Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2021/Fall/Section009/Ethel Vassar

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Overview[edit | edit source]

Ethel Vassar was interviewed by Bernice Kelly Harris on February 23, 1939 as part of the Federal Writers' Project.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Personal Life[edit | edit source]

Ethel Vassar was a Black female cook, born in Seaboard, North Carolina in the early 1900s. Both of her parents were freed slaves, and her father worked as a sharecropper until his children were born, then he bought his own land. When he died, Ethel and her eight siblings paid off the mortgage on the 50-acre farm, where they raised chickens and grew enough vegetables for two meals per day. Ethel was not married and did not have a family of her own, but she cared for her disabled sister and her sister’s two children, and they lived together in a three-room house on the property. In her community, healthy Black people were being forced to receive vaccinations, then developing symptoms of severe and sometimes fatal diseases. When those who refused to get the vaccine were incarcerated, Ethel worried that slavery was being reinstituted.

Professional Life[edit | edit source]

Ethel worked primarily as a cook for 20 years, though she also cared for babies, tended to the sick, washed clothes, and cleaned houses. Only making $2.50 per week, she struggled to provide clothes and groceries for her sister and her sister’s children. She also needed to pay $1.25 each week for taxes. Still, she did not qualify for welfare because she was a Black woman and a domestic worker. Having to support herself, her disabled sister, and her niece and nephew with such limited pay, she struggled to afford food and other necessities. Her sister could not offer help, because as a disabled Black woman she faced even greater trouble trying to request clothes for her children from welfare. In the same community, white families who had steady incomes received suitcases full of clothes and other items.

Social Context[edit | edit source]

Medical Racism in the South:[edit | edit source]

In the early 20th century, scientific racism was pervasive in white-dominated organized medicine. Southern cities and towns started collecting statistics about the rates of birth, death, and disease among racial and socioeconomic minorities and used the results to discriminate against Black people (Kruse 2011, 11). The Medical Society of the State of North blamed the “Negro health problem” for widespread cases of typhoid, hookworm, tuberculosis, and especially syphilis. The head of the society deemed Black people as sexual “breeders” of syphilis, predicting the extinction of the entire race, and suggesting that “further extension of birth control” be implemented. Continuing to hypersexualize of Black people, health officials encouraged white people to turn in young Black girls who they considered sexually promiscuous and admit them “against their will to RTCs [vaccination clinics]” (Kruse 2011, 131). These clinics were testing penicillin as treatments for syphilis. At the time, the General Assembly encouraged smallpox and typhoid fever vaccines, but did not require them by law. In 1939, legislation passed to mandate diphtheria vaccinations for children in school.

Racial Inequality and Welfare Access in the South[edit | edit source]

During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt implemented the national welfare system, beginning with the Social Security Act of 1935, to provide aid to the increasing number of unemployed Americans (Poole 2006, 13). Rather than help, these social welfare programs often discriminated against populations based upon the racism, sexism, and ableism of those in positions of power. Federal funding was supposed to be determined by the percentage of the national population living in a specific area, averaging $36.80 per one hundred residents. However, southern states with large Black populations were only awarded between $3.88 and $17.35 per one hundred residents (Poole 2006, 173). Black rural communities in southern states were often the populations that needed the aid most. When wages dropped, their already low incomes dwindled until “women earned between $2 and $4 dollars for a week of 12- to 14-hour days” (Poole 2006, 15). Though Black people were disproportionately affected by the economic devastation, they received significantly less financial assistance than white people; women and disabled people were also commonly denied aid. In order to receive welfare, people would have to be categorized as “‘physically able and available for work,’ in contrast to the ‘aged, the sick and the disabled’” (Poole 2006, 75). Black women were often declared ineligible for aid because local welfare offices would refuse to acknowledge that they were employable (Poole 2006, 173). Those who were able to find jobs most often worked in domestic labor, which was explicitly excluded from the Social Security Act, so white families were able to legally decrease the wages for the Black women they employed as domestic help. With little access to welfare and unregulated decreases in pay, Black individuals, particularly women and disabled people, were deeply impoverished in the rural South.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

Joyner, William S. 2006. “Infectious Diseases.” NCpedia. January 1, 2006. https://www.ncpedia.org/infectious-diseases.

Poole, Mary. 2006. Segregated Origins of Social Security: African Americans and the Welfare State. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Rotondi, Jessica Pearce. 2019. “Underpaid, But Employed: How the Great Depression Affected Working Women.” History.Com. March 11, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/working-women-great-depression.

Sharpless, Rebecca. 2010. Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press

Thomas, Karen Kruse. 2011. “Race, Biostatistics, and the Development of Public Health.” In Deluxe Jim Crow: Civil Rights and American Health Policy, 1935-1954, 11-16. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Vassar, Ethel. 1939. Interview by Bernice K. Harris. February 23. Folder 475, transcript, in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.