Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2021/Spring/105/Section 87/Vic Streeter

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Overview[edit | edit source]

Vic Streeter was an African American man born in 1897 who founded his own chain of hair salons and hair care products. Cora Lee Bennett interviewed Streeter as part of the Federal Writers' Project in 1939, when he was 42 years old.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life:[edit | edit source]

Vic Streeter
BornAugust 13, 1897
SpouseIla May Brevard (deceased), Mabel Langford

Vic Streeter was born in rural Hartsville, South Carolina on August 13, 1897. He was born into a sharecropping family as an only child and his mother died when he was three. After that, his grandmother cared for him for five years until his father remarried to his step-ma. Streeter's step-ma made a locally popular hair oil that Streeter would later turn into his own. Streeter’s family moved to Desmond, South Carolina where he attended school until third grade, when his father moved back to the farmlands and separated from Streeter's step-ma.

Career:[edit | edit source]

Streeter spent a few months working with his father on the farm, but quickly decided to leave the farm and work around the south. As he grew up, Streeter worked a variety of jobs for white people, including babysitting, reaping oats, construction, bell hopping and chauffeuring. Streeter met his first wife, Ila May Brevard, while working as a cook in Desmond. Brevard was a born and raised city girl who gave birth to their two perpetually ill children. She passed away only a few years after their marriage from an undiagnosed illness. Brevard took a beauty course that she adored before she died, which inspired Streeter to work on his step-ma’s hair oil. Streeter remarried to Mabel Langford six months after Brevard’s death. Streeter continued to work various jobs, including illegally selling whiskey, as he built his hair oil business. After the police caught him selling whiskey and let him off the hook, Streeter decided to stop selling alcohol. Streeter continued building his business with more products for hair and skin and eventually received a Beauty School certificate. Streeter successfully opened nine “Gypsy Caravan” hair salons across the south, named for the beautiful hair of gypsies he saw as a child.[1]

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

African American Employment:[edit | edit source]

For the end of the 19th century leading into the 20th, a majority of the African American population lived in the rural south, the poorest region of the United States. African Americans usually worked for white people in low-skill, low-wage and physically grueling jobs. In rural areas, farming and sharecropping were the most popular occupations.[2] Many African Americans did housekeeping and chores directly under the supervision white landowners. According to author Cheryl Greenberg, "working under the direct supervision of whites, usually white women, proved just as degrading and demoralizing as sharecropping." Black urbanites often fared slightly better in finding less manual labor, but it was still largely common to work for white people in low-paying jobs. As the 20th century progressed, African Americans entered a broader array of higher paying industries and increasingly owned their own businesses within the black community or serving white people. Black people commonly opened grocery stores, hair salons, restaurants, clubs and more.[3]

Hair salons and barber shops in specific were the most profitable black business until the Civil War. They often served as community centers and safe havens for African Americans to discuss politics and local community events. Hair care facilitated strong connections throughout urban communities and contributed to the production and maintenance of hair trends.

During prohibition, a number of black people illegally sold alcohol, commonly either out of entrepreneurship or desperation. During this Jim Crow era (and still today) black people were incarcerated at much higher rates with much higher punishments, making illegal activities extremely risky for African Americans.[4]

Sharecropping:[edit | edit source]

Sharecropping was the most common profession for rural African Americans in the South. In 1910, just over a quarter of African Americans were landowners.[3] Sharecropping was born out of a necessity for the same cheap labor as slavery post-Civil War. Sharecropping consists of a landowner renting their land to a sharecropper who grows crops, usually cash crops like cotton, tobacco and rice. The sharecroppers receive housing and give the landowner a percentage of the harvest in return. Landowners often lent tools and seeds to sharecroppers on credit. This system tied tenants to their plot of land and motivated them to produce the largest possible harvest. According to PBS, "high interest rates, unpredictable harvests, and unscrupulous landlords and merchants often kept tenant farm families severely indebted, requiring the debt to be carried over until the next year or the next.” This system prevented sharecroppers from leaving and seeking better employment elsewhere.

As industrialization and mechanization grew, and the Great Depression swept the nation, sharecropping slowly phased out.[5]

African American Health:[edit | edit source]

Infant and child mortality rates were extremely high in the early 20th century. Mortality rates for black children were 70% higher than white children between the years of 1900-1940. African Americans also had higher overall mortality, which steadily decreased as the 20th century progressed. The main factors that likely played into overall worse health of African Americans were income disparities, difficulty receiving healthcare, and limited access to sanitation facilities and clean housing. According to Douglas Ewbank, "it is clear discrimination limited the access black people had," to the aforementioned factors.[6]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Streeter, V. (1939, May 3). A Race man Through and Through [Interview by 1293901575 953093348 C. Lee Bennett]. Federal Writers' Project, 3909-3926.
  2. Dau-Schmidt, K. G., & Sherman, R. “The Employment And Economic Advancement Of African–Americans In The Twentieth Century” Maurer School of Law: Indiana University. (2013).Https://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2292&context=facpub
  3. 3.0 3.1 Greenberg, Cheryl Lynn. To Ask for an Equal Chance: African Americans in the Great Depression, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/unc/detail.action?docID=466939.
  4. Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, & African American Museum of Boston and Nantucket. (n.d.). Black Entrepreneurs of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. https://www.maah.org/assets/front/pdf/BlackEntrepreneursexhibitguide.pdf
  5. PBS. (n.d.). Sharecropping. https://www.pbs.org/tpt/slavery-by-another-name/themes/sharecropping/
  6. Ewbank, Douglas C. "History of Black Mortality and Health before 1940." The Milbank Quarterly 65 (1987): 100-28. doi:10.2307/3349953.