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Della McCullers (1874–1962) was an African-American cook and business owner living in Raleigh, North Carolina, who was interviewed for the Federal Writers Project during the Great Depression. Her personal history can be found at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in the Southern Historical Collection.[1]

Biography

Early life

Born in 1874 on South Bloodworth Street in Raleigh, Della Harris McCullers was the oldest of five children to Walter and Henrietta Harris, both of whom were former slaves. Growing up, McCullers lived in a small two room house in the backyard of a wealthy white family. Both her parents worked as servants for the white family; her mother as a laundry-maid and her father as a general handyman. McCullers and her younger sister, Lilly, helped their mother with the washing and ironing, and the family made approximately two dollars a week from their work. Because of limited educational opportunities for African-Americans in NC, McCullers only attended school for three months and instead learned to read and write in the homes of her white employers. In 1886, McCullers became a maid like her mother and went to work for a different white family.

Family

Della Harris married John McCullers, a brick mason, and together they had five children. The first two died as babies, but three girls survived. John died in 1916, leaving McCullers to raise her three girls alone. One of her daughters, Bessie, gave birth to a son Theodore in the early 1930s. When Bessie’s husband died, McCullers took in Theodore to raise him as her own.

Business career

Shortly after her husband’s death, McCullers opened a small cafe for African Americans, one of the first in Raleigh. The cafe made enough money for McCullers send her three daughters through high school. However the influx of Greek immigrants and their hotdog stands to Raleigh in the early 1900s hurt her business. In order to reach a new cliental, from 1923 to 1929 McCullers operated the cafe at the Lewis Hotel, a hotel for wealthy African Americans which was founded by Needham and Hattie Lewis. McCullers operated the hotel cafe until the Stock Market Crash of 1929, and African Americans began losing their jobs.[2] She left the struggling hotel and started another small cafe that masked as a boarding house. McCullers was interviewed by Robert O King for the Federal Writers Project in 1939.

Social issues

Feeding the African American Market

At the end of the nineteenth century, racial segregation in the South was at a peak. After the Compromise of 1877, the Reconstruction period ended with the withdrawal of all federal troops from the South. This marked the beginning of the nadir of American race relations, the height of racism in the United States. Around this time, African Americans began pouring into larger cities in the South. Because of the established segregation between blacks and whites, African Americans began congregating and settling in poor neighborhoods, surrounded by their fellow African Americans. The geography of residential segregation that characterized southern cities stimulated African American businesses, “whose establishment helped to solidify the newly formed black neighborhoods.”[3] Della McCullers was an African American business owner whose restaurant catered to fellow African Americans. Because her cafe was in a black neighborhood in Raleigh, her business was able to uniquely cater to blacks without having to compete with white businesses. Although “blacks in the South were wretchedly poor individually, collectively they formed a sizable market.”[4] McCullers was able to tap into this “black market” and make a decent living with her small cafe, until immigrants offered a cheeper alternative.

Impact of Greek Immigration

During the first decade of the 1900s, Greek immigrants flocked to Raleigh, NC. They were nearly all self-employed and settled into Raleigh’s business district and residential neighborhoods with ease.[5] In her interview with King for the Federal Writer’s project, McCullers spoke of the difficulties of competing with Greek food venders. Many of the self-employed Greek immigrants owned small food stands that serviced blacks as well as whites at separate counters. Greek immigrants were infiltrating the sizable “black market” that had been previously monopolized by black business owners. These immigrants were more successful because they were able to tap into the white market as well as the black. Although foreigners, Greeks were still white and were able to shed foreign markers over a fairly short amount of time. As scholar Stanley Lieberson articulated, “blacks on the other hand were blacks no matter... their language, their clothing, or their Protestantism.”[6] Being black, McCullers was never able to pass as white or attract white business. Thus, the Greek immigrants became fierce competitors because of their ability to serve both blacks and whites. McCullers was forced to close her small cafe because of Greek competition.

Federal Writers Project

Della McCullers was interviewed by Robert O King for the Federal Writers Project in 1939. The Federal Writers Project (FWP) was a part of the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that sought to collect oral histories from residents from across the United Sates. These oral histories were not always collected with the upmost care. Instead, there has been considerable controversy over how these histories were collected and then edited by the interviewers and appraisers working for the FWP. Scholar Lynda Hill argues that the FWP manipulated personal accounts of former slaves in order to portray certain “prevailing social values.”[7] In Della McCullers’ personal history, the southern dialect is heavily used, and many words are purposefully misspelled in an attempt to convey how McCullers spoke. John Lomax was a national administrator of the FWP and felt that dialect was a necessary element to creating a person’s identity. He encouraged the FWP interviewers to preserve “sufficient dialect and peculiar words so as to make the reader feel the Negro is talking.”[7] Lomax believed that African Americans should talk in a certain way with a certain dialect, demonstrating that the collection of personal history was not free from societal conceptions and stereotypes. Henry G. Alsberg, another national administrator, recommended “that truth to idiom be paramount, and exact truth to pronunciation be secondary.”[8] The dialect used to depict African Americans was subjective and heavily dependent upon societal expectations. The Federal Writers drew “upon conventions of popular sentimental fiction to create what they considered interesting narratives.”[9] The interviewers and editors were more interested in creating an entertaining story than necessarily conveying the truth. Della McCuller’s story was subjected to this subjective editing process. Additional idioms and phrases could have been added in order to create a “better” portrait of an African American businesswoman living in the Great Depression. McCuller’s narrative must be viewed with a critical eye, understanding the editing process of the Federal Writers Project.

References

  1. http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/03709/id/602/rec/1
  2. "The District Is Named!" RHDC. Raleigh Historic Development Commission, Oct. 2012. Web. 12 Nov. 2012. <http://www.rhdc.org/district-named>.
  3. Ingham, John N. "Building Businesses, Creating Communities: Residential Segregation and the Growth of African American Business in Southern Cities, 1880-1915." Business History Review 77.4 (2003): 639-65. JSTOR. Web. 14 Nov. 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/view/30041232>. p.641
  4. Ibid. p.639.
  5. Odzark, Lazar. "Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church (Raleigh)." North Carolina History Project. John Locke Foundation, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2012. <http://www.northcarolinahistory.org/encyclopedia/89/entry/>
  6. Lieberson, Stanley. Piece of the Pie: Black and White Immigrants Since 1880. University of California Press, 1980. Print. 29 Nov. 2012. p.xi
  7. 7.0 7.1 Hill, Lynda M. "Ex-Slave Narratives: The Wpa Federal Writers' Project Reappraised." Oral History 26.1 (1998): 64-72. JSTOR. Web. 13 Nov. 2012. <http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/stable/40179473>. p.64
  8. Soapes, Thomas F. "The Federal Writers' Project Slave Interviews: Useful Data or Misleading Source." The Oral History Review 5 (1977): 33-38. JSTOR. Web. 13 Nov. 2012. <http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/stable/3674886>. p.34
  9. Hill, Lynda M. "Ex-Slave Narratives: The Wpa Federal Writers' Project Reappraised." Oral History 26.1 (1998): 64-72. JSTOR. Web. 13 Nov. 2012. <http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/stable/40179473>. p.69
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