Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2016/Spring/Section 023/Matt Wall

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Matt Wall
Bornabout 1885
Middleton, North Carolina
ResidenceWalnut Cove, North Carolina
Other namesEliza Hall
EthnicityAfrican American
OccupationWasherwoman
Known forInterview with National Writer's Project

Biography[edit]

At the time of her interview with the Federal Writer’s Project in 1939, Matt Wall was an older African American woman working as a washerwoman in Walnut Cove, North Carolina where she lived with her sister and several grandchildren.  [1]

Early Life[edit]

Matt’s parents, Pete and Lucy Wall, were former slaves. After freed, her father worked as a tenant farmer for the rest of his life, while her mother went on to have and raise nine children, Matt included.[2]

Wall’s low socioeconomic status shaped much of her life. Her education consisted of just five months of on-and-off schooling in a church miles away from her home, where a small number of children in the community would gather to be taught by a farmer when he wasn’t working in the fields. As soon as she was old enough to work, Wall left school and began washing clothes for a living. At eighteen, she married, and briefly joined her husband in a factory stringing tobacco sacks, a job that they soon realized did not provide enough money to live on. Her husband, Ed, became a farmer, and eventually died of pneumonia after working outside in the rain.[3]

Work[edit]

Wall was initially unable to seek medical treatment for her husband because she did not have enough money to pay for a doctor. After his death, Wall returned to washing clothes for a living and had been doing so every day for 40 years at the time of her interview. She struggled to make ends meet, especially with medical bills and funeral costs for her husband and two daughters. She claimed that “undertakers cost a lot ‘o money, more'n it seems like a body can make,” and that she would probably be “washin’ an ironin’ till [she] drop[ped] daid.”[4]

Race[edit]

Racial dynamics could also be seen throughout Wall’s story and seemed to shape her perspective on life. Her father worked under a white man both as a slave and as a tenant farmer. Her daughter worked for a white family, who paid for her funeral after her death as Wall was unable to do so herself. Wall did not personally feel that her vote had any political impact, yet mentioned that white people would often pay her and other African Americans in the community to vote for specific politicians. Throughout her life, white people had social and economic power over her. She seemed resigned to this divide, feeling that “colored folks don’t need so much learain’ nohow,” and that pride was to be taken in the work that they learned how to do outside of a formal education.[5]

  1. Louise Abbit and Claude V. Dunnagan, "Reckin' I'll Be Washin' an Ironin' Till I Drop Daid," Federal Writers' Project Papers, 1936-1940.
  2. [Ibid.]
  3. [Ibid.]
  4. [Ibid.]
  5. [Ibid.]