This year, third year doctoral student Ava Purkiss received the prestigious L. Tuffly Ellis Best Thesis Prize for Excellence in the Study of Texas History. Her paper, titled “‘Home Economics Training is for the Improvement of Home and Family Life?’: African American Women Professionals and Home Economics Training in Texas, 1930-1950,” examines African American enrollment in the home economics major at Prairie View A&M University in the 1940s. Read the abstract to her award winning paper below.
In 1943, Prairie View A&M University published an academic catalogue that described the careers that black women could pursue with degrees in home economics. As a historically black institution, Prairie View provided important social and economic opportunities to African Americans in Texas. The catalogue asserted that students’ prospective careers included “teaching home economics and parent education groups, managers of tea rooms, school dormitories, cafes and cafeterias, hotels, child health centers, nursery schools, [and] home demonstration agents…” Evidently, home economics provided opportunities for black women to raise their vocational statuses beyond menial labor. At the time of the publication, home economics was the most popular major for women at Prairie View with thirty out of eighty-two female students enrolled. These Prairie View students represented a few of the African American women in Texas who challenged racial, social, and economic inequality by creating a cadre of professionals through home economics education. My paper argues that black Texas women used their training in home economics as a professionalization tool, and entered the labor force as home demonstration agents (state employees who worked in rural homes), teachers, and entrepreneurs between 1930 and 1950. Despite the extant literature that presents white women as the leaders in home economics, numerous black women in Texas proved to be resourceful and enterprising black home economists. Using college catalogues, newspapers, hall of fame nomination forms, interviews, and demonstration agent reports, this paper expands typical categories of “feminized” professions while enhancing our understanding of the nature of black entrepreneurship, the African American middle-class, self-help, and education within Texas historiography.
Photographs of the aformentioned academic catalogues, published by Prairie View A&M University in the 1940s, that described the careers that black women could pursue with degrees in home economics (All courtesy of the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin).
About Ava Purkiss:
Ava Purkiss is a third year United States history student at the University of Texas at Austin. She studies African American women’s health and physical culture in the early twentieth century, with a focus on the economic, political, and social barriers to exercise that African American women encountered and ultimately circumvented in pursuit of health and fitness. She will spend the summer of 2012 conducting pre-dissertation research in various U.S. archives under the direction of her advisor, Dr. Tiffany Gill. Ava earned her B.A. in psychology from Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA and her M.A. in African New World Studies from Florida International University in her hometown of Miami, FL.