Women of Down the Bay: How Women Preserve and Uphold Cultural Narratives
Posted on June 20, 2023 by archaeology
Women are some of the most important contributors to the Down the Bay Oral History Project. The impact of women in preserving the cultural narrative is undeniable. Their contributions are distinctive due to their long lifespans, attention to detail, and limited opportunities in a patriarchal society. Through listening to oral history narratives and discussing the work involved in maintaining their communities, it is clear that women have contributed significantly to Down the Bay and the area's legacy.
I interviewed Dr. Kern Jackson to understand more about the presence and contributions of women to Down the Bay. He is a professor of African American Studies at the University of South Alabama who has recorded oral interviews in several Mobile communities, including Down the Bay. He noted several factors showcasing why women are so crucial to the project. The first notable factor is longevity. In general, women live longer than men and therefore have longer historical memories. Jackson states, "The majority of our elders [informants] are females. In the septuagenarian and octogenarian range, most are female."
Dr. Kern Jackson conducting an oral history interview for the Down the Bay Oral History Project.
Some, such as the project’s lead informant, Mrs. Valena McCants, have contributed many recordings about life Down the Bay over the years. The historical record would likely be lacking without these female elders and their contributions to the project. We would not remember the more distant memories of the area without them.
Women participants also tend to be detail-oriented. Many of these women are valued contributors due to their precise nature. Jackson states, "The female informants tend to give you specific, nuanced examples." This gravitation toward specificity makes for a better transcription, which is needed when trying to imagine past life and culture.
Female informants' often detail-oriented nature becomes clear when one listens to the audio recordings or reads transcriptions of women, such as Marjorie K. Jones. As she vividly recounts her time living Down the Bay, one can imagine themselves with her: “You had your drugstores that brought your drugs out to you, or your prescriptions out to you, Down the Bay. You had the milkman, door-to-door salesman. All of this going on Down the Bay. In that Down the Bay area, you had your cab, you had your grocery stores, you had your relaxation, fun restaurants. You had everything that you could imagine.” One can envision the people and landscape of Down the Bay through her account.
Shops on Broad Street. Courtesy of the Julius E. Marx Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama.
A third factor that showcases how women are valuable contributors is their commonly chosen professions. Sex-based restrictions limited women to certain occupations, many of which involved community and outreach. Most working women that lived Down the Bay had jobs with the church or in education. While discussing his grandmother, who worked within the church as a cook, Robert Battles recounted women's importance as an influence and civil rights leader. He states, "The Black female is the architect of our existence. She is the one who carries the learnings down; she is the one who transmits the culture; she's the one who was the first teacher; and she's the motivator. That's my grandmomma, she was a soldier."
A large part of his interview discusses his grandmother's impact on him and the community, revealing women's notable importance within the area. Many women interviewed from the project so far are teachers. With the history surrounding integration, these are valued contributors to the group. Jackson says, "Given that they see everything through the lens of education and/or advising, they have interesting things to say about how the neighborhood evolved over time. Both pre and post I-10.” These women brought a unique perspective to the project due to their closeness to civil rights and desire to uplift others through education.
Although this brief discussion of women in Down the Bay community only scratches the surface of their importance, it reminds us that how we remember the area and the area itself would be vastly different without the contributions of female informants and community members.
This post was written by Kat Deal, a graduate student in the English department at the University of South Alabama. Kat is currently studying the importance of women as keepers of community memory in Mobile and plans to continue looking at the role of women in narratives.