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Cognitive Dissonance in the Jim Crow South

February 25, 2013 in 1950s-1960s, Primary source, Social history

 

The Maid Narratives is a fascinating book that details the lives of servants and other domestic workers under the precedent of the Jim Crow laws in the South. The section of the book that focuses on the white folks’ narratives of the same time and in general the same experiences from a different vantage point, was very difficult for the authors to obtain. The reason for this lies in the difficult emotions that surround this hot topic.

A poem written by Elise Talmage, found on pages 254-255 of The Maid Narratives demonstrates well the sentiments and difficult memories that come with the knowledge that one (or in some cases, one’s parents) contributed to such oppression as occurred in the Jim Crow south. The poem begins:

 Were our sins so scarlet?

 Were our virtues so few?

We remember, we remember

Yellow heads on warm black arms

“Doe doe lil baby

Doe doe lil baby”

Rocking and rocking to soothe little hurts

But did you hurt too and did we know it?

This poem encapsulates the confusion and guilt that accompanies the fond memories of nannies and maids that white folk had as children. As adults, looking back, they can begin to understand that the people they remember fondly as someone who took care of them as they grew up were actually people being underpaid, mistreated, and generally oppressed. There is a cognitive dissonance between the fond memories they hold of their past and the truth that they now know as adults.

Cognitive dissonance is a term that refers to the difference between two ideas that a person holds. For example, frequently, it is difficult for people who were children in the Jim Crow era to comprehend that their parents, especially those whom they viewed as kind hearted Christians, took part in such a systematic oppression of Blacks. There are such stark differences between the ideas of segregation and Christianity, that many are unable to understand how someone could support both. Many whites in the Jim Crow South who supported the Civil Rights Movement did so because of the cognitive dissonance between their religion and segregation.

“The mother who taught me what I know of tenderness and love and compassion taught me also the bleak rituals of keeping Negros in their place.”

– Lillian Smith

Even for those who were not children in the South during this period, there is still a level of cognitive dissonance that occurs. Actions that people viewed as the status quo of the time period can now be viewed as criminal oppression of a race. The guilt associated with this realization is too much for some to handle, and many refuse to speak on the subject. For this reason, the interviews with white families for The Maid Narratives were difficult to obtain.

Anne Braden

Anne Braden came to the realization that segregation was not acceptable quicker than most of her white counterparts, but even she did not challenge the system that bothered her so until she arrived at college at Randolph-Macon Women’s college in Virginia. Her cognitive dissonance was found in the difference between the way she had been raised, in a strictly segregated community, and the teachings of her religion. Anne, a devout episcopalian, eventually realized she could not ignore the differences between what she knew was right and how the world she lived in, the Jim Crow south, functioned. This realization led her to become an activist and supporter of the Civil Rights Movement throughout the rest of her life.

Resources:

Wormer, K. S., & Jackson, D. W. (2012).The maid narratives: black domestic and white families in the Jim Crow South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Braden

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Crow_laws

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance

http://news.iowapublicradio.org/post/maid-narratives

Advancing the Race of African-Americans

February 5, 2013 in 1920s-30s, Social history

Nearly all the laws manifested in racial segregation were enacted in the late 1800s. The Jim Crow laws replaced the Black Codes once society transitioned from one dominated by slavery and farming to a modern one with burgeoning cities and suburbs. Along with it, the infamous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case was put in place, upholding the separate but equal doctrine. Although slavery seemed to be dying down, the fight for equality was far from over.

“The help”

By the turn of the 20th century, African-Americans were working in homes or taking on other forms of manual labor away from the countryside. Many women worked as maids or “help” as portrayed in The Maid Narratives. At this point, these women were no longer required to live with their employers and often had families of their own or held a second job. Interestingly, young white children learned many life lessons and grew close to their African-American caretakers. Segregation and racial inequality were usually learned through a parent’s scolding or observations in daily life. In addition, “the help” was sometimes seen as part of the family and the white women of the home even looked to them for advice and reassurance.

Despite the slight improvement in the treatment of African-Americans in society, many were still left unsatisfied.  In the Great Migration of the early 1900s, millions of African-Americans left the South for a better life in cities of the North, Midwest, and Western parts of the United States. Wages were often higher in these areas and there were more opportunities for upward mobility, especially in industry work. Racial prejudices were also less severe in places outside of the South, allowing for the growth of “Black metropolises” that included newspapers, jazz clubs, churches, and businesses serving as havens for ambitious African-Americans.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

Around this time, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was established with a mission “to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination.” Focusing on issues such as the disenfranchisement of African-Americans, lynching, eliminating Jim Crow, and other civil rights matters, the NAACP was founded by a group of white and black men and women, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, and Archibald Grimké. I think the most amazing part about this organization is how long it has remained in society. Since 1909, the NAACP has continued to voice concerns for all minorities, not just African-Americans. In fact, there is a chapter on early every college campus in America. Membership is open to people of any race and to anyone willing to make known the struggles faced by minorities still today.

Resources

“Great Migration (African American).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 02 Apr. 2013. Web. 04 Feb. 2013.

“Jim Crow Laws.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Jan. 2013. Web. 04 Feb. 2013.

“National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 02 Jan. 2013. Web. 04 Feb. 2013.

“Plessy v. Ferguson.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 02 Apr. 2013. Web. 04 Feb. 2013.

Van, Wormer Katherine S., David W. Jackson, and Charletta Sudduth. The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2012. Print.

Working in a Louisville hospital during World War II

February 25, 2011 in 1940s-1950s, Military history, Primary source

Constance Cline Phillips, 1945, UNC-Greensboro Library

Constance Cline Phillips, 1945

Constance Cline Phillips of North Carolina dropped out of college and signed up for the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in February 1945.  After attending six weeks of basic training at Fort Des Moines in Iowa, she spent  four months in X-ray technician school at Camp Atterbury in Indiana.  Then, she was stationed at Nichols General Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky from August 1945 to March 1946 when it was closed.

Phillips (1924- ) gave an oral history interview along with her papers and documentation about this time period in her life to the Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (where she returned after the war to finish her education in what was then called the Woman’s College).

X-Ray Department Staff of Nicolas General Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, Fall 1945. According to the identification on the back of the photo, "This is an example of the hard life we lead." Constance Cline Phillips is kneeling at left. From UNC-Greensboro Libraries Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

X-Ray Department Staff of Nicolas General Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, Fall 1945

In her interview, Phillips talked about the Nichols General Hospital in Louisville where her work as an X-ray technician was part of medical experimentations using wounded veterans.  She remembered Nichols General as a “nerve center” where soldiers whose injuries made them into paraplegics.  Many of them, she said, had extremity nerve injuries – some had been wounded quite a long time before – and the surgeons were experimenting with ways to rejoin the nerves.

X-Ray staff at Nichols General Hospital, 1945

X-Ray staff at Nichols General Hospital, 1945 – from UNC-G Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

“…they used tantalum wire, is something I remember X-raying to see how close something was getting to something to rejoining.  But I think that was where some of the first paraplegics were kept alive. I don’t believe they understood the technology to be able to do that. So that was very interesting. And of course, most of our patients were male. Very few females. Which, of course, at twenty I thought was cool.

WAC barracks at Nichols General Hospital, Louisville 1945 - UNC-Greensboro Libraries

WAC barracks at Nichols General Hospital, Louisville 1945

Phillips remembered that the WACs had their own barracks at Nichols Hospital (“Well, see, we were peons and segregated”) – and the local nurses were in “another segregated area.”   However, Phillips does not address this issue of segregation as one of race (though later in the interview she indicates that she was a white supremicist).

Oneida Miller in 1943 before she started work at Nichols General Hospital in Louisville

Oneida Miller, Army Nurse Corps, 1943

Oneida Miller Stuart who served as an US Army nurse there then remembers that there were about 30 African-American nurses and 100 White nurses attending approximately 500 veterans and prisoners of war (most from Germany and the Pacific front).  She remembered the difficulties of working with Whites despite her professional status and experience: “We were called ‘nigger’ many a time… but you just kept on going.” (audio excerpt)

Phillips met her husband Mike at the Hospital in Louisville – he had been serving as a truck driver in an Army unit recently returned from Germany.  “They didn’t know what to do with all these people at the end of the war, because they were overstaffed.  So they put him on as a ward boy.”  He later became a professional football player, but her first memory of him was seeing him in the hospital: “So here came this great big fellow, moving a patient on a stretcher very gingerly. It didn’t bounce him off the walls.”

This memory is explains also why the young Oneida Miller, in her early 20s similar to Phillips, chose not to move her patients herself anymore. She described her pace of work as progressively becoming “too slow” since she was often accosted by the American GIs who did not want an African-American nurse.  The racism still an important component of the American day-to-day interactions allowed for her to rely on this future football player to serve as a “ward boy.”

~~~~~

Resources:

Oral history interview with Constance Cline Phillips, 1999. WV0082.5.01. The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project, University of North Carolina-Greensboro Libraries. Full text transcript available online: http://library.uncg.edu/dp/wv/results5.aspx?i=2015&s=5.

Listen also to the oral history interview with Oneida Miller Stuart, an African American servicewoman in the Army Nurse Corps who worked at the Nichols General Hospital in 1945 – Oneida Stuart Collection (AFC/2001/001/4850), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/story/loc.natlib.afc2001001.04850/

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