African American Studies
INTERVIEWER: Natasha Lightfoot, Mali Olatunji
INTERVIEWEE: Olivia Lake
SUMMARY BY: Patrick O’Donnell
Olivia Lake (aka “Mama Lake”) was born in Antigua in 1905. Her parents were cotton and cane farmers. She remembers little of her upbringing in Antigua, but she moved to Trinidad to live with her father when she was 18 years old, after the death of her grandmother. She worked as a servant in a household there and was married there. In 1931, she moved to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic in order to join her mother. In the DR, Lake worked as a clothes washer. She stayed there for about 20 years, and then moved back to Trinidad in 1951, after the death of her husband. Yet Trinidad was different than she had remembered, and she soon returned to Santo Domingo. Shortly thereafter, she immigrated to the US (New Jersey) in order to work as a domestic servant on a salary of 40 dollars a month. In the ‘60’s, after she had made a decent amount of money, Lake paid for her sister’s $500 passage from Antigua to the US. Lake soon began making the acquaintance of other Antiguans in the New York area, and she eventually left her employer in New Jersey in order to work as an ironer and presser in Manhattan’s garment district. She became a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and she worked alongside Jews, Italians, and a few other black laborers. She rented a room in the Bronx, from a black family from the US Virgin Isles.
Lake remarried in the US. Her second husband was an Antiguan named Grenville Lake who had also immigrated to New York. He worked at Harlem hospital while his wife worked in the garment district. Grenville died in 1973, at which point Ms. Lake applied for Section 8 housing. In 1975 she moved into her present building, which was new at the time she moved in. Because of her long tenure in the community, as well as her impressive age of 101, Mama Lake is a social fixture of the community who has garnered a great deal of respect from the local residents.
There is a great deal more to Mama Lake’s experience in the US, but her memory for dates is quite vague, and she sometimes cannot remember in what order various events in her life occurred. As a result, it is hard to glean a full chronological narrative from her recollections alone. Careful study of the full interview transcript should yield a more coherent summary
Lake, Olivia. December 17, 2006. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project.
Click below to download supplemental content.Lake, Olivia.mp3 (91994 kB)