Blanche Willis Interview

Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library
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F1: Don't stand there too long.

GEORGE STONEY: While the white women went to -- had to go to work, could you tell us about that?

BLANCHE WILLIS: OK. You want me to tell you now?


WILLIS: Yes, well as I say, uh, we went and did the washing, we washed for the people in the mill village. Oh, it was up at North Kannapolis, and my mother would get out, and it was so cold sometimes, I've already expressed that and explained that.

STONEY: No, no, no, start again. Just as a -- OK. Try it again, OK?

WILLIS: OK. Now what you want me to say?

STONEY: Just say that, but don't say I've already told you, but tell it to it again.

WILLIS: Yeah. Uh, as a matter of fact, uh, we did the washing. They had what they called wash women. Wash women. And my mother, after she stopped farming, she uh, decided to wash -- uh, do -- make her living washing. And so, we would 00:01:00go to their houses, they would have a cook inside that stayed there and did the cooking. I was small at that time, and she did that for a number of years, and she got sick. And she couldn't work anymore. That's the reason I had to stop high school and go to work. And uh, sometimes, it would be so cold when we would go there and everything, but they had housekeepers, and I started housekeeping. I went to this family, a prominent family, and uh, they were paying the people that stayed on the lot, there were those that came from other counties here to Kannapolis, and they would stay all -- just live there. And maybe get a few hours off on Sunday, and a few hours off at night. And I went to the -- to work for this prominent family. Because I was needed, my mother couldn't work anymore. And I stayed there on the lot, uh, and uh, did all the 00:02:00work, and tended to the baby and did all the washing and the ironing. And she would come and pick me up, uh, at about four o'clock on Sunday afternoon, and bring me back around four or five o'clock on Saturday. That's the only time that I got, and I was a young girl just out of high school. And they only paid me $15 a week. And I -- I worked what you might say, six days a week, and I had the whole responsibility to look after the house, and they had a very sweet little girl that I was really --

STONEY: Now, sorry, we're going to have to start all over again. Because your voice goes way down, (overlapping dialogue; inaudible).

WILLIS: Do like this, do like this. Do -- do -- do like this. Do it. Do like this.

STONEY: Although, you got that $15 a week in the '60s almost, (inaudible)?

(overlapping dialogue; inaudible)

KAY: You didn't get $15 a week then, did you?

STONEY: Way back in the '30s, you didn't get any $15 a week.

KAY: You didn't get no $15 in the '30s. I got 15(break invideo) at that time.

STONEY: That's right.

WILLIS: I made $3 a day.


WILLIS: And maybe that was in -- let me see.


KAY: It was $3 a week.

JUDITH HELFAND: (overlapping dialogue; inaudible).

WILLIS: Let me see now, let me get it together.

KAY: You didn't make $16 at that time, not back in the '30s. I believe you said it was like 3.50, or $3.

WILLIS: I believe it was $3, I got 50 cents a day.

STONEY: That's it, yeah, that's more like it, yeah.

WILLIS: Now help me to get it right, I got -- what's that, $3?

STONEY: That's right. You got 50 cents a day.

WILLIS: Fifty cents a day.

STONEY: That's right.

WILLIS: And I worked six days -- well, I worked 7 days you might say, because she would come on Sunday afternoon around 4:00, and pick me up, and take me there, and I stayed until Saturday evening around four o'clock. And I -- I uh, made 50 cents a day.

STONEY: Now if somebody asked you right now, way back then, when the white people -- women were working in the mills, and the white men were working in the mills, who looked after the children, what would you say?


WILLIS: I would say we were -- we looked after the children. Black women looked after the children. I have a number of families of uh, the children that I worked at when I -- before I stayed on the lot, doing -- when the school was out, I would go and stay at night, stay on the lot, and tend to the children while they worked and I would do the cooking and washing, and tend to the little babies, and I have a number of them that are very proud of me today, and I'm proud of them.

STONEY: What did you get paid?

WILLIS: I got paid 50 cents a day. Fifty cents a day.

STONEY: Could you say that again? Fifty cents a day, six days a week.

WILLIS: Five days a week.


WILLIS: Before -- before I stayed on the -- well I got -- the first place I worked when I -- during the summertime, I would get off on Saturday because they got out of the mill on Saturday, but you see these -- this place where I stayed all the time, these were business folk, I guess you'd call them. More educated people, they had better jobs, they weren't working in the mill. They worked in 00:05:00the factory.

STONEY: Now, I was uh -- hold it just a moment.

(break in video)

STONEY: Like that?

WILLIS: No, I never seen anything like that. Because the baby --

STONEY: Could you talk about how the white women got their babies looked after?

WILLIS: Well they -- they had uh, black women that stayed there all the time, some came from the neighboring, uh, cities, like Monroe and places like that, and they came here, and they made their homes there. They had a little shack, a little car shed outside, and they had a little place built up over the car shed where the black women stayed. And they stayed there at all times, and they looked after the children and did all the work. But there were those of us that went on the job, the older ones, my sister stayed at the lot -- on the lot, and looked after the children while they worked, and done all their work. And there are others that came from neighboring sisters-- cities, and just stayed there 00:06:00all the time. And looked after the children and did the work. And they worked in the mill, and all they had to do was come home and rest, and uh, go to bed or whatever they wanted to do. Because all of their work was done, and they paid them a small amount of money. We were proud to get that, because that's what they were paying for us at that time.

STONEY: How did you feel, when you saw these people going into the mills, making a lot more than you made, how did you feel about that?

WILLIS: Well, I knew they didn't allow us in the mill, they didn't allow us around the mill, they didn't allow us uh, we had a -- a train station, they had a -- a place around here, colored, everything else was uh, integrated, colored, and -- and I just knew that I couldn't get in there, and they didn't allow us in there, and I just did the best -- we did the best that we could. That's all we knew. Because we knew they didn't allow us in there, and we couldn't go in there. There were very few black men that worked in there at that time.


STONEY: But, you're such a proud, independent person, and yet you lived through that. What kept you going? What gave you the spirit I see now? (laughter)

WILLIS: Well, I just knew that's the way it was, as a matter of fact, as I said, I wasn't able to work in the cotton patches with my mother, and the sharecroppers. And then it was my -- it fell to me, the work for the white people, and I was just proud, I was just proud to make an honest living. And as the time grew on, I could do more, and then I said then, I don't want my children to come up living the life that I did. I don't want them to have to look down to the white people. I want them to be able to equal with them, and I want them to look at them, not look down to them. And I wanted them to have the same education that they had. And it was a struggle. But anything that you 00:08:00want to do, I'm a witness that you can do it if you have a determination to do that.

STONEY: Kay, when -- with a mother like this, you must (laughter) it must -- you didn't have much choice, did you?

KAY: No, I sure didn't. I didn't have much choice but to strive to have uh, better things in life.

STONEY: What would you -- what are you going to -- what do ou tell your children about that? I mean, you've -- you got this from your mother.

KAY: No, I didn't get -- uh, well I can't explain myself like she can. But uh, I'm a hard worker like she was. She worked hard, you know? Doing her (inaudible). So, I'm willing to work.

STONEY: But it takes more than work. It -- I mean, she was working hard-- very 00:09:00hard, and she still wasn't getting to -- you've gotten so much further than that.

KAY: Yes, well I'm making more money than she made in those days. I make more money than she did, so -- and I have the determination to have, you know, better things. But never been able -- the black women have never -- black people have never been able to have nice homes, and cars, and money like the white women did back in the '30s, or whatever. But now, we can have our -- going off to school, so like she said about my brothers, they're doctors and lawyers, they make the money, and you can have better things.

WILLIS: Her older son, uh, went to college, and he has two years of college, and he is a -- an officer at the Stonewall Jackson training school down here, in Concord, in Cabarrus County. And her uh, younger son, he had two years of 00:10:00college, and he came out to earn some more money. And uh, at that time, he had a fatal death. But uh, we're proud that he was striving to do something, not just accepting anything. He was working for what he got.

STONEY: Well now, is there anything that you'd like to tell us, either one of you, about this whole experience of moving from a time when you'd make very little, to the time that you got a house like this, is the struggle over?

WILLIS: No. It's not over, even with me, it's not over. Of course, we have a small bank account, and we have a home, and we have helped them in some ways, uh, when she was married, and we are still reaching for more. Even though we're retired, that's why I fought so hard for that pension, because you see, uh, the 00:11:00money that my husband had in it, he had 45 years of service in the Cannon Mill. And I only went there for eight years before my retirement. But you see, all that time put together, and if we had put that money in the bank instead of letting Cannon have it, uh, Mr. Murdock couldn't have gone and run away with uh, $39 million, and uh, Jim [Fitzgibbon?] couldn't get -- had 10 million -- $10.1 million, and then put it into some other kind of insurance and say that it fell through with all of our money.

STONEY: Now, what did you -- tell us about your husband, the jobs he had. Because he was -- he had a long time in the mill, and he was one of the few blacks that ever got in that mill.

WILLIS: Well, they hired blacks, uh, they -- they started continually hiring blacks, but they had to stay on the outside. Uh, they would box the -- they got 00:12:00all this cotton in, in bales, and uh, they would have to work on the -- on the cotton shoot, or flat farm over there, they called it. And my husband worked in the waste house, where he had to separate waste, and uh, most recently, before he, uh, was entitled to a new job, he was a janitor. He had to clean cuspidors, and he kept the floors clean. He cleaned the uh, uh, fountains in the places where the white folk were. And he wasn't even allowed to take a drink of water out of that fountain. (phone rings) He'd have to carry a bottle in his pocket, and drink his water, and it had a (inaudible).

STONEY: I'm sorry.

(break in video)

STONEY: That whole thing, because it's so good about the water, and the fountain, and all that is great stuff. All right?

WILLIS: Well the only -- only uh, places that they could work, the black men could work, was where the white men and nobody else would work. And that's what they were hired, for the lowest class of jobs. He worked in the coal chute, he 00:13:00told me he'd have to shovel coal. I guess it must have had a locomotive in there that carried the material out, or something. And then he worked in the waste house, and sorted the waste. He said it was very dusty. And then, he started, they put him as a janitor, they put him in the mill, he got an elevation. He got inside. And he was a janitor, and he uh, cleaned and mopped the floors, and he cleaned the water, uh, fountains, and the bathrooms. And they had a sign, he told me, that over the uh, water fountain, "White only." And he cleaned the water fountain, but he could not drink out of it. He had this Coca Cola bottle, at that time we had small Coca Cola bottles (inaudible). And he carried one of those in his pocket, and whenever he was cleaning the 00:14:00water fountain, he would fill it up with the water for him to drink. And then he would uh, go somewhere else. He wasn't allowed to stand out there and drink it. And he cleaned the bathrooms for the men and the women, and uh, he couldn't even use the bathrooms while he was in there cleaning the bathrooms, they had people checking on him every now and then to see what they were doing. So --

STONEY: And -- but tell us about -- eventually, what he did. He got to be a machinist, and all of that later on.

WILLIS: Well, after the integration, he uh, I think he ran some kind of cloth machine. I don't know just what it was. At that time, I wasn't allowed to go in there. And uh, I can't remember, but as he would see other jobs that he liked better, that he would -- on the board, they put them up on the board, that he was able to do, you know, with his hands and his mind. Uh, he would -- they would elevate him that way. And that's what he was doing, running a cloth 00:15:00machine when he uh, retired. And that was a good experience, that was a nice experience for him, to be able to work with other people, and all the people were there together. And he could do something that everybody else was doing, not just sitting in -- they would have to sit in under the steps when they were finished, they couldn't be seen when they was a janitor, but he could -- then he could take a little break with the other men, and they became quite friendly, and he uh, accumulated a lot of friends.

STONEY: OK. Judy, I believe you've got some questions you want to ask Kay.


(break in video)

WILLIS: (inaudible).

KAY: No, I don't.


STONEY: How old are you, Kay?

KAY: I'm 54. (laughter)

STONEY: How old is your mother?

KAY: Seventy--

WILLIS: Seventy-four.

KAY: Seventy-four.

HELFAND: I can't believe it.

STONEY: I want you to know that that age will never change. When she's 105, 55. 00:16:00You're going to be her little girl, (overlapping dialogue; inaudible).

KAY: Uh-huh. That's right, that's right. That's true. Thats right.

STONEY: I've got a sister who's six years older than me, I will always be her little brother no matter --

WILLIS: Little brother. That's right, that's right. She always calls me Mother, that's what I trained her to call me. And uh, we -- we do a lot of things together, of course, I have my friends, my Christian friends, and she has her -- her young friends. But we're together, we eat together, we shop together, and we're just one family.


WILLIS: She's just like a small sister to me.

STONEY: Judy, go ahead.

HELFAND: Well you look like a small sister to her, you don't look like a daughter. (laughter) Um, like -- like you're telling a story to a lot of the black -- the young black mill workers that you work with now in their twenties, and they don't -- they -- they were able to come into the mill and work with the machines, but like you were telling a story about the -- from your -- from your perspective, what Kannapolis looked like, and what it was meant to -- to live in 00:17:00a mill town as a black person, and the jobs that you -- that -- that were open to blacks, in a -- in a short way, do you know what I mean?

KAY: Mm-hmm.

HELFAND: First they went in, in '21, and they did this,-- (break in video) like want to try it?

KAY: (inaudible). Yeah. Do you understand what she's saying?


KAY: Oh.

WILLIS: Well it's -- it's -- it's much better. And we have --

HELFAND: Well what I mean is, you know, (overlapping dialogue; inaudible) no, well you know, what -- wha -- what you can -- what -- what people were able to do in the mills. (inaudible) what black women, black men, and, you know, (overlapping dialogue; inaudible) changed over the years.

(break in video)

WILLIS: (inaudible) passed. And we were in lower, uh, Cabarrus County, and he had brothers (inaudible) that worked in the mill at that time. They were uh, I would say they were uh, more -- maybe more educated, and more able to do -- they -- they never worked on the farm, but he always farmed. They came here to make 00:18:00a home, and a living. And uh, he was going from farmhouse to farmhouse, living, you know, as a farmer. A sharecropper. And he passed in 1921, and his brothers lived right over there at (inaudible). Where you hear we had those meetings. And there, it was a little city, that was town over there, but this was kind of country over here. And um, we would go over there, and it was only a few people living here. As I told someone, this was an old sharecropper's lot, house, residence, down here. (break in video) And that's when the big change was.

HELFAND: OK. So what --

WILLIS: World War II.

HELFAND: -- so my question was, if you could start early, because I know that you haven't -- you did -- you -- you were saying before that you had --

(break in video)

WILLIS: There were only uh, black men working at that time, and they did the odd jobs, I understand, running scrubbing machines and what have you. But my brother worked in the bleachery. And he had something about my uncle being a 00:19:00well-known man here, and pretty wealthy. I -- I don't think he had those kind of jobs to do, but he took my brother in the mill with him. And that's where he started in 1921, at 14 years old. And uh, my uncle, uh brought us here, and there was a new house up there on Texas Road, we came from Concord. And we lived there, and my brother worked in the mill, and my mother had a sharecrop with these friends that I told you, she came up with the white family. And they lived down there, and now we're very close friends. And uh, after the stop -- after I quit doing this, uh, after she stopped that sharecropping, she learned that the girls could work on the fact-- in the factory hills for the white people. In their homes, and cook, and look after their children, and what have you. So she stopped doing cotton patches, and doing that kind of work. And uh, 00:20:00they -- she started, they worked, and some of them stayed on the lot, they called it. And she started to go into the people's -- white people's houses, washing, that's when that came in. And that's the way we made our living. We did that, she did that until I was grown, and uh, they still couldn't go in the mill, and they still had to do that. There were very few people that were educated, but they were educated in the mount -- in the Lutheran school, and they had their own school, the Lutheran church, and they could not teach in the public schools, the black people. The only -- the only school that they could teach, at a black school.

HELFAND: Great. Thanks. (inaudible) want to stop for a sec?

(break in video)

HELFAND: Did blacks live in the mill village, and then describe it to us.

WILLIS: The blacks did not live in the mill village, they lived in this section in the other isolated black section. We didn't live in the white section. And 00:21:00as a matter of fact, there were very few families that lived here, this -- this section was called uh, Texas. And they had one uh, which is there now, it's called Bethel, I think it was named because of the church, Bethel Church. And there were very few black people around, we -- everybody stayed in the black village, what few there were. It wasn't as large as it is now, there was only 10 or 12 hours in this section.

KAY: The -- there was a -- a -- a village of, a little Cannon village, I guess, about in 1954, that they had about 25 houses that they had for the black -- the blacks could uh, rent. I think they had about three rooms and a bath, you know? And (inaudible).

WILLIS: Oh yes, they --

KAY: Yeah.

WILLIS: -- they had a -- a yes, my brother lived in this place that they called 00:22:00Georgie, what was that? They had a placed called Georgie Town, right where East First Street goes through. The Cannon Mill had little houses, they were little three room houses, a little kitchen, and a little tiny bedroom, two little tiny bedrooms. And outdoor toilets. And uh, they had -- had several of them in different sections, very small, and uh, most of the people that worked in the mill lived there. There were only a few people that owned their homes at that time.

HELFAND: Now, you were telling me before about a Christmas party that he had -- oh, you were telling me about the Christmas party that he had for -- the Christmas parties that you went to. Could you describe them to us?

KAY: The Y, for the blacks. Oh yes, uh -- (phone rings)

(break in video)

HELFAND: Black children (break in audio) mill village, how -- why was it that you all went to this party? I just -- tell us that before we start. You might want to incorporate.

KAY: How did you get to go?

WILLIS: Well, uh, they knew we were here, and our parents worked around them, on the job.

HELFAND: OK. So that's what we need to know, is that --


WILLIS: And they -- they just gave us a chance, because they knew we didn't have any other recreation, huh?

KAY: (inaudible) Scott, this lady, this white lady, Miss Scott, that -- was she the lady that would turn your names in to get -- so you could go to the Y to get little bags and a fruit?

WILLIS: I can't remember (inaudible).

KAY: I do know you gone to the Y, and I wondered --

WILLIS: Well at that time, uh, they -- I guess they knew we were underprivileged, and we weren't used to going and seeing a picture, and a lot of them didn't even get a bag of candy, you know, and treats at Christmastime. So they would let us come up there, all the blacks of a certain age, and come to the YMCA, and they would show us a little cartoon picture, and give us a bag of uh, candy, and fruit. And that's the only time that we would get on the premises, to get -- get around there. And uh, we didn't have any movies to go to, like they did. And I guess they just felt sorry for us, and they just let 00:24:00us come up there at Christmastime at a certain hour, and we certainly looked forward to that.

STONEY: Could you tell us that story with, again, without being so quiet about it?

HELFAND: And also, (overlapping dialogue; inaudible).

STONEY: Tell us about the excitement about it.

HELFAND: And, you know, or Mr. Cannon invited us. So we remember where we are, we know that it's Cannon Mills.

KAY: Well did they give you a -- a toy at that time?

WILLIS: No. Later on they did, yeah.

STONEY: But don't whisper.

(break in video)

HELFAND: (inaudible) party, but remind us where we are.

WILLIS: Mm-hmm. OK. At Christmastime, uh, we didn't have any other activities, or anything to go or any places to go, except for Christmas programs at the church, that was the only thing that we had to enjoy at Christmastime. And uh, they got so that uh, they started letting us come up to the YMCA at a certain time, the younger people, you couldn't -- at a certain age, you couldn't go, just the children's ages. And they would let us come up there, and they would 00:25:00give us a toy, and a bag filled with candy and goodies. And they would show us a cartoon picture. And that was the only time that would get to get on the premises. And we looked forward to that once a year at Christmastime.

HELFAND: Now the premises were the mill premises, right? The YMCA and the mill were connected, (overlapping dialogue; inaudible).

WILLIS: That's right. That's -- it belonged to it. It --

HELFAND: -- explain the mill, that the YMCA belonged to the mill, and at Christmas --

WILLIS: Belonged to the mill.


WILLIS: That's right.

HELFAND: So if you could remind me where we are, that the YMCA was run by the mill, and that the Cannon Mills invited you for Christmas, then I'd know exactly where we were at Christmastime with you.

STONEY: And talk as loud as Judy's talking.

HELFAND: Do you know what I mean? I -- I --

(break in video)

WILLIS: OK. Well all the surrounding, uh, at the mill, and uptown, belonged to Cannon Mill, belonged to Mr. Cannon. The whole city belonged to Mr. Cannon. Until Mr. Murdock bought it out. And when I was young, we didn't have any other 00:26:00way of recreation at Christmastime, or anything to do. And uh, they would invite us up there at the -- at the YMCA, and let us come once a year, and they would show us a picture, a cartoon picture. And they would fill the bag with goodies and give it to us, all that was a certain age, and that was the only thing that we had forward -- had to look forward to, as children.

KAY: I never was able to go to the YMCA, to learn to swim or play basketball, or do any recreations at all. We -- my brother, well they learned to swim in a branch, not far from our house. They would pack the rocks up and back the water up, and that's where -- that's where they learned to swim. But we never did have any -- any place to go for recreations, to learn to swim, or volleyball, or do anything.

WILLIS: That's true. My oldest brother, my young brother, my youngest brother, 00:27:00the one who was older than I was, uh, they went to the same creek down here, near uh, it's the circle over there, and there's a big creek that runs through there, they would fish, that's where we'd go fish, and we'd catch the fish, and we'd eat them. And they would stop this big branch up, and -- with sand and rocks and everything, and that's where my brothers learned to fish-- uh, swim. And my children too, both boys, we weren't allowed to go to the Y, we didn't have no uh, recreation parks or anything. No swimming hole places to go to. And so, they would just go down there on this branch, it's not far from here, and they would just stop it up, and we'd go down there and fish, and then, after then, when they was ready to have some recreation, they would stop it up with the rocks and sand, and dive off in there, and that's where we learned to swim.

STONEY: Was there any place in the town where you felt that you couldn't go? Or that you didn't feel easy going to shopping or so forth? And places that you 00:28:00did? Could you talk about that? Were there black businesses or not?

WILLIS: There weren't any black businesses. There were ladies' stores, and of course, they knew you couldn't afford to pay the price what they had. And they wouldn't even come and wait on you, and they wouldn't even service you. If you went in there, they looked at you like you was a wild animal or something.

KAY: (inaudible).