Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2017/Fall/Section 26/Odelia Lester Anderson

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Odelia "Odessa"Lester Anderson
Born1902 Eatonton, GA


Odelia "Odessa" Lester Anderson (born 1902) was an African American woman who worked as a maid at Georgia State Teachers’ College (now Georgia Southern University) in Athens, GA. She was interviewed for the Federal Writers' Project in 1939. [1]


Early Life[edit]

Odelia Lester Anderson, although the interviewer refers to her as Odessa for an unknown reason, was born in 1902, in Eatonton, Georgia. She was the second youngest of eleven children. Her ancestry is unknown but it is known she was African American, because the interviewer calls her negro. Her family lived and worked on a cotton and peanut farm. After her older brothers went to World War II, Anderson had more responsibility on the farm. She began to work hauling "many a wagonload of fodder to the house, and that ain’t tellin ' about all the cotton and peanuts I'se brought to the barn..”[2]

Anderson received a small amount of education. Her one room schoolhouse was five miles away in Half Acre; she attended through sixth grade. She spoke extensively about how extravagant Easter Monday celebrations were at the school, and her joy for searching eggs.

At the age of fourteen, she married a sawmill worker, Jim, who was boarding with her and her mother.[3]

Married Life[edit]

Jim and Anderson moved to Devereaux, where Jim got a job as a butler on Breezy Hill Farm. Jim was paid a wage of sixteen dollars a month. Anderson also helped on the farm, and sometimes in the house when there was company. During the two years at Breezy Hill Farm, Anderson had two sons and a daughter. Their names are unknown. The cook of Breezy Hill Farm, Aunt Sook, and her husband Uncle Will, watched over her children while she worked.

After two years, Jim and Anderson moved from Breezy Hill Farm. It is not known where they moved. After six months, Jim and Anderson separated. Anderson said Jim had begun to “drink up all of their money,” and was no longer taking care of the family.[4]

Life in Athens[edit]

Anderson soon became sick, but still worked to support her children. Over time the unnamed sickness worsened, until she needed an operation for the tumor to be removed. Anderson spoke about the difficulty she faced being a single mother and trying to save for her operation. These struggles encouraged her to move to Athens, Georgia where her parents were living with her two married sisters. Her father’s health had declined, so her parents decided to move in with their children.[5]

When she got to Athens, she worked for a white woman cooking and cleaning at her house. Over time, she saved the money to have the tumor removed from her. While she was recovering, the white woman didn't like her replacement and made Anderson come back before she was healed. Anderson doesn’t mention any explicit consequences of working before being properly healed. Her wage was two dollars and fifty cents a week, this was not enough to support her and her three children. So she sent her two sons to Shelby, North Carolina, where they lived with her other sister. She said, “I thought it would make better men of ‘em to be up on a farm than to be jerked up in a place the size of Athens.”[6] It is unknown if Anderson ever saw them again after this.[7]

Georgia State Teachers' College[edit]

While working at the white woman’s home, she met a janitor at Georgia State Teacher’s College, who promised to get her a job. She was hired as a maid in a “co-ed dormitory” in 1926, however her accounts are only of working in the women’s dormitory. Her starting wage was $16 a month, for tending 49 rooms. She worked from seven am to five pm, and till twelve pm on Sunday. She was allowed to eat breakfast and dinner at “the Hall,” whatever the “white folks eats.”[8]

Anderson also marked the changes that occurred in the college, during the thirteen years she had currently been working there. Some of the changes included addition of phones, a lessening in strictness for outfits and phone calls. The women in the dorm were not allowed to go to the Teachersville corner stores, so they would beg and tip Anderson to go. Originally, the women were required to wear uniforms, line up and take roll before they could leave out, and were shipped off for smoking. During Anderson’s account, she tells how this has changed. Anderson used to make up for five dollars a week in tips for sneaking things to the girls, as more things were allowed, she was glad to make a dollar a week in tips.

During the time she worked there, she witnessed three girls “lose their minds.” One was afraid of flunking out, and Anderson quoted her saying, “I can’t! I just can’t talk over the phone! The dean will restrict me!” Anderson said the girl was in a Sanitarium at the time of the interview. Another was a sorority girl, who Anderson was on a constant run for sandwiches for and feared silence. Anderson said this one also ended up in a sanitarium or a padded cell. The third one packed her bags and rushed out, but the dean stopped her at the bus station. Her father came and she went to the infirmary. Anderson spoke of the affection she felt for these girls saying, “I loved ‘em and sorter felt lak they b’longed to me…”

Anderson worked in “the Hall” during the winter, but in the summer she worked at the main campus. She would clean the women’s bathrooms in the classroom buildings. At the time of the Federal Writers' Project, her pay had been raised two dollars. She worked with seven other maids on campus.[9]

Late Life[edit]

She lived in a two room and woodshed home, with her daughter when the Federal Writer’s Project interview was taken. She pays fifty cents a week for each room. She attended church at Hills’s Baptist Chapel, but she was baptized in the country. Her death date is unknown.[10]

Social Issues[edit]

Rural to Urban[edit]

During the mid 1900s, there was a shift from the more rural residences to urban areas. Many African-Americans had previously worked on cash crops. As the Industrial Revolution occurred, there was a shift in where money was being made.[11] The shift from agriculture to domestic work was especially seen amongst African American women. “At the earlier census, of every 20 Negro women, between 10 and 11 were in agriculture, between 8 and 9 were in domestic and personal service, and 1 was in other lines of work; 10 years later, of every 20 Negro women, between 7 and 8 were in agriculture, 10 were in domestic and personal service, and between 2 and 3 were in other work.”[12] African American women also made less money, and factors relating to money and otherwise impacted if they migrated.[13]

African American people began to find more success and opportunity in urban areas. “Between 1920 and 1925 the "colored" farm population of the United States declined from 5,300,615 to 4,505,796, or fifteen percent.”[14] This research is specifically for African American people in the South, making the percentage even more drastic.[15]

Importance of Religion to African American People[edit]

The Deep South was the home to many denominations of Christianity. It was interweaved in the politics and daily life of everyone who inhabited that area, an ideal that is prevalent today. As time went on and slavery ended, many white churches wanted to integrate. However, the black Christian church had been a place of complete expression even when the people who attended were enslaved.[16] “From his earliest days as a Christian, the Negro appeared to prefer separate worship, because even under slavery it offered him an opportunity for self-expression and the exercise of leadership.”[17]

Women’s Colleges in the South[edit]

It was popular for the upper class white women of the South to attend colleges. Most of them were regulated, and not co-ed. They were educated on how to be a woman of society, yet, there was difficulty in teaching them the issues of race. Many of the women who attended these institutions only saw people of color in domestic working terms. “As public education in the South was nearly universally segregated by race, these schools were also set up with a shared, explicitly race-conscious ideology, promising to nurture young white women and prepare them for public life even as they sheltered them from "outside" influences, including interaction with black men and women.”[18]

  1. “I Maid for the Co-Eds,” in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Winston, Sanford. "Cultural Participation and the Negro." American Journal of Sociology 40, no. 5 (1935): 593-601. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2767922.
  12. T. Arnold Hill. "Negroes in Southern Industry." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 153 (1931): 170-81. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1019119.
  13. Flowin' All At Once: Gender, Race and Class: in Depression Era U.S. Urbanization Price-Spratlen, Townsand. Race, Gender & Class; New Orleans Vol. 6, Iss. 2,  (1999): 147-158,161,163-170. https://search.proquest.com/ethnicnewswatch/docview/218856030/F312CEC6E702431BPQ/2?accountid=14244.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Shaffer, Helen B. Segregation in Churches. Vol. II CQ Press, 1954.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Gold, David. "Students Writing Race at Southern Public Women's Colleges, 1884-1945." History of Education Quarterly 50, no. 2 (2010): 182-203. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40648058.