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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 Nine: Normal University Racism


← 166 | 167 →


Normal University Racism


Like most Black people in this “sea of White,” I have had to learn with my fellow brothers and sisters that life in America is a constant diet of struggle for justice. Being competent is not a passport in this “White sea” but is a symbol for “stand back further,” because a competent Black threatens the secure feeling of the racist in his myth that “all Blacks are inferior.” —Mildred Pratt, 19721

In general, anything a White faculty member does is good in the department. If I do the same thing, then it is not good quality. …Within this society, it is easy to accept that a Black man cannot be competent in the area of physics. —Theodore Pratt, 19742

Ted and Mildred had a very difficult time at Illinois State University as they began their academic careers and raised their children in Normal, Illinois. Mildred’s and Ted’s transition to being faculty members at Illinois State University was not smooth; at the beginning they had to fight to hold the positions they had been offered. These initial issues would foreshadow more substantive issues that would arise once they began their appointments.

Normal, Illinois

Mildred describes her experiences with Ted getting settled and adjusted to Normal, Illinois in 19693: ← 167 | 168 →

Prior to our arrival in Normal, our contacts in Normal had arranged for Ted, myself,...

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