Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2016/Spring/Section 023/Anna Alden

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Annie Allen
BornAnnie Kral Willis
circa 1886
Morehead City, North Carolina
Diedcirca 1972
Other namesAnna Alden
OccupationSeamstress



Overview[edit]

Annie Allen was a single mother of eight living in Miami, Florida. She was a seamstress for the Works Progress Administration. Elvira Burnell interviewed her for the Federal Writers Project in the late 1930s. Allen asked that Burnell allow her to use the name Anna Alden.

Biography[edit]

Early Life in North Carolina[edit]

Annie K. Willis was born in 1886 in Morehead City, North Carolina and attended school there until she was 16 years old. In 1905, Willis married a carpenter named Arthur V. Allen who was thirteen years her senior from Brooklyn, New York. The Allen’s had eight children, five girls and three boys, all born in North Carolina.

Life in Florida[edit]

In 1924, the family relocated to 24th Court in Miami, Florida. Allen's husband thought that his construction business would be successful there. Allen also feared that she was at risk of contracting tuberculosis where they were previously living in North Carolina.

Shortly after the move, the Allen’s experienced financial problems related to the Great Depression. After Arthur Allen's business in construction failed, it became harder to pay for their house, and he began drinking. Due to a difference in opinion on the education of the children, Annie and Arthur Allen decided to separate. Her husband believed that the children should quit school to help provide income for the household while she was adamant that her children become educated. In 1928, Arthur Allen left his family and deeded the house to her. The couple remained separated until he asked for a formal divorce in 1937.

Despite Allen's academic goals for her children, none of Allen’s daughters went to college. John was the only child that managed to go to college and graduate. With outside financial help, John was able to graduate from a university in Florida and pursue a Ph. D in New York. Allen's other children dropped out of high school. Most of the Allen's other children found a way to work and help provide for the family. Bruce joined the Navy.

When Burnell asked how all of this came to be, Ferrebee explains that she did not like going to school because she was picked on for her clothing. Ferrebee experienced problems with domestic abuse and contraception after she got married at 16 years old. In the interview, Allen recalls rushing to Ferrebee's house to find her beaten and ready to go into labor. Angry with her for conceiving a child during this time of economic insecurity, her husband had beaten her most likely hoping she would miscarry. Allen took Ferrebee and her new granddaughter into her home on 24th Court. After some time, Ferrebee's husband was able to convince them to come back. Allen recalls that everything was fine until Ferrebee's husband came to her house saying that something was wrong. When Allen got to their house, Ferrebee was vomiting and crying because she'd taken a contraceptive that her husband had given her.

Annie Allen had become a single mother of eight, providing for her family by working as a seamstress for the Works Progress Administration. She eventually had to stop working there when an accident with a machine occurred causing her to get an infection in the eye. Allen had managed to take care of the house on her income as a seamstress, but when Burnell initially interviewed her, there were several leaks in the roof. Burnell helped Allen with this issue through the Federal Emergency Relief administration.

Social Issues[edit]

Changing Family Demographics[edit]

The Great Depression affected more than the economy. Negative economic changes, such as increasing unemployment, served to alter family life in America.[1]

Divorce[edit]

The arguments that the Allen's had were most likely caused by Arthur Allen's unemployment. Throughout this period of economic misfortune, "unemployed men felt like failures as a result of their inability to provide for their families."[2] At that time, "unemployed men often found themselves hanging around their homes, irritating their wives; quarrels became more frequent between husbands and wives."[3] Like many other men, Arthur began drinking to cope with his feelings of inadequacy which most likely served to aggravate the situation. The Allen's opted for a long separation like most people who experienced financial problems. During the Great Depression, long separations were common, and "divorce rates [...] declined, [but] this seems to have been largely the consequence of the inability to pay lawyers' fees."[4]

Children's Roles[edit]

During this time, education was suffering and largely inadequate considering that, "some of the worst cuts took place in rural districts, particularly in the South, which spent the least money on education."[5] Some of these cuts caused schools to shorten the length of their sessions, which gave children free time. With this extra time, "children contributed to their families," males usually picked up any part-time work they could and females helped around the house.[6] Arthur Allen did not see any reason for continuing to send the children to school, while his wife thought it was the most important thing they could do as parents.
Most of Allen's children cited their income as a reason for leaving school. Even though the depression affected everyone, less fortunate students felt the effects in school more because their parents often could not afford the nice things that better off families could.[7]

Contraception[edit]

Early marriage was a common way for uneducated girls to escape their circumstances. Like Ferrebee and her husband, many couples at this time were using birth control because they "did not want children they could not afford."[8] At the time, there were bans on contraception and because it was fairly new, there were serious side effects.

New Deal Policies[edit]

In response to the problems created by the Great Depression, Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted a number of programs to help the public. The New Deal was the combination of all those policies and programs.

Works Progress Administration (WPA)[edit]

The Works Progress Administration was created to provide relief in the form of employment to millions of Americans. The sewing rooms were established to allow women the opportunity to support themselves and their families. Annie Allen was able to obtain a job as a seamstress because she was the head of household, able-bodied, and unemployed.[9] Besides providing Annie Allen and women like her with a consistent source of income, "the sewing rooms were to provide clothing for those in need, but also served as a training school for teaching necessary skills for reemployment."[10] Most of the women worked for other clothing companies when they left the WPA sewing rooms. However, during the interview, Burnell discovers that Allen earned a nursing certificate while working as a seamstress. Instances like these highlight the goals of the Works Progress Administration; employ people that are out of work and help them build a skill set that allows for future employment.

Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA)[edit]

During a previous visit with Annie Allen, Burnell noted that the roof of their Miami home was leaking and helped Allen get in contact with the Federal Emergency Relief Administration to get it fixed. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration was a relief program concerning construction, food, and employment. Before FERA, "public relief was not designed to cope with the continuing effects of mass unemployment."[11] At this time, "there was great faith in the ability of community representatives to judge who was, and who was not, entitled to public assistance." [12] Allen had sought help from her community to help with the roof and clothing her children, but she was rejected. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration helped Allen and her family get a new roof. After understanding the value of the FERA, Allen asked Burnell about getting Edna May, her oldest daughter, a music project job. There's no indication of whether anything comes of Allen's inquiry or not, but the Federal Emergency Relief Administration gave unemployed, young people like Edna May the chance opportunity to work.

References[edit]

  1. DeLuzio, Crista. 2009. Women's Rights: People and Perspectives. Santa Barbara, CA, USA: ABC-CLIO. Accessed March 3, 2016. ProQuest ebrary.
  2. Bryson, Dennis. "Family and Home, Impact of the Great Depression on." In Encyclopedia of the Great Depression, edited by Robert S. McElvaine, 311. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. Accessed March 7, 2016.
  3. Bryson, Dennis. "Family and Home, Impact of the Great Depression on." In Encyclopedia of the Great Depression, edited by Robert S. McElvaine, 311. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. Accessed March 7, 2016.
  4. Bryson, Dennis. "Family and Home, Impact of the Great Depression on." In Encyclopedia of the Great Depression, edited by Robert S. McElvaine, 311. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. Accessed March 7, 2016.
  5. Webb, Daryl. "Education." In Encyclopedia of the Great Depression, edited by Robert S. McElvaine, 269. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan Reference USA 2004. Accessed March 7, 2016.
  6. Bryson, Dennis. "Family and Home, Impact of the Great Depression on." In Encyclopedia of the Great Depression, edited by Robert S. McElvaine, 312. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. Accessed March 7, 2016.
  7. Webb, Daryl. "Education." In Encyclopedia of the Great Depression, edited by Robert S. McElvaine, 272. Vol. 1. New York: MacMillan Reference USA, 2004. Accessed March 7, 2016.
  8. DeLuzio, Crista. 2009. Women's Rights: People and Perspectives. Santa Barbara, CA, USA: ABC-CLIO. Accessed March 3, 2016. ProQuest ebrary.
  9. Marcketti, Sara B. "The Sewing-Room Projects of the Works Progress Adrministration." Textile History 41, no. 1 (May 2010): 31. Art & Architecture Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed March 3, 2016).
  10. Marcketti, Sara B. "The Sewing-Room Projects of the Works Progress Adrministration." Textile History 41, no. 1 (May 2010): 37. Art & Architecture Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed March 3, 2016).
  11. Fearon, Peter. "Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA)." In Encyclopedia of the Great Depression, edited by Robert S. McElvaine, 340. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. Accessed March 7, 2016.
  12. Fearon, Peter. "Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA)." In Encyclopedia of the Great Depression, edited by Robert S. McElvaine, 340. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. Accessed March 7, 2016.