Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2015/Fall/Section 018/Rosa Lee Johnson

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Overview[edit]

Rosa Lee Johnson was an African-American cook and maid in Ozark, Alabama during the early 20th century.

Biography[edit]

Early Life[edit]

Rosa Lee Johnson (maiden name Smith) was born in Waycross, Georgia in the early 1900s to the Smith family. She was one of sixteen children. Her exact date of birth is unknown. She attended school for a few years in Waycross, but later moved to Camilla, Georgia to harvest cotton and corn. Johnson and her family farmed on halves, a form of sharecropping. A white man provided the land, mules, and fertilizer, while Johnson and her family conducted the labor work. In addition to farming, Johnson took care of young children in the house and did housework for the owners. At the age of 12 or 13, Johnson married and became a tenant farmer with her husband. They had no children together, as her husband died a year after marriage. Johnson then moved to Ozark, Alabama, where she remarried and had one child.

Career and Later Life[edit]

In Alabama, Johnson was hired by the Barnes family to regularly cook and clean at an income of $2.50 a week. She lived in the back of Mr. Mac Pippin's house with six others - her son, nephew, and other laborers. Here, Johnson and the other domestic labor workers were required to pay $4.00 - $5.50 a month for rent. The conditions were primitive, as hydrant water and electricity were not provided. Johnson worked from early sunrise into the late afternoon, cooking every meal for the family and cleaning up the household. She typically made the beds, swept the porch and sidewalk, and fixed up the rooms. Every Sunday, Johnson enjoyed attending the Methodist Church. She had no interest in government regulations such as voting or the law.

The remaining events of Rosa Lee Johnson's life are unknown, as is her date of death.

Social Issues[edit]

Women Working Conditions in the Early 20th Century[edit]

Early in the 20th century, women began transitioning occupations from agricultural labor to domestic household work. As Johnson discovered, it became evident that the working conditions in households were much more favorable than farms. The hours were better, food was regularly provided, and there was no worry of cruel weather conditions. According to the U.S. Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, from 1910-1920, the number of women working on farms or in agricultural pursuits decreased from 1,051,137 to 612,261 (41.8 percent). During the same time, the percentage of domestic and household employees jumped from 42.2 percent to 50.3 percent.[1]

Even though the household setting was better, housemaid working conditions were still segregated. Black maids were not able to use their white employer’s toilet, nor able to enter homes through the front door. They were not given a living wage and were called by their first names while having to address their employers as ‘mister’ and ‘misses’.[2] Working hours ranged from about eight to twelve hours per day, with the largest number of women working ten hours per day.[3]

African-American Women in the Post-Civil War Era[edit]

Ideas of race and racial relations in the United States remained the same throughout the early 20th century. African-Americans were still looked down upon as being inferior to whites, as issues of racial injustice remained present. Following the Civil War, Reconstruction called for legal equality, but only in the North. When the South returned to self-rule, and a severe economic depression took place, Jim Crow laws were mandated. These laws called for strict segregation of the races. Black domestic workers had taken the place of the once-known slaves. The segregated system became a cultural norm, even though conditions and expectations were similar to that of the 19th century.

The Domestic Workers’ Union, (in response to the U.S. Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor) championed a slogan that said “Unite for adequate pay, humane hours, and healthful working conditions."

The majority of African-American women ultimately became housemaids in white households. After World War II, the modernized idea of womanhood and the formation of a gender hierarchy labeled African-American women as inferior matrons.[4] This led to the rising of paternalism, when people in positions of authority restrict the freedom and responsibilities of others, in which a master-servant relationship resulted.[5] In 1940, for example, 60 percent of all African-American women workers were domestic servants; by 1967 the number had declined to 24.5 percent, and by 1980, it declined to merely 7.5 percent.[6] Physical separation of the races was not the goal, the drawing of boundaries defined by race was. This system did not degrade women, as relationships were formed by love rather than hate. Conflict was prevented as whites saw themselves as caretakers who provided for the needs of their workers.[7]

  1. "One-Half Employed Women found in Domestic Service." Afro-American (1893-1988), Apr 19, 1930.
  2. Brown, Jeanette. Families in the Jim Crow South Review. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012.
  3. "One-Half Employed Women found in Domestic Service." Afro-American (1893-1988), Apr 19, 1930.
  4. Mullings, Leith. On Our Own Terms: Race, Class, and Gender in the Lives of African-American Women. New York: Routledge, 1997.
  5. Van Wormer, Katherine, Jackson, David W., I.,II, and Charletta Sudduth. "What we can Learn of History from Older African American Women Who Worked as Maids in the Deep South." Western Journal of Black Studies. Washington State University Press: Winter, 2013.
  6. Mullings, Leith. On Our Own Terms: Race, Class, and Gender in the Lives of African-American Women. New York: Routledge, 1997.
  7. Van Wormer, Katherine, Jackson, David W., I.,II, and Charletta Sudduth. "What we can Learn of History from Older African American Women Who Worked as Maids in the Deep South." Western Journal of Black Studies. Washington State University Press: Winter, 2013.