Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105i/Section 50/Beulah Parsons Davis

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Overview[edit | edit source]

Beulah Persons Davis was a white woman from Durham, NC, with unknown birth and death dates. The Federal Writers' Project (FWP) had Davis interviewed in 1939, and she was possibly in her middle ages then. From the FWP document it is apparent that even in the face of poverty Davis was an exceptionally kind and generous woman. This is reflected in her work as a 'fortune-teller,' or someone who gives advice.[1]

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Davis grew up on a derry farm in an unknown location, very likely being rural North Carolina. Davis learned to work at a very young age, doing whatever she was physically able to help with. She started attending a very small school at the age of five, in a village, as she described it. She hunted for small animals with friends for fun, but was an especially wild child. Once, "being lonesome and blue," she set a forest on fire, and didn't tell anyone she had done it until eighteen years later. While in school she met a boy she hated at first, but came around to being with. She ended up marrying him "to keep from feeling disgraced."[2]

Adult Life and Work[edit | edit source]

Once married, Davis was a farmer with her husband. Later they built a house and general store by a highway, which Davis would look after while her husband farmed. Together they had two children, one boy and one girl. At a certain point, her husband's behavior started deteriorating, and he became unfaithful and abusive. When her husband raped their daughter Davis took the children and left him. Though she did not press charges, she quickly divorced him and had the sympathy of the judge. After the divorce Davis and her children had lived in poverty, and likely lived that way through much of the Great Depression. [3]

After Davis left her husband, it is unclear how she established herself as a fortune-teller. Davis just recalled that people began asking her for advice and soon enough were giving her money for it. In this informal occupation, Davis regularly interacted with church-goers and friends, and was also invited to higher-class parties for 'entertainment,' which exposed her to different social strata in society. Davis was often paid with fresh clothes or necessities. Though she never charged any money for her service, Davis never recounted a time of ever being taken advantage of.[4]

By the time of the interview in 1939, Davis and her children were able to live without worry of hunger but still struggled to pay rent. Her daughter was working as a waitress and her boy was in school. They went to church frequently.[5]

Social Context of the 1930s[edit | edit source]

Working-Class Women[edit | edit source]

During the Great Depression more women had to paid work to sustain their families. Women gained greater representation in the workforce and constituted cheaper labor than men, though the vast majority of married women did not work during the this period.[6] Women's interest groups proliferated, which may have helped begin a shift in the societal image of women towards having more agency.[7] Many "women found work as secretaries, teachers, telephone operators, and nurses," but they still had much more limited career possibilities than men and were underpaid.[8] High divorce rates often left women alone with no money to take care of their children.[9]

Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal Plan[edit | edit source]

The New Deal was a progressive set of policies enacted by FDR's administration which aimed to support the working-class and expand the government's executive branch to better regulate the economy in response to the Great Depression. Notable agencies created include the Farm Credit Administration, Federal Housing Administration, Security and Exchange Commission, and the Social Security Administration; though these are a few of dozens. The agencies created are generally considered to have built a safety net for poorer Americans and reign in larger businesses and corporations which were negatively affecting the economy and/or being unfair to citizens. The FDR administration notably enacted a minimum wage policy after its legislation was unsuccessfully challenged in the Supreme Court.[10]

One notable idea from the scholarly debate is that the New Deal was a response not just to the Great Depression, but also a higher standard of living which many Americans had not yet caught up with.[11] FDR is often considered to have been the first president to lay the framework for the modern state.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. "Free Advice," in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Winifred D. Wandersee Bolin. "The Economics of Middle-Income Family Life: Working Women During the Great Depression." The Journal of American History 65, no. 1 (1978): 60-74. Accessed October 9, 2020. doi:10.2307/1888142, 70.
  7. Helmbold, Lois Rita. "Beyond the Family Economy: Black and White Working-Class Women during the Great Depression." Feminist Studies 13, no. 3 (1987): 629-55. Accessed September 30, 2020. doi:10.2307/3177885.
  8. Konkel, Lindsey. “Life for the Average Family During the Great Depression.” History. A&E Television Networks, April 19, 2018. https://www.history.com/news/life-for-the-average-family-during-the-great-depression.
  9. Hembold, 643.
  10. Lewis, Jone Johnson. “Slow and Steady: Women's Changing Roles in 1930s America.” ThoughtCo. Dotdash, January 29, 2020. https://www.thoughtco.com/womens-rights-1930s-4141164.
  11. Winifred D. 64-66.