I just finished looking through some of the Mary Holt Woolfolk Carlton Papers at Virginia Commonwealth University where I made one of my most favorite discoveries of all time. But first, who the hell is Holt?
Holt was a friend and comrade of Zelda’s and together they stormed that bastion of Virginia conservatism, our local chapter of the fourth estate. The local newspaper, the staunchly conservative Richmond Times-Dispatch, is not much different today than it was in Zelda and Holt’s heyday. While today you can read the RTD’s attack on Katherine Waddell and the Women’s Strike Force, in the 1970’s you could look forward to such gems as sex-segregated job ads and disparaging remarks about the Women’s Bank. In fact, the frequency with which these two allies and friends mention their frustration with the media in their letters makes me wonder if I shouldn’t turn my research in that direction.
Anyway, back to Holt. She was from a “Virginia family” (as a transplant, I learned that this is code for “rich, white and, at some point probably not distant, landed) and married a supportive lawyer. She is a trained social worker with a master’s degree and something of an expert on human sexuality who corresponded with Dr. William Masters, among others. She is quite poised and very intelligent, just the sort of person you’d want to have working for you, if you were the boss. This makes my new favorite discovery all the sweeter.
In one of many folders of correspondence in the collection I found two letters, both written to people who had interviewed Holt for jobs in the past. In the letters, which almost seem like therapy exercises, she writes of her frustration and feelings of helplessness when these two men made sexist remarks to her during job interviews. Her letters are both diplomatic and eloquent and she ends both with a hope that the recipient has changed his mind about women in the intervening years. One man does indeed write back to tell her that he has changed his mind.
I am simply blown away by Holt’s courage and, well, balls. These feelings must have weighed on her through the years and informed much of her activism, particularly when it came to “desexigrating” the Help Wanted ads. One of the letters is much more difficult to read than the other. This expressive letter was written to a man who told her that “women are just office furniture”. That Holt could write to him, clearly state her feelings at the time and then end by effectively positioning him to easily claim reform is not only brilliant but shows both an amazing maturity and a sound rationality. If I had received such a letter, I would be kicking myself for not having hired such a daring and brilliant mind.
Holt Carleton (as she is known) is still alive and I can’t wait to talk with her.
You’ll never believe it but I got another job interview today. Seriously. It is a part-time, no benefits and slightly insulting pay rate job that just happens to be in my field and which sounds like more fun than I can handle. It is as a researcher for a local museum. I’ll find out more about it at the interview on the 4th which is the same week that I’ll find out about Virginia Union University. Uggggghhhh! I can’t wait! I’m starving!
In archival news, the Library of Virginia now has another cohab register to add to its growing list. What is that, you say? What is a cohab register? Well…the cohab registers are a set of awesome nineteenth century documents that we’re working on digitizing. The actual title of each one is Register of Colored Persons of _________ County Cohabiting Together as Husband and Wife as of February 27, 1866 These documents were created by the Freedmen’s Bureau when it set up shop in Virginia after the Civil War. These documents were often the first time that a slave’s name appeared in an official record and the registers were used to legitimize marriages and children. Previous to this, slave families were considered….well, they weren’t considered at all! The supposition that black families were incidental led to later assumptions, enshrined in the well-meaning but misleading Moynihan Report that the perceived problems in black family life such as fatherlessness, desertion, etc. were the result of the hardships that slavery inflicted upon family life. Moynihan’s theory was that blacks in America would not be capable of attaining equality for a long time yet because of the enormous damage slavery had caused, in particular, damage to black families. Fairplay. I can understand that slavery put strains on family life that were not experienced by white families and that this would have repercussions for a significant amount of time as that race works for equality througout history, however Moynihan’s basic assumption was that slave families were transitory units. My reading of the evidence is different. My own admittedly rather elementary research during the time that I transcribed these registers has led me to a far different conclusion about the emotional lives of slave families. Maybe I should call it a hypothesis since, as I said, my research has been pretty basic so far. Anyway, these registers show that there was a remarkable resilience among slave families, some who were living very geographically separate lives. The registers show that many wives took the last name of their husbands, even when there was often no legitimizing ceremony which indicates that slave couples recognized the binding nature of marriage. Further, the registers are full of elderly couples who had been married for more than forty years! Some of these descriptions also contained the exact date of the marriage, even when it had occurred many, many years before. As a woman, I can formally testify that this likely shows that the couple felt an emotional bond. Would you remember the exact date that you just randomly decided to shack up with someone? No, I think desertion and casual babymaking was any more widespread as it was in white society as some scholars seem to have supposed. Furthermore, many of these babies were named after fathers or mothers, indicating yet another familial bond. Speaking of babies, another interesting piece of evidence is a set of companion registers that are often lumped together with the cohab registers. These are the “Register of Children of Colored Persons Whose Parents Have Ceased to Cohabit Which the Father Recognizes to be His”. This is pretty self-explanatory. It is a register of children from families broken by desertion, death, geographic separation, etc. It makes for sad reading but it makes a convincing case for the surprising number of intact families living in slavery. Some of the families mentioned in the records are in fact broken by desertion but it is a gratifyingly small number. The majority of parents in the record are no longer cohabiting because one of them is six feet under. Well, I do admit to being amused by one case in which the record mentions that the family in question is separated due to the “temper of wife” but most of the families no longer together were separated either by distance or earthly dimensions.
I had a fabulous time transcribing these bad boys and I really hope that someone will do a more thorough study using them. Especially since many of these registers have NOT been studied before. During the time that I was doing the transcription, I was reading one of the definitive studies of black family life during slavery, aptly titled The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 and in the notes, the author acknowledges the existence of four cohab registers. The LVA has, in fact, twenty-one; the newest being that for Smyth County which I just finished transcribing yesterday. This huge discrepancy is not an error on the author’s part but rather the result of having so many great historical documents hidden away in the various 95 county courthouses across the state. Many of these documents have just been unearthed, at least intellectually, and are now available to everyone online. What a country.
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Tagged Cohabitation Register, Dennis Moynihan, digitization, Family, Freedmen's Bureau, Library of Virginia, Moynihan Report, Register of Children of Colored Persons Whose Parents Have Ceased to Cohabit Which the Father Recognizes to be His, Register of Colored Persons Cohabiting Together As Husband and Wife, Slavery, Slaves, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, transcription, Virginia