Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2013/Spring/Odessa Polk

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

African-American woman carrying laundry along roadside between Durham and Mebane, NC.

Overview[edit]

Odessa Polk (1897-?) was an African American woman who lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, during the Great Depression. Polk was interviewed on 9 May 1939 as a part of the Federal Writer’s Project. Her life consisted of constant struggle due to social stigma, poverty, lack of education, and eventually having to raise her three daughters alone.

Biography[edit]

Odessa Polk was an African American woman who was born in 1897 in Charlotte, North Carolina. She was one of fourteen total children from her mother’s two marriages. Polk’s stepfather forced her mother to evict her and her two older siblings in order to better provide for his own children. Polk and her siblings were sent to live with their ailing grandmother. Almost immediately Polk was expected to relinquish school in order to work for sustenance; she was nine years old. She only completed her education through the fifth grade. Upon the death of her grandmother, Polk was forced to move in with her maternal aunt. Their struggle and life of poverty continued as Polk worked alongside her sickly aunt. Soon Polk found herself unexpectedly pregnant with her first child Madelene. Though never wed or financially prepared to raise children, she would have two more daughters- Sarah and Wootsie. She was forced to stop working and rely on her family in order to care for her children. Though determined to give her daughters a better foundation than she had, Polk’s life continued to be affected by poverty, lack of work and access to basic resources like education, medical care and functional housing. Income came sparingly, in the form taking in washing and general “women’s work”. Much to her dismay, none of Polk’s daughters completed a high school education due to unexpected pregnancies at as young an age as 14. All the women remained unwed, forced to continue to live together with their children in a four-room house without electricity, running water, or a bathroom. Polk cited her involvement and devotion to her church as a moral backbone and motivation in her life."[1].

Social Issues[edit]

Black Women in the Workforce[edit]

The Great Depression saw turmoil and unemployment for much of America, causing a reshuffling of who was in the workforce. Many women (including white women) were required to enter the workforce in the limited niches that they were allowed, but “for black women already on the bottom rung, there was no lower step, and they were effectively pushed out of the labor force”. [2] Already marginalized workers due to effects of slavery and racism, Helmbold notes that black women’s rate of decline in the workforce declined “22.6 percent in eleven years”.[3] Industrialization also saw a lot of manual jobs- such as washing- began to become monopolized by big business and pushed out smaller local workers. Marginalized workers, such as black women like Polk, were left with less and less options to support their families financially. This led to poverty levels being especially high among minority individuals.

Lack of Education[edit]

Polk’s inaccessibility to education and early entrance to the workforce was not uncommon in communities during the Great Depression, particularly women and those of colour. Helmbold notes that many young women were forced to stop pursuing education due to the demands of their parents and begin working.[4] School was viewed as a luxury that they could not afford, not a necessary tool for success. This was especially true for children living apart from one or both parents. For those who were able to receive education, Moehling states that children of single-mother families were found to have, on average, worse attendance records and overall grades than children with both parents [McLanahan and Sandefur 1994, 44). [5]

Historical Production[edit]

The Federal Writers’ Project came out of the Works Progress Administration in 1935 as a way to provide work to writers around the country. The employed writers conducted interviews with various peoples, notably former slaves. Ex-slaves were of particular interest in an attempt to record their feelings towards their former masters. However, interviewers often received little if any training and were told to simply record all stories “as nearly word for word as possible” [6]. These instructions were not always strictly followed and some interviewers took creative liberty with their work. It was not uncommon for conversations to be translated into a narrative form, such as Odessa Polk’s interview, that may tarnish the objectivity of such reports. By choosing a narrative style over a standard interview, it makes it more difficult for historians to determine credibility of some interviews.[7]

References[edit]

  1. Polk, Odessa. “Bachelor Mothers.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Southern Collection. Print.
  2. Helmbold, Lois R. “Beyond the Family Economy: Black and White Working-Class Women During the Great Depression.” Feminist Studies 13.3 (1987): 629–655. JSTOR. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3177885>. p.636
  3. Helmbold, Lois R. “Beyond the Family Economy: Black and White Working-Class Women During the Great Depression.” Feminist Studies 13.3 (1987): 629–655. JSTOR. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3177885>. p.636
  4. Helmbold, Lois R. “Beyond the Family Economy: Black and White Working-Class Women During the Great Depression.” Feminist Studies 13.3 (1987): 629–655. JSTOR. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3177885>.
  5. Moehling, Carolyn M. "Family Structure, School Attendance, and Child Labor in the American South in 1900 and 1910." Department of Economics Yale University & National Bureau of Economic Research. Yale University, June 2003. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. p. 9,1.
  6. Soapes, Thomas F. “The Federal Writers’ Project Slave Interviews: Useful Data or Misleading Source.” The Oral History Review 5 (1977): 33–38. JSTOR. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3674886>. p.33
  7. Soapes, Thomas F. “The Federal Writers’ Project Slave Interviews: Useful Data or Misleading Source.” The Oral History Review 5 (1977): 33–38. JSTOR. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3674886>.