Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2021/Summer/105/Section 03/Mary Willingham

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Mary Willingham
BornUnknown Date
Clark County, Georgia
NationalityAfrican American
OccupationPractical Nurse

Overview[edit | edit source]

Mary “Mamie” Willingham was interviewed multiple times as part of the Federal Writer’s Project from 1930-1940. She worked as a practical nurse before and during the Great Depression.  

Biography[edit | edit source]

Birth and Childhood[edit | edit source]

Willingham was born into a black family in Clark County, Georgia in 1880, the exact date she is unaware of.[1] She wasn’t raised with much money and worked on a field during her early years. She only received an education up to the second grade, which affected her English. Despite this lack of higher education, she suffered no other noticeable differences.

Adult Life[edit | edit source]

Hospital Bed

When she got older and moved off the farm, she got married to her husband and had two sons and two daughters; she doesn’t remember the date of her marriage. Soon after, she was introduced into the practical nursing field by her sister-in-law where she took care of a white woman. Her diagnosis of a fast pulse was questioned and, although said diagnosis was correct, she was threatened to be fired by her white doctor-in-charge.[2] She continued nursing for many years, getting paid minimal wages and working overtime. She notes that her wages were much less than white nurses despite working longer and harder.[3] Willingham died at an unknown date and location.[4]

Social and Historical Context[edit | edit source]

African American Women in the Working Field[edit | edit source]

New Deal Ad for Women

The Great Depression is most known for kicking white men out of the workforce and for white women filling in those gaps, changing the nuclear family dynamic as white households began taking in two separate wages, as compared to one provided by the man. African American women and women of color, however, have been in the workforce long before the crash. Black households had been living at and below the poverty line with two sources of income for decades, despite all this. The target group that was most negatively and substantially affected by the depression were African American women, however, because these women were losing income and work while also dealing with the stereotypes and discrimination inflicted upon them by society.[5] The New Deal and other associations created to help people reenter the workplace, like the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), prioritized putting women back into traditional roles of domestication, which had previously been dominated by African American women. Because of this, black women lost their jobs, and those spots were filled by white women.[6] These policies focused on women in traditional roles and often excluded women in STEM or in higher fields of work, like practical nursing. This caused women in these jobs to receive little to no financial help and subjected them to the sexist and racist policies of those corporations.

Discrimination in the Medical Field[edit | edit source]

While the medical field was growing in advancements and technology, its roots were heavily founded on racism and values centered around class. Many medical universities were segregated as were hospitals, and wages and working times were distributed unequally favoring white workers and penalizing black workers.[7] African American workers in the medical field were limited to lower-tier jobs while white workers were more seen in higher positions like doctors, attendings, and those in management. The medical field only saw a 2% representation of black workers in the early 1900s, and this number didn’t change much over the course of most of the twentieth century.[8] Not only did the medical field discriminate against African Americans in the field itself, but it also put the general black population of America at risk. Health care was expensive and often times too much for black households to pay for, especially during the time of the stock market crash, and this risked the health of many African Americans. The Tuskegee experiment is a grand example of both discrimination and the health issues African Americans were subjected to. As part of the experiment, approximately 500 poor and illiterate black men were given a placebo cure to Syphilis to see whether or not the placebo would be as effective as actual treatment.[9] These men were not asked for consent and were deceived in terms of their treatment, which was deadly.

African Americans and Great Depression Economics[edit | edit source]

The Great Depression in the 1930s caused the highest rate of unemployment for African Americans, somewhat double or even triple the unemployment rate of white Americans.[10] White women filled roles of domesticity, kicking black women out of jobs, and white men entered back into the work field with high priority over African Americans. Jobs that offered lower salaries, which were often filled by black workers, were taken and given to white workers, leaving the job force with less options, and more jobs that couldn’t sustain households. This caused the unemployment rate for African Americans to rise to around 50 percent.[11] Most New Deal plans and related associations prioritized white workers and put black workers at a significant disadvantage. Many black households lost their two-wage norms and struggled to pay rent and other living expenses, they lost access to affordable medical care, many were starving and in need of basic resources. Relief programs offered little help to African Americans below and at the poverty line, as they mostly focused on white families. These struggling families began moving into rented houses, paying landlords that were cheaper than owning their own houses. This caused approximately four fifths of all African American families to rent out housing.[12]

References[edit | edit source]

[1] Hornsby, Hall, Booth. I Ain’t No Midwife.

[2] lbid

[3] Hornsby, Hall, Booth. Another Version of the Above Interview.

[4] Hornsby, Hall, Booth. A Third Version of the Same Interview.

[5] Ward, Sarah. Women and Work: African American Women in Depression Era America.

[6] lbid

[7] Byrd W.M., Clayton, L.A. “Race, medicine, and health care in the United States: a historical survey.”

[8] lbid

[9] The U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee.

[10] Klein, Christopher. “Last Hired, first fired: how the great depression affected African Americans.”

[11] lbid

[12] Maloney, Thomas. African Americans in the Twentieth Century.

Works Cited[edit | edit source]

Byrd W.M., Calyton W.M., “Race, medicine, and health care in the United States: a historical survey.” Journal of the National Medical Association. 93 (2001): 11S-34S. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2593958/.

Hornsby, Hall, Booth. “Another Version of the Above Interview.” Federal Writers Project Papers. The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Accessed July 19, 2021. https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/03709/id/961/rec/1.

Hornsby, Hall, Booth. “Another Version of the Above Interview.” Federal Writers Project Papers. The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Accessed July 19, 2021. https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/03709/id/958/rec/1.

Hornsby, Hall, Booth. “I Ain't No Midwife.” Federal Writers Project Papers. The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Accessed July 19, 2021. https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/03709/id/868/rec/1.

Klein, Christopher. “Last hired, first fired: how the great depression affected African Americans.” History.com. August 31, 2018. https://www.history.com/news/last-hired-first-fired-how-the-great-depression-affected-african-americans.

Maloney, Thomas. “African Americans in the Twentieth Century.” EH.Net Encyclopedia. January 14, 2002, https://eh.net/encyclopedia/african-americans-in-the-twentieth-century/.

“Tuskegee Study - Timeline - CDC - NCHHSTP.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 22, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/tuskegee/timeline.htm.

Ward, Sarah. "Women and Work: African American Women in Depression Era America" (2018). CUNY Academic Works. https://academicworks.cuny.edu/gc_etds/2625.