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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 Five: Segregated and Sharecropping


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Segregated and Sharecropping


Segregation, while clearly separate, and often unequal, facilitated the development of a close-knit community among African-Americans. African-Americans often served as sharecroppers for other African-Americans who owned land. Mildred’s family served as sharecroppers for a wealthy Black man named Bob White in Longview, Texas. Mildred and her sisters remember their time in Longview: sharecropping, farming, picking cotton, harvesting corn, and raising cows and pigs. They also share fond recollections of family, friends, and community.

The Black White’s Houses

Mildred and her siblings remember their experiences growing up in Bob White’s houses. Mildred shares1:

After leaving the Schmeling’s place, we were taken to a farm owned by an African-American man, or a “Negro,” as we called him then. The long and short of it is that I was delighted when this page in my life changed. My father, who was gone most of the time as was his pattern, found us a place to stay. He was a bright man who could sweet talk one out of anything. This time my father had arranged with a well-to-do Black man whose last name was White for us to be sharecroppers. Mr. White owned a nice house and a grocery store in a Black section of Longview. He lived in the city of Longview and owned several properties in the surrounding areas. ← 73 | 74 →

My father promised that he, my two...

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