Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105i/Section 52/Marguerite Clark

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Marguerite Clark
BornMarguerite Wilson
Approx. 1888-1892
New Orleans, Louisiana
OccupationDomestic Servant: Chef
SpouseBuster Clark

Overview[edit | edit source]

McDonogh No. 24 School, located at Burdette, Adams and Pearl Streets, date unknown. Attended by Marguerite Clark.

This Wikiversity article is about the life of Marguerite Clark, an African-American woman who worked as a domestic servant during the Great Depression in Louisiana, and the social issues relating to her life experience.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Zion Travelers First Baptist Church in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Marguerite Clark, born Marguerite Wilson, was an African-American woman born and raised in Louisiana. Clark was born between 1888 and 1892 on Sixth Street in New Orleans to her single mother, also named Marguerite Wilson. Clark completed up to a third-grade education at McDonogh No. 24, where she learned to read and write. Clark's mother, also known as “Toot-it Tot,” was a short African-American from Harahan, an active church member, and a cook who wanted her daughter to grow up to be a chef like her. Clark was deeply religious--a value she gained from her mother--and regularly attended the Zion Travelers Baptist Church where she was an influential member. In her early adult life, she was romantically pursued by a number of men but married Buster Clark, an African-American man who was unemployed for much of his adult life. Despite Clark's beliefs that Buster was “trifling” and "lazy" due to his inability to hold a steady job and her suspicions of Buster's infidelity, the couple remained together. Clark's suspicions were largely due to the presence of another woman, who lived down the street, that caught Buster’s attention. Clark was not shy of confrontation but believed that speaking the other woman’s name would only add fuel to the fire. The Clarks had no children despite her desire for social security and two sons. Clark was the breadwinner of the family. Clark went on to become a cook “by heart and by profession” and worked for wealthy white families, most notably for Mrs. Jacobs, who she served on Saint Charles Avenue for ten years. She came into domestic servitude because her mother could no longer work after she fell ill. Clark and her husband took her mother into their three-bedroom home permanently, which cost $10 per month in rent. While serving Mrs. Jacobs, Clark was initially not allowed to take "pots and pans" or leftovers home from the kitchen for her sick mother and husband, but after pressure from her family, Clark confronted Mrs. Jacobs about the matter. Mrs. Jacobs permitted her to take leftovers home on the condition that Clark was to walk in and out of the front door so that Mrs. Jacobs could monitor what left her kitchen. After three months of illness, Clark's mother died in 1925. During the Great Depression, Buster worked under the Works Progress Administration, which inspired Clark to call him her "W.P.A. man." Little information about Marguerite Clark's life is known after she interviewed for the Federal Writers' Project at the age of forty-seven.[1]

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

African-Americans and the W.P.A.[edit | edit source]

Moss Street New Orleans, WPA paving late 1930s. Manual labor W.P.A jobs: laying concrete.

The Work Progress Administration (W.P.A) was an unemployment program established in 1935 by the US government in order to address the widespread unemployment generated by the Great Depression.[2]

Until its demise in 1941, it provided mainly African American men with jobs that they would typically be excluded from. African American women were underrepresented and only accounted for 12 to 18 percent of workers in the W.P.A., whereas they accounted for a quarter of the general workforce.[2]

Although federal projects sought to improve job availability, they were still subject to censorship and racial or political discrimination.[3] Some instances of discrimination had to do with the area adjusted wage scales. White employers in the South were able to work around the National Recovery Administration and cut costs by laying off primarily black workers.[4]  

1935 Social Security Act[edit | edit source]

The 1935 Social Security Act was signed into law by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was a part of Roosevelt’s New Deal domestic program and created insurance against unemployment.

African-Americans accounted for twenty percent of individuals who received federal relief during the Great Depression, but female-dominated fields like farm and domestic service were excluded from the 1935 Social Security Act. This allowed private employers to legally lower employee compensation.[5]

Elizabeth McDuffie served for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt advocated to increase economic opportunity for women workers during the Roosevelt presidency.[6]

The Exclusion Domestic Servants[edit | edit source]

Excluding black and female-dominated professions from the Social Security Act of 1935 was a set back that was met with activism for economic citizenship for African Americans. Nannie Helen Burroughs helped implement domestic servant training programs in Washington D.C. in an effort to increase job dignity, wages, and working conditions.[6]

Discrimination in the workplace was not exclusive to domestic service; Pauli Murray was an African-American woman who faced rejections from higher education on account of her sex and race and fought against the exclusion of minorities in the legal professions by forging a career in the law.[7]  

The Jemima Code works today to give credit to “America’s invisible black cooks,” who were often underpaid by their employers and seen as mammies despite their achievements in recipe writing, project managing, and creative endeavors.[8]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Interview, Robert McKinney interviewing Marguerite Clark, folder 271, Coll. 03709, Federal Writers' Project Papers, 1936-1940, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  2. 2.0 2.1 Goldberg, Chad Alan. "Contesting the Status of Relief Workers during the New Deal: The Workers Alliance of America and the Works Progress Administration, 1935-1941." Social Science History 29, no. 3 (2005): 337-71. Accessed October 5, 2020. doi:10.2307/40267880.
  3. Sklaroff, Lauren Rebecca. Black Culture and the New Deal. University of North Carolina Press, 2009. Accessed October 1, 2020. https://library-biblioboard-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu.
  4. Badger, Anthony J., and Cobb, James C.. New Deal / New South : An Anthony J. Badger Reader. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2007. Accessed October 5, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central
  5. Rotondi, Jessica Pearce. “Underpaid, But Employed: How the Great Depression Affected Working Women.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, March 11, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/working-women-great-depression.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Murphy, Mary-Elizabeth. "“The Servant Campaigns”: African American Women and the Politics of Economic Justice in Washington, D.C., in the 1930s." Journal of Urban History 44, no. 2 (03/2018): 187-202. doi:10.1177/0096144217746164.
  7. Rosenburg, Rosalind. Jane Crow: the Life of Pauli Murray. Place of publication not identified: OXFORD UNIV Press US, 2020. Accessed October 1, 2020. https://library-biblioboard-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu
  8. Oatman, Maddie. “The Secret History of Black Chefs in America.” Mother Jones. Mother Jones and the Foundation for National Progress, September 15, 2015. https://www.motherjones.com/media/2015/09/toni-tipton-martin-aunt-jemima-code-lena-richard/.