Domestic Help, Divorce, and Landownership: The Life History and Hardships of Mandy Long Roberson

By Naomi Van Horn

Mandy Long Roberson was an African-American woman born a slave in Yadkin County, North Carolina. After the Civil War, she started her life as a prosperous cook and housekeeper, and eventually became a land owner. Her story was brought to light in an interview by the Federal Writers' Project in 1939. In the biography below, Roberson's hardships and triumphs of divorce, landownership, and willed property are revealed.

The Federal Writers' Project

During the Great Depression, Americans were not purchasing books since they could barely put food on the table. Many writers were out of work until the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) was created and funded by the government under the New Deal. Employing writers not only helped them get back on their feet financially, but it also gave them a positive outlet to express their dissatisfaction with the political system of the time. Rather than being criticized for writing that, "did not reflect the class struggle or the dangers of fascism [which] was often attacked by the radical press as escapist literature, as were authors who paid more attention to form and style than to their message" (Mangione 31), these writers were given an opportunity to give voices to working-class men and women.

The FWP project was unique from other projects in that the life histories were taken directly from the mouths of everyday people. The writers for the FWP were given a lot of freedom in writing the interviews for the project. In Roberson's life history, her dialect is shown through her quotes that interviewer Clalee Dunnagan typed. The inclusion of the dialect reveals Dunnagan's impression of an uneducated Roberson. Over the years, some have argued that the incorporation of the dialects contained tones of racism while others defended the dialects as a means of historical accuracy (Mangione 263).

Writers for the FWP recording life histories

Biography: From Slave to Housekeeper to Landowner

Early Life and Domestic Help

Born into slavery, Mandy Long Roberson grew up on a plantation in Yadkin County, North Carolina. At a young age, she saw her mother and brother for the last time when they were sold to the owners of a plantation in the Deep South. After the conclusion of the Civil War, the sedulous and independent Roberson worked as a housekeeper and frugally saved while her first husband, Joe Goodman, lethargically stayed at their home and refused to work. Roberson's profession as a domestic worker was common, “‘52 percent of employed women worked in ‘domestic and personal service.’ From 1870 through the mid-1900s, that percentage only increased” (Bloom par. 5). Working as a domestic servant and cook was how Roberson first acquired wealth. Tired of being the only provider in her family, she eagerly accepted a job her Uncle Robey offered her as a cook for his family in Birmingham, so she left Goodman and rode the train south to Alabama.

Marriages and Divorces

While in Alabama, Roberson met and fell in love with her second husband, a miner, named Sam Morrison. They moved to Carbon Hill where they lived together compatibly for almost 15 years until Morrison cheated on her. Roberson quickly filed for divorce, sold the house, and moved back to Birmingham to live with Uncle Robey until his death. In Uncle Robey’s will, he left his land and farm to Roberson. Even after her first two marriages ended in shambles, she decided to get married a third time. On this occasion to a carpenter named Manny Watson. Roberson was the primary breadwinner once again, and similar to her previous marriages this one ended because the husband became a drunk and an adulterer. According to Stevenson, divorce rates doubled between 1860 and 1920, while the amount of couples getting married stayed the same(Stevenson 27, 29). Roberson contributed to this trend by marrying and divorcing a total of three husbands.

"[Mandy Long Roberson] was thrifty and industrious, and in the course of a few years, had saved up a considerable sum of money . . . . . . . . money earned cooking and housekeeping for well-to-do white families" (Dunnagan 1).

Maintaining Property and Her Children

In the post-antebellum South, "black women overwhelmingly chose to live in stable families with their husbands and children. Ironically, however, this decreased their personal autonomy as their separate property holdings diminished” (Schweniger 30). African-American women's property would go under their husband's name when they would marry. After slavery was abolished it was easier for families to stay together and more women chose marriage (Schweniger 30). Roberson was not affected by this tendency since she would get divorces and move on, keeping her property unlike her counterparts whose property was combined with their husband's during marriage. Roberson had two children, Willie and Bessie, with her first husband. Bessie died, and Willie married his sweetheart, Jenny, and helped raise her two children from a previous marriage and their own baby. With all the money Roberson had saved, she headed out to live in Arkansas by the hot mineral springs for almost four years. When she arrived back in Yadkin County, Willie had died so she chose to stay with Jenny and manage her Birmingham affairs by mail.

Willed Property and Late Life

Quickly aging, Roberson decided it was time to create her own will so she hired a lawyer and willed everything to Jenny and her children. According to Judge, during this time period, women usually only included family in their wills, while men were more likely to include people they were not related to (Judge 307). Some women would also exclude their husbands from their wills entirely, not trusting that they "would act in the best interest of their children" or suspecting him of "misconduct" (Judge 307). Roberson chose to will her property to the only kin she had left, her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren. If she would have been in one of her marriages when she wrote her will, one of her husbands could have been easily excluded. Somehow after she made the will, her property went directly to Jenny and her children, leaving her with nothing. She then retired to the County Home in her home county where she may have been “ole an’ broke”, but she still had her rich sense of humor and priceless stories.

"I'se seed a lot o' misery in dis worl' in my time, an' I ain't 'zactly sayin' I ain't seed no happiness" (Dunnagan 1).

**I chose to use the actual name of my subject, Mandy Long Roberson, who was re-named Lucinda Williams. I also kept the original names of the significant places in her life history, all in an effort of historical accuracy and my belief that a long enough time has passed that her descendants would not mind.

Works Cited

Bloom, Ester. "The Decline of Domestic Help." The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 23 Sept. 2015. Web. 1 Feb. 2017. <>.

Dunnagan, Clalee. "Ole an' Broke." 6 April 1939. TS. Federal Writers Project. U of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Folder 359.

Judge, D.S. "American legacies and the variable life histories of women and men." Human Nature (1995) 6: 291. doi:10.1007/BF02734204 . Web. 31 Jan. 2017. <>.

Mangione, Jerre. "The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers' Project, 1935-1943." Syracuse University Press, 1996, pp. 3-96. Google Scholar. Web. 31 Jan. 2017. <>.

Schweniger, Lauren. “Property owning free African-American women in the South 1800-1870.” Journal of Women’s History 1 (Winter 1990): 13-44. Web. 31 Jan. 2017. <>.

Stevenson, Betsey, and Justin Wolfers. "Marriage and Divorce: Changes and their Driving Forces." The Journal of Economic Perspectives (2007): 27-52. Web. 31 Jan. 2017. < of North Carolina%2FACQ Services&checksum=A4AC29CCAA45542C870797BE9A662E4A>.

Image Citations

Godwin, Gregg. "Black Women, Domestic Work and Expanding Resistance, 1909-1945". Department of History. UNC College of Arts & Sciences, 2015. <>. 9 Feb 2017.

Shahn, Ben. Wife of sharecropper, Pulaski County, Arkansas. 1935. Library of Congress. Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. <>. Accessed 9 Feb 2017.

Uhlarik, Jennifer. "Federal Writers' Project--Part of FDR's New Deal". Heroes, Heroines, and History. Heroes, Heroines, and History, 2016. <>. 9 Feb 2017.

Wolcott, Marion Post. Gertrude, churning on Isaiah Pettway's porch, Gees Bend, Alabama. 1939. Library of Congress. Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. <>. Accessed 9 Feb 2017.

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