Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105i/Section 50/Pattie Debrow

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Pattie Debrow
OccupationFarm and Domestic Worker

Overview[edit | edit source]

Pattie Debrow was an African American woman born to ex-slaves in rural North Carolina. She worked as a sharecropper and domestic worker and lived in poverty throughout her life. She married several times and had one daughter that died young, as well as several miscarriages. On July 1st, 1939, Bernice Kelly Harris interviewed Debrow for the Federal Writers Project. [1]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Debrow was born in Merrytops, North Carolina. Her exact birthday is unknown, but she was born around the time of emancipation in 1863. Debrow’s parents were ex-slaves, and her mother died shortly after her birth. In her mother’s absence, Debrow’s cousin Cindy helped raise her. None of her family members ever owned land, so her father was a nomadic farmhand, working on eight plantations before Debrow turned fourteen. She worked alongside her father on these farms from the time she could remember. [2]

Adult Life[edit | edit source]

Relationships[edit | edit source]

At the time of her Federal Writers Project interview, Debrow had been married three times. [3]

At fourteen, she married a twenty-six-year-old man named Sim. The couple resided with Debrow’s cousin Sally for the duration of their marriage. Debrow gave birth to a daughter at age fifteen. Four years later, the child died due to an undetermined illness. Four months later, Debrow’s husband Sim died of grief. [4] 

Northampton County, North Carolina

Debrow remained single for two years, living at the homes of various cousins. She then married Noah Boone, and for eight years they lived in Rich Square, in Northampton County, North Carolina. Boone became abusive over time and Debrow had two or three miscarriages as a result. One Christmas, Boone was sent to jail for twelve months on a theft charge. When he was released, he returned to Debrow, but she decided to end the relationship. Boone stayed for a few months before local white men forced him to leave. [5]

Debrow was single for ten years afterward. However, she began to fear growing old alone and married Spillman Debrow. He already had five children who often attempted to drive the couple apart. After eight years Spillman ended the marriage. [6] 

Career[edit | edit source]

Debrow worked her entire life, beginning at a young age. As an adult, she mainly did farm work–tending crops or hauling wood–and domestic work–washing and cleaning–for wealthy people in her community. At the time of her first marriage, she made 30 cents a day. Debrow remained self-sufficient when single by working several jobs. However, she was never able to escape poverty. [7] 

Around the age of seventy-five, Debrow was still working but began receiving assistance from the community and the government. A former boss of Debrow’s provided rent-free land for her to stay on, and there, members of the community constructed a shack for her to inhabit. [8]

Harsh working conditions often caused Ms. Debrow to fall sick. Doctors were scarce and she typically resorted to home remedies. She almost died from dysentery, an illness of the stomach caused by improper nutrition, during the Great Depression. [9]

No details are known about Debrow’s death.

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

Education and Labor Among Rural African American Women Post-Emancipation[edit | edit source]

Wife and child of young sharecropper in cornfield beside house. Hillside Farm, Person County, North Carolina.

Major inequalities existed in education after emancipation. Before the turn of the twentieth century in the Southern United States, white schools received thirty times more funding per child than black schools. Inequalities in education originated from ideas of white supremacy and the South innovating ways to keep Black Americans subjugated. White terrorism and discriminatory funding prevented many African Americans from attending school at all. Some scholars have described this as “the chain of legal containment.” [10] 

This lack of education made manual labor the most common work form among African Americans. Those left in the South after the war had few vocational skills and most were illiterate. Five years after emancipation, sharecropping had become the dominant labor arrangement throughout the South. Sharecropping cemented the African American community in static poverty. [11] Further, the Black Codes made it even more difficult for African Americans to escape the labor exchanges reminiscent of the slavery system. [12]   

Women sharecropped as much as their male counterparts, and families would often work as a unit. However, much of the wives’ participation was forced by their husbands. Novels like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple have candidly portrayed the domestic abuse common in impoverished Black households during this time. Landowners recognized the male as the head of the household, creating harmful power dynamics between husband and wife. The legalization of Black marriage after Emancipation allowed husbands to control their wives’ property, have custody of children, and to discipline their wives authoritatively. Still, the oppression of Black patriarchy was minimal compared to the economic and social oppression of racism. [13] 

African American Domestic Worker in 1939
Susie King Taylor, Black nurse, 1902

Though African American women faced job barriers, many became domestic workers. This involved cooking, cleaning, childcare, washing, and other household chores. The activities of these self-employed workers were ambiguous, and the nature of their employment exempted them from much of the economic downturn of the Great Depression. [14]

Healthcare Disparities toward African Americans (1865-1940)[edit | edit source]

Racism in America, especially in the South, persisted after the conclusion of the civil war. This racism resulted in massive healthcare disparities towards African Americans. [15] 

Biased medical education created disparities in clinical decision making and pain treatment, as doctors were taught to believe that African Americans were of less value to the American medical system. One 1870 medical journal cited that African Americans were a “debauched, ‘syphilis soaked,’ unfit race.” [16] “Medical segregation” was the official national practice. [17] 

Further, African Americans were barred from entering health professions, and those who made it into the field faced unfair treatment. [18] 

Public health programs at the turn of the century were segregated and exploitative of African Americans. Black patients often played a role in their own surgeries, as minority home calls were undervalued and understaffed. [19] 

Moreover, contacting a physician was difficult for white and Black rural southerners. Because neither telecommunications nor vehicles were commonly available, consulting a medical professional was a strenuous ordeal. Because of this, many families practiced home remedies rather than reaching out to a doctor. [20] 

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Debrow, Pattie. “I’d Like to Have a Coca Cola.” Interview by Bernice Kelly Harris, July 1, 1939, Folder 451, Federal Writers Project Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/03709/id/446/rec/1.
  2. ibid.
  3. ibid.
  4. ibid.
  5. ibid.
  6. ibid.
  7. ibid.
  8. ibid.
  9. ibid.
  10. Butchart, Ronald E. “Black hope, white power: emancipation, reconstruction and the legacy of unequal schooling in the US South, 1861-1880.” Paedagogica Historica 46, no. 1 (2010): 33-50, doi: 10.1080/00309230903528447.
  11. Riddle, Wesley Allen. “The origins of black sharecropping.” Mississippi Quarterly 49, no. 1 (1995): 53-72, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A18373991/LitRC?u=unc_main&sid=LitRC&xid=32a018f9.
  12. Mann, Susan A. “Slavery, Sharecropping, and Sexual Inequality.” Common Grounds and Crossroads: Race, Ethnicity, and Class in Women’s Lives 14, no. 4 (1989): 774-798, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3174684.
  13. ibid.
  14. Boyd, Robert L. “Race, Self-Employment, and Labor Absorption: Black and White Women in Domestic Service in the Urban South during the Great Depression.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 71, no. 3 (2012): 639-661, doi: 10.1111/j.1536-7150.2012.00825.x.
  15. Pohl, Lynn Marie. “African American Southerners and White Physicians: Medical Care at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 86, no 2 (2012): 178-205, doi: 10.1353/bhm.2012.0022.
  16. Byrd, W. Michael and Clayton, Linda. “Race, medicine, and health care in the United States: a historical survey.” Journal of the National Medical Association 93, no. 3 (2011): 115-205, https://www-ncbi-nlm-nih-gov.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/pmc/articles/PMC2593958/pdf/jnma00341-0013.pdf.
  17. ibid.
  18. ibid.
  19. Pohl, Lynn Marie. “African American Southerners and White Physicians: Medical Care at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 86, no 2 (2012): 178-205.=, doi: 10.1353/bhm.2012.0022.
  20. ibid.