Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2016/Spring/Section 021/Rosa Lee Johnson

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Rosa Lee Johnson
BornUnknown
Waycross, Georgia
DiedUnknown
NationalityAmerican
OccupationCook, Maid
ReligionChristianity

Overview[edit]

Rosa Lee Johnson was an African American maid and cook living in Ozark, Alabama when she was interviewed as a part of the Federal Writers' Project.

Early Life[edit]

Dale County Alabama Incorporated and Unincorporated areas Ozark Highlighted

Rosa Lee Johnson was born in Waycross, Georgia, one of sixteen children. Her father worked in the turpentine industry, but later became a sharecropper who cultivated corn and cotton. Johnson wasn't sure whether she had gone to school past the third, fourth, or fifth grade. From her brief schooling, she obtained a basic level of reading comprehension. Johnson was married when she was only twelve or thirteen years old, but her first husband passed away after only a few years. She later moved from Georgia to Alabama and remarried, but later she claimed that her second marriage was an unhappy, as her husband often cheated on her. Though she would have liked to get a divorce, she was aware that it would cost her financially, and that was something that she was not willing to do.

Life in Alabama[edit]

Johnson lived much of her adult life as an African American cook and maid in Ozark, Alabama. She worked for a woman named Laura Barnes, who lived on Eufaula Street, in the middle of town. Johnson lived a modest lifestyle in Ozark. Each day she would wake up at 5:30, go to her boss’s house to make breakfast, clean the house, prepare dinner, and get back home by 2pm. Johnson lived in a four-room house with her son and her nephew. There was no electricity, and no plumbing. For these accommodations, Johnson paid $4.00 a month. She was paid $2.50 a week by her employer, Mrs. Barnes[1]. Though she did not have very much money, she remarked that she was comfortable with her living situation, as she wouldn’t know what to do with a lot of money if she had it.

Social Issues[edit]

Jim Crow in the American South[edit]

Johnson lived during the prime of the Jim Crow years in the American South, when race relations were particularly strained. She was never given the opportunity to vote, but she expressed negative sentiment towards whites who would get flustered by politics in the town square near the courthouse. In a response to a rising number of African American voters in the South at the turn of the century, state legislatures across the South disenfranchised black voters with discriminatory tactics such as poll taxes. In Louisiana for example, "there were 130,344 Negro voters in 1896, but only 1,342 by 1904"[2]. Johnson did not have any issues with the local authorities. Getting into trouble with the law was a likely possibility and constant threat for African Americans during the Jim Crow years because, "very often when a crime is committed in the U.S.A., dark-skinned persons tend to predominate among those rounded up by the police as 'suspect'. Sometimes such round-ups are not hinged upon any crime, but are designed to drive reluctant workers into the arms of planters and other employers at sub-standard wages" [3]. The threat of incarceration was something that the authorities would use in order to subjugate African Americans in the South. Because of her desire to stay out of trouble, Johnson said she occasionally drank liquor, but it was only on rare occasion, and otherwise, she tried to refrain from any vices. Johnson liked to attend her Methodist church on Sunday, particularly because she liked to pray, sing, and socialize. In her free time, Johnson would go to a “picture show” in town, where she was forced to sit in the balcony, and if she or any of the other people sitting in the balcony were loud, they would all be kicked out. The system of segregation and oppression was constant during Johnson's life, but it was something that was normal to her.

A Sharecropper Home in Alabama

The Great Depression[edit]

While the Great Depression held serious consequences for millions of Americans, it was particularly difficult for the African American community living in the Jim Crow South. In the city of New Orleans for example, federal officials reported that after the stock market crash of 1929, "black families accounted for 65 percent of the total number of relief families and 50 percent of the local jobless people"[4]. Jim Crow laws during the depression made it increasingly difficult for African Americans to find and maintain jobs. Because blacks were treated as second class citizens, they were unable to compete with white men for any job vacancies. African Americans were already limited as to what jobs were socially acceptable for them to do, and many of the jobs that were formerly open to blacks, "now went to whites, and blacks never got them back" [5]. The disproportional rate of African Americans who were unemployed in the South during the Great Depression can be explained by the prejudice of the Jim Crow system where employers discriminated potential employees due to race.

Death[edit]

The date of Johnson's death is unknown.

References[edit]

  1. Barnard, George. A Negro Cook's Day, folder 1, Federal Writers Project, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. Kennedy, Stetson. Jim Crow Guide to the U.S.A. : The Laws, Customs and Etiquette Governing the Conduct of Nonwhites and Other Minorities as Second-Class Citizens (2nd Edition). Tuscaloosa, AL, USA: University of Alabama Press, 2011. Accessed March 3, 2016. 150. ProQuest ebrary.
  3. Kennedy, Stetson. "Jim Crow Guide to the U.S.A." : The Laws, Customs and Etiquette Governing the Conduct of Nonwhites and Other Minorities as Second-Class Citizens (2nd Edition). Tuscaloosa, AL, USA: University of Alabama Press, 2011. Accessed March 3, 2016. 166. ProQuest ebrary
  4. Finkelman, Paul. 2009. Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present : from the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century. New York: Oxford University Press. 212.
  5. Finkelman, Paul. 2009. Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present : from the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century. New York: Oxford University Press. 212.