Doing More Than Heads: African American Women Healing, Resisting, and Uplifting Others in St. Petersburg, Florida

Article excerpt

This paper examines the life histories of Mrs. Marie Yopp, a nurse, and Mrs. Edna Williams, (1) a beautician, in St. Petersburg, Florida, as a way to understand how African American women and their communities resist societal domination and create social change. These women, who occupied traditionally female domains at the time I interviewed them, enhanced other women's lives both economically and socially, nurtured a strong sense of selfhood, and reduced the power of racism in their everyday existence. Through support and mentoring by an older generation, Mrs. Williams, without formal college training, and Mrs. Yopp, with college degrees, created organizations that empowered other women as well as themselves. They used everyday female domains to pioneer local and national alliances that helped women to become self-sufficient. Their leadership and activism helped create a respectable existence for many African American women in St. Petersburg when the primary economic opportunity extended to them was domestic service. This research further shows the social implications of training domestics through club work and community activism. The lives of Mrs. Yopp and Mrs. Williams also testify to the collectivist strategy of "uplift," (2) meaning that each individual is responsible for contributing to the good of his or her community by recognizing that his or her success is not individually derived.

Researchers use personal narratives to explore the relationship between the individual and the collective, (3) which I employ here to examine the concept "uplift." The lives of Mrs. Yopp and Mrs. Williams both symbolize the intersection of Jim Crow racism in Florida, poverty, and an African American community's attempt to resist economic and social marginalization. The ways in which these women acted on their convictions say as much about the opportunities that the social structure permits as it does about their ethnic cultures. Cultural change occurs through accumulated experiences of the community: Members interpret realities, develop a knowledge base, and create new possibilities for the way a community reacts to the world around it. (4) Mrs. Yopp and Mrs. Williams relied on the knowledge and nurturance of their community to resist racial domination and create social change.

Mrs. Marie Yopp and Mrs. Edna Williams (5) shared their histories with me in 1990 as part of a project to record the social history of African Americans in St. Petersburg. I became acquainted with these women through snowball sampling. (6) On several occasions various individuals in the community told me that a social history of St. Petersburg would be incomplete without talking to "Nurse Yopp," as she is affectionately known. Virginia Scott, a native of St. Petersburg, recommended her cousin, Mrs. Williams. She indicated that Mrs. Williams had been the historian in their family and owned a business -- a significant buffer against racial and gender discrimination.

LOCAL CONTEXT FOR RESISTANCE

For African American women in St. Petersburg, the hegemony of a white power structure spawned strategies of resistance. Although their migration from rural towns in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida during 1920s held promises of a life better than sharecropping, they found themselves in a highly segregated tourist economy. Many of these women escaped the fields to find that the color of their skin relegated them only to positions as servants in hotels and maids in private homes. (7)

Neither gender nor class shielded them against the vagaries of racism. In 1938, principal Noah Griffin and teachers, both male and female, of the predominately colored Gibbs High School were beaten and forced to leave a park that had been designated as part of the white-only zone. Prior to desegregation, shooting or beating African Americans for the least transgression often went unpunished. (8) Until 1971, legal codes and customs restricted African Americans, who comprised 18 percent of the population, to 2 percent of the land. …