Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2021/Summer/105/Section 10/Laura Summey

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Laura Summey
Bornc. 1863
South Carolina
DiedUnknown
OccupationNanny, Washerwoman

Biography[edit | edit source]

Laura Summey was born in South Carolina c. 1863. As a part of the Federal Writers’ Project, she was interviewed by Luline L. Mabry in 1939. At the time of the interview, Summey was approximately 75 years old. Summey was a nanny for most of her life, but after contracting influenza she began to work as a washerwoman in her late age.[1]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Laura Summey was born on a cotton plantation to a slave during the Civil War. Summey had three sisters; she was closest to her younger sister, Josephine Johnson. The sisters’ mother wished for them to pursue an education. However, their stepfather did not allow them to go to school. Due to this decision, none of the sisters were able to learn how to properly read and write.[2] Instead, Summey's stepfather emphasized the importance of his daughters helping in the cotton fields.

Later Life[edit | edit source]

Later in her life, Summey married twice. Her first husband died, and her second husband treated her poorly. The two lived apart but did not pursue a formal separation. Summey's sister (Josephine Johnson) strongly disapproved of Summey’s second husband and his treatment of Summey.[3] Summey’s second husband lived with his brother. She had no children. Summey’s work as a nanny led her to travel to many different cities. One job led Summey to settle in Hendersonville, NC in 1887. A white family hired Summey to nurse their 1-year-old son. However, soon after, her work took her to Pittsburgh for five years.

However, Summey eventually contracted influenza. She decided to move back to Hendersonville to live with her sister Josephine Johnson. Despite her years of travel coming to an end, Summey claimed that she wouldn’t want to live anywhere else but Hendersonville.[4] In 1939, she was interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project. At the time of the interview, Summey and Johnson made a living by “washing and ironing for ‘white fo’ks.’”[5] They washed for six to seven people regularly, each customer paying 75 cents to $1.50 apiece. Since Summey contracted influenza, her sister noted that she was substantially weaker and had little to no appetite.[6] The two sisters hired a woman to help with washing the clothes, as Summey was unable to get in the water without her influenza symptoms resurfacing. At the time of the interview, Summey was pursuing an old age pension, but was unable to attain one. Her date of death is unknown.


Social Issues[edit | edit source]

Race Relations and Discrimination within the Job Market[edit | edit source]

Black Women Washing Clothes.jpg

At the turn of the 20th century, racial discrimination pervaded the job market, spurred on by Jim Crow laws. Discriminatory labor practices affected the type of occupations black Americans were represented in. In the 1900s, there was a circulation of racist beliefs regarding race and occupation. A few historians and economists of the time went so far as to state that nonwhite races were “lazy” and “could not compete,” and therefore did not require labor unions.[7]

Discriminatory practices and institutions were the result of the circulating racist beliefs. In the early 20th century, 16% of white men had higher paying white-collar jobs, compared to 2.7% of black men.[8] Overall, black men had less stable employment and lower wages than white men. For married black men, this disparity resulted in their wives being responsible for contributing financially as well.

This expectation that the married black woman also had to financially contribute resulted in notable statistical differences; nearly five times as many married black women were in the labor market as white married women.[9]

Like black men, black women also faced barriers that limited the range and quality of occupations available to them. In 1940, nearly 60% of employed black women were domestic servants.[10] Race relations between black women and their white employers further contributed to occupational discrimination. White women employers often praised the resilience of black women as a means to justify the exploitation they faced in their work environments.[11]

Racial Disparities in Education[edit | edit source]

Black Children on a Farm.jpg

Education in the late 19th and early 20th century was plagued by many racial disparities. The harvesting of the cotton crop relied on the formal and informal labor of children. Parents had to decide between providing their child an education or letting their child work in the cotton fields.[12] The decisions differed greatly by race. A decrease in the need for labor in the cotton fields resulted in a significant increase in the enrollment of black children in school.[13] In comparison, the lowered need for labor had minimal effect on the enrollment of white children.

The segregation policies in the South were a major contributing factor to the disparities present in the enrollment rates.[14] The quality of education for black and white students were separate, but far from equal. In addition to segregation, the pre-existing racial discrimination in the labor market resulted in the racial inequality of school resources. There were little to no black public high schools in comparison to white public high schools.[15] Education brings social progress; the denial of quality education for black children resulted in a vicious cycle. Inevitably, a large disparity in literacy rates resulted. In 1870, nearly 80% of the black population was illiterate.[16]


Stigma and Racial Trends Surrounding Divorce[edit | edit source]

Despite gaining the right to vote in the early 1900s, the stigma around divorce prevented many women from leaving unhealthy relationships. Divorces only carried through if there was substantial evidence that one partner had committed adultery or abuse. Overall, divorce was strongly discouraged; some states like South Carolina went so far to abolish divorce.[17] In 1940, only 2% of all ever-married women in the United States were divorced.[18]

Race also played a factor in divorce. Historical trends suggested that from 1890 to 1940, black women married earlier and had higher rates of divorce.[19] Social scientists have attributed these differences to a multitude of factors such as “long-run historical influences such as the legacy of slavery,” labor market disparities, and the “additional constraints on the availability of partners for black women.”[20] However, social scientists have admitted that none of these findings concretely account for the differences between black and white marriage. The small amount of data available regarding race and marital separation in the early 20th century is due to the low percentages of divorce in the past, as well as “questionable” early Census records.[21]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. "Folder 595: Mabry, Luline, and Douglas Carter (interviewers): Washin' Foh White Fo'ks :: Federal Writers Project Papers". dc.lib.unc.edu. Retrieved 2021-07-18.
  2. "Folder 595: Mabry, Luline, and Douglas Carter (interviewers): Washin' Foh White Fo'ks :: Federal Writers Project Papers". dc.lib.unc.edu. Retrieved 2021-07-18.
  3. "Folder 595: Mabry, Luline, and Douglas Carter (interviewers): Washin' Foh White Fo'ks :: Federal Writers Project Papers". dc.lib.unc.edu. Retrieved 2021-07-18.
  4. "Folder 595: Mabry, Luline, and Douglas Carter (interviewers): Washin' Foh White Fo'ks :: Federal Writers Project Papers". dc.lib.unc.edu. Retrieved 2021-07-18.
  5. "Folder 595: Mabry, Luline, and Douglas Carter (interviewers): Washin' Foh White Fo'ks :: Federal Writers Project Papers". dc.lib.unc.edu. Retrieved 2021-07-18.
  6. "Folder 595: Mabry, Luline, and Douglas Carter (interviewers): Washin' Foh White Fo'ks :: Federal Writers Project Papers". dc.lib.unc.edu. Retrieved 2021-07-18.
  7. Hill, Herbert (1996). "The Problem of Race in American Labor History". Reviews in American History 24 (2): 189–208. ISSN 0048-7511. https://www.jstor.org/stable/30030646. 
  8. Margo, Robert A. (1990-01-01). The Competitive Dynamics of Racial Exclusion: Employment Segregation in the South, 1900 to 1950 (in en). https://www.nber.org/books-and-chapters/race-and-schooling-south-1880-1950-economic-history/competitive-dynamics-racial-exclusion-employment-segregation-south-1900-1950. 
  9. "Black women’s labor market history reveals deep-seated race and gender discrimination". Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved 2021-07-20.
  10. Cunningham, James S.; Zalokar, Nadja (1992). "The Economic Progress of Black Women, 1940-1980: Occupational Distribution and Relative Wages". Industrial and Labor Relations Review 45 (3): 540–555. doi:10.2307/2524277. ISSN 0019-7939. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2524277. 
  11. Cunningham, James S.; Zalokar, Nadja (1992). "The Economic Progress of Black Women, 1940-1980: Occupational Distribution and Relative Wages". Industrial and Labor Relations Review 45 (3): 540–555. doi:10.2307/2524277. ISSN 0019-7939. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2524277. 
  12. Baker, Richard B. (2015/12). "From the Field to the Classroom: The Boll Weevil's Impact on Education in Rural Georgia". The Journal of Economic History 75 (4): 1128–1160. doi:10.1017/S0022050715001515. ISSN 0022-0507. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-economic-history/article/abs/from-the-field-to-the-classroom-the-boll-weevils-impact-on-education-in-rural-georgia/7C207997DC2535174FCD3E14ACB17698. 
  13. Baker, Richard B. (2015/12). "From the Field to the Classroom: The Boll Weevil's Impact on Education in Rural Georgia". The Journal of Economic History 75 (4): 1128–1160. doi:10.1017/S0022050715001515. ISSN 0022-0507. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-economic-history/article/abs/from-the-field-to-the-classroom-the-boll-weevils-impact-on-education-in-rural-georgia/7C207997DC2535174FCD3E14ACB17698. 
  14. Walters, Pamela Barnhouse (2001). "Educational Access and the State: Historical Continuities and Discontinuities in Racial Inequality in American Education". Sociology of Education 74: 35–49. doi:10.2307/2673252. ISSN 0038-0407. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2673252. 
  15. Walters, Pamela Barnhouse (2001). "Educational Access and the State: Historical Continuities and Discontinuities in Racial Inequality in American Education". Sociology of Education 74: 35–49. doi:10.2307/2673252. ISSN 0038-0407. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2673252. 
  16. "National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL)". nces.ed.gov. Retrieved 2021-07-18.
  17. Funk, Kellen (2009). ""LET NO MAN PUT ASUNDER": SOUTH CAROLINA'S LAW OF DIVORCE, 1895–1950". The South Carolina Historical Magazine 110 (3/4): 134–153. ISSN 0038-3082. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25745981. 
  18. "Divorce: More than a Century of Change, 1900-2018". Bowling Green State University. Retrieved 2021-07-18.
  19. Raley, R. Kelly; Sweeney, Megan M.; Wondra, Danielle (2015). "The Growing Racial and Ethnic Divide in U.S. Marriage Patterns". The Future of children / Center for the Future of Children, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation 25 (2): 89–109. ISSN 1054-8289. PMID 27134512. PMC 4850739. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4850739/. 
  20. Raley, R. Kelly; Sweeney, Megan M.; Wondra, Danielle (2015). "The Growing Racial and Ethnic Divide in U.S. Marriage Patterns". The Future of children / Center for the Future of Children, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation 25 (2): 89–109. ISSN 1054-8289. PMID 27134512. PMC 4850739. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4850739/. 
  21. Preston, Samuel H.; Lim, Suet; Morgan, S. Philip (1992). "African-American Marriage in 1910: Beneath the Surface of Census Data". Demography 29 (1): 1–15. doi:10.2307/2061359. ISSN 0070-3370. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2061359. 

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

Baker, Richard B. "From the Field to the Classroom: The Boll Weevil's Impact on Education in Rural Georgia." The Journal of Economic History 75, no. 4 (2015): 1128-160. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43917529.

Banks, Nina. "Black Women's Labor Market History Reveals Deep-seated Race and Gender Discrimination." Economic Policy Institute. February 19, 2019. https://www.epi.org/blog/black-womens-labor-market-history-reveals-deep-seated-race-and-gender-discrimination/.

Cunningham, James S., and Nadja Zalokar. "The Economic Progress of Black Women, 1940-1980: Occupational Distribution and Relative Wages." Industrial and Labor Relations Review 45, no. 3 (1992): 540-55. doi:10.2307/2524277.

Folder 595: Mabry, Luline, and Douglas Carter (interviewers): Washin' Foh White Fo'ks, in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Funk, Kellen. ""LET NO MAN PUT ASUNDER": SOUTH CAROLINA'S LAW OF DIVORCE, 1895–1950." The South Carolina Historical Magazine 110, no. 3/4 (2009): 134-53. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25745981.

Hill, Herbert. "The Problem of Race in American Labor History." Reviews in American History 24, no. 2 (1996): 189-208. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30030646.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, [LC-USF34-043961-D]

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, [LC-USW3-011058-C]

Margo, Robert. "The Competitive Dynamics of Racial Exclusion: Employment Segregation in the South, 1900-1950." National Bureau of Economic Research, 1990. doi:10.3386/h0014.

"National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL)." National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education. https://nces.ed.gov/naal/lit_history.asp.

Schweizer, Valerie. "Divorce: More than a Century of Change, 1900-2018." Bowling Green State University. 2020. https://www.bgsu.edu/ncfmr/resources/data/family-profiles/schweizer-divorce-century-change-1900-2018-fp-20-22.html.

Tucker, Susan. "A Complex Bond: Southern Black Domestic Workers and Their White Employers." Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 9, no. 3 (1987): 6-13. doi:10.2307/3346254.

Walters, Pamela Barnhouse. "Educational Access and the State: Historical Continuities and Discontinuities in Racial Inequality in American Education." Sociology of Education74 (2001): 35-49. doi:10.2307/2673252.