Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2018/Fall/Section 2/Odessa Polk


Odessa Polk
BornMay 22, 1896
DiedMarch 10, 1959
ResidenceCharlotte, North Carolina
OccupationCook, Mother

Odessa Polk was an African American cook from Charlotte, NC. She was interviewed as a part of the Federal Writers' Project in 1939.[1]


Early LifeEdit

Odessa Polk was born on May 22, 1896 in Charlotte, NC. She was the third child of Mary Gaither and Walter Polk[2]. Gaither remarried when Polk was three years old, and had eleven more children in her second marriage that Polk never affiliated with. It is unknown what came of Walter Polk. Polk's stepfather sent Polk and the other two children from Gaither's first marriage to live with their grandmother. Too elderly for a formal job, Polk's grandmother took in laundry to pay the bills. Poverty and a lack of proper attire prevented Polk and her siblings from attending Sunday School, until a Baptist missionary provided them with the appropriate clothing. Polk began to work at the age of nine. She helped after-hours at a local school and washed dishes in exchange for twenty-five cents a week. Polk stopped attending school after the fifth grade to work in a Caucasian woman's home. Polk's grandmother supported Polk's decision to work, rather than attend school. After her grandmother's death, Polk moved in with her aunt.

Later LifeEdit

Mother and baby during the Great Depression.

Polk never married. She had three daughters, named Madelene, Wootsie, and Sarah. Polk sent her children to Sunday School; she attributed her devotion to Christianity to the Baptist missionary from her childhood. Just as her grandmother did, Polk took in laundry to pay for her daughters. Polk's daughters all had children of their own out of wedlock, and were forced to drop out of school. None of them married. Polk, her daughters, and her grandchildren all lived together in a four-room house on 6th street in Charlotte, NC. Polk helped to financially support her four grandchildren—Beulah Mae, Jean, Hazeline, and Stewart—by working as a cook. Polk began cooking in 1931, and was still employed by the same woman in May of 1939. She spent all of her free time in the Church, where she was highly involved. Polk died at the age of 63 on March 10, 1959 of a heart attack.

Social ContextEdit

Education of African American Women in the SouthEdit

African Americans were at an educational disadvantage during the early twentieth century. Plessy v. Ferguson, decided in 1896, ruled segregation to be legal, as long as the institutions were "separate but equal."[3] This ruling was detrimental to the educational progression of African Americans. It caused black and white children to be educated in separate schools, yet there were not enough facilities for most African American children to receive an education. "Nearly two-thirds of the black children of elementary school age were not enrolled in school," primarily due to the fact that a majority of schools were meant for white children, and many of those that were for African Americans lacked the capacity to educate the population of African American children. [4] One major proponent of African American education was Booker T. Washington. He argued that it was the best method of racial uplift, defined as the improvement of the African American race as a whole.[5] Washington and his rival, W.E.B. Du Bois, famously disputed the most effective applications of racial uplift.[6] Du Bois supported the immediate implementation of African American rights, whereas Washington was in favor of a long-term approach. He stated that "progress for blacks comes from a steady job, a bank account, a piece of property, not from protests and voting drives."[7] Washington believed that change would only come from fixing foundational issues, and therefore, that education was the key to advancing the African American race's role in society. His book on this ideology, Up From Slavery, became a best-seller, proving the large support that his beliefs received.[8] African American women in particular were educated with the intent of racial uplift.[9] While white women were educated with personal domesticity in mind, the education of black women revolved around the public sphere of racial betterment.[10] Many black women treated their education as an opportunity to help others within their race advance in society.

The approximate location of the Bible Belt.

Religion in the Bible BeltEdit

The nickname "Bible Belt" refers to a region of southern America in which religion is a strong influence. There are no exact boundaries for the Bible Belt, but it is considered to be approximately the area between Texas, Kansas, Missouri, Virginia, and Florida.[11] As the location for several religious revivalist movements, the Bible Belt is "often associated with the Southern Baptist denomination."[12] The nickname was coined by journalist H.L. Mencken in his reporting of the Scopes "Monkey" Trial in the 1920's.[13] The presence of Baptism had both, positive and negative, effects on the rights of African Americans in the south. For some, the "fundamentalist religion [was] seen as the new enemy by some blacks," as it had been associated with the activities of the Ku Klux Klan.[14] However, the National Baptist Convention was highly active in advocating for African American rights. They fought against workplace and military discrimination, supported African American schools and colleges, and were major advocates for black suffrage.[15] Many Baptist religious figures, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. C.T. Vivian, also supported African Americans in their fight for social justice by working against the Ku Klux Klan in the National Anti-Klan Network.[16] Baptism aided African Americans as a race and as individuals. Members of the church quickly multiplied in the climate of racial discrimination, and "by 1915, African American Baptists in the nation numbered 3 million."[17] The Baptist Church operated as an advocate for social change, as well as a system of support in the African American race, where individuals could find comfort in community.

  1. Interview, Cora Lee Bennett and Mary Northrop on Odessa Polk, May 9, 1939, folder 294, Coll. 03709, Federal Writers Project Papers, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. North Carolina State Archives; Raleigh, North Carolina; North Carolina Death Certificates
  3. Kauper, Paul G. "Segregation in Public Education: The Decline of Plessy v. Ferguson." Michigan Law Review 52, no. 8 (1954): 1137-158. doi:10.2307/1285295.
  4. Watkins, William H. "Education of Blacks in the South, The." In Encyclopedia of Curriculum Studies, edited by Craig Kridel, 322. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2010. doi: 10.4135/9781412958806.n179.
  5. Perkins, Linda M. "The Impact of the “Cult of True Womanhood” on the Education of Black Women." Journal of Social Issues39, no. 3 (1983): 17-28.
  6. Bauerlein, Mark. "Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois: The Origins of a Bitter Intellectual Battle." The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 46 (2004): 106-14. doi:10.2307/4133693.
  7. Ibid
  8. Ibid
  9. Perkins, Linda M. "The Impact of the “Cult of True Womanhood” on the Education of Black Women." Journal of Social Issues 39, no. 3 (1983): 17-28.
  10. Slevin, Kathleen F. "Intergenerational and Community Responsibility: Race Uplift Work in the Retirement Activities of Professional African American Women." Journal of Aging Studies19, no. 3 (2005): 309-26. doi:10.1016/j.jaging.2004.08.001.
  11. Watts, Duncan. "Bible Belt." In Dictionary of American Government and Politics, Edinburgh University Press, 2010. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/eupamgov/bible_belt/0?institutionId=1724
  12. Ibid
  13. Ibid
  14. "Race and Religion in the Bible Belt." The Irish Times (1921-Current File), Feb 26, 1983. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/529678387?accountid=14244.
  15. Jaynes, Gerald D. "Black Baptist Church." In Encyclopedia of African American Society, edited by Gerald D. Jaynes, 106-108. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2005. doi: 10.4135/9781412952507.n80.
  16. "Race and Religion in the Bible Belt." The Irish Times (1921-Current File),Feb 26, 1983. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/529678387?accountid=14244.
  17. Jaynes, Gerald D. "Black Baptist Church." In Encyclopedia of African American Society, edited by Gerald D. Jaynes, 106-108. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2005. doi: 10.4135/9781412952507.n80.