Mary Page Clardy was born in 1922 in Manly, Iowa. She was the oldest of five girls. Her family had moved up from the South before her birth because of her father’s work with the railroad. Mary grew up to attend local schools and graduated from Manly High School in 1941. She worked from 1941 to 1943 in Manly and in nearby Mason City doing domestic work before deciding that greater opportunities awaited in the wartime economy of St. Paul, Minnesota.
In St. Paul, Mary lived with a family friend in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood, and quickly found an assembly line job at Griggs, Cooper & Co, a St. Paul manufacturing firm. Over the next two years her sisters joined her in St. Paul. In 1944, Mary became pregnant and returned briefly to her parents in Manly to have her child. Following her son’s birth in July 1945, Mary returned to St. Paul. She worked at Acme Linen and later Ancker Hospital in the dietary division. In 1947 she married James Clardy and had two more children. Mary retired in 1984, but kept busy with her family and her church, Pilgrim Baptist of St. Paul.
In the first session of this interview, Mary shares her perspective as a young African American woman from Iowa whose horizons were changed by World War II. She shares her memories of moving to Minnesota along with her sisters for wartime economic opportunities, including their work at Griggs, Cooper & Co., which was the world’s largest canning plant at the time. In addition to her work life, she also recounts the realities of social life and racial prejudice in Minnesota.
In the second session, Mary discusses her life in St. Paul, Minnesota with her three sisters. She recounts her wartime work, getting involved with a local Baptist church, and later having and raising her baby. She also recalls her travels between Iowa and St. Paul, and how she learned about family and adulthood as a young woman.
Jobs as an African American in Iowa
TS: On one side, I’m thinking that the war brought different kinds of opportunities. And I’m wondering as an African American in Iowa, did you notice that being African American was a determining factor in being able to get jobs or not get jobs?
Yes, it was. There was a lot of people who did not hire blacks. That’s one reason why we had to come up here [to St. Paul] to get work, because there was nothing else to do there. If you didn’t want to do domestic work, then you just had to move someplace else.
TS: When you were doing domestic work in Mason City, was that mostly for white folks?
TS: How was the relationship between you as a black person working in someone’s home and the white person you worked for?
Well, it was very good because the lady that I worked for really liked me. So therefore, I had no problem working for her.
Working for Griggs, Cooper & Co. in St. Paul
TS: Can you describe on tape here the kind of work you were doing at Griggs and Cooper?
Yes. We did what they called boxes, shipping for war veterans. We had to make those cookies that they used for the fellows that were in the service.
TS: So you were making little boxes or bags of stuff, little individual portions of things, bagging those up?
No, it was what they called—
TS: Was it just cookies or was it other stuff, too?
No, it was other stuff too. Yeah, we bagged candy, but that was for the stores that were selling candy.
TS: Oh, I see.
Finding Out About Pearl Harbor
TS: When the news came—and it came with the radio and the papers within the matter of a day or two—and the U.S. was at war, do you remember how you reacted to that? Finding out that the nation was suddenly at war and what that was gonna mean?
I’m not exactly sure how I reacted to that, because I was still in school.
TS: You finished high school probably in June of ’41. This was December, so it looks like you were probably just out of high school and were living at home with your folks, or in Mason City. By the way, was your dad—was he called to service during the war?
TS: Was he a bit older?
He was too old to go into the service.
TS: So there was no worry for either you or your mom or your sisters that your dad was going to be called. You had no brothers to worry about going in the service.
Yeah, he had some brothers.
TS: But you had no brothers?
I didn’t have any.
The Eldest Sister
TS:Now you had some sisters who were younger here at this time, right?
That’s right. I was the oldest.
TS:Okay, so the five of you were up here and your folks were still in Iowa. Did you feel yourself to be in charge of the household there?
Yes, sort of.
TS:What kind of responsibilities did you have in that situation?
Well, I sort of kept my younger sisters in order.
TS:You’re smiling—you can’t see this on the tape, but she’s smiling now. [laughter]What does that mean when you say you had to keep them in order?
I was trying to figure out how should I explain it. Anyway, we all lived together in the same house. They usually, if there was something they wanted to do, they would always talk it over with me and see what I thought about it.
TS:Boy, that’s a lot of responsibility.
Social Life in St. Paul
TS:Let me move to a slightly connected topic here. Being a young person in St. Paul with your sisters—I mean, your parents were back in Iowa now. I’m wondering when you weren’t working—this is evenings or maybe weekends—what different activities, what kind of social life did you have?
Church. We all belonged to the same church: Pilgrim Baptist Church [in St. Paul]. In fact, we all—my sisters and I—joined in 1943.
TS:Did you make it a point when you first got to St. Paul to try to find a church for yourself?
Yes, but we didn’t have to try to find a church because the people that we were living with when we first came to St. Paul belonged to that church. They wanted us to join their church, so that’s what we did. My sister and I became ushers in 1943.
Having a Baby in Iowa
TS:What made you decide to then go to Iowa to have your baby in 1945?
Because that’s what my mother wanted me to do. She wanted me to come home and stay until the time to have the baby.
TS:What arguments was she making to try to convince you to come down there?
She really didn’t make any arguments at all. It would have been cheaper for me to go there and have my baby than it would have been to stay here.