Archives are viewed by the public as repositories reserved only for renowned historical figures or influential individuals. This is not surprising since, historically; the contents of archives have largely been reflective of the educated, upper and middle classes. Throughout history, the elite have possessed the resources to create, document, and preserve their histories for future generations. Their elite status also provided them with the opportunity to engage in actions that would place them at the nexus of history. The public has also been complicit in this selective archival vantage point because they decide whose legacy is considered “valuable” enough to preserve. The collecting policies of archives and archivists reflected this notion of importance. One may ask, what about those who fall outside of the upper and middle classes? Are their life experiences and contributions not important to archives? Are the poor and working class worthy of being included in the repositories that preserve America’s history? The answer is yes. The development of social history has led archivists and historians to collect and write about populations that have largely been marginalized in the archives. The memoir of Etheline Ross Cochran, at the Amistad Research Center, is reflective of the working class poor that deserve to have their voices sustained in the archives.
Cochran’s memoir, titled Brown Eyes, is a 44 page typescript and hand script document that details social life in New Orleans, racial stratifications within the city, and the lives of working class individuals, particularly Black women, in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Cochran was born in New Orleans during the Great Depression to an abusive father and a mother who died when Cochran was young. Cochran spoke of the lack of safety nets for abused women and children during the early 20th century. Cochran described her father’s work as that of an agricultural worker whose job meant that he was absent for long stretches during certain seasons of the year. Cochran attended Booker T. Washington High School and it was during her teen years that she began work as a domestic for an Italian American family involved in organized crime. Cochran’s family benefited from her working since her employers paid well and provided her with food and items that were being rationed, presumably during WWII. However, Cochran was raped by a family member of the household she worked for and her assault revealed the sexually vulnerability of Black women domestics. Cochran detailed that her employer intimidated and harassed her after she had decided to quit.
Cochran married as a young woman and started a family shortly afterwards. She eventually moved into the Desire Housing Projects in the Ninth Ward of the city and described the neighborhood as wonderful before its reputation as a haven for the illicit drug trade, crime, environmental desolation and poverty. Her working situation during this time revealed the federal government’s concerted effort to tackle poverty by providing work programs to mothers on government assistance. Cochran participated in the Title V program, a federal job training initiative. She was trained as a lab technician where she worked in the Veteran’s Hospital and at Charity Hospital. She discussed the Family Service Society, a case work agency that assisted her with domestic issues and provided counseling. Her social worker, Catharine Williams, acted as a continuing foundation of support for Cochran through her troubles and encouraged her to write her memoir.
Cochran discussed the thriving music scene in New Orleans and names the jazz and blues musicians that played in the city as well as the establishments that catered to an African American clientele during segregation. Cochran discussed the discriminating treatment of Black Americans which provides insight into how the multicultural milieu of New Orleans complicated its racial dynamics. Cochran’s memoir serves as an example of the historical information that can be gleaned from those who don’t occupy a high social status in society and proves that their voices are just as important to the archives.
Posted by Chianta Dorsey
Images from the Etheline Ross Cochran memoir and the Ronnie Moore papers. Not to be reproduced without permission.