Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Lillie McKnight, August 2, 1983

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:19 - Deciding to move to Philadelphia

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Partial Transcript: Um, how old are you, Lillie?

Segment Synopsis: McKnight reports that she was born in Columbia, South Carolina in 1894. She gives her perspective on some of the challenges of contemporary life in Philadelphia, noting that people are not living up to the motto “city of brotherly love." She talks about her decision to move to Philadelphia after hearing other people talk about going to the city. She recounts that several generations of her family worked in domestic service for the same family in Columbia. She heard frequent talk of southerners heading to Philadelphia, and she decided to go too, moving north in 1925.

Keywords: Domestic work; Motivations to move North; South Carolina

Subjects: African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Southern States.; Migration, Internal.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.

GPS: Columbia, South Carolina
Map Coordinates: 33.999059, -81.040598
00:03:56 - Domestic work in Columbia, South Carolina

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Partial Transcript: What, what did your, uh, father do?

Segment Synopsis: While McKnight never knew her father, her mother fulfilled both roles. She and her mother, as well as other family members, did domestic work in the house of the superintendent of cotton mills in Columbia. She describes the work as cooking, cleaning, washing, nursing, and other domestic tasks for which she earned two dollars a week. She worked everyday from seven in the morning until the evening, but just a half day on Sunday. She also did hairdressing on the side to make extra money.

Keywords: Cotton mills; Domestic work; Hairdressing; Housework; Wages

Subjects: African American families; African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Southern States.

00:06:02 - Early impressions of Philadelphia

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Partial Transcript: Now you say you, you'd heard that some friends had gone up to Philadelphia, or some other people had gone up to Philadelphia before you.

Segment Synopsis: McKnight remembers moving to Philadelphia without any prior knowledge of the city and with only a few belongings. She recalls wishing she had stayed in the South. She initially left her children in the South, until she earned enough money to bring them north. Her husband was working in Louisville, Kentucky.

Keywords: Advice about moving north; Employment offices--Philadelphia; Motivations to move North

Subjects: African American families; African Americans--Southern States.; Migration, Internal.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.

00:08:07 - Arriving in Philadelphia

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Partial Transcript: So you say you went up with three other, other women?

Segment Synopsis: McKnight describes her arrival into Philadelphia with just a suitcase with some clothing. She contrasts her experience in Philadelphia with that of the other women, who did not meet success. She had to take responsibility for children, which led her to work hard and stay out of trouble. She recalls her decision to move north as taking “nerve.”

Keywords: Children; Domestic work; Mothers; Train fare; Trip north; Unemployment

Subjects: African American families; African Americans--Conduct of life.; African Americans--Southern States.; Migration, Internal.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.

00:09:54 - McKnight's first job

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Partial Transcript: So you say you got your first job then through an employment office?

Segment Synopsis: McKnight talks about the details of her first job as a domestic worker living in with a Jewish family. She acquired the job through an employment office. The work was similar to that which she did in Columbia. The family was nice to her and they learned each other's ways of doing things. She did not do the cooking but cleaned and took care of the children.

Keywords: Domestic work; Employment offices--Philadelphia; Housework

Subjects: African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Relations with Jews.; African Americans--Social conditions.

00:12:29 - McKnight keeps to herself

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Partial Transcript: Did you, um--how did--did you feel that people, the, the Negroes were better treated in Philadelphia than they were down in Columbia?

Segment Synopsis: McKnight recalls keeping to herself and not encountering many problems in Philadelphia. She shares a story about a friend who had trouble acquiring a new refrigerator because she was on welfare. She gives her perspective on how hard work pays off.

Keywords: Refrigerators; Welfare

Subjects: African Americans--Conduct of life.; African Americans--Economic conditions.

00:13:47 - Views on taking responsibility

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Partial Transcript: So the two women you came up with, did they get jobs right away, too?

Segment Synopsis: The other women who came north with McKnight were not satisfied with their lives. McKnight recalls they did not have the need to take responsibility in the same was she did because they did not have children to worry about.

Keywords: Children; Domestic work; Mothers

Subjects: African American families; African Americans--Conduct of life.; African Americans--Employment.

00:14:22 - Bringing her children north

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Partial Transcript: Uh, how long did it take you to start bringing your children up?

Segment Synopsis: McKnight recalls how she rented a room to stay at on her time off. The woman she rented from took care of her children while she worked as a live-in. She was able to bring her children north one at a time as she earned money to afford the trip. Her children lived with her sisters until she could send for them.

Keywords: Childcare; Domestic work; Live-in domestics; Mothers

Subjects: African American families; African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Southern States.; Migration, Internal.

GPS: 13th Street and Fairmount Avenue
Map Coordinates: 39.966762, -75.158273
00:18:43 - On having a good experience as a domestic worker

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Partial Transcript: You know, I'm inter--I'd be interested in learning more about, uh, domestic work.

Segment Synopsis: McKnight discusses how she was treated when she first arrived in Philadelphia. She recounts being humble and kind, and never fresh, which allowed her to be successful doing domestic work. She continued to have good relationships with the families she worked for after she no longer lived with them. She notes that she briefly worked as a presser in a shirt factory when she first arrived in Philadelphia, but found domestic work more desirable than factory work.

Keywords: Clothing factory; Domestic work; Factory work; Pressers

Subjects: African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Social conditions.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.

00:22:40 - Experience with the employment office

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Partial Transcript: Now you say you got your, um, job with the Jewish family through the employment office.

Segment Synopsis: McKnight recalls going to an employment office to find domestic work and her luck in finding kind people to help her in Philadelphia. Hardy notes that some employment offices were connected to the illegal gambling industry, but McKnight remembers the African American woman who ran the employment office as very helpful and kind.

Keywords: Employment offices--Philadelphia; Religion

Subjects: African Americans--Employment.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.

00:25:06 - Experiences in church

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Partial Transcript: Right--that church right up there, on that street there. That's Price Street right there.

Segment Synopsis: McKnight talks about joining the Polite Temple Baptist Church in Germantown when she first arrived in Philadelphia and her faith and involvement in the church since that time. The church had recently named her “Mother of the Church” following her years of dedication and service. McKnight recalls one of the women who she came to Philadelphia with being led astray by drinking and merriment. She mentions a current event involving a restaurant cook killing people.

Keywords: Alcohol; Germantown (Philadelphia neighborhood); Morality; Mother of the church; Polite Temple Baptist Church; Price Street (Philadelphia, Pa.); Southerners

Subjects: African American churches; African Americans--Conduct of life.; African Americans--Religion.; Philadelphia (Pa.)--Social conditions.

GPS: Polite Temple Baptist Church, Germantown, Philadelphia, Pa.
Map Coordinates: 40.038289, -75.174357
00:30:24 - Visit to the South

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Partial Transcript: Let, let me ask you one more serious question, then I'll let you go.

Segment Synopsis: McKnight shares her observations on the differences among northerners and southerners. She tells of a frightening encounter she had when she went to visit her sisters in the South after becoming accustomed to the improved treatment of Blacks in Philadelphia.

Keywords: Domestic work; Life in the South; Race relations; Southerners

Subjects: African Americans--Social conditions.; African Americans--Southern States.; Race discrimination.; United States--Race relations.

00:35:29 - Advice about keeping one's heart clean

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Partial Transcript: Now any more questions you want to ask me?

Segment Synopsis: Hardy asks McKnight if she had any recollections of Marcus Garvey, which she does not. She remembers working hard and advises minding one’s own business.

Keywords: Advice; Hard work; Marcus Garvey

Subjects: African Americans--Conduct of life.