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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 Six: Black Girlhood


← 92 | 93 →


Black Girlhood


Mildred would experience some significant family challenges as she moved into her teenage years. They included the betrayal by a brother, the death of a sister, and extreme poverty. Mildred also had to navigate the complex issue of skin color and beauty as a dark-skinned girl. While Mildred’s high school years were challenging, she was able to persevere and overcome significant obstacles, graduating as class valedictorian, even though the senior class teacher chose to award the associated and related designation of class president to a boy. Mildred’s experiences deepened her commitment and belief that education and academic achievement would help her make a way out of no way. The Sirls family would also begin their migration out of Texas, with the brothers going to war, the father going to California, and the sisters and mother going to Kansas City.

The Secret

Both Bernice and Mildred remember a particularly painful experience involving their brother Clyde. Mildred shares1:

I’m going to tell you [Menah] about this since my brothers are dead. But this should be told. My brother Clyde took me out into a field adjacent to our house and he raped me. I knew he was doing something that wasn’t a game. I knew it was something wrong. I don’t know if I told my mother because he told me not to tell. ← 93 | 94 → He said we were going to...

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