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A Black Woman's Journey from Cotton Picking to College Professor

Lessons about Race, Class, and Gender in America


Menah Pratt-Clarke

A Black Woman's Journey from Cotton Picking to College Professor:  Lessons about Race, Class, and Gender in America traces the journey and transformation of Mildred Sirls, a young Black girl in rural east Texas in the 1930s who picked cotton to help her family survive, to Dr. Mildred Pratt, Professor Emerita of Social Work, who, by lifting as she climbed, influenced hundreds of students and empowered a community.

As a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and scholar-activist, Mildred lived her core beliefs: she felt that it was important to validate individual human dignity; she recognized the power of determination and discipline as keys to success; and she had a commitment to empowering and serving others for the greater good of society. Such values not only characterized the life that she led, they are exemplified by the legacy she left. A Black Woman's Journey from Cotton Picking to College Professor reflects those core values. It celebrates ordinary lives and individuals; it demonstrates the value of hard work; and it illustrates the motto of the National Association of Colored Women, “lifting as we climb.” 

A Black Woman's Journey from Cotton Picking to College Professor can be used for courses in history, ethnic studies, African-American studies, English, literature, sociology, social work, and women’s studies. It will be of interest to sociologists, anthropologists, historians, political economists, philosophers, social justice advocates, humanists, humanitarians, faith-based activists, and philanthropists.

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Chapter Three: Starting After Slavery


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Starting After Slavery


Mildred and her siblings, George, Bernice, and Mozelle, share their knowledge of the family history. The ancestry and lineage of the Thirkills (on the maternal side) and the Sirls (on the paternal side) are discussed. The siblings’ recollections include the stories of survival from their ancestors and elders. Their stories often involved experiences in multiple states: Alabama, Kentucky, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Their memories reveal the challenges of recently freed slaves and their descendants as they sought to live independently, build community, and raise children.

The Thirkill Family

Mildred begins by sharing her recollections about her mother’s side of the family, the Thirkills1:

I was born into a family whose ancestors moved from Alabama and Georgia shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation and the establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The earliest relative that I know about was Charlotte Surls, born in slavery in 1806. Charlotte died in 1880. My mother, Eula X. Thirkill,2 was born in Landersville, Alabama, on January 14, 1898, as the only child of George W. Thirkill (born in Landersville, Alabama, in 1870) and Rosa3 Hubbard (born in Landersville, Alabama, in 1863). ← 33 | 34 →

My mother was three years of age when they traveled by train with many other Blacks to rural East Texas. It seems that a large number of former slave families left Alabama at the same time in wagons, resettled in...

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