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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 Eleven: A Legacy


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A Legacy


I have never forgotten the roots and soil which gave me sustenance to cope and weather the many storms to which, as an African-American, I have been, am, and always will be an heir. I only hope that mine have been shoulders on which, at least, some whose lives I have touched have stood, and will stand.—Mildred Pratt, 19931

In our system, you have influenced at least 1,500 students. That is quite a legacy to leave the world. Your energy and caring has planted seeds for much social change. In teaching history, you have greatly influenced the future.—Mary Cunningham, Department Chair, 19932

Mildred’s life was guided by deeply held core values that she exemplified: service; empowering others; respecting human dignity; social justice; and civil rights. As a scholar, professor, community activist, and community organizer, she lived her beliefs in every aspect of her life. Her colleagues and friends saw her values daily in their interactions with her as reflected in their letters to her upon her retirement from ISU as professor emerita. Though her journey from cotton picking to the academy was often bumpy, students and colleagues recognized her impact on the academy, the community, and the field of social work. ← 207 | 208 →

“We Shall Overcome”

As an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement, Mildred was deeply committed to continuing the work and legacy...

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