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50 Years/50 Collections: Etheline Ross Cochran and Working Class Representations in the Archives

Desire Housing Project, 1999.

Historically, the contents of American 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 in archives. The public has also been complicit in this selective archival vantage point because they create personal notions of whose legacy is considered “valuable.” The collecting policies of archives and archivists reflected, and to a certain extent still do, the public’s bestowal of “who is historically important.” The exclusion of the non-elite has led to the question of: Are the life experiences and contributions of the poor and working class not worthy of being included in the repositories that preserve America’s history? The answer is of course they are. 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, authored by her and donated to the Amistad Research Center in 1996, is reflective of the working class poor who deserve to have their voices conserved in the archives.

Cochran’s memoir, titled Brown Eyes, is a 44 page typescript and hand script document that details social life, racial stratifications, and the lives of working class individuals, particularly Black women, in New Orleans from the 1940s-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. She described her father’s work as that of an agricultural worker and how he was absent for long stretches of time 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 wages since her employers paid well and provided her with food and items that were being rationed, presumably during WWII. Cochran was raped by a family member of her employer and her assault revealed the sexual vulnerability of Black women domestics. She also described instances of intimidation and harassment after she decided to quit working for the family.

Title page of Cochran’s memoir, Brown Eyes.

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 labeled the neighborhood as wonderful. This was before the Desire Projects gained a reputation as a haven of 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. Cochran’s social worker acted as a continuing foundation of support for her 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.

The finding aid for the Etheline Ross Cochran memoir can be found here.

mages from the Etheline Ross Cochran memoir and the Ronnie Moore papers. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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