Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Summer II/Section 01/Pattie Debrow

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Pattie Debrow
Bornunknown (circa 1863)
Diedunknown
NationalityUnited States of America
EthnicityBlack
OccupationFarm and Domestic Worker
ReligionChristian
SpouseSim

Noah Boone

Spillman Debrow


Pattie Debrow[edit | edit source]

Overview [edit | edit source]

Pattie Debrow was a poor, African American woman who was born to ex-slaves and did exclusively manual labor to provide for herself for her entire life. She was married three times, and had one girl who died during her childhood. Ms. Debrow was interviewed by Bernice Kelly Harris as a part of the Federal Writers Project on July 1, 1939. [1]


Background[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Ms. Debrow was born in North Carolina around the time of emancipation in 1863. She does not know her exact birth date or age. Her father was born into slavery and worked as a farmhand on plantations for his entire life. After emancipation, he never owned land and instead traveled from farm to farm to find work. Debrow was raised by her father and her cousin Cindy for most of her childhood because her mother died when she was a young girl. She moved with her father to at least eight different farms before the age of 14, so she did not experience much stability in her early life. [2]

Marriage and Family [edit | edit source]

Ms. Debrow was married three times over the course of her life. She was first married at age fourteen to Sim, age twenty-six years, to relieve the burden of her welfare from her father. At age fifteen, only one year later, Debrow had her first and only child, a baby girl. She died from a tumor in her side at age four. The child was never able to see a doctor; instead, Debrow tried to cure the tumor, unsuccessfully, with home remedies. After the death, Sim fell into a state of grief and died only four months later. [3]
Debrow did not marry again for a couple of years, but her next husband was Noah Boone. He was abusive, and she had about three miscarriages over their eight-year marriage because of how he treated her. Debrow was able to get out of this relationship, but Noah was not keen on leaving. Eventually, white men in the community forced him to move to a different town. [4]
Debrow was single for about ten years before marrying Spillman Debrow. He had five children already, and his two daughters drove a wedge in between their marriage. Mr. Debrow left her after eight years of marriage. [5]
Throughout her life, religion and the church were very important and gave her strength to continue working and providing for herself. [6]
African American cotton farmers in 1886.

Work Life [edit | edit source]

Ms. Debrow was expected to work from a very young age. Since she had no mother, she grew up to be incredibly self-sufficient. Even when she was married, Debrow worked in the fields or did odd jobs around the farm in order to provide for herself. During her marriage with Noah Boone, she did incredibly labor-intensive work, such as working fields, hauling wood, and washing. She continued working for her entire life and was still providing for herself at age 76, although she was also getting help from the government and kind people in the community. During her life, Debrow did get injured from the work that she was required to do; however, she rarely saw a doctor, preferring to use home remedies instead. The exact cause or date of Debrow’s death is unknown. [7]

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

Access to Healthcare for African Americans in the Southern United States from 1870 to 1930 [edit | edit source]

From 1870 to 1930, neither the federal nor state governments were closely involved with any form of medical care or health insurance for any race or class. This task was instead left to private and voluntary programs that not only were too expensive for most African Americans, but also denied them services based on their race. [8]
In the 1870s, racial segregation in the medical profession became national policy as African Americans were labeled as a “debauched, ‘syphilis soaked’, [and] unfit” for serious or ethical medical research, according to medical historians Linda Clayton and Michael Byrd. [9] Even professional medical journals in the US were filled “with [nonscientific] racist principles, [negative] racial character references, and pronouncements of impending black racial extinction.” [10] The segregation of medical care and education continued into the 1960s. [11]
During the Progressive Era, President Theodore Roosevelt supported health insurance and health care as a necessity, but did not make any governmental changes. Therefore, almost all of the reform in the medical space took place in other organizations, such as the American Association of Labor Legislation (AALL). In 1906, this organization led a campaign for health insurance which eventually led to the AALL Bill of 1915. However, this piece of legislation did not benefit African Americans because the vast majority of the medical system did not tend to African American patients. [12]
African American doctors preparing for an operation.
John Hopkins University was the top medical school in the United States and played a large part in guiding medical education. This school set a precedent for strict segregation of medical education, health care, and medical staff when they opened in 1893. Medical schools nation-wide followed this example, and this left very few hospitals, clinics, or medical schools open to African Americans, especially in the South. [13]
By the 1920s, the health care system was coming increasingly under the control of white medical schools, and the basic infrastructure of the health care system was structured around racial segregation. The facilities available to people of color were very rare and did not have the advancements that white hospitals could afford. [14]
From 1910 to 1970, Meharry Medical College and Howard University School of Medicine were essentially the only sources of trained black health care professionals. According to an article on race and health care published in the Journal of the National Medical Association, any patient of color would have almost no access to affordable health care because the facilities and medical professionals simply did not exist, and the government was not providing funding to equalize the health system. [15]


Poverty in Rural Black Communities in the Southern United States during the 1920s [edit | edit source]

The 1920s is a decade typically remembered for an increase in consumerism and economic prosperity in the United States; however, "more than 60% of Americans lived below the poverty line" during the 1920s. [16]
African Americans, farmers, and sharecroppers suffered the most during this decade, particularly in the South, because they were forced to do laborious, repetitive work for incredibly low wages. [17]
By 1928, over half of United States’ farmers were living in poverty due to the massive debts that followed agricultural overproduction. An increase in supply of certain food, such as wheat, accompanied a decrease in demand for those products, which caused many farmers or sharecroppers to go bankrupt and borrow money from banks to survive. [18]
By 1929, US farmers collectively had over $2 billion in debt; they either had to sell their property, were evicted from their homes, or were forced to work land for nothing to repay debts. These burdens fell disproportionately on the African American communities in the southern United States. [19]
The displacement of large swaths of the African American population led to an increase in hobos or migrant workers in the South, who traveled in search of part-time work. [20]
The instability that many African Americans in the south experienced during the 1920s, as the result of financial struggles, reinforced the cycle of poverty. The children of these farmers were not able to receive a proper education, and there was still a significant literacy gap between races. Without an education, African American children were not able to get out of the cycle of poverty that they were born into. Thus, leaving many African Americans in the south to continue in search of labor-intensive jobs with low wages. [21]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Pattie Debrow, “I’d Like to Have a Coca Cola”, interviewed by Bernice Kelly Harris, Federal Writers Project, Southern Historical Collection, no. 03709, 1 July 1939.
  2. ibid.
  3. ibid.
  4. ibid.
  5. ibid.
  6. ibid.
  7. ibid.
  8. Karen S Palmer, “A Brief History: Universal Health Care Efforts in the US,” Spring 1999, San Francisco Physicians for a National Health Program Meeting, https://pnhp.org/a-brief-history-universal-health-care-efforts-in-the-us/.
  9. Michael Byrd and Linda Clayton, “Race, Medicine, and Health Care in the United States: A Historical Survey,” Journal of the National Medical Association 93, no. 3 (March 2001): 195, accessed July 8, 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2593958/pdf/jnma00341-0013.pdf.
  10. ibid.
  11. Michael Byrd and Linda Clayton, “Race, Medicine, and Health Care in the United States: A Historical Survey,” Journal of the National Medical Association 93, no. 3 (March 2001): 115-205, accessed July 8, 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2593958/pdf/jnma00341-0013.pdf.
  12. Karen S Palmer, “A Brief History: Universal Health Care Efforts in the US,” Spring 1999, San Francisco Physicians for a National Health Program Meeting, https://pnhp.org/a-brief-history-universal-health-care-efforts-in-the-us/.
  13. Michael Byrd and Linda Clayton, “Race, Medicine, and Health Care in the United States: A Historical Survey,” Journal of the National Medical Association 93, no. 3 (March 2001): 115-205, accessed July 8, 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2593958/pdf/jnma00341-0013.pdf.
  14. ibid.
  15. ibid.
  16. “America in the 1920s,” History Learning, accessed July 9, 2020, https://historylearning.com/modern-world-history/america-1918/america-economy-1920s0/
  17. ibid.
  18. “Economic Problems in the 1920s,” British Broadcasting Corporation, accessed July 8, 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zp77pbk/revision/2.
  19. ibid.
  20. “America in the 1920s,” History Learning, accessed July 9, 2020, https://historylearning.com/modern-world-history/america-1918/america-economy-1920s0/
  21. Robert A. Margo, “Historical Perspectives of Racial Economic Differences: A Summary of Recent Research,” The National Bureau of Economic Research Reporter, no. 4, (Winter 2005): 18-21, accessed July 8, 2020. https://www.nber.org/reporter/winter05/winter05.pdf.