Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2013/Spring/Ned Davis

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This page is connected with English 105 at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill - Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories

Barber Shop in Durham, North Carolina in the 1900s

Overview[edit]

Ned Davis, an African American interviewed as part of the Federal Writer’s Project in 1939, grew up in the early 1900s in North and South Carolina. He bounced from job to job, getting meager pay, until finally saving up enough to start his own beauty culture business. He was one of the first African Americans to receive a certificate of ownership of the business from the state.

Biography[edit]

Early Life[edit]

Ned Davis was born in South Carolina on August 13, 1897. He was an only child, and his mother died when he was three. His father was a sharecropper, and soon married another woman. They moved to Desmond, South Carolina and his stepmother enrolled him in school, although he only made it to third grade. His father and stepmother separated after four years, and he and his father moved back to the countryside. His father worked on a farm for white people, while Davis took care of their children, getting paid only in meals. Once older, Davis worked in the fields with his father.

Working Life[edit]

Davis got a job thrashing wheat around the country for about three years, making 75 cents a day. However, he became determined to leave the farm life. He then worked as a cook for a wealthy white family. It was there he met his first wife, Ila May Brevard. Davis then worked as a bellboy in a hotel for about six months until he took a job as a chauffer for white people making $3.50 a week. He married Brevard, and a year later they had their first child. After losing his chauffer job, Davis became a waiter while his wife enrolled in Beauty Culture courses. Brevard suddenly fell ill, but told Davis her dreams of using her Beauty Culture knowledge to open a salon. Davis took an interest as well and developed formulas for hair products, but his wife soon died.

Business Life[edit]

Davis remarried six weeks later to Mabel Langford and began selling his beauty products to make money to set up his own beauty culture business. An agent helped him set it up, where he learned and taught others how to cut and style hair. In 1933, Davis was one of the first African Americans to receive a certificate stating his Negro Beauty School was approved by the state. Eventually he owned and supervised six additional beauty schools throughout the region. Davis then opened up “The Servants Clinic” which taught African Americans valuable trade skills that would make them successful working class citizens. He claimed to be “a race man through and through” [1] in regards to helping out his fellow African Americans in ways that the rest of the country was not.

Social Issues[edit]

Inadequate Education for African Americans[edit]

In the early 1900s, education for blacks was both minimal and appalling. With segregation still ramped in the South, blacks were condemned to only a few, poorly funded schools with scarce resources. Only about 58% of black children in the South between the ages of 6 and 14 attended any level of school. [2] While Davis attended a few years of elementary school, it was clear that moving on to higher education was a very slim possibility. Many black children dropped out early to obtain a working class job. As Margaret Washington, a history professor at Cornell University states, “…black children are forced to work rather than go to school. So even if there was money in the family for shoes and clothing which often there was not, the children were needed in the labor force.” [3] The educational system during the 1900s was not designed to cater to the needs of the many struggling African Americans, so few were encouraged to remain in the academic system.

African American Entrepreneurship[edit]

The grossly inadequate educational system left many African American’s unable to break out of the working class. However, black entrepreneurship appeared and increased throughout the early 1900s in service businesses such as hauling, barbering, and restaurants. [4] However, it was not easy to rise out of the working class into the business world. As Boyd stated, “Black entrepreneurs found it extremely difficult to acquire sound training for business…secure locations on main streets…and generate the cash flow needed.” [5] Nonetheless, many blacks were able to successfully start and keep their own businesses. The success came from protected markets, which Boyd described as “black entrepreneurs providing personal services to other blacks.” [6] Segregation kept white and black businesses from competing, and increased the morale of blacks to only buy from blacks. [7] Davis’ hair salon prospered within the protected market that benefited his race on both sides of the business transaction.

Issues of Historical Production[edit]

The Federal Writer’s Project was a New Deal program initiated by president Franklin D. Roosevelt. [8] It aimed at providing work for thousands of people in the midst of the Great Depression through conducting interviews of citizens. [9] However, many writings, especially those in the Slave Narrative Collection, have had their authenticity questioned. [10] As stated in the article Sterling Brown and the Dialect of New Deal Optimism, “Testimonies were regularly doctored, certain portions deleted without indication in the typescript, and the informant's language altered from draft to draft.” [11] The specific aspect of the “black dialect” has been under criticism, as most of the interviewees were southern whites. Sterling Brown was the head of the Federal Writer’s Project Office of Negro Affairs in 1936 and it was noted that “many of the interviews that reached his office were riddled with exaggerated misspellings and implausible turns of phrase.” [12] Therefore, the authenticity of Davis’ interview can be questioned due to the inaccurate grammar and occasional misspellings.


References[edit]

  1. Davis, Ned. “Race Man Through and Through.” Federal Writer’s Project. UNC Southern Collection. Print. p 1-28.
  2. Ravitch, Diane. “A Different Kind of Education for Black Children.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 30.Winter. (2000-2001): 1-106. JSTOR. Web. 10 April 2013. p 98.
  3. Washington, Margaret. “Obstacles Faced By African Americans.” American Experience. Web. para 1-2.
  4. Boyd, Robert. “Black Business Transformation, Black Well-Being, and Public Policy.” Population Research and Policy Review Journal 9.2. (1990): 117-132. Springer Link. Web. 10 April 2013. p 118.
  5. Boyd, Robert. “Black Business Transformation, Black Well-Being, and Public Policy.” Population Research and Policy Review Journal 9.2. (1990): 117-132. Springer Link. Web. 10 April 2013. p 120.
  6. Boyd, Robert. “Black Business Transformation, Black Well-Being, and Public Policy.” Population Research and Policy Review Journal 9.2. (1990): 117-132. Springer Link. Web. 10 April 2013. p 119.
  7. Boyd, Robert. “Black Business Transformation, Black Well-Being, and Public Policy.” Population Research and Policy Review Journal 9.2. (1990): 117-132. Springer Link. Web. 10 April 2013. p 118.
  8. Brinkley, Douglas. “Unmasking writers of the W.P.A.” New York Times. 2 August 2003. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/08/02/books/unmasking-writers-of-the-wpa.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm. para 1.
  9. Brinkley, Douglas. “Unmasking writers of the W.P.A.” New York Times. 2 August 2003. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/08/02/books/unmasking-writers-of-the-wpa.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm. para 2.
  10. Carmoddy, Todd. “Sterling Brown and the Dialect of New Deal Optimism.” Callaloo Journal 33.3. (Summer 2010): 820-840. Project Muse. Web. 10 April 2013. p 820.
  11. Carmoddy p. 820.
  12. Carmoddy p. 820.