From Drunk to Religious The story of Mattie Jamison by Zuri Best

Mattie Jamison was a Black washerwoman who was interviewed as a part of the Federal Writers’ Project, an initiative that aimed to capture the lives of “regular” people in the 1930s. Mattie dealt with alcoholism but overcame this struggle through religion.

Students examining books in the Library of Congress where the Life History narratives are held.

What was the Federal Writers' Project?

The Federal Writers' Project (FWP) was created during Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency as a part of the New Deal. The New Deal's objective was to strengthen the economy through employment programs and the FWP was a part of that objective. The primary goal of the FWP national directors was to document American culture and social life as well as show that diversity was the defining feature of America's population (Hill 64).

Life History Production

Life history narratives went through a complicated production line in order to be published. First, the national directors gave the big idea they wanted conveyed, that America was culturally and socially diverse, and created the guidelines and instruction manuals to be used by interviewers. This idea was passed to state leadership in the FWP who were “frequently confused and often in disagreement with what the guidelines and manuals asked them to do” (Hill 64). Finally, the interviewers conducted the interviews with the combined input of the directors’ original intentions and the state-level leaders' own agendas in mind.

This long line of writers and editors created a big problem for the narratives: the narratives came off as superficial, especially when it came to black narrators, and the heavy editing and influence from directors put the accuracy of the narratives into question (Hill 66). In order to create narratives that fit the diverse America idea, interviewers omitted aspects of some of the interviews that could have enhanced their individuality, “the transcribed texts interviewers submitted were edited and sometimes rewritten by trained staff with more experience before being sent to national headquarters” (Hill 68), and according to Hill, the interviewers drew upon conventions of popular fiction to create what they considered interesting narratives (69). The narratives produced were then sometimes lacking in authenticity prompting the question: whose voice was being heard: the interviewer or the interviewee?

Despite these common issues among several life history narratives, Mattie's seems to fall on the nice side of the spectrum. The entire narrative, aside from an opening paragraph in which the interviewer describes Mattie’s shotgun house as “clean and neat”, is just Mattie telling her story rather than the interviewer constructing one of her own.

Mattie's original narrative from the Federal Writers' Project


Life as a Drunk

Mattie Jamison was a Black washerwoman living in 1939 Charlotte, North Carolina at the time of her interview. She did not talk about her childhood or early life besides remarking to the interviewer that she had lived in her home for nearly sixteen years and she had made her living so far by cooking as well as washing and ironing clothes.

Mattie once worked for a white woman called Mrs. L. S. Croxton. Mattie said she “use-ta be a bad n***er” because she was always drunk when she went to work for Mrs. Croxton. Fortunately, her employer was good to her and simply told her that she should act better; however, Mattie’s drinking got so bad that she was let go. After being fired by Mrs. Croxton, Mattie found work at the Elk’s Club as a cook but her sole personal motive for working there was to “git all de liquor [she] wanted.” Mattie said nobody cared that she was a drunk as long as her cooking was good.

New Found Religion

One day at this new job, a coworker asked Mattie if she wanted to go see a bishop and promised to cover her shift if she went. She went to the tent that the Bishop, called Bishop Grace, was at and saw him praying for people. She overheard two women sitting on the stage near Bishop Grace whispering about him after he grabbed a bottle of olive oil, saying he was fooling the people. The Bishop overheard them as well and said he wasn’t fooling people but anointing them and that the two ladies should be careful lest they have to be “toted” out of the tent. The two ladies then fell out and did indeed have to be carried out of the tent. Mattie, herself, was anointed with the oil and fell out “as if lightning had struck [her]” into a pile of black and white people that was “waist high.”

A Woman of God

Mattie kept a framed photograph of Bishop Grace in her home and whenever she was sick, rather than go to the doctor, she stood in front of the picture and was healed. Once when she was washing clothes, Mattie felt sick so she first stood in front of Bishop Grace’s photo then laid on the ground outside and prayed to God and she was healed. Mattie told the interviewer that poor black people had a hard time and she, herself, made four dollars a week; but, she had her religion and “dat was worf de whole worl’.”

Mattie believed wholeheartedly in Bishop Grace and his preaching. There were rumors that Bishop Grace was just stealing money from black people. He was also taken to court once and accused of stealing church members from another preacher’s church. But still, Mattie and people in the church followed him and did things like save money to get his car fixed. Mattie even relied on Bishop Grace to pray for her teeth since her income could take care of the rent and food and nothing else. In spite of all her hardships, Mattie trusted in the Lord. She strongly believed that you had to be humble to God. She explained to the interviewer that Jonah from the Bible got swallowed by a whale because he wasn’t humble to God. At the end of her interview, Mattie prayed for her interviewer who wasn’t saved and told her not to forget to pray.

Top Left: Father Smith, a Negro pastor like Bishop Grace, conducting Sunday service. Top Right: A kitchen in a Negro home like Mattie's. Bottom left: A shotgun house similar to the one in which Mattie lived. Bottom right: Churchgoers sitting during a service.

Mattie's World

Alcoholism in the 1930s

Alcoholism in 1939 was considered to be a disease that affected a person by making her incapable of controlling her drinking, an idea created by founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith (Levine 116). During this time period, alcohol and alcoholism carried a strong stigma of immorality and alcoholics were treated poorly, oftentimes having to undergo unhealthy and painful treatments to attain sobriety (Case para. 3). This is why many were eager for ulterior approaches (such as religion). The AA group showed alcoholics a sympathetic and supporting attitude while the rest of society looked down on them (Mann et al. para. 7). There is no specific number of people alcoholism affected but membership for AA grew from 200 in 1939 to 2000 in 1940 (Case para. 2).

Religion in the 1930s

The largest Christian denominations during the 1930s were Baptist, Methodist, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Disciples, Episcopalians, Holiness Movement and Congregationalists ("Religion" para. 12). Christians believe that there is only one God and they communicate with him through prayer ("BBC" para. 1, para. 7). During the 1930s, the Great Depression effected the Church in numerous ways: there were budget cuts, decreased membership, ministers being dismissed, and churches closed ("Religion" para. 13). Due to increased dismissal of staff, there was an increased reliance on the pastor or a sole preacher to deliver the Word to the congregation. Churches also increased the social services they provided. Churches operated soup kitchens, provided temporary shelters, and offered more personal aid to members ("Religion" para. 16).

Mattie, a former alcoholic, must have seen many bottles of wine

Legacy of the Life Histories

The Federal Writers' Project may have had some issues when it came to the interviewing and editing process but ultimately it does give historians an insight into the "complex social situations" people faced in the 1930s (Hill 64). The narratives put faces to a time period and bring it to life for people in the present.

Excerpt from Mattie's life history narrative

Works Cited

“BBC - Religions - Christianity: The Basics of Christian Beliefs.” BBC News, BBC, 14 Aug. 2009, Accessed 18 Feb. 2017.

Case, Stephanie. American Studies: The 1930’s. Blogger, 26 Apr. 2011,, Accessed 14 Feb. 2017.

Hill, Lynda M. “Ex-Slave Narratives: The Wpa Federal Writers' Project Reappraised.” Oral History, vol. 26, no. 1, 1998, pp. 64–72.

Levine, Harry G. “The Alcohol Problem in America: From Temperance to Alcoholism.” British Journal of Addiction, vol. 79, no. 1, March 1984, 109-119. Wiley Online Library, DOI: 10.1111/j.1360- 0443.1984.tb00252.x

Mann, Karl and Derik Hermann, Andreas Heinz; ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF ALCOHOLISM: THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. Alcohol Alcohol 2000; 35 (1): 10-15. doi: 10.1093/alcalc/35.1.10

"Religion 1931-1939." Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression. . 17 Feb. 2017 <>.

Images Cited

Title Page Image. Delano, Jack. “Church service in the Negro church.”, Lot no. 1549, Call no. LC-USF34-046153, Library of Congress, Oct 1941,

Image 2. Collins, Marjory. "Students examining books in the Library of Congress.", Lot no. LC-USW3-010016, 1942, Library of Congress

Image 3. Folder 307: “I Used to be a Bad N***er.” Wilson Library, UNC Chapel Hill, 2017.

Image 4. Delano, Jack. “Father Smith, Negro pastor, conducting Sunday Mass.”, Call no. LC-USW3-000126, Library of Congress, Mar 1942,

Image 5. Mydans, Carl. “Kitchen in Negro home.”, Call no. LC-USF33-T01-000149, Library of Congress, Nov 1935,

Image 6. Lange, Dorothea. “A shotgun house built in 1925.”, Call no. LC-USF34-019773, Library of Congress, July 1939,

Image 7. See ‘Title Page Image’

Image 8. Lee, Russell. “Bottles of sparkling wine.”, Call no. LC-USF34-071438, Library of Congress, Jan 1942,

Image 9. ‘See Image 3’

Created By
Zuri Best


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