Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2015/Fall/Section 018/LuLu Russeau

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LuLu Russeau
BornApril 15, 1861
Eufaula, Alabama
DiedOctober 15, 1946
Eufaula, Alabama
NationalityChickasaw Indian
OccupationMidwife

Overview[edit]

LuLu Russeau (April 15, 1861 - October 15, 1946) was a midwife from Eufaula, Alabama.

Biography[edit]

LuLu Russeau was born into slavery on April 15, 1861, in Eufaula, Alabama. Russeau's parents were Chickasaw American Indians. Russeau's father died shortly after her birth, leaving her mother to raise her. At the age of five, Russeau was freed from slavery following the Civil War. She and her mother continued to live on their former master's plantation as sharecroppers.

Russeau's mother was a midwife, commonly referred to as a granny, and Russeau became a granny as well. Under her mother, Russeau learned about a wide variety of plants and herbs, which were used to treat certain conditions. She also carried her mother's superstitions into her work, such as the belief that if a man wants his wife to have children, he should throw cow peas into the road1. It is unknown whether Russeau ever married or had children. She worked as a midwife until her death at age 85 on October 15, 1946. She is buried in Pine Grove Cemetery in Eufaula, Alabama2.

Social Issues[edit]

American Indians and Slavery[edit]

The process of enslaving American Indians dates back to the 15th century. French, Spanish, and British colonists utilized the rivalries between the various tribes to gain captives. This system was economically effective for colonists until the rise of the plantation system in Southern agriculture. At this point, slave masters began to notice a need for a more distinct, resilient slave population. American Indians were able to escape and blend in with free Indians from neighboring tribes. Plantation owners turned to African Americans because they were easily distinguishable from free American Indians and were resistant to many epidemics that had wiped out countless numbers of enslaved American Indians.

The use of African American slaves led to a complex system of slavery within the American Indian population. The majority of American Indians were no longer enslaved. However, some remained enslaved until the emancipation of all slaves at the end of the Civil War3. Some freed American Indians enslaved African Americans. Some participated in the capture and return of fugitive slaves. Some provided refuge to these same fugitives. These varying stances further widened the disputes between warring tribes and created conflict within tribes4.

Sharecropping[edit]

At the end of the Civil War, the economy of the South was thrown into disarray. The economy had been largely based around slavery and the plantation system, which were destroyed during the war. As General Sherman, a Union officer, and his troops moved through the South, they granted small plots of land (~40 acres) to the slaves they freed5. However, President Andrew Johnson recalled these land grants as one of the first Reconstruction acts just months after the Civil War ended. Because of this, both freed slaves and plantation owners faced major issues. Freed slaves needed land and jobs, while plantation owners needed a labor force. Sharecropping seemed to be an ideal solution to both problems6.

In the sharecropping system, the tenant (a freed slave) and the landowner reach an agreement. The tenant receives a plot of land from the landowner and must give the landowner a certain percentage of his crop in return. However, this system heavily favored the landlords, giving them the power to send black tenant farmers deep into debt. For example, sharecroppers could not sell crops to other landowners, making it very hard to profit from their work. In this way, plantation owners maintained vast control over former slaves. Very few tenants were able to pay off the landlord and own a plot of land. Additionally, the sharecroppers could not move if they were still indebted to their landlord. The system of sharecropping survived until the 1940s, losing strength as a result of the Great Depression 7.

Midwifery in the South[edit]

Midwifery was one of the most respectable jobs a nonwhite woman could obtain in the post-slavery era. Midwives help women give birth and try to ease the pains of labor. Since enslaved women originally practiced midwifery, it was viewed as a job beneath white women. Midwives often worked with women of all races and classes, even upper class white women8.

However, during the 20th century, physicians worked to discredit the way midwifery was practiced. They advocated for mandatory trainings that would improve the credibility of midwives and make the profession more scientific. They believed many midwives would not have a sufficient education to complete the trainings, which would make them unable to practice. At medical conventions, they lobbied for legislature to be passed regarding these issues. Furthermore, they published articles in The Journal of the American Medical Association and The Journal of the South Carolina Medical Association that questioned the role of midwives in the birthing process. The authority of white males over black women drastically reduced the number of practicing midwives in the U.S. People were much more likely to trust the words of a white, male physician than those of a black woman with little training9.

References[edit]

  1. Interview of LuLu Russeau by Gertha Couric, December 15, 1938 folder 9, 03709: Federal Writers' Project Papers 1936-1940, SHC, Wilson Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  2. Find a Grave – Millions of Cemetery Records.
  3. Rebekah Lee, Race and racism in the United States: an encyclopedia of the American mosaic (Santa Barbara, California: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2014), 1156.
  4. Rebekah Lee, Race and racism in the United States: an encyclopedia of the American mosaic (Santa Barbara, California: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2014), 1157.
  5. Sharecropping (A&E Television Networks, 2015)
  6. Sharecropping (A&E Television Networks, 2015)
  7. Sharecropping (Public Broadcasting Services, 1995)
  8. Gertrude Jacinta Fraser, African American Midwifery in the South: Dialogues of Birth, Race and Memory (Harvard University Press, 1988), 186.
  9. Alicia D. Bonaparte, Physicians’ Discourse for Establishing Authoritative Knowledge in Birthing Work and Reducing the Presence of the Granny Midwife (Journal of Historical Sociology, 2014)