Wilsie Beale was a café waitress in North Carolina during the Great Depression. She was one of the thousands of everyday Americans interviewed for the Federal Writer’s Project as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.[1]


Beale was an African American woman born in 1910 in Tannerton, North Carolina to a family of poor farmers. With six children to look after, her parents were unable to meet the needs of the household, and after her father began drinking and abusing his wife, her mother took the children and left. Shortly afterward, Beale went to New York and married a man identified only as King. After an uneventful four-year marriage, she and King separated and she moved to Raleigh, North Carolina where she began work as a waitress. It was during her time at this café that she met Josh, and they later began dating, though they never married. Throughout her time at the café, Beale lived in relative poverty, often having to work as many as fourteen hours a day just to sustain herself. She and her female coworkers were also often harassed by her boss. Because of the dismal financial situation, she also found it very difficult to obtain any sort of meaningful work. However, her time at the café gave her an excellent eye for making tips, and she eventually learned to guess the expected tip a customer would give the moment that he or she walked through the door. On May 5, 1939, as part of the Federal Writers' Project, Beale was interviewed by Nancy T. Robinson, and was given the pseudonym “Swannee” during the interview.[2]

Social Context

The 1930s were a turbulent time for the United States and they posed a series of societal problems that adversely affected both the nation as a whole and Beale herself. The most prominent one was most likely the Great Depression, the worst economic crisis that the United States has ever endured. This was a time when “nearly one in every four American adults was without a job, when millions of men, women, and children stood in line for hours for a cup of soup, milk, and a piece of bread."[3] In order to cope with poverty and financial instability during this time, Beale and other working-class women devised many ingenious strategies to stay afloat.[4] For example, Beale learned the tipping habits of customers based solely on their appearance and demeanor, and quickly found ways of maximizing tip income while at the café.

Other issues prevalent during this era were racism and sexism, both of which Beale experienced heavily throughout her lifetime. Since the time of the emancipation of slavery in the 1860s, economic circumstance, as well as racism, had handicapped African Americans. Indeed, African Americans fought for equality in employment, housing, public spaces, and even education up until (and even after) the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.[5] Beale herself was unable to find work outside of waitressing not only because she could not afford a decent education, but because many public programs, including education, were written in such a way as to exclude African Americans.[citation needed] During the Great Depression, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA)—which was intended to lift American farmers out of poverty and despair—was written in such a way that most African Americans were denied its benefits. African Americans could be fired for no reason, could not find work commensurate with their education, and were often unemployed or underemployed in a time of massive unemployment.

Issues of Voice

The nature of the interview meant that it was difficult for Robinson to exert any sort of bias in any one direction. However, the end product of the interview—a typed copy of the conversation—contained a common aspect of recorded history: preservation of vernacular. Rather than conducting a traditional interview, Robinson chose instead to allow Beale the opportunity to have a free rein in what she discusses. In doing so, Robinson avoided the issue of leading the interview in a certain direction. However, her attempt at preserving the local vernacular gave the impression that Beale was not a formally-educated person and that she lacked any sort of significant mental capacity, creating an image of a sub-par human being.[citation needed] This use of African American colloquialism is not unique to Robinson’s interview—in his essay entitled The Achievement of the Federal Writers’ Project, Daniel Fox discusses the comparison that the book Mississippi Guide makes between the white and black farmers of the area. In the chapter “White Folkways,” the white farmer is depicted as being light and humorous, and the author clearly prefers recounting his tales over the black man, who is depicted negatively in the chapter “Negro Folkways,” including the use of the African American slang common at the time.[6] The fact that writers of the project tried so hard to preserve this seemingly unintelligent vernacular perhaps alludes to a greater issue of the process of recording history.[citation needed]


  1. DeMasi, Susan R. "The Federal Writers' Project: A Legacy of Words." Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries. 2012. 1195-203. Web. 18 Nov. 2012.
  2. Beale, Wilsie. "A Waitress Confesses." Federal Writer’s Project. North Carolina Collection. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 05 May 1939. Print.
  3. Robinson, Whitney. "The Other Economic Collapse: The Great Depression." The Washington Informer 15 Apr. 2009. 9-10. Print.
  4. Helmbold, Lois R. "Beyond the Family Economy: Black and White Working-Class Women During the Great Depression." Feminist Studies 13.3. 1987. 629-30. Web. 18 Nov. 2012.
  5. Terry, David T. "Dismantling Jim Crow: Challenges to Racial Segregation, 1935-1955." Black History Bulletin 67. 2004. 14-17. Web. 18 Nov. 2012.
  6. Fox, Daniel M. "The Achievement of the Federal Writers' Project." American Quarterly 13.1 (1961): 3-19. JSTOR. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.
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