Nettie Sandifer and her children exemplify the transient nature of southern black life in the early 1900s and the tenuous financial foundation of the African American middle class. The Sandifer family were one of many African American families to leave the rural countryside and seek employment in industrial mills, and the Loray Mill village contained a large population of transplanted blacks from York County, South Carolina. The Sandifers, however, left York County a decade before many of their African American neighbors arrived in Gastonia. Nettie’s husband Charles became an insurance salesman soon after the family arrived in North Carolina, one of the few occupations that provided an avenue to a middle class lifestyle for southern blacks. Yet when Charles died, the family had to find other sources of income. In the ensuing decades, the Sandifers would undertake further relocations to acquire financial stability, eventually leading most of them to the urban North, like many other southern African Americans in the Great Migration.
Residents of Gastonia for over a decade, the Sandifers rented a home in the African American section of the mill village at 1115 West Fourth Street in 1920. Nettie Sandifer was the matriarch of the family and lived with her nine children, ranging in age from nineteen to three: Herbert, Edgar, Mary, Charlena, Ossy, Alfreda, John, Fay, and Paul. Nettie’s husband had died several years before, so the family had to rely on her and the older children for a source of income. Although the Sandifers lived in a mill town where the industrial cotton mills needed workers to produce textiles, racial discrimination limited the economic opportunities for African Americans, especially African American women. Whereas white women in Nettie’s situation often worked at the Loray Mill, the opportunity was more difficult for African American women. Nettie, like many other black women in the mill village, worked as a private laundress. Wealthier families likely hired Nettie to do their wash and mend their clothes. Herbert, Nettie’s oldest son, also had to provide for his family, and he did find a job working at the Loray Mill. Like most black men, however, he worked as an unskilled laborer loading shipments or completing other odd jobs because the mill would not hire black men to work in the presence of white women. Nettie and Herbert’s income allowed the other children to attend school, and those of school age could read and write. They likely attended the nearby Pleasant Ridge Colored School on Spencer Avenue, which would have been within walking distance of their house.
Like many of Gastonia’s African American population, the Sandifer family was originally from York County, South Carolina. Nettie was born there on July 22, 1878, and her future husband Charles was born there in April of 1880. They married around 1900, and soon had their first son Herbert. The young family moved to North Carolina sometime between 1901 and 1901, likely for better economic opportunities, but Charles would not work in a textile mill. Instead, according to the 1910 census, he was a life insurance salesman in Gastonia, a relatively lucrative occupation that granted the family a sense of middle-class financial and social standing. The family even owned their own home. Yet sometime after 1917, Charles passed away, and around the same time, the family sold their home and moved to the mill village.
Over the next two decades, the Sandifer family’s many moves and relocations typifies the transient nature of African American life in the first half of the twentieth century. The Sandifers remained in Gastonia until 1923, but in 1924, they moved to Greensboro, North Carolina. There Nettie worked as a domestic servant and eventually gained employment as an elevator operator, while Herbert became a baker. The other children attended school in Greensboro. Edgar, Nettie’s second oldest son, was especially transient. He was an auto mechanic in 1927 in Greensboro, the same year he married his wife Geneva, but by 1930, Edgar and Geneva lived in Asheville where he continued to work on cars. Only one year later, they were back in Greensboro and would reside there the rest of their lives.
The 1930s was a migratory decade for the Sandifers. In 1935, Nettie and her daughters Mary and Alfreda lived in New York City, and by 1940, the two daughters supported their elderly mother through their occupations as a music teachers and a domestic servant. John also resided in New York City in 1940, although he had initially moved to Charlotte from Greensboro in 1935. In New York, John was a salesman for a sewing company, and his wife, who he probably met in New York, was a seamstress. Like his younger siblings, Herbert left North Carolina behind for better prospects in the urban northeast. He moved his wife and children to Washington, D.C., between 1935 and 1940, and worked as a baker for the National Press Club, using skills he acquired over the course of a decade baking in Greensboro. Like Edgar, Charlene remained in North Carolina, but even she moved to Morganton with her husband where she taught in a public school. Little is known about Osie, Faye, or Paul after the 1930s, although Faye may have moved to New York City to be with her mother and sisters and Paul likely served in the army in World War II.