Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2021/Spring/105/Section 88/Marguerite Clark

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Marguerite Clark
BornApprox. 1889
New Orleans, Louisiana
NationalityAfrican American
OccupationHouse Chef
SpouseBuster Clark

Overview[edit | edit source]

The purpose of this Wikiversity page is to convey the life of Marguerite Clark through primary source information gathered by Robert McKinney who was part of the Federal Writer's Project in 1939.[1] Marguerite Clark was an African American chef during the Great Depression for a wealthy white woman in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Childhood[edit | edit source]

Zion Travelers Baptist Church in modern-day.

Marguerite Clark was an African American woman born in 1889 on Sixth Street of New Orleans, Louisiana. She was born to a single mother, Marguerite Wilson who raised her with little to no help. Marguerite Wilson was very religiously active within Zion Traveler's Baptist Church and she was also a cook for a wealthy white woman named Miss Graves. Clark's mother's presence influenced her throughout her childhood in numerous ways. One of which is her faith. Clark's faith was instilled in her at a young age because she encouraged her to attend Sunday school weekly which eventually led Clark to kneel by the side of her bed and pray nightly. Her mothers job as a cook for Miss Graves also influenced her life because it forced them to be stationed in a cluttered and unkept bedroom of the home. This led Clark to work as a homemaker at a very young age. This affected Clark's schooling because she only obtained a 3rd-grade education in order to help her mother around the house that they were staying in.

Adult Life and Career[edit | edit source]

Clark’s mother became very ill in the year 1925 which led Marguerite to fill the position as a full-time chef for Miss Graves and she soon became her maid as well. While working for Miss Graves, she had numerous encounters with men who were fond of her. She ended up marrying an African American man named Buster Clark. Buster struggled to maintain a job because of his lazy personality and lack of work ethic. Consequently, Clark became the main provider for the family. They lived in a 3 bedroom home together and paid $10 per month in rent. Marguerite had to spend a lot of her time and money caring for Buster as well as her ill mother and she often struggled to provide for them while receiving a little wage. However, it became easier for Clark to provide for her family once she was given the opportunity to work as a chef for wealthy white families. One of which was a woman named Mrs. Jacobs. Despite the increase in pay from her new hire with Mrs. Jacobs, Marguerite still struggled to provide food for her family. Marguerite threatened to quit her job for Mrs. Jacobs if she would not allow her to bring home the pots and pans of food to her family. Mrs. Jacobs decided that she couldn’t afford to lose Clark, so she allowed Marguerite to bring the pans home every night. After a few months of working for Mrs. Jacobs, Marguerite’s mother passed away, leaving her and Buster with no remaining family. Despite the misfortunes that Marguerite had to experience, she admitted, “I got what I want. A lil’ home, a good job. And to tell the truth, I done got used to a triflin’ man. If he’d change now I'd be sorry.” [1] Although Marguerite was married to a "triflin'" man, Buster eventually became part of theWorks Progress Administration which allowed him to obtain a job and receive income for himself and Clark. Very little is known about Clark after the time of her interview with Robert Mckinney when she was roughly 47 years of age.

Historical and Social Context[edit | edit source]

The W.P.A. and its Effect on African Americans[edit | edit source]

The Works Progress Administration (W.P.A) was put into effect from 1935-1943 by the U.S. government to cope with the mass unemployment generated by the Great Depression.[2] The WPA employed over three million unemployed individuals across the U.S. who were certified as "needy" or referred by local relief agencies.[2] Some of the jobs in which the government provided for W.P.A. members were projects such as constructing infrastructure in the form of parks, roads, schools, and bridges. African American individuals were typically excluded from participating in these projects prior to the W.P.A. which opened up numerous opportunities for African Americans.

The Worker's Alliance of America partnered with the W.P.A. to ensure that each worker was treated as an independent citizen and not as a dependent individual requiring supervision.[2] Although the W.P.A. improved opportunities for African Americans, racial prejudice and inequality continued to be present through unequal pay and fear of losing their jobs because W.P.A. jobs were dominantly run by white males.

Flyer advertising theatre performances presented by WPA workers

Lack of Access to Education for Minorities[edit | edit source]

Educational access for people of color was limited up until the late 20th century when Brown v. Board of Education came into effect and allowed people of color to integrate into schools with students of other races.

Up until the point of Brown v. Board being released, a large contributing factor that caused many African American children to not have the fortune of obtaining a proper education stemmed from income. African American families tended to be very poor during the Great Depression due to a lack of equal opportunity.[3] This caused several children to drop out of school to help provide for their families by working menial jobs.

Not only was there an overall stigma for African Americans attending school, but more specifically, the intersectionality of an African American female had even more to withstand. In the 20th century, it wasn’t necessarily common for females to have a high level of education and they were expected to be doing housework. This often contributed to inequality through societal gender norms.[4]

Inequality in Aid for African American Women[edit | edit source]

African Americans were given the least amount of assistance and aid in both finding jobs and receiving fair pay during the Great Depression. After Jim Crow Laws were put into effect, African Americans were belittled and viewed as less valuable than their white counterparts when they were searching for jobs to obtain.[5] Another factor that added onto the stress of finding a job for several African American individuals was the location where they were stationed. It is increasingly more difficult to obtain a job as a minority in heavily populated cities or towns.[6] More specifically, women were harshly discriminated against because they were seen to have a specific field of work. Most of the positions for hire during the Great Depression for women were considered menial or domesticated jobs[7] which included cooking, cleaning, teaching, sewing and numerous forms of housework. While these are important, this position of work has little to no room for “moving up” or obtaining a higher salary.[7] This caused women to have a lack of hope as they continued to struggle to provide for themselves and their children.[4]

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Robert McKinney, interview.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Goldberg, "Contesting the Status of Relief Workers during the New Deal: The Workers Alliance of America and the Works Progress Administration, 1935-1941."
  3. Canaday and Tamura,“White discrimination in provision of black education: Plantations and towns
  4. 4.0 4.1 Rotondi, “Underpaid But Employed: How the Great Depression Affected Working Women
  5. Brandt and Reyna, “To Love or Hate Thy Neighbor: The Role of Authoritarianism and Traditionalism in Explaining the Link Between Fundamentalism and Racial Prejudice
  6. Boyd,Self-Employment, and Labor Absorption: Black and White Women in Domestic Service in the Urban South during the Great Depression”
  7. 7.0 7.1 Lynch, “African American Life during the Great Depression and the New Deal.

References[edit | edit source]

Interview, Robert McKinney interviewing Marguerite Clark, folder 271, Coll. 03709, Federal Writers' Project Papers, 1936-1940, Southern Historical Collection, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Boyd, Robert L. “Race, Self-Employment, and Labor Absorption: Black and White Women in Domestic Service in the Urban South during the Great Depression.” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 71, No. 3 (2012): 639-661, https://www.jstor.org/stable/23245192?seq=1.

Brandt, Mark and Christine Reyna. “To Love or Hate Thy Neighbor: The Role of Authoritarianism and Traditionalism in Explaining the Link Between Fundamentalism and Racial Prejudice.” Advances in Political Psychology, Volume 35, Issue 2 (2013): 207-223, https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12077

Canaday, Neil and Robert Tamura. “White discrimination in provision of black education: Plantations and towns.” Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control, Volume 33, Issue 7 (2009): 1490-1530, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jedc.2009.02.012

Goldberg, Chad Alan. "Contesting the Status of Relief Workers during the New Deal: The Workers Alliance of America and the Works Progress Administration, 1935-1941." Social Science History 29, no. 3 (2005): 337-71. Accessed March 23, 2021. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40267880

Lynch, Hollis. “African American Life during the Great Depression and the New Deal.” Last modified August 17, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/topic/African-American/African-American-life-during-the-Great-Depression-and-the-New-Deal

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