American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

Item 7 of 28



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February 16, 1939

T.J.Marshall (White)

28 Rohde Ave.

St.Augustine, Florida

Insurance Collector

Alberta Johnson (Writer)

F.Hilton Crowe (Reviser)


Mr. Marshall, forty-one years an insurance collector, greeted me cordially at the door of his modest home and invited me in. At sixty years of age, Mr. Marshall is tall, slender and erect, with but little indication of advancing age. Thirty years of tramping the streets of the Ancient City may have slowed him down, somewhat, but this fact is not apparent.

As I entered the attractively furnished living room, I noted the general good taste displayed in the arrangement of the furniture and the good quality of the furnishings. Mr. Marshall owns his own home, which is more than adequate for the needs of his family now that the children have grown up and moved to other cities. Only one daughter remains at home: Helen has graduated from high school and has attended Young Harris College, a Junior College, at Young Harris, Georgia. The older daughter's husband is also with the Peninsular Insurance Company but lives in another section of the state. His position necessitates changes in places of residence. This older daughter is the mother of three children, the youngest just a month old. The older son, married and father of three boys, makes his home in Philadelphia, and occasional visits are exchanged. "Mike", the single son, is employed in Miami, and visits his parents at least twice during the year.


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Mrs. Marshall is of medium statue, blue eyes, light brown hair just turning gray, and is of the nice, "homey", friendly type.

Noting the piano and music stand nearby, I asked Mrs. Marshall if she played; she smiled, and replied, "I used to play some, not much, when I was younger, but not now, Mildred played for her father until she married and left home, and now Helen plays for him as accompanist, you know his violin is his real pleasure and relaxation.

"Do you know that we have lived right here in this same house ever since we came to St. Augustine thirty years ago," Mrs. continued: We rented for several years and then when we felt that this city would probably be our permanent home, we decided to buy it. It is so much more satisfactory in every way, not only from an economic standpoint, but for the feelings of security, and also too, knowing that any movements made are for our own benefit and comfort."

Mr. Marshall's early boyhood was in a small place called "Candler", a few miles from Ocala. During the Spanish-American War he enlisted for service and was in training at Fort McPherson, but as he was under age, his mother procured his discharge. His first insurance experience was with the Metropolitan Insurance Co., being in their employ for five years at Augusta, Georgia, where he met and married Mrs. Marshall. Augusta was Mrs. Marshall's home town.


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The Marshall family is affiliated with the Methodist Church, interested in the {Begin deleted text} curch {End deleted text} {Begin inserted text} church {End inserted text} work carried on by the members and different organizations connected with the church. Mr. Marshall's talent as a violinist is greatly appreciated by the choir and congregation.

It is easy to see, however that Mr. Marshall's chief interest is his insurance business.

"Can I tell you something about insurance?" said he, visibly expanding. "I should know something about it. See this button? It stands for thirty-six years with the Peninsular Insurance Co. and a rating of senior agent. I was quite a young man when I first entered the insurance business, but you know, thirty-six years is a long {Begin deleted text} [?] {End deleted text} time with one firm.

"You come down to my office, tomorrow, and I'll take you on a collection tour through a section of the colored settlement, and show you the work of a small payment insurance collector."

Arriving at Mr. Marshall's office before the appointed time, found him busily checking receipts of the previous day, but in a few minutes we were off.

"You have to run this thing like clockwork", said he, "In each section a regular collecting day has been established and the calls at each home are made just about the same time each week so most of them know just about when to expect us. If you

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don't run things this way and be prompt in collections, the people won't be prompt in their payments. As it is I have had very little trouble collecting.

"You won't find much romance in this business--just hard work. It seems just routine for me, but I guess that is because I have done it for so long."

While we were driving to the field, Mr. Marshall explained some of the rudiments of the small collection policy. We are now going on what we call "debit calls". A debit list is the record of the amount of insurance policy, amount and date of premium due, and date of payment for every client. By carrying this list, with the complete records, I can tell at a glance the status of each insured individual. My company has a large debit list considering the population of the town. All the publicity given about the value of insurance and sick benefits is having its effect.

"The average premiums among the Negro clients of the firm runs about twenty cents weekly or straight life, or payment at death policy, and policies ranging from one to five and six hundred dollars, with their corresponding ranges in premiums."

At this point I enquired if very many Negroes carried "sick

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benefit" policies. "Yes, said Mr. Marshall, "A good many of my debits carry a little policy with a small premium weekly. This will insure an income in case of sickness or an accident, that ranges from two and three dollars weekly to seven dollars, this being the highest sick benefit paid by the company on this sort of arrangement, the premium on this amount is thirty-five cents weekly. These policies have been a blessing to many a family whose breadwinner has been laid up by an accident. You know that, due to the hazardous employment of many of the Negroes, sickness or accidents occur quite often."

The auto was now turning down a sandy street which marked the eastern boundary of that day's territory for collections. I ventured one more remark before Mr. Marshall set about the routine of collections. "Mr. Marshall, said I, don't some of the Negro burial contracts seem a little peculiar?' the agent smiled, as he cut off the ignition switch and took his debit book in hand. "I know what you are thinking about, "The Over the [?] Buying Society" and other humorous references to colored burial societies. It is true that some contracts used to call for, say; two Buicks, two Cadillacs, two Dodges, and so forth, for the funeral procession. I have even seen some provision made for "moaners" and rental of black coats for pall bearers but you read more about that in fiction than you see in actual life.


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"About three years ago, the Florida legislature passed a law that practically outlawed or abolished the system of burial contracts. Now the amount of the claim is paid directly to the named beneficiary and the responsibility of the insurance agency ends when the claim is presented and paid. Those who had carried the weird burial insurance policies before the State law went into effect, have in most cases re-insured with the local agents, without any specific clause or condition pertaining to the actual burial or funeral.

By this time we had walked to the front house on the route, Number 185 Central Avenue. The small yard and porch contained many well-cared for plants, and the blaze of the red geraniums made an attractive picture against the background of green cans. Although the exterior of the house was rather shabby, the sign above the door, "SUITS US", signified a belligerent pride of home. The woman came to the door with book in hand and with an expansive smile, saying "Good mawning Mr. Marshall, here tis. You has to scuse me I've got clothes on to boil."

As she disappeared into the house, I got a glimpse of a neatly and comfortably furnished front room, a piano, with opened hymn book on a rack) reed furniture, and rose colored damask draperies.

Throughout the trip, it was noticed that draperies of varying shades of rose or rose-red represented the choice of this section.


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The next stop was at a small cottage covered with faded green shingles, and porch rails that at some time had been painted yellow. A crumbly cement walk led from the gate, through sandy yard, to wooden steps badly in need of repairs. A short, fat woman came to the door, wearing a very full white cotton dress, and on her head was a violet colored silk ruffled cap of the boudoir vintage.

Holding her coins in her hand, she eyed me with suspicion. "What you doing with Mr. Marshall" she queried, "Is you goin to take his job?"

Hastily I assured the old woman that I was merely "visiting" with Mr. Marshall and immediately her attitude changed. She smiled and without further parley, handed out her twenty-five cents.

"That's the mother of a "debit" of mine", said Mr. Marshall. "The old girl didn't seem to like the idea of anyone getting my job. These negroes can be very loyal to ones they trust."

And now we turned down a short side street and I heard a juvenile voice crying: " In -surance man: In-surance man:" No medieval herald could have been more vociferous or more effective, for as we reached the next house, a smiling Negress as at the door showing an expanse of white teeth.

"How much worth does I owe you this week?" she said.

Just as the agent {Begin inserted text} was {End inserted text} handed his money, the sun burst through the

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clouds and a strong breeze blew in from the river. Mary hastily turned and called back: "Jus leave the book on the porch. I'se got to hurry and get my clothes out in this good sun."

Under the welcome sunshine, her flower bed of hibiscus, Mexican daises, and calendulas lifted.

Down the sand road again, and thence to 133 South Street, where a small shabby clapboard house struggled unsuccessfully to depress the brilliant array of flowers planted in cans, pails, wood boxes, and even in broken dishes.

Some sixth sense must have warned the woman of this house of the coming {Begin deleted text} on {End deleted text} {Begin inserted text} {Begin handwritten} of {End handwritten} {End inserted text} the " In -surance "Man" for she had laid down her iron and paddled to the door, money in hand, her old carpet slippers making her footsteps almost noiseless as she crossed the bare floor.

We were now on Riberia Street, almost on the east bank of the San Sebastian River, and there on the [?] was a small three room house. A young woman, daughter of the insured, invited us into the room so that we could see her mother who was ill.

The invalid was a woman of about sixty and had been at one time very vigerous and energetic. Her long illness had wasted her but she kept up a pretense of being cheerful. It was obvious that her daughter had given her all the care within her power. The sick woman was propped up in bed by snowy-cased pillows, and covered by an immaculate fringed bedspread. Folded across the foot of the bed was a silk

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patchwork quilt which I admired.

"Yessum", she said, "The ladyfolks I worked for fifteen years ago give it to me on my birthday, and there it still is, just as good as when I got it."

In a lower voice of resentment she continued: "I am sick of being sick. I wants to hurry up and git well and get out in the sunshine. I don't like this laying in bed."

After a few encouraging words Mr. Marshall and I continued on our round.

"That is one of the oldest policy holders I have, "stated Mr. Marshall, "She draws a weekly sick benefit of seven dollars; more than sufficient to supply the necessary food, and medicine, yet she is very unhappy and refuses to accept the fact that her working days are over. We are now going to the home of the principal of the Negro high school. You will find him very intelligent."

The principal's house is a two-story place, greatly in need of paint, yet well kept within the limitations of his income. At our knock, the principal's wife (also a teacher) came out with a book and money in hand. She greeted us pleasantly, and asked us to come in. Time was pressing, however, and we declined. As we were leaving the woman smiled at me, saying: "Insurance is a wonderful thing. It is something that we pay for, cheerfully and willingly."


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After climbing a winding outside stairway at the rear of a two-story house on Central Avenue, we found Matilda, a young neatly dressed dressmaker who was sitting at her sewing machine, and who produced immediately the fifteen cents for her premium.

A few doors away, gray haired Alice was sitting in her porch swing awaiting our arrival. While the agent was making change from the ten dollar bill presented, her shining gold teeth and cheerful manner attracted my attention and soon we were in a deep description of flower raising, the guvment, and the value of insurance.

For hours we tramped through the streets making our small collections; A funeral that afternoon had caused some back-tracking or repeat calls but at last---twenty-one calls had been made and we were ready to head for the car. Covertly I studied Mr. Marshall in hopes of finding a fellow weariness, but his steps seemed as jaunty as when we started out. But his day's work was not yet ended: a few of his clients leave their money with neighbors, while some others may send to the office. In some cases, particularly among the domestic workers who do not return home from their work until evening, it is necessary for collections to be made after dark. I asked Mr. Marshall if the late calls had ever caused him any trouble, but he said "No: of course they know that I am carrying money with me, but I have never

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yet been molested nor any attempt of robbery been made. Although it is true that in many of the big cities, open season has been declared on collectors of all kinds and frequent robberies occur, but so far, we have not had any of that in St. Augustine."

"These houses and people that you have seen today", said Mr. Marshall, "Are typical of the general run of small ten to thirty cents a weekly policy holders. You see that their homes are generally neat and well kept, and how thrifty they mange their affairs. Of course we have seen the best type Negro today, for jail birds don't bother to carry insurance. You also see that in most instances the women are the policy holders, assisting in, or entirely supporting the family, and generally managing to hold things together."

This Negro section visited lies within the corporate limits of the city, so all of the houses have sewerage facilities, and many of them have bathrooms, also electric lights, and radios. The Negro's love of music is well known and most of the houses were provided with some type of music, some with pianos, but radios predominated.

Driving homeward, I remarked, "I think you have a most interesting job," but Mr. Marshall answered "It is nothing but routine, we do the same thing day in and day out, and year in and year out.


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Reaching home, with a sigh of relief, glad of a chance to rest my tired feet, I marveled at the contrast between the Negro and some of the whites in their attitude toward insurance, as only recently I had heard some acquaintances grumblingly complain about having to pay their insurance, "Well, you know how these insurance collectors are, they just camp on your trail if you don't pay when you should."

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