Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Summer II/Section 10/Odessa Polk

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Odessa Polk
BornOdessa Polk
Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S.
DiedMarch 10,1959
ResidenceCharlotte, North Carolina
EthnicityAfrican American
OccupationCook and laundress
ChildrenMadelene, Wootsie, Sarah (daughters)

Overview[edit | edit source]

Odessa Polk was an African American cook and laundress in Charlotte, North Carolina. She was interviewed by Cora Lee Bennett and Mary Northrop for the Federal Writer's Project on May 9, 1939. [1]

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Odessa Polk was born in 1897 in Charlotte, North Carolina. [2] Polk was one of 14 children from her mother’s two marriages, however, only 3 were her biological siblings. Polk was 3 years old when her mother remarried, but due to her stepfather’s negative behavior towards her, she went to live with her grandmother. Her grandmother took in laundry and made very little to support her grandchildren.

As a child, Polk went to Sunday School, but her lack of proper clothing prevented her from attending regularly. A Baptist missionary woman ran a club that donated clothes to Polk and her siblings so they could attend Sunday School. Polk began working at nine years old, making 25 cents a week washing dishes. [3] She went to old Myers Street school until fifth-grade before she started working full time in a white lady’s house, which was common for many black children during this time.

Later Life[edit | edit source]

Polk had three girls, however, never married. Her daughter’s names were Madelene, Wootsie, and Sarah. Little information is known about her daughters. After her youngest was born she started working at home, taking in laundry, so she could watch her children. As her children grew up, it became difficult for her to support the family financially. She had just enough to buy them clothes. [4] Her second child, Wootsie, was always sick and Polk struggled with paying the medical bills. As they grew older, Polk worked outside of the home to earn more money while they attended school and church.

None of her children completed school. This wasn’t uncommon due to the opposition against black education in the South. Polk wished her children would have finished school. She said, “I had hoped so hard that she'd get to finish 'cause she had got up to high school, but she didn't” when talking about her oldest. [5] All of her girls had children but never married, following in her footsteps.

Polk, her children, and her grandchildren all lived together during the time of this interview. Polk said, “I make pretty good, I reckon, considering what some of the other cooks make here.” [6] She made $9 a week working for a white family for the past 8 years. [7] Towards the end of her life, she dedicated her free time to working in the church.

She died at the age of 63 on March 10, 1959. [8]

Social Context[edit | edit source]

Domestic Workers during the Great Depression[edit | edit source]

African American women were faced with the greatest amount of discrimination because of their race and gender, creating a large lack of opportunity in the workforce. [9] When the Great Depression hit, it became difficult to find work because white women joined the workforce taking their jobs and wages. [10] These social restraints left “poor women of color and often middle-aged mothers responsible for children” to become domestic workers. [11] Whites depended on these workers to take care of the house, cook, clean, and care for their children. [12] For the amount of work that was expected of these women, they faced extremely low wages, abuse, and little labor protection. In the early 1900s, domestic workers were not “covered by the Occupational Health and Safety Act or by civil rights legislation.” [13] It was common for domestic workers to experience sexual harassment or assault by male employers, but they couldn’t seek help due to the lack of protection laws for blacks. [14] Even though these African American women were forced into low wage jobs and treated poorly, they still managed to take care of the lives of the white families and their own families.

Access to Education for African Americans[edit | edit source]

During the Great Depression, schools in the south were racially segregated, creating large discrepancies between the level of education for the whites and blacks. A majority of the public funding went to white schools. The black schools were overcrowded and largely underfunded, and taught by unqualified individuals. 89% of all African Americans in the United States lived in the rural areas of the south, yet there were only a few schools there. [15] It wasn’t until after World War II that public high schools existed for blacks in other areas than major cities in the South. [16] The lack of schools made it inaccessible for black children to get an education.

Many black children were pulled from school to help harvest or to work. In the South, the black children picked cotton during the cotton season which conflicted with school. [17] “The white kids started school in September. We should have been in school, but we didn’t get to go while the cotton was picked,” Vinella Byrd, a black woman, told an interviewer when asked about her education. [18] The black children were forced to stop their education to benefit the white folks in the South. Most African Americans went to school until the fourth grade and then began working, leaving them unable to receive higher education. [19]

Segregated Elementary School

African American Women Education

African American women’s access to education was limited because of gender inequality. College education first became available to black women in the North during the 1880s. [20] After graduating, many women came to teach in the South where they faced extremely low wages. [21] The schools in the south were ineffective and focused on teaching caregiver roles to women. The system was against black women having the same opportunities as white females. White women were strongly opposed to letting black women attend school and “viewed the ambition of African American women who sought higher education and professional careers as a threat.” [22] The whites created unequal education systems because they saw education as power and didn’t want the blacks to gain independence.

Notes[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Interview, Cora Lee Bennett and Mary Northrop on Odessa Polk, May 9, 1939, Folder 294, Federal Writing Project Papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. Ancestry.com “Odessa Polk in the 1940 Census.” Ancestry.com Accessed July 9, 2020. https://www.ancestry.com/1940-census/usa/North-Carolina/Odessa-Polk_5cjycl
  3. Bennett and Northrop, Interview on Odessa Polk, 3929-2930
  4. Bennett and Northrop, Interview on Odessa Polk, 3931
  5. Bennett and Northrop, Interview on Odessa Polk, 3933
  6. Bennett and Northrop, Interview on Odessa Polk, 3935
  7. Bennett and Northrop, Interview on Odessa Polk, 3935
  8. Ancestry.com. “All North Carolina, Death Indexes, 1908-2004 results for Odessa Polk.” Ancestry.com. Accessed July 10, 2020. https://www.ancestry.com/search/collections/8908/?name=Odessa_Polk&birth=_charlotte-mecklenburg-north+carolina-usa_20937
  9. Nkadi, Ashley. “Domestic Workers: The Women Who Raised America.” The Root. The Root, March 27, 2018. https://www.theroot.com/domestic-workers-the-women-who-raised-america-1823983133
  10. 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.
  11. Boris, Eileen, and Premilla Nadasen. “Domestic Workers Organize!” WorkingUSA 11, no. 4 (2008): 414. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1743-4580.2008.00217.x.
  12. Wormer, Katherine Van, Charletta Sudduth, and David W. Jackson. “What We Can Learn of Resilience from Older African-American Women Who Worked as Maids in the Deep South.” Western Journal of Black Studies 37, no. 4 (Winter 2013): 234. http://web.b.ebscohost.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=28afe41f-3b07-4b4a-972b-5ff5fc616ef9%40pdc-v-sessmgr01
  13. Boris, “Domestic Workers Organize!”, 415
  14. Nkadi, "Domestic Workers: The Women Who Raised America.”
  15. Linda M. Perkins. “Bound to Them by a Common Sorrow”: African American Women, Higher Education, and Collective Advancement.” The Journal of African American History 100, no. 4 (2015): 729. Accessed July 9, 2020. doi:10.5323/jafriamerhist.100.4.0721.
  16. Perkins, "Bound to Them by a Common Sorrow", 729
  17. Brooker, Russell, Adekola Adedapo, and Fran Kaplan. “The Education of Black Children in the Jim Crow South”. America’s Black Holocaust Museum. Accessed July 10, 2020. https://abhmuseum.org/education-for-blacks-in-the-jim-crow-south/
  18. Wormer, “What We Can Learn of Resilience from Older African-American Women Who Worked as Maids in the Deep South.”, 234
  19. Brooker, “The Education of Black Children in the Jim Crow South”
  20. Perkins, "Bound to Them by a Common Sorrow", 721
  21. Perkins, "Bound to Them by a Common Sorrow", 726
  22. Perkins, "Bound to Them by a Common Sorrow", 726