Matilda Bell Heaston entered the world on November 30, 1910. Born to Jake and Doshie (Robinson) Heaston in Randolph, Tennessee, Matilda was one of 15 children though it is unclear exactly how many brothers and sisters she had. While living in Tennessee, Matilda's parents were sharecroppers. In 1920 at the age of 10, Matilda and her family moved to Luxora, Arkansas, just across the Mississippi River. There, Matilda’s parents were able to farm independently.
Many African Americans and low-income whites experienced the oppressive sharecropping system of the South. In fact, Mississippi County, Arkansas, where the Heastons farmed, had a very high percentage of tenant farms which was 90.3 percent in 1930. This was the second highest rate among the Arkansas delta counties at that time. Matilda recalled “that real hard way of living, we never had that because we always raised our food....”
The family later moved into a house that they had purchased. Matilda grew up there and would eventually occupy the residence with her first husband and daughter. Her mother took in laundry and did not have a job outside of the home. Her father worked as a blacksmith and shoed horses. Matilda attended an all-African American school in Arkansas. In fact, she never attended an integrated school throughout her education.
In 1926 Matilda married Lucious Walton. On December 2 of that year, she gave birth to a daughter, Ruthie Mae Walton. Two years later, Matilda and Ruthie moved to Bloomington, Illinois where they joined Lillian Augusta (Heaston) and Robert Lee Boykin, Matilda’s older sister and brother-in-law. Matilda’s marriage had hit a rocky patch and she and Lucious had separated. Eighteen-year-old Matilda and her toddler briefly moved in with the Boykins before beginning work for Helen Stevenson. For at least two years, Matilda served as Helen’s personal maid and even lived at the Stevenson home at 1316 East Washington Street. Matilda later worked as a maid for other local families.
Domestic service was typical among African American women in Bloomington-Normal. In fact, 90 percent of African American workers in the nation in 1930 performed agricultural or domestic service jobs. Half of these domestic servants worked in private homes. The other half served as laundresses, waitresses, untrained nurses, and elevator operators among other roles. According to Matilda, jobs and housing were easy for her to find even during the economic challenges of the Great Depression.
Matilda left Illinois several times in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1930 she and her daughter moved to Holland, Missouri with to be with her parents and younger siblings. In the 1930 United States federal census she was listed as “Matilda Young” though there is no record of another marriage at that time and the name does not appear again in any other sources.
In 1934, she returned home to Arkansas, where she stayed for one year. She distributed agricultural “commodities” in Blytheville as part of a government relief program. In October 1933, just prior to her arrival in Arkansas, President Roosevelt ordered the formation of the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation (FSRC), an operation overseen jointly by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). The FSRC worked to reduce agricultural surplus by purchasing excess crops and animal products and distributing them to state relief agencies. Those state agencies—and employees like Matilda—would then provide this food to people in need. Interestingly, Matilda recalled that one of the women in charge “had more in her basement than the people had on the street.”
When asked whether the Great Depression affected her much, Matilda answered, “No, I always had work to do…. I never had anything in my life given to me free.” Over the course of her career, Matilda also served as a “commercial worker” and spent time working in restaurants, which she did not like very much.
By 1940, Matilda was married to William C. Miller. They lived in Bloomington’s Ward 5 (northwestern Bloomington) where they rented a home for $10 per month which is the equivalent of $169.86 in 2015 dollars. William worked as a garage janitor and earned $624 for 52 weeks of labor. Matilda was a housemaid for a private home, collecting $320 for 40 work weeks. Together they brought in $944 which is the equivalent of $16,150.21 in 2015 dollars. To put these amounts in perspective, the median annual income for a man in 1940 was $956; for a woman, it was $592. Assuming Matilda worked at least 40-hour weeks, this meant that she earned 20 cents per hour—much less than the minimum wage at the time which was 30 cents per hour.
Overall, this census data provides a valuable perspective on the African American economic situation. Federal measures to relieve the economic strain caused by the Great Depression failed to reach female African American workers. In particular, the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which introduced the minimum wage, excluded the two sectors in which many African Americans worked; agriculture and domestic service.
Not all federal programs passed over African Americans workers. On June 25, 1941 President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 which attempted to curb the “discrimination of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin….” Although the United States had not yet declared war, American industry was ramping up production to help its ally Great Britain fight the Axis powers. Despite this need, many factories refused to hire African Americans. These discriminatory practices angered Chicagoan Asa Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Backed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League, Randolph pushed for fair hiring practices. He called for 100,000 African Americans to march on Washington to protest discrimination in defense industries. Embarrassed, President Roosevelt issued his Order which also created a Committee on Fair Employment Practice. The committee was charged with investigating employment discrimination cases.
In her oral history interview, Matilda recalled the growth of black employment in Bloomington-Normal during the early 1940s when African Americans began to be employed at places like American Steel and Williams Oil-O-Matic. In fact, her brother, probably her younger brother William Harrison Heaston, started working at the latter business in 1942. Although it’s unclear what job William specifically performed at the factory, the Williams Oil-O-Matic company fulfilled a variety of military contracts requiring precision machine work. The company manufactured hydraulic control devices (or what were called “oil gears”) for aiming antiaircraft guns, as well as smoke screen generators for the U.S. Navy and parts for the Boeing B-29 Super Fortress bomber.
Matilda soon sought employment in the defense industry herself when she left Bloomington in 1944 and worked in Seattle, Washington, for eight years. She built destroyers for the war effort. Matilda recalled that there was a strong need for these types of ships because 50 or more of them protected larger ships at sea. They were in such high demand that she helped produce a ship every 60 days. She worked several jobs at the shipyard including spot painter, welder, and tank cleaner. In her oral history, she recalled the “depressing” nature of tank cleaning: “So many times when them [sic] ships would limp in from abroad, from the sea, there would be a bunch of sailors when they’d open that bulk head, you know. They’d be in there. It was terrible.” Women at the shipyards received jobs based on their existing skill set. According to Matilda, the employers “didn’t teach you to do it. You had to take a sweeping job if you didn’t already have a skill. But if you already knew how to do those things, they’d give you a trial and see if you could do it. And then they’d let you have it.” Fortunately, Matilda had welding skills and got the job.
The start of World War II dramatically changed the relationship between women in general and the American workforce. It also provided inroads for African American and other minorities into the workforce. Due to a labor shortage caused primarily by white men leaving the workforce for military service, these new workers took over various roles that had historically been unavailable to them. These roles included skilled and semiskilled factory operations such as work in munitions, food, and textiles factories. In total, the number of African Americans who worked in civilian jobs increased by approximately one million between 1940 and 1944. Sixty percent of those workers were women. Throughout the United States, African American women saw a 40 percent rise in employment during this time period. For example, in 1942 the Brooklyn Navy Yard hired women mechanics for the first time in 141 years and nearly ten percent of the first 125 women hired there were African American. At the same time in Detroit, Michigan, fewer than 30 black women were employed in war plants; by November 1943, over 14,000 worked in that occupation.
It is unclear when Matilda and William Miller divorced but on November 8, 1947 she married L.C. Riley in Seattle. By 1952 the new couple had moved to Bloomington and were living with Matilda’s mother at 1322 N. Ewing Street (Her father had passed away in 1951.) Between 1953 and 1957, L.C. worked at the whites-only Louis E. Davis American Legion Post No. 56 as a bus boy and later a custodian. Two years later he earned a living as a laborer for Behrenz Asphalt in Bloomington. By 1957 Matilda and L.C. were residing at 1204 W. Street. They divorced sometime before 1959 when he had married Mary Burnett.
Matilda returned to the west coast. On May 13, 1960 she married William Calcote in Seattle, Washington where they were both living. William was 23 years her junior. By the next year, they were back in Bloomington living at 1322 N. Ewing with Matilda’s mother, though the city directories show Matilda at 1204 W. Mulberry Street. From 1964 to 1971 the Calcotes lived at the N. Ewing address. During that time—five days a week from 1961 to 1976—Matilda (or “Tillie” as she was known to some) worked as a maid at the Bloomington home of Betty Zimmer. In 1972, Matilda and William resided at 703 W. Monroe Street where they remained for the rest of their married lives.
Through the years William had found better and more secure employment. He worked as a custodian at the Eureka Williams plant from 1963 until 1967 when he took over as a maintenance worker at the Holiday Inn. In 1971 he returned Eureka and worked there for two more years. In 1974 William began custodial and maintenance duties at Bloomington Junior High School until 1979. After that he served as a maintenance man for the local Board of Education. William was a custodian at Raymond School at the time of his death in 1980. Matilda was retired at that time and did not return to work.
The Calcotes were members of Union Baptist Church located at 514 W. Jackson Street. In fact, after arriving in Bloomington in 1928, Matilda joined this church and worshipped there whenever she lived in town. She also actively participated in the church’s Willing Workers Club and Progressive Women’s Club. These social clubs performed projects to better the members and the community as a whole. In 1953, she led the women of the church in directing three services for “Women’s Day.” Sixteen years later, she was co-chair of that same event where local African American community leader Caribel Washington spoke. Around 1975, Matilda joined the Three C Club which brought women together to discuss issues that regularly affected African Americans. The next year she took over as chaplain of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Redd-Williams Post No. 163 of the American Legion, an all-African American post. Her brother was a World War II veteran which is how she qualified for membership.
William Calcote was only 47 years old when he passed away on September 28, 1980. He and Matilda had been happily married for 20 years. Matilda thought that her previous marriages were inconsequential by comparison. She said they were the result of being “young and not knowing what was going on and just married.” Family members laid William to rest at Evergreen Memorial Cemetery on October 2, 1980.
Matilda’s pride in her grandchildren could not be hidden. She spoke highly of her granddaughter who worked as a nurse, and her great-grandsons, who were medical students in neurosurgery and psychiatry. She credits the lack of role models as to why her great-grandsons left Bloomington. In her own words, “There was nobody doing anything. Nobody to look up to... There wasn’t no men doing nothing, but, you know, ‘shacking up’ and stuff.” By all accounts Matilda was a strong, hard-working, and adaptable human being. Through multiple jobs and marriages, she maintained her independence.
Matilda passed away at the age of 80 on December 27, 1990, having been ill for several months. Her funeral service was held at Union Baptist Church on New Year’s Eve. She was laid to rest next to William at Evergreen Memorial Cemetery.