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Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
Race Relations in the 1930s and 1940s
Three Generations - White and Black

Mrs. Thomas Irvington was a white Southerner raised in Georgia and living in Florida when she was interviewed by a federal writer in 1939. In the interview, from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 , Mrs. Irvington discussed her work as a kindergarten teacher and mother of two sons. In the excerpts below, she describes the relationship between her family and the employees who were descendants of slaves owned by Mrs. Irvington's ancestors. How do Mrs. Irvington's attitudes reflect the experience of slavery? What does Mrs. Irvington mean when she says "Gone with the wind? No, I do not believe so"? What does the federal writer mean when she wonders "how they will work out their destinies"?

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It is 10 o'clock and I am rather surprised to see Mrs. Irvington, broom in hand, sweeping away the small branches, fallen leaves and strands of Spanish moss from the walk and garage door so early in the morning. . . .

"You know it has been raining, but the sun is so bright this morning, I just had to get out of doors, besides old Janie who lives a mile to the East of Ridgewood Road is not able to come help me today. She has not been well for some time - you know I brought her down from Georgia when I was married, now nearly twenty years ago. By the way, her grandfather and grandmother were were some of the old family slaves. So the sweeping of the driveway gave me an excuse to get out. In the meantime, my sink full of dishes just stands. But I'll have to wash some more later on, so I'll just get them all done up at one time." . . .

She [Janie] is transported back and forth night and morning in a car by some member of the family, to and from her home with another negro family living in a four-room cottage on the old St. Augustine road, about a mile away, where she has a room at a dollar a week. Mrs. Irvington pays her $5.50 per week, with Thursdays and Sundays off, and gives her most of her food and clothing.

"Most of this furniture belonged to my mother, who died about two years ago at the age of ninety. She inherited the plantation near Dalton, Georgia from her parents, together with a great deal of this furniture. There my two brothers, four sisters and I were born. I was the youngest of the seven.

"My father ran the neighborhood store. But he was a poor business man and soon failed. Rather than have him go into bankruptcy, my mother used a large portion of her personal fortune to pay off his debts. Then he started another venture, a furniture store in Atlanta, but he died before he attained any measure of success, so my mother sold the plantation and we moved to Atlanta, where she took over the business, managing it with remarkable ability. . . .

"The new owner [of the family plantation] did not wish to take over the house servants, which presented quite a problem, as there were six of them: An elderly negro man and woman, two younger women, one of them Janie - and two young girls fifteen and eighteen. They had never lived anywhere but at "Whitehall" - that was the name of our place - mother could not turn them loose on the public to make their own way, so nothing undaunted, she gathered them all up and away we went to Atlanta - mother, seven children, and six darkies. Quite a family!

"We prospered in our new environment. Mother was a good manager, and she had remarkable health. She purchased a house with a large yard in the outskirts of Atlanta, and installed her large family with all our household goods and [gads?]! The elderly man, Joe, she put in charge of the heavy work around the store, and paid him a dollar a day. The fifteen-year old girl, Susie, she also took to the store, where she was kept busy cleaning and dusting. She was paid a small wage, $2.50 per week, but had her meals at the house. Old Mammy Liza, Joe's wife, as general [fastetum?] at the house, Janie was cook, Louisa was housekeeper, while Lilly, the eighteen-year old girl, did the family sewing, later making draperies and other fittings for the store, and on customers' orders, when these things became the vogue. None of the house servants were paid wages; they had their own quarters in the big house where they lived their own lives, everything being furnished, and on birthdays and other anniversaries they were given money in addition to presents at Christmas and New Year's. . . .

"You see, as we grew up, the negroes of the family grew up, too; as we prospered, so did they, and shared all of our fortunes, as they also shared our misfortunes. I was never allowed to mend a dress, although I was always domestically inclined, and liked especially to be in the kitchen when there were big "goin's on"-a party, a birthday dinner, Christmas celebrations, weddings - there were five in the big house.

"If I would pick up a garment to mend, Lilly or Louisa would say: 'Now, Miss Margie, just you put that sewin right down. What's us'n goin to do, our black selves, if you 'sist on sewin? You knows pufictly well we can't bide no triflin nigger lazy-bones!'

"I seemed to be Janie's special property. It was music to my ears on a cold morning to hear her soft shuffle on the stairs as she brought up my breakfast, which, at her command, I always ate in bed.

"Spoiled? Yes, they spoiled us, but we all loved one another, so it did not make any difference, after all. . . .

"Old Joe died, as well as Liza, and later on, Louisa. Mother took them back to the old family burying ground across the road from the old home near Dalton, and there they sleep with several generations of our family. I feel it won't be long before I'll be taking Janie, too. I'll miss her, as she is also a part of my past, which, with a sixteen-year old son, I am beginning to realize is lengthening out!"

"Were the negroes ever dumb or sullen? Never! Of course, everyone does things occasionally which provokes those who cannot see their point of view. But white people are like that, too. Your relations , my relations , my neighbors - that's human nature. No one race is altogether bright, none persistently dumb. We are all just human beings. In handling Negroes, however, one must bear in mind they have not much initiative. They have to be told to do a thing, how to do it, and then checked up on, to see how they have accomplished what is wanted. . . .

At a sound from the hall, I turned to see a black face, wreathed in smiles, peering through the doorway. "Whay you, Miss Margie? Oh, dar you is."

"Why, Janie, I thought you were sick?"

"Yes'm, I is, Miss Margie. I's ha'dly able to get about - a turrible mis'ry in my el' knees, but I jus' had to come to ya' pa'ty."

"Gone with the wind?" queried Mrs. Irvington to me - "No, I do not believe so. The principles of the old South are still with us, and the new Southerners of he old South have a heritage which will never die. You can acquire polish, poise, [proity?], prosperity - but what is inherited is bred in the bone!

"Well, I inherited Janie, all right. But, I'm glad she came. There is nothing now for her to do, but she loves parties, and I would rather she would be here where she can see everything, than to try to tell her about it afterwards. She would be asking me questions for days on end!"

And so I left [the house] with two generations of new Southerners installed therein, wondering how they will work out their destinies.
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Read the entire interview with Mrs. Thomas Irvington from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.