Top of page

African American Women’s Life Stories in the Center for Applied Linguistics Collection

Share this post:

Note: This is part of a series of blog posts about the 40th Anniversary Year of the American Folklife Center. Visit this link to see them all!

Basic CMYKThe American Folklife Center was established in 1976. Two years later, in 1978, the folk music and song collections housed in the Music Division as the Archive of Folk Culture became the Center’s collections.  This opened the door for a new era of acquisitions that would more broadly represent ethnographic disciplines.  Dialectologists had long been collecting examples of “natural speech” in their studies, recording stories, oral histories, autobiographical narratives, jokes, and discussions of many aspects of daily life.  Many of these collections needed a home, and shortly the Center’s archive became the largest repository of dialect recordings in the United States.

The Center for Applied Linguistics collection consists of recordings donated by over fifty collectors. This group of personal narratives and anecdotes was intended to showcase the many dialects of English found in the United States. For folklorists it does a great deal more than that.

We do not know all the interviewees’ names because of the nature of the collection; in some cases the “collectors” of these interviews were not the interviewers, as they compiled and donated interviews by colleagues and linguistics students. The participants in such compiled interviews were often anonymous.

This article looks at interviews with four African American women that provide a picture of life during a period when the United States was undergoing powerful social changes and demonstrate how the collection’s interviews might be explored to learn more about the everyday lives of Americans.

Woman picking cotton to fill large bags.
Cotton picking, Pulaski County, Arkansas.” Photo by Ben Shahn, 1935. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Sallie Tyler of Joiner, Arkansas, born in the 1890s and interviewed in 1981 by William Clements, is among the older women interviewed for this collection.  She is articulate and clearly a strong woman, though her life has been difficult.

Tyler remembers some home remedies her mother used when she was a child, though her details are sparse. “My Ma went and got some kind of weed and make us a tea [if we got sick]…..She’d make us tea out of different old weeds and we’d drink that.” For mumps she remembers that the children were given sardines to eat and then “she put turpentine in the juice and rubbed it on them for the mumps.”  Home remedies were asked for by the linguists in several interviews, so there is more to be found in the collection on this topic.

Tyler explains that her father left the family when she was young, so she and her older sister were not sent to school, but worked along with her mother who did washing and ironing and picked cotton. Clements asks “It was awful hard for a mother with no father to make it wasn’t it?” Tyler says “Yes sir. It was hard, that’s the reason me and my sister couldn’t go to school. We had to help her make a living for the other three children.”  Asked how many pounds of cotton she could pick in a day she says “sometimes I could pick 280.”  The payment, she says, could be as low as forty cents for a hundred pounds. She married a sharecropper and they grew cotton so her description of picking cotton as a child drifts quickly into picking it as an adult with her own children helping her.  Sharecropping was a system where agriculturalists were given use of a farmer’s land in exchange for a portion of the crop.  Cotton was a preferred crop to grow as it gave the sharecroppers a good chance to make some money from the portion of the crop they kept.

When asked how many children she had she says “Six living and fourteen dead.” One child died of whooping cough, but most of her children died due to premature birth.  When asked if she had a midwife to help her, she says that the midwife told her not to work while she was pregnant, but she had to work.

Tobacco field with houses in the background.
An example of a tobacco field in Port Tobacco, Charles County, Maryland. Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston,  1936-1937. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Anna Wade, 67, who was interviewed by Mary Ritchie Key in 1967, was born in 1900, so she was just a few years younger than Sallie Tyler. But what we learn of her life in Maryland is quite different. She does not provide the same autobiographical details, as Key was interested in her knowledge of tobacco farming and its special vocabulary. For African Americans to farm their own land in Maryland was not uncommon in the 1960s, as the Chesapeake region has had a large population of free people of color dating from Colonial times. Tobacco was a prized crop because of the profit it could bring. Wade is able to explain the process of growing tobacco in great detail, from plowing under the cover crop before planting to taking the dried leaves to market.  When Key asked “Do you ever use horses?” Wade says “Used to, till everybody got tractors…. They was in the forties [1940s] all getting tractors.” The shift to modern agricultural technology as it became available hints at the wealth of this farm. Kay also asks what tobacco leaves left behind after the harvest are called. The answer is “ground leaves,” but Wade goes on. “People, say, who have a lot of children would let the children save them and that would be their money…. And then some of the local barns, now you have to leave them till the barn moves in the spring. But there, unless you can get some local people to buy them. But the children get there, down on their knees, and that could be their Christmas money.”  Although we do not learn about the role of the rest of her family in this work, we are given the impression of a knowledgeable and competent farm woman.

In the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries, many African Americans moved from the south to northern cities seeking better opportunities for themselves and their children. Many of these migrants had been agriculturalists like Wade and Tyler, so they needed to adapt to city life. An unidentified 31 year old African American mother was brought from rural Mississippi as a child to live in Detroit, Michigan. In a 1967 interview with Roger Shuy, she tells stories about her experiences in a rural Mississippi school with harsh discipline compared to a school in Detroit.  She loved her teacher in the city who encouraged her. She had hoped to go to nursing school, but her ambition was interrupted by marriage and children. Given a chance to make changes in her life, she says she would have gone to school through college before marrying. “I haven’t gave up yet. I still plan to go to go back to school because I feel that if I go back to school and get my full amount of education, they [her children] would listen to me more….They would say my mother is older but she is going back to school and I now am young and I’m going all the way.”

A sixteen-year-old African American woman who grew up in Detroit, also interviewed by Roger Shuy in 1967, provides a picture of life in the city from the point of view of a native. She tells us about her friends and their adventures. Asked about Halloween near the end of the interview, she describes “trash can night,” the night before Halloween: “You dress up, you know, bummy [like bums], and run around people’s alleys and whoever keeps their garbage can, you know, out, gets it knocked over. And that’s how they know the goblins been — the goblins are going to come.” Her family puts the trash cans on the front porch where they can be watched that night. She seems surprisingly unworried about discrimination. She  explains that her group of friends include a Puerto Rican girl and a white girl from down the street. This was during a time when the words African Americans used to identify themselves were changing. Asked if she prefers “colored, Black, or negro,” she says she prefers “colored” as that is the language her friends use and “…cause not every colored person is exactly black.” As we know in hindsight, the preferred terms were about to change nationwide, but it is interesting that she does not hold negative association for the term “colored” with segregation that was common at the time.  Although she describes her neighborhood on the east side of Detroit as a “slum,” she is full of hope for her own future. She hopes to become a nurse and says she will focus hard on her math skills and plans to enter a nursing program right after high school.

Social changes during the twentieth century provided American women with greater educational opportunities, improved health care, and increasingly diverse career options. For African American women these changes were even more dramatic, and did not come without conflict and sacrifice for women on the “front lines.”  But there were also gradual changes that occurred through generations. These four women help us to  see snapshots of their day-to-day lives and to understand how perceptions of life’s possibilities changed over time and in different parts of the country.

There are many more stories to explore in the Center for Applied Linguistics Collection, with people of many backgrounds represented in 118 hours of recordings.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *