Guest Post: Mississippi and the Great Depression

Daughter of a sharecropper, Lauderdale County. Library of Congress. Reprinted from Mississippi and the Great Depression by Richelle Putnam (Pg. 14, The History Press, 2017.) 

Written by Richelle Putnam

I never lived through the Great Depression. Born is the 50s, I was a child of the 60s, na├»ve and somewhat innocent, my eyes only seeing what “was normal” in Mississippi. I never questioned boundaries, separation, stereotypical images, and the realities of black and white. My parents, however, were raised (in Mississippi, we don’t rear children…we raise them.) during the Great Depression and my grandparents found ways to survive, feed their families, and keep a roof over their head. There’s something about them, how they viewed life, handled stress, gave with little to give, and worked long, hard hours without complaint… that still affects me. Yet, another person affected me even more, who was not family, but who felt like family, who was there every day of my life, cooking my meals, ironing my clothes, cleaning my house, calling me home at the end of the day: our maid, Blanche Chaney.
You see, until I was grown, I would not understand the sacrifices she made while watching over my family. I would not understand the depth and width of the divide between black domestic workers and white laborers until I researched for my non-fiction books, specifically Mississippi and the Great Depression, when a cook’s pay averaged about three dollars a week. After a day of washing, cleaning and cooking, she went home to take care of her family in the black section of town, where small, tired, rundown houses perched haphazardly in grassless yards.
In 1933, Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration established industry-wide codes to cease labor strife, ease competition, and get production moving again, especially in the textile industry. However, the industry jobs open to black workers were excluded from code coverage, as were domestic workers. In 1934, the National Association for Domestic Workers headquartered in Jackson, Mississippi wrote:
“May I take this opportunity to write you in behalf of the hundreds of thousands of Negroes and whites employed in Domestic and Personal service in the United States. The attached code has been drawn up after an intelligent study of the conditions of these workers by a representative group of colored men and women from all parts of the South and we are asking your sincere consideration of the contents. In our survey of the Southern States we find the average wage of these workers $3.50 per week. Does this mean a living wage? If not, what protection do they have? Every type of industry has applied for some form of regulation with regard to hours, wages and general conditions. Are there workers of a group of more importance than those working in the homes of public and private citizens?”
During the Great Depression, only 5 percent of American households hired domestic workers. In Jackson, Mississippi in the 1930s, only 19 percent of white households could “not” hire domestic work.
It is here, I stop to think about Blanche in the 1960s, the long days she worked, especially in the summers when we were out of school. I detour from my project to research when the pay for domestic workers changed. It wasn’t until the amendments of 1966 and that was only for “some” domestic workers.
After many years, I saw Blanche at the City Hall in Meridian, my hometown. A cancer survivor, she had aged gracefully. Her smile had not changed. I wanted to share about everything I knew now, that I wished I had known then. Instead, we reminisced, hugged goodbye, and promised to keep in touch.
Times had changed. Blanche and I had, too. But I pray the changes in me, in all I say, all I do, and all I write, focus on bringing positive change to Mississippi.