Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Fall/Selema Mills
Selema Mills worked as a house maid in different parts of North Carolina. She was interviewed for the Federal Writers' Project by Adyleen G. Merrick in 1939.
Selema Mills was an African American woman who grew up in the town of Tryon, located in Polk County, North Carolina. She was an only child and lived as a field hand with her mother, Maria Mills, and father, George Mills. When Mills was young, her father left for seven years. Their boss gave her father money and told him to run for unknown reasons. After he came back, he told Mills stories about his travels. Mills once overheard her father tell her mother not to punish Mills anymore. When Mills was a teenager, her father died. Her mother remarried a white man and the two of them sent Mills to work for a family. Every Saturday, her mother came and took her pay and gave her two sticks of peppermint candy. Mills eventually decided she did not want to give away her pay and ran away from the house in which she worked.
Soon after running away, she married Leelie. After she had her first son, Jessie, she began to have marital problems with Leelie. She was able to get a divorce with the help of her white neighbors. After she divorced Leelie, she moved in with her mother and had her second son, Paul. Mills later married John. They had a fine life together; he was able to work and bring home food for her and the kids. John however, was involved in a drunk driving accident and died with Mills at his hospital bed. After being widowed, Mills married her childhood sweetheart, Clarence. He did not have a job and while Mills was working with Miss. Maude, Clarence would take care of the house. He soon asked Mills for the house deed to be put in his name. Mills divorced him and kept her house and the kids because she wanted a husband who could make something of himself. She took care of her kids in the house that she owned and did not remarry afterwards. She made a living for herself doing odd jobs for white families and was able to sustain herself and her kids.
African Americans and Jobs
Throughout The Great Depression there was a high unemployment rate. The first people to be let go from jobs were African Americans. This has been a case in most economic situations, especially that of the 1930s. Most men held high paying jobs and due to discrimination these jobs were first preserved primarily for Caucasian males. This discrimination resulted in the loss of jobs by most African American males. Women had fewer jobs during this time period and even more were lost. A few women were able to gain work during the Great Depression however as cheap labor in factories or doing odd jobs such as babysitting, gardening or cooking for those who could afford to hire extra help. As difficult as it was to work against the discrimination and hard economic times, Mills was able to find employment as a housewife and earned enough to sustaining herself and her family.
The Great Depression was the first time that most women went looking for work and needed to work in order to make ends meet. During the 1930s, not only were women in the middle and lower classes working, but they were joined by women from the upper class. Women began to make up a greater majority of the labor force. In many cases women brought home much of the money during the Great Depression this caused many marital problems because prior to the 1930s it was the man’s job to bring home the food and money while the women cooked and took care of the kids at home. During the Great Depression women took over the role of the man and continued to do their domestic jobs. Mills was able to provide for her family when her husbands could not; this caused marital problems, mainly due to the lack of income from her spouses, and ultimately resulted in divorce.
Federal Writers' Project
Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the New Deal in an attempt to restore the American Economy after the Great Depression. One program specifically designed by the New Deal to help writers gain work was The Federal Writer’s Program (FWP). The project sent writers across the United States to interview everyday Americans to collect stories that “they could [use to] build a national culture on diversity." Many of the articles written were on African Americans which promoted the diversity aspect of the FWP.
Most writers did not find the jobs provided by the FWP to be worthy of their talents but due to the lack of money they had otherwise the writers took on the job. They were paid per article which resulted in most writers being “ready to tell whatever lies were required to obtain a pauper’s certificate." The high demand for money pushed writers to finish their interviews quickly and move onto another. The resulting stories were often more fictional than historically accurate. Adyleen G. Merrick was the writer who interviewed Selema Mills in 1939. On the first page of the interview, there is a handwritten note by Merrick that states, “straighten sequence of husbands." The validity of the interview drops significantly, due to this note, because it is not known whether or not the paper was ever changed. Selema Mills’ interview might not be as historically accurate as it was thought to be.
- Mills, Selema. “Flowers Sweeten the Road.” Federal Writer’s Project. University of North Carolina Southern History Collection. 20 April 1939. Digital. p. 3-13
- Hardman, John. "The Great Depression and the New Deal." Stanford Edge. Oxford University Press, 26 July 1999. Web. 11 Nov. 2013. p.18-22
- Helmbold, Lois R. "Beyond the Family Economy: Black and White Working-Class Women during the Great Depression." Feminist Studies 13.3 (1987): 629-55. JSTOR. Web. 11 Nov. 2013. p. 629-655
- Humphries, J. "Women: Scapegoats and Safety Valves in the Great Depression." Review of Radical Political Economics 8.1 (1976): 98-121. SAGE Journals. Web. 11 Nov. 2013. p. 98-121
- Brinkley, Douglas. "Unmasking Writers Of the W.P.A." The New York Times. The New York Times, 02 Aug. 2003. Web. 11 Nov. 2013. p.4
- Mangione, Jerre. The Dream and the Deal. Syracuse: Syracuse University, 1996. Google Scholar. Web. 11 Nov. 2013. p.156
- Mills, Selema. “Flowers Sweeten the Road.” Federal Writer’s Project. University of North Carolina Southern History Collection. 20 April 1939. Digital. p.3