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Alfreda Barnett Duster Oral History Interview

Biography: As social worker, mother, and civic leader, Alfreda Barnett Duster worked tirelessly to improve conditions in her neighborhood and community and to provide an environment capable of enriching and nourishing the lives of all people, especially the young. She grew up in Chicago surrounded by her large family and colleagues of her parents, Ferdinand L. Barnett and Ida B. Wells- Barnett. Graduating from the University of Chicago in 1924, she spent the next 20 years as wife, mother, and homemaker. Widowed at the age of 40 and with five children to raise, she returned to school to study for a degree in social work. As a social worker for the state of Illinois in the newly developing field of community organization, she served as juvenile delinquency prevention coordinator. She was also the administrator of the girls' program for underprivileged city children at Camp Illini, "Mother of the Year" in 1950 and 1970, and editor of her mother's autobiography, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Description: The Black Women Oral History Project interviewed 72 African American women between 1976 and 1981. With support from the Schlesinger Library, the project recorded a cross section of women who had made significant contributions to American society during the first half of the 20th century. Photograph taken by Judith Sedwick Repository: Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Collection: Black Women Oral History Project Research Guide: guides.library.harvard.edu/schlesinger_bwohp

Alfreda Barnett Duster (1904–1983) was a social worker and community activist in Chicago.

She is the daughter of civil rights leaders Ida B. Wells and Ferdinand L. Barnett. Duster served as the Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Coordinator, assigned to the Southside Community Committee. She also administered the girls' program at Camp Illini, a country residential camp for urban children. Later in life she worked for the Woodlawn Community Services Agency, Catalyst for Youth, a talent search project that counseled high school students prior to entering college. Duster edited and published Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (University of Chicago Press, 1970), the autobiography of her mother.

In the selected portion of Alfreda Duster’s interview, she tells of her life growing up in Chicago as the daughter of two prominent civil rights leaders and the influence this had on her own life’s work.

The whole panorama of life to me was one of beautiful childhood, carefree childhood, my mother and father, sister and brothers, aunts and uncles and cousins there constantly coming in and out and being a part of this family. In addition to that, my parents knew all the outstanding people of the day.

She recounts one family story of Susan B. Anthony cautioning her mother not to have children; advice—fortunately for Duster—Ida Barnett-Wells ignored.

The interview is part of the Black Women Oral History Project, interviews of 72 African American women recorded between 1976 and 1981. With support from the Schlesinger Library, the project recorded a range of women who had made significant contributions to American society during the first half of the 20th century.

Listen to Alfreda Barnett Duster Oral History Interview, Chicago, Illinois, The Black Women Oral History Project. Marcia M. Greenlee (interviewer), March 8, 1978

For research tips and additional resources, view the Hear Black Women's Voices research guide.

[start of track]

Marcia Greenlee [MG]:

Well now, what was your relationship with your mother?

Alfreda Duster [AD]:

Well, my relationship was really great. I enjoyed every minute of it. I can remember when I was much smaller, she'd come home and she'd be reading the paper, catch up on her information, and I would climb up on the chair in back of her and take her hair down and comb it, you know, and braid it up and do just like my grandchildren do to me now. I think that was one of my brightest memories. The other is that we lived at 3234 Rhodes Avenue at that time, in the middle of what is now Lake Meadows, but we lived at 3234 Rhodes Avenue. It was a two-story house, very nice house, and one of my projects in school was on Arbor Day to plant a tree. And I planted a tree in our front yard, it must have been about maybe 1913 or 1914, somewhere in there. And when we left there to move to Grand Boulevard, my tree was still growing. I'm sure it would still be there if the Lake Meadows Housing Development had not cut it down. But it was a nice place and it was difficult for me after I grew up and finished college and became involved in social work; it was difficult for me to really empathize with people who had come from nothing, where they had lived in cottages, huts in the South, with no floor and no windows and had suffered the consequences of the discrimination and the hardships of the South. But of course as I grew older and I began to look into and to study it, I began to have more understanding of what the conditions had been. The whole panorama of life to me was one of beautiful childhood, carefree childhood, my mother and father, sister and brothers, aunts and uncles and cousins there constantly coming in and out and being a part of this family. In addition to that, my parents knew all the outstanding people of the day. If they came to Chicago, they came to our house and I can remember among them William Monroe Trotter and Carter G. Woodson, who started the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, and Helen Q. Brown, the elocutionist, and Anita Patty Brown. I think in my mother's collection there's a letter that she wrote from France while she was staying in France, talking about things, and Charles Chestnut who was one of our early authors.

MG:

Charles Chestnut.

AD:

Yes. And there are letters from Charles Chestnut to Mother in the Chestnut papers. And, of course, I have letters in the Frederick Douglass papers— Mother and Father writing to and from Frederick Douglass. And I've heard her tell so many times about the time that they were in the World's Fair and he was the only black officially connected because he was the minister of Haiti, how revered he was and how it was so dramatically different from the treatment blacks got from the administration of the World's Fair. So that my mother and I were, see, I was the youngest, and I was always doing things, so I was the one who had to go upstairs and get her glasses, and to go here and get her house slippers and come back. And then as I say, she had certain rules that I had to follow because we had many people coming into the home, to take care of it, to do the cleaning and laundry. But she was always a dominant force in my life.

MG:

Your parents were married in Chicago on June 27, 1395. How did they meet?

AD: 

They met because of their, both of their interest in this whole upheaval. My father was one of the contributors to the book that she put out called Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Fair.* They had like interests, and when she came to Chicago, naturally she met him because he was one of the founders and the editor of the Conservator. She had just lost her paper, so their journalist careers were intertwined. They were both fighting what you might call the overall pattern of discrimination and segregation and mistreatment of the black race, and she had mass meetings that she called to talk about lynching and to try and form antilynching societies here. And of course, he was involved in that, so that the time she spent here in Chicago, from the time she came to the World's Fair in 1893... This trip was between the two trips to England, where she was speaking and lecturing. And after she came back in 1893 and had this particular experience, she went back to England in 1894, and when she came back the second time, she went across the country, trying to organize anti-lynching societies, anti-lynching leagues, and to talk about lynching from one end of the country to the other, all the way out to California, in the North, of course. Because her life wasn't worth anything in the South. But it was through that...and while she was touring the country, her itinerary was known and wherever she stopped there would be a letter from my father. And so they had a long distance correspondence courtship and I understand—I never saw one—but I understand my father could write a beautiful love letter. So they met in the work. There's a young woman named Stella Garnett who wrote a nice letter to me when she knew I was working on my mother's autobiography and told me about what a wonderful man my father was, because she worked in the Conservator office. She was one of the first girls who was allowed out of the home to work in an office, and the only reason her mother let her work there was because my father was such an outstanding man of integrity. She was talking about the time when she said people often asked him if he was going to marry again after his first wife died so young and left two young children. He told her that he wasn't interested in just anybody, he was looking for a certain type of woman who would mean something meaningful to his life and his career. And evidently Mama fit that pattern. He pursued and married her.

MG:

When your parents married, several members of the black community, and others such as Susan B. Anthony, were unhappy about your mother marrying. Evidently they felt her leadership role would be compromised. Her exchange with Miss Anthony on this subject is particularly interesting and it's included in the autobiography. Do you recall your mother ever discussing the public reaction to her marriage?

AD:

No. All I know is that she was not amused, but very concerned about Miss Anthony's prediction that marriage interfered with a career. In other words, Miss Anthony felt that she should give full time to her career. She was concerned because she felt that motherhood was one of the greatest things that happened. She was very happy that she had not taken the advice of certain people who advised the use of whatever contraceptives were available back in the 1890s. She really enjoyed her family, and she felt that people who deliberately did not marry and did not have children were losing the rounding-out possibility of their lives. And she says in the book there that she asked Susan Anthony if she really believed that the world would be that much better when women got to vote. My mother felt, traveling and knowing people as she did, that many women would not vote, and second, that they would be influenced by their husbands. So that it would just be an extension of the husband's ideas that would take precedence over any ideas the wife had. She was not naive enough to believe that the whole world would change for the better when women got the vote.

MG:

How about your father? Did he ever mention the public reaction to their marriage?

AD:

No.

MG:

It was the social event, it seems, for that season.

AD:

Yes, it was. But don't forget I was ten or twelve years later in getting along...1895 to almost 1905. That's almost ten years. By that time, they had stopped talking about it. In other words, many of the facts of the autobiography were new to me. Because you see, if I was born in 1904, by the time I was old enough to appreciate what was going on in the world, I was at least ten years old, 1914, so her activities were far removed from me and she was busy, they were both busy doing... 

MG:

Other things, sure.

AD:

Yes. And they didn't talk too much about what happened back in the 1890s.

MG:

You mentioned already some of the influences that your parents had on you. Are there any others, anything else that you'd like to add to that?

AD: 

Yes. The thing that influenced me quite a bit in my social work was, once again, the effect of the home, parents, on children. Because in my youth, I used to believe that whatever happened in childhood need not necessarily influence adulthood, I felt that I was standing on my own, that the decisions that I made as an adult were my own decisions. It wasn't until life and time brought to my attention the fact that I was a product of my mother and father and the community... And the longer I live the more I'm aware that people are the same adults as they were children, and that the effect of their parents is much more dominant than I used to believe. I know that a person ninety-one like Mrs. Wallace is definitely a product of her father's strict and dedicated life. He died when she was twelve, but she still carries with her, and I know I still carry with me, the admonitions of my mother and father about various things. I know that what they wanted me to do, I do now unconsciously, or consciously. I know that my father's integrity, the fact that he never would allow any liquor or wine in our house, because he didn't want anyone to say that they took their first drink at our house, he didn't want his boys to ever feel that they drank because they saw their father drink. I have felt the same way. These are the things that have had this impact on my life. I never smoked because I didn't want to tell my sons not to smoke while I was smoking. And my father and mother were the same. Both of them lived such dedicated lives that to me, it would be just criminal to depart from that.

[end of track]

* Ida B. Wells et al., The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition—The Afro-American's Contribution to Columbian Literature (Chicago: Ida B. Wells, 1893).

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