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Charles Todd at the recording machine

[Detail] Charles Todd at the recording machine

Primary Source Set A: Working Women in the 1930's

I Ain't No Midwife

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NOTE: This is an excerpt. The full text version of I Ain't No Midwife is in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.

... {excerpt begins}

March 14, May 29, 1939

Mary Willingham (Negro)
140 Cohen Street
Athens, Georgia
Practical Nurse


... "The most I ever got in one week was $14 and that was on a nursin' job. I'll never forgit what the man said that hired me after my $14-a-week patient got to where she didn't need me no mo'. He didn't offer me but $10 a week, and I didn't want to take $4 lose than I had been gittin' and I told him so. 'Mamie,' he said, 'I don't make much myself, but whatever I promise to pay you you'llt git it and you won't have to wait for it.' When I goes on a job I gives my whole time, night and day, 'cept for 4 hours a day rest period, that any doctor'll tell you a nurse has gotta have if she is to stay on the job and be able to do what the patient needs her to do. Now you knows $10 a week ain't nothin' to pay for day and night services, and white folks wouldn't think of expectin' white nurses to work for such a little bit, and them white nurses does a heap less than me.

"On my last job I didn't git to take no 4 hours off ever' day, for the patient told me she couldn't stay by herself a'tall. I was on that job day and night two weeks without no extra pay for over-time. These days, nursin' jobs is so hard to git that I'se home more'n I'se off nursin'. I never had but three jobs of nursin' all of last year; at one I stayed two weeks, three weeks at the second, and I was on night duty six months straight at the last place. Them first two places paid me $10 a week, and I got a dollar a night for the night duty.

"Ellen - that's my baby gal - got as far as the eighth grade in school. She works just any place she can git a job. Most of her work's been cookin' and maidin', for that's all she knows how to do. Whenever a colored girl tries to git into some other sort of work they's allus asked, 'What 'spe'unce is you had?' If the new work is dif'rent from what they's been doin', they don't git it. How's they gwine to git 'spe'unce if nobody gives 'em a chanst? Answer me that!"

... "My gal ain't able to pay for that {training}," Mamie answered. "Her baby goes to the WPA nursery school, and that's a big help when I'se off nursin' and that baby's ma's off huntin' work. She 'most allus gits around three dollars a week when she's got work, and I reckon she might work for less if anybody would hire her. But now ain't it a shame for folks to have to work for less then it takes for 'em to live on.

... {excerpt ends}


  • What kind of work did Mary Willingham do? How would you describe her working conditions? How do you think this kind of work has changed since the 1930s?
  • What concerns did Mary have about her daughter Ellen? Based on what you know about the Great Depression and conditions for African-Americans in the South, do you think her concerns were justified? Why or why not?
  • What evidence can you find that Mary thought race affected her work? How does this evidence influence your analysis of this document?

Go to the complete interview from which this excerpt was taken.