84%) were black, and two-thirds (66%) were black females.”[25] Of all the black women working in Atlanta in the early 1930s, approximately 90% of them were employed as domestic workers in some form.[25] Black women were commonly hired for this occupation because there were “few restrictions” on the employer, meaning that wages and hours were flexible, and usually low.[26] However, domestic work was beneficial in the sense that it allowed women with few other options for work to meet their financial needs.[27] Working as a “domestic” or a maid was often the only option women had to put food on the table.

References[edit | edit source]

Anderson, James D.. 1988. The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ProQuest Ebook Central. https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/lib/unc/detail.action?docID=880026.

Anderson, Odelia L. “I Maids for the Co-Eds.” Interview by Hornsby, Sadie, Hall, Sarah, and Booth, John, March 27, 1939, Folder 169, Federal Writers’ Project Papers, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/03709/id/931/rec/1.

Andrew, L. D.. 2011. Franklin House (Athens, Georgia) 1936 Historic American Buildings Survey, photograph (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division). Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Franklin_House_(Athens,_Georgia)_1936_Historic_American_Buildings_Survey.jpg

“Black Americans 1929-1941.” 2020. Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression. Encyclopedia.com. https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-and-education-magazines/black-americans-1929-1941.

Blackwelder, Julia Kirk. 1977. "Quiet Suffering: Atlanta Women in the 1930s." The Georgia Historical Quarterly 61 (2): 112-24. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40580362.

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

Hatton, Timothy J., and Mark Thomas. 2013. “Labour Markets in Recession and Recovery: The UK and the USA in the 1920s and 1930s.” The Great Depression of the 1930s, 328–57. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199663187.003.0011.

Kasdorf, Julia Spicher. 2014. "Working away: mennonite place, women's space, and plain maids of the 1930s." Mennonite Quarterly Review 88 (2): 219-32. Gale Literature Resource Center. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A383925600/LitRC?u=unc_main&sid=LitRC&xid=35521f97.

Khoo, Lawrence. 2009. U.S. Unemployment rate from 1910-1960, digitally created graph. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US_Unemployment_1910-1960.gif.

Palmer, Phyllis. 1997. “Black Domestics During the Depression.” Prologue Magazine, National Archives and Records Administration. https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1997/summer/domestics-in-the-depression.

Remy, Corry. 2015. “Employment of Women in the 1930s.” Medium. The Thirties. https://medium.com/the-thirties/employment-of-women-in-the-1930s-5998fd255f5.

Rotondi, Jessica Pearce. 2019. “Underpaid, But Employed: How the Great Depression Affected Working Women.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. https://www.history.com/news/working-women-great-depression.

Sundstrom, William A. 1992. "Last Hired, First Fired? Unemployment and Urban Black Workers During the Great Depression." The Journal of Economic History 52 (2): 415-29. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2123118.

Unknown Photographer. Circa 1930s. Black schoolroom, c. 1930s, photograph (America's Black Holocaust Museum). Wikimedia Commons. https://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/File:Segregated-blk-school-in-South.jpg.

Unknown WPA Photographer. 1939. Negro Home Service Demonstration Project - Negro home demonstration (aid), 1735 Josephine Street. Interior, photograph (Works Progress Administration). Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:JosephineStreetKitchenNewOrleans1939.jpg

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Anderson, "I Maids for the Co-Eds," 3.
  2. Anderson, "I Maids for the Co-Eds," 15.
  3. Anderson, "I Maids for the Co-Eds," 3-4.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Anderson, "I Maids for the Co-Eds," 4.
  5. Anderson, "I Maids for the Co-Eds," 5-6.
  6. Anderson, "I Maids for the Co-Eds," 5.
  7. Andrew, Franklin House (Athens, Georgia) 1936.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Anderson, "I Maids for the Co-Eds," 6.
  9. Anderson, "I Maids for the Co-Eds," 14-15.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Anderson, "I Maids for the Co-Eds," 14.
  11. Anderson, "I Maids for the Co-Eds," 8.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 79-81.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Brooker, Adedapo, and Kaplan, “The Education of Black Children."
  14. Unknown Photographer, Black schoolroom, circa 1930s.
  15. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 279.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 “Black Americans 1929-1941.”
  17. 17.0 17.1 Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 280.
  18. Khoo, U.S. Unemployment rate from 1910-1960.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Sundstrom, "Last Hired, First Fired," 415.
  20. Rotondi, “Underpaid, But Employed: How the Great Depression Affected Working Women.”
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 Blackwelder, "Quiet Suffering: Atlanta Women in the 1930s," 112.
  22. Unknown WPA Photographer, Negro Home Service Demonstration Project.
  23. Blackwelder, "Quiet Suffering: Atlanta Women in the 1930s," 113.
  24. Blackwelder, "Quiet Suffering: Atlanta Women in the 1930s," 117.
  25. 25.0 25.1 Blackwelder, "Quiet Suffering: Atlanta Women in the 1930s," 116.
  26. Sundstrom, "Last Hired, First Fired," 421.
  27. Kasdorf, "Working away," 223.