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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Septima Poinsette Clark, July 25, 1976. Interview G-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Clark's mother tries to maintain middle-class standards

Clark was conscious of class differences in her community as she grew up and knew that she could not socialize with the Charleston upper class. It had to do with her parents' identity as laborers, though her mother tried to maintain appearances of being upper-class.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Septima Poinsette Clark, July 25, 1976. Interview G-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACQUELYN HALL:
What about class divisions in Charleston when you were growing up? Where did you and your family fit into that class division?
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
Well, because my mother was a washerwoman and my father was a slave, I couldn't go to any of the parties that were given by the upper-class people in Charleston, the middle-class people who had money and whose mothers didn't have to work. And the only way I went to school was because I took care of the lady's children, and she paid the dollar and a half for me a month to go to school, so I was considered, you know, beneath them, and I could not go to any of the parties. And then after I left here and went to Columbia, South Carolina, I knew the city doctors' wives, and the domestic workers all sat around at the table and played bridge. And that was strange to me, because they didn't do it in Charleston. Charleston and New Orleans, I found, had the class and caste system, and mostly they wouldn't. . . . And when I spoke out and said that I was a member of the NAACP, the members of my sorority were very angry with me and would not have their pictures made with me. First, they wouldn't be able to have a job as, and secondly, they felt that that was beneath them, too.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What kind of neighborhood did you live in? What was the class structure?
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
I lived in a very mixed neighborhood. And there were three families that lived there that today I can consider as kept women. They had white husbands, beautiful children, never married, but they were on a high pedestal. The women didn't work, and they stayed behind closed doors and windows most of the time. One was a German lady, and she was having children for a fellow named Kellenbach and his peoplearound here. And she had two children, and I used to go over to her house sometimes. She was a sick woman for quite some time. And I can remember around the sixth grade, when I learned to read pretty well, I went over there and read the Bible to her, chapters of the Bible. And I saw her husband, the man that she was living with. And then we had another family who lived with an Italian man, and they had lots of children. They were Simmonses. And there was another family right beside me. But my mother never visited those people, and they never visited her. The children would speak, passing, but they never came to your house, and we never went to theirs.
JACQUELYN HALL:
It sounds to me like she was upholding very middle-class standards while living economically in the lower class.
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
That's true. That's why she didn't want us to be on the public school galleries, because she wanted you to go to a school where you wouldn't mix with thechildren that she didn't have enough money to by.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Well, how did she feel about her own situation? Did she blame your father for not being able to support her better?
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
Yes. She said it all the time. She had a little song, and I can't remember the song she used to sing, but she'd say, "The clothes that I put over my head, I'll never put over again." That was one way.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What did that mean?
SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK:
It meant that her status in life had changed by marrying, and she couldn't buy the kinds of things that she used to buy.