Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Fall/Gretchen Branch
This page is connected with English 105 at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill - Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories
Born around 1913, Gretchen Branch pursued a short-lived career as a performer before becoming a teacher. She was interviewed on May 30th, 1939 by Nancy T. Robinson for the North Carolina Section of the Federal Writers’ Project.
Gretchen Branch was born approximately in 1913 in Phaetonville, North Carolina to impoverished Presbyterian, African American parents. She had two sisters, as well as one brother who passed away when he was only three days old. From a young age, she showed great interest in learning how to play the violin. Branch took violin lessons up till her final year of high school, and continued to practice playing the instrument for years onwards. After graduation, she enrolled in Hillsdale College at age fifteen with a $150 scholarship. During her time there, Branch frequently engaged in prohibited or discouraged conduct, such as sneaking out on dates with a classmate she met in choir. Branch actively participated in the choir, but was denied the opportunity to travel with the other members on their trip abroad, supposedly because she was not old enough at the time. Soon afterwards, she was expelled for purposely missing a choir concert in which she had solos, and subsequently enrolled in a Midwestern state school with more lax regulations. At her new college, Branch continued to exhibit disorderly behavior, but nevertheless graduated with honors and received a music scholarship to study in New York.
In New York, Branch auditioned for and received a role in a production of “The Blackbirds.” When her contract expired, after much prodding from her mother, Branch gave up on her career as a performer and began teaching at what she called an out-of-state “mining section.” However, Branch was forced to resign after the poor air quality there took its toll on her health. Next, she taught for two years at a school in Wormly. While she worked there, the principal often harassed and attempted to make sexual advancements on Branch and her female colleagues. She later left and accepted a job teaching music at a state university in the far south. Branch remained unmarried at the time she was interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project, declaring that she hoped to settle down, get married, and start a family after she had gone far enough in her career, and enjoyed her life to the fullest.
Since the late 19th century, progressive reforms had begun to make their way into the public education system. Under these reforms, “more and more teachers honored the boundless curiosity and liveliness of the kids.” Additionally, instructors “were advised to be kind and patient, counseling rather than berating the troublemakers.” Under progressive education, Branch’s interest in music would have been encouraged by her teachers, and her rambunctious behavior would have been tolerated more as well.
In the first few decades of the 20th century, women were making notable gains toward equality. However, their “gains were mainly in the ‘feminized’ areas of teaching and nursing, natural extensions of women’s nurturing functions.” Branch too, despite originally pursuing a career as a performer, eventually made a living from teaching.
One particular advancement toward equality made during the 1920s was the growing approval of single women holding jobs. Nevertheless, marriage remained the main expectation and goal of young women, and most stopped working after marriage. “Married women faced discrimination in fields other than federal employment. In 1930-31 the National Educational Association’s survey of some 1500 cities found that 77% of the cities did not employ married women as new teachers and in more than 50% of the cities a woman teacher was dismissed as soon as she married.” When she was interviewed, Branch declared that she was not interested in marriage at the moment, but still hoped to settle down and raise a family one day. She ultimately felt compelled to obey cultural expectations, but nonetheless wished to first live her life and advance in her career without being inhibited by marriage.
Issues of Historical Production
The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) was one of several New Deal organizations that were created to revitalize the American economy during the Great Depression. Writers from all walks of life were employed “to present a total picture of American Life.” Interviewing Americans such as Branch on their life histories was one way the FWP attempted to accomplish its goal. However, the FWP has been criticized for not properly describing America during the Great Depression, namely by not accurately reproducing the interviews. Indeed, one FWP editor declared “he would review all outgoing communications so as to stop any that might create antagonism.”  Thus, interviews may have been greatly altered, even romanticized to illustrate a more ideal image of America.
In Branch’s case, no quotations are used in the record of her interview, which throws into question how much of Branch’s words were actually preserved. Her interviewer, Nancy T. Robinson, even openly declared that all individuals mentioned in the interview had their names changed. The use of southern vernacular is more apparent in certain parts of the interview than it is in others, implying that there were times when the interviewer attempted to minimize the use of regional dialects to avoid racial stereotypes. Additionally, Robinson seems to emphasize one of Branch’s statements in which Branch states that she feels the issues of racism are overstated, even though as an African American living in the south, Branch would be among those expected to suffer from racism the most.
- Branch, Gretchen. “Work, Play, and Luck.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina Southern History Collection. Print. p. 10
- Hampel, Robert L. “Educational Reform during the Great Depression.” Encyclopedia of Educational Reform and Dissent. SAGE knowledge. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.
- Benner, Louise. “Women in the 1920s in North Carolina.” NCpedia. NCpedia. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.
- Humphries, Jane. “Women: Scapegoats and Safety Valves in the Great Depression.” Review of Radical Political Economics 8.1 (1978): 98-121. SAGE journals. Web. 21 Nov. 2013. p. 102
- Humphries, Jane. “Women: Scapegoats and Safety Valves in the Great Depression.” Review of Radical Political Economics 8.1 (1978): 98-121. SAGE journals. Web. 21 Nov. 2013. p. 107
- Fox, Daniel M. “Achievement of the Federal Writer’s project.” American Quarterly 13.1 (1961): 3-19. JSTOR. Web. 21 Nov. 2013. p. 5
- Mangione, Jerre. The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers' Project, 1935-1943. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996. Google Books. Web. 21 Nov. 2013. p. 61