Teacher Pernella Mae Anderson: Collector of African American Slave Narratives and Folklore

Many talented classroom teachers become known for accomplishments outside of the classroom. One such teacher is Pernella Mae Anderson, an elementary teacher who worked in Arkansas and Michigan who was also an important collector of African American folklore.

Pernella Mae Center Anderson was born April 12, 1903 in Camden, Ouachita County, Arkansas. She was the youngest of ten children born to Willis and Sallie (Washington) Center. Her father was a carpenter and her mother was a housewife. When Pernella was only two years old, her mother died, and two years later her father remarried.

When Pernella grew up, she married Theodore Haynie, Jr., (circa 1920) and the union produced three children. Between 1922-1924, the young mother attended Arkansas Baptist College, where she earned a liberal arts degree. Evidently, Pernella divorced Theodore and, on April 21, 1931, she married her second husband, William W. Anderson.

In 1935, the Pernella accepted a teaching position in Lockesburg in Sevier County, Arkansas. The following year, she went to work for the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), an organization associated with the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration (WPA). Pernella’s work included collecting oral histories, some of which were published in the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves (1941). Additionally, she collected the folk stories of Black residents ranging in age from 19 to 92. Pernella was one of only two African Americans hired to do this work.

A lifelong learner, Pernella went back to school in 1944 to earn her teaching certificate, and then she completed the requirements for her Bachelor’s in Education from Grambling State University in Grambling, Louisiana. From 1953-1955, Pernella taught school at Carver Elementary School in El Dorado in Arkansas’ Union County. In 1955, Pernella moved to Detroit, Michigan, and taught in Detroit public schools until the conclusion of her career.

This talented teacher and folklorist passed away on March 5, 1980, in Detroit. She is interred in Westlawn Cemetery in the town of Wayne, Wayne County, Michigan.

You can read more about this remarkable educator at this link: Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. To learn more about the Federal Writers’ Project, click on this link: FWP at the Library of Congress.

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