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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 Four: Surviving the Great Depression


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Surviving the Great Depression


The Great Depression, occurring only a few generations after Emancipation, presented significant challenges to the formerly enslaved African-Americans. The experience for African-Americans was largely defined by basic survival, household chores, school, and church. In this chapter, Mildred and her sisters, Mozelle and Bernice, share their recollections of their childhood lifestyle. These are stories of persistence and resilience, as well as family and community. This chapter explores life in the 1930s, including the challenges associated with the Great Depression, segregation, and poverty.

Daily Life

Mildred begins by describing her recollection of her early childhood and daily life1:

I was, according to my mother, born in 1928. I have no birth certificate to prove it because I was not born in a hospital and we knew nothing about hospitals and birth certificates in the eastern rural area of Texas where I was born. I lived in dire poverty in the throes of legal racial segregation through the Great Depression and World War II—living in a separate and unequal social and economic society from my birth until I graduated from high school. My life was shaped by the economics of sharecropping and segregated schools through grade school, high school, and college in various areas of East Texas. My mother gave birth to eight ← 55 | 56 → children. I had two brothers, Clyde (1923–1995) and George (1922–2002), and two sisters,...

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