Clark-Lewis, Elizabeth. Living-In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, DC, 1910-1940. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

Reviewed by Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, Ph.D.
The Oral History Review
, Summer 1997 vol. 24 no. 1 p. 49(3)
1997 Oral History Association

Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, director of the Public History Program at Howard University, has written a book about the Great Migration that relies on 123 oral interviews with African American women who left their homes and sharecropper existence in the rural South to live and work as domestic servants in Washington, D.C., in a period when American society and the African American population were undergoing profound socioeconomic transformations. Clark-Lewis's book reconfirms the role and significance of the well-known elements of the Great Migration (e.g., chain migration, the strength of kinship ties, newcomer assimilation, etc.) and draws from a number of other works examining this important event in African American history (e.g., Florette Henri, Black Migration: Movement North, 1900-1920, 1975; Joe William Trotter Jr., The Great Migration in Historical Perspective: New Dimension of Race, Class, and Gender, 1991; James R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration, 1989; Kenneth L. Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870-1930, 1976). In this respect Clark-Lewis's book does not break new ground. However, it can be counted among a small but growing number of works that have begun to examine the experiences of women in this critical period (e.g., Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present, 1985; Carole Marks, Farewell -- We're Good and Gone: The Great Black Migration, 1989; Darlene Clark Hine, "Black Migration to the Urban Midwest: The Gender Dimension, 1915-1945," in Trotter, 1991; Quintar Taylor, The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle's Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era, 1994; James Borchert, Alley Life in Washington: Family, Community, Religion, and Folklife in the City, 1850-1970, 1982).

The real strength of Clark-Lewis's work is its focus and reliance on the oral histories of elderly black working class women whom the author calls the "pioneers of African American labor" (130). She uses their oral reminiscences to personalize the black migrational experience and draws on a variety of other historical sources to place their accounts in a larger historical context. More importantly, her lavish use of the oral histories brings into sharp focus the often neglected gender dimension of the Great Migration. The interviews provide us with insight into the "subtle process of women's migration" (4), acquainting us with the customs, terms, and language that characterized women's experiences as they undertook and accomplished their journeys. 

 

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