Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2013/Fall/Ethel Vassar
This page is connected with English 105 at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill - Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories
Ethel Vassar was a female African-American cook. She lived in Seaboard, Northampton, North Carolina during the Great Depression and was interviewed as part of the Federal Writers’ Project on February 23, 1939.
Vassar was born to two former slaves and was one of nine children. Vassar’s father worked as a sharecropper to make money until the family’s last child was born. The Vassars used the money they saved to purchase a house with three rooms. They also purchased land over time and used it to raise chickens and grow vegetables. By 1939, the Vassars owned 53 acres of land and grew enough vegetables to use in two meals per day.
As a child, Vassar was instilled with religious values by her father, a Christian. She also held various superstitions and believed in fortune-telling. Her parents often told her stories about their experiences as slaves, causing Vassar to hate slavery strongly. During this time, Vassar did not attend school very often. In 1900, she dropped out of school entirely.
As a young woman, Vassar at one point had a significant other. However, her parents were against their relationship, and Vassar ended up resolving to remain single for the rest of her life. Sometime around 1920, Vassar began working as a cook. From 1920 to 1939, she worked for around six different employers, receiving anywhere from around three to five dollars per week as pay. Vassar prided herself on her work ethic, claiming she was taught to always do her best. She also felt that her work as a cook was underappreciated, citing the long and inflexible work hours as reasons the job was harder than most people thought.
Around 1927, Vassar’s father died. Around this time, Vassar was living with three of her siblings. As two of the siblings were children and the other sibling was disabled, Ethel Vassar became the primary person responsible for earning money for her family. She was also responsible for managing the family finances, paying bills, and purchasing insurance. Vassar struggled from week to week to keep up with the finances, but always managed to do so.
Welfare during the Great Depression
Welfare and other forms of relief became more necessary as the United States entered a depression in the 1930s. However, the requirements for welfare were very restrictive and often excluded people who needed help. For example, able-bodied men were frequently excluded from eligibility, presumably on the basis that they were expected to be able to provide for themselves. The relief offered by the Social Security Act of 1935 was designed to exclude as many people as possible and to minimize the amount of aid offered. Furthermore, the distribution of welfare was discriminatory; in 1931, a report on Mother's Pensions programs (welfare) revealed that 96% of the recipients were white and only 3% of the recipients were black. Vassar encountered difficulties with the welfare system, a point of great frustration for her. As her family owned property, they were told that they were ineligible for welfare, despite their financial struggles.
Racism during the Great Depression
Racism against black people was prevalent in the United States during the Great Depression. Racial discrimination was deeply ingrained in American life and affected almost all aspects of life for its victims. White people were more likely to get a job than an equally qualified black person. This widespread racism was also reflected in the media of the 1930s. A study by Pescosolido et al. found that children’s picture books from the 1930s almost always focused on white characters, with black characters only ever appearing as minor characters who were usually depicted in positions considered inferior, such as slaves or servants. Vassar herself complained about the media’s negative and racist portrayal of black people. She noted that newspapers would always specify race whenever a black person was involved with something negative and considered it a double standard.
Federal Writers' Project
Ethel Vassar’s interview was conducted as part of the Federal Writers’ Project. The Federal Writers’ Project was a program created during the Great Depression as part of the New Deal. The New Deal was a relief initiative that attempted to abate the effects of the Great Depression. The Project hired people to record the life histories of ordinary people. These writers often edited the histories journalistically to appeal to the audience of typical middle-class newspaper readers. The result was that many of the life histories were exaggerated and not reflective of reality. This problem was present in Ethel Vassar’s interview as well. Although the life history is presented as a transcription of Vassar’s own words, the interviewer made some modifications, such as clarifying who certain people were in parentheses. The interviewer commented on the last page that the life history was “a very good Negro cook story”, raising questions about the accuracy of the life history.
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