Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2021/Fall/Section009/Aunt Lucy Minnisit

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This photo was not taken in a hospital, but instead shows the domestic nature under which African American nurses worked

Overview[edit | edit source]

Having been raised a slave, the only occupational skills Aunt Lucy Minnisit had were those of childcare. She found work after freedom as a nanny for white families who valued her and her assistance with their children. She admits herself that her ways of childcare were outdated and often perceived as strange but maintains that they were the most effective. She was known for making her own medicines and pushed back against up-and-coming rules that required infant nurses to have professional training. As more doctors settled in her area, she found it harder to get work. Aunt Lucy married a man named Ike Minnisit and had nine of her own children. She was the primary caregiver of her family and was often away from home in order to find work that would pay well. She went to work in Philadelphia for a kind family who paid her way when she wanted to go back south to visit her husband. The last time she did, Ike died two days later. Aunt Lucy continued to raise her own children and nurse those of who hired her, and only planned to retire once her body gave out and could no longer care for infants.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Lucy Minnist was born into a family of slaves owned by a man named John Sockwell on his plantation in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her father was the blacksmith on the plantation, and her mother served as a house maid. When she was three years old, Lucy's mother was sold away from their family, and she was subsequently raised by her grandmother, who worked at the main house of the plantation. As a result, Lucy was left subject to her father's abuse. She began to help around his blacksmith shop, until Mr. Sockwell requested she come work at the plantation house. There, she learned from a woman she refers to as "Miss Mellie," who taught her what little education she had. Later, Mr. Sockwell moved Lucy to the nursery to care for the babies of other slaves. She learned from a "Mrs. Prue" how to nurse children and care for them as best they could at this time. As she became experienced, Mrs. Prue would take her to the main house to care for the "white folks" children as well. Lucy took pride in being called a quote "Mammy Nurse." Aunt Lucy recalls the beginning of the Civil War, and how Mr. Sockwell and his family went to fight on the side of the Confederacy. She also remembers when her plantation heard of the South's surrender, and their accompanying freedom. However, Lucy chose to stay on as a worker for the Sockwell's, marking the beginning of her professional career as an infant nurse.

Professional Life[edit | edit source]

After securing freedom, Aunt Lucy chose to stay at the Sockwell plantation, citing the fact that being slave was all she had ever known and did not have anywhere else to go. Once she honed her skills as an infant nurse, Aunt Lucy began to be called upon by outside white families to come and care for new mothers and their infants, and found work primarily in Gibsonville, North Carolina. There was little access to doctors at this time, so nurses like Aunt Lucy were the primary contact for a position like this. Lucy describes how she made her own medications from goose grease or mutton tallow and turpentine. What she used these for is unclear. She does, however, state that when bathing an infant for the first time, she would use cobweb to stop bleeding from where their umbilical cord was cut. Other practices she used included using the mother's milk as a treatment for a baby's sore eyes, and making "sugar tits" to calm them when anxious. After a while, professional doctors and nursed began to encroach on Lucy's area of practice. She found herself pushed out of work due to a lack of formal training. She also notes that nurses were subsequently required to dress a certain way, carry a bag of professional instruments, and report to the newly founded Board of Health. All of this cost money, money which Aunt Lucy did not have, causing her to have to find odd jobs here and there. She does describe, however, that once she was hired by a family, she stayed there for awhile, as they valued her and her work. She worked this way throughout the Great Depression, feeling its effefcts on her job opportunities.

Social Context[edit | edit source]

Discrimination in Medicine[edit | edit source]

Direcly following the Civil war and lasting well past the Great Depression, Black men and women found it very difficult to receive adequate medical training, or enter the medical profession at all. Even if Black men or women were to gain some sort of training, it was then near impossible for them to find a job relevant to those skills, as few hospitals were actually open to hiring said practitioners (History 2013). The American Journal of Nursing cites that “the previous educational and social background of students to be selected for admission into a nursing school is a very important factor in the educational program of the school and for successful performance in the hospital and the field." In essence, this means that the lack of education experienced by Black women as a result of living the majority of their lives up until this point as slaves put them at a major disadvantage when it came to applying to a professional nursing program. By expecting the same educational background of a Black applicant as that of a White applicant, admissions programs were feeding into systematic discrimination in the medical field from the start (Massey 1934). This resulted in very few acceptances of Black females into nursing programs, hindering their future ability to get a job in a professional setting. There were efforts to combat this, as segregated training centers began to pop up across the country. These, in theory, would provide equal education and opportunties to Black applicants wanting to enter the medical field. The reasoning behind this, as Pamela Nickless states in an article on racial conflict in the nursing profession, was that these separate centers would prevent total exclusion from the medical professions as a whole. However, these centers instead only seemed to promote this ideal in theory and not in practice, as their facilities were subpar compared to those of white facilities, and these centers did nothing to atone the discrimination that came after graduation, when hospitals were still reluctant to actually hire Black nurses and doctors.

Influence of the Great Depression[edit | edit source]

While many people from all jobs were affected by the events of the Great Depression, the crash seemed to affec Black domestics the hardest. While the government attempted to offer aid and assistance to all affected, their efforts largely only reached white families, leaving Black domestic workers and their families without much needed help. The resulted in many of them having to take up multiple jobs in the home of the white families receiving the majority of federal aid, while receiving little themselves. There were some programs specifically targeted towards helping Black domestics, however, it is important to note that these programs only seemed to facilitate racial inequality by keeping Black women in the primary servitude position to white families, instead of making it to where they could find work elsewhere. Therefore, upon the increasing difficulty of finding jobs in the first place during this time, Black domestics were forced to uphold racial inequality in their work form (Palmer 1997).

Changes in Practice[edit | edit source]

There have been recent publications detailing the differences that exist between childcare offered during the Great Depression and today. Research found that the majority of childcare today takes place outside of the home at a secondary location, facilitated by paid organizations instead of personally employed individuals. Respondants, all who grew up during the Great Depression, interviewed for the research stated how today it seems like it is necessary for both parents to work, while during their time only one parent, namely the father, worked while the other stayed home. However, it is important to acknowledge here that while the mother often stayed home, she was not the primary caregiver of the child during their infant stages. This job was seen to be held by Black domestic workers (midwives, infant nurses, etc.). This speaks to the social configuration at the time, wherein white women stayed home but expected their Black servants to care for their children. Many respondants also reported that there seems to be a lack of personal connection between child and caregiver nowadays as opposed to the time of the Great Depression. Infant nurses or other types of caregivers at that time were hired and kept on for prolonged periods of time, often leading to a deep connection between the child and the person who had cared for them since infancy. It just so happens that these connections were primarily made between Black domestics and the white children they were charged with caring for.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

“History - Opening Doors: Contemporary African American Academic Surgeons.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health, July 17, 2013. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/aframsurgeons /history.html.

Massey, G. Estelle. 1934. “The Negro Nurse Student.” The American Journal of Nursing 34 (8): 806–10. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3412419

Nickless, Pamela. 1992. “Black Women in White: Racial Conflict and Cooperation in the Nursing Profession.” The Journal of Economic History 52 (1): 249–51.  https://www.jstor.org/stable/2123375.

Palmer, Phyllis. 1997. “Black Domestics During the Depression.” Prologue, 1997. https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1997/summer/domestics-in-the-depression

Terry, Babb, Laura  Cenkner, Katie Neal, Janice  Purk, and Nancy Sidell. 2010. “The Wisdom and Vision of Older Adults: Changes in Childcare since the Great Depression.” Sociological Viewpoints 26 (2): 53–62. https://www.proquest.com/docview/870329522/fulltextPDF/A3F0CFC8A04C43ABPQ/1?accountid=14244.