During the time period preceding the American Civil War, three groups of white people emerged with three very different views on the social placement of African Americans in our 1930’s society. Some called for never-ending discrimination against a lesser race, others wished for equal legal rights but no political rights, and an even smaller group hoped for total equality for all races and colors. Black people also had three extremely different views on the role they should play in the social order. A large group of “low class” blacks just wanted to get by, the older generation was content with the current societal arrangement, while the majority desired equality but went after it in a peaceful manner.
A large majority of the white men in the South believe blacks needed to learn their place and remain there. Though whites never said just what this place was, they showed it to them by limiting education, by discrimination on the streets and railroads, by barring them from public parks, public libraries, and public amusements of all kinds, by insulting replies to courteous questions, by conviction for trivial offences, and, finally, by the shot gun and lynching. This group rears its ugly head with the creation of the Ku Klux Klan in late 1865 and is still going pretty strong during the Great Depression.1 This is called the “rabble class.”
While a lot of Southern whites would have been in this category, there were other classes of white beliefs as well. This next grouping of whites, though fewer in number, condemn all views held by the first group. They believe that blacks should have equal legal rights, but that he should be denied equal political and educational rights. They believe the Bible to be the universal remedy for all the ills of the Negro. In order to support this analysis, this group of whites often reverts to the time when, they say, there was no race problem. This was during slavery, when the master taught his slaves the beneficial influence of the Holy Bible. They appealed to the white men of the South to return to this practice. In this class would fall a large number of politicians, statesmen, educators, and ministers. This is called the “conservative class.”
There is still a third class of white men in the South, who believed that blacks are just men, nothing more and nothing less. They believed that under similar circumstances blacks would act as other races do. These whites contended that they should have equal rights in every respect; there should be equality in voting for worthy blacks and whites and none for ignorant whites and blacks; that the school money should be divided equally among the children of the state regardless of race; that blacks deserved the same justice in the courts; that the criminal and lawless black should be punished equally as that of a criminal and lawless white. They believe that a strict adherence to this view will result in the final end to the race war. There were, however, very few who felt this way, and they were so widely scattered, that they can hardly be called a class. The other classes of white people considered them insane and accused them of advocating social equality. They were given no voice in the government and their wishes were disregarded as if the were black beliefs. They were often persecuted, ostracized, and harmed in the very same ways in which the blacks were treated during this time. As time passed, it became obvious that this class was growing with great frequency and the other two classes were shrinking.
With three distinct white groups, there were also three distinct black groups. The first class is one composed chiefly of the illiterate and superstitious blacks. They usually worked on the railroads, steamboats, large sawmills, and farms for wages. They are basically a nomad people. This class was contented to be let alone, but would shoot an insult just as quickly as any white person would, however, they did not even care who the target of the insult was (black or white). Within this class, you would find the whiskey seller, the drunkard, the gambler, and the criminal of the lowest type. It is the low, degraded and depraved criminals of this class who stirred up and incited race hatred, which always resulted in race riots. The other two classes of blacks, as well as whites, want nothing more than to be rid of these people.
The second class of blacks was composed of the farm renters and owners, of preachers, teachers, students, professional and businessmen. Reverend Alex Crummel summed up group of blacks perfectly in his “A Thanksgiving Sermon.”2 They believed that blacks should be educated in many trades and professions. They believed they should own homes, pay their taxes and perform civic duties like any other white citizen. They should also have all of the rights and privileges that are delegated to “all men” under Constitution of the United States. These blacks believed in enduring this suffrage, in being patient and self-sacrificing for their plight for equality. They believed in the inherent good in all people. It is this class that always assisted in quelling race riots and was constantly seeking the co-operation of the best class of white people in order to secure a cordial rapport between the races. Though this class is rapidly increasing, it is still far inferior in number to the previous class. This group is also responsible for most of the literature written during this time period appealing to the white men to help their cause. Because of this, this group of blacks is easiest to learn about.
The third class is composed almost completely of the ante-bellum blacks. They are well advanced in age and are contented with their present state of life. Having never known anything else, they were willing to stay with the status quos. Many of them have waited for years for the forty acres and mule promised to them after the Civil War and having been disappointed in their expectation, they have lost all hopes. They are perfectly harmless and have no earthly ambition. This was the black the white man preferred, for he had no ambition for a life of equality therefore expected nothing from the society the enslaved him. These blacks were the ones mainly being interviewed for the Slave Narratives Collection.
During the depression of the 1930’s, both black and white people experienced many hardships. The south saw the majority of the problems because of its extremely low economic status. Since the North has spent the previous century buildings its manufacturing and textile industries, there were still some jobs available for the common man to do. The South had been depending solely on its agricultural power, fueled by slavery, and the destruction of this slave society sent the farming industry into a tailspin. Since there were no factory jobs really to speak of, except in the larger cities of Charleston and Birmingham, finding a job was next to impossible. I am not down playing the hardship felt in the North caused by the Depression, but the South’s lack of industrial advancement and its deficiency in an experienced waged-labor force prevented any possibility of earning a decent living.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced in 1938 that the American South “represented the nation’s number one economic problem.” Though rich in physical and human resources, the southern states lagged behind other parts of the nation in economic development.3 Southern industries did not have the investment capital to turn their resources into commodities. Manufacturers were limited to producing goods in the textile and cigarette industry and relied heavily on the cash crops of cotton and tobacco for the economy. Few facilities existed in the South for research that might lead to the development of new industries. Hampered by low wages, low tax revenue, and a high interest rate, Southerners lacked the economic resources to compete with the vast industrial strength of the North. “Penalized for being rural, and handicapped in its efforts to industrialize, the economic life of the South has been squeezed to a point where the purchasing power of the southern people does not provide an adequate market for its own industries nor a attractive market for those of the rest of the country.” 4The South had an untapped market for production and consumption. However, without adequate capital, it did not have the means to profit from them.
However, the depression on top of horrible race relations made the suffering of African Americans much worse. Because of the economic disasters created by the Great Depression, “most of the former slaves were destitute and dependent upon the aid of family, white people, or government officials.” 5 The Southern Blacks felt the worst of this economic despair, as seen by the grand migration of blacks to the north and west. There opinion of their social status however differed from one interviewee to the other. Some said the life the lived currently was worse than the life of slavery that they used to live; some said their life now was easier than the life of slavery and some yet said it did not make a difference free or enslaved.
One problem seemed to show itself quite often amongst African-Americans and that was a complaint of extreme hunger. “As the former slaves were questioned about their lives ‘in the old time days,’ they talked about the hunger they were feeling as they spoke.”6 Many ex-slaves commented on how much better and more they had to eat prior to the emancipation. Because much of black population was suffering from malnutrition and starvation, it was very hard for them to enjoy this newfound freedom. A perfect quote is one made by Andrew Boone who said “It’s all hard, slavery and freedom, both bad when you can’t eat.” 7
Another common complaint was the lack of housing. Some slaves did have living quarters and residences, but many suffered in leaky homes and decrepit barns. Some of the older blacks who worked inside the homes of their masters were able to stay there as wage workers, but those that were strictly farm hands, the vast majority of the slaves, had no place to go except inhumane and unsanitary shacks.
In order to ease the suffering plaguing blacks and whites, the New Deal proposed the Works Progress Administration (WPA). This provided a whole array of government jobs to the needy people of the North and South. One of the projects that the WPA put in place was the Federal Writers’ Project, which created the Slave Narrative Collection.
The Slave Narratives cover “over two thousand interviews with former slaves” and gives “a unique and collective portrait of [this] historical population.” 8 They give a first hand account of the lives that the some blacks led during their enslavement. There are however many problems that arise when using the Narratives at face value. Some slave were so young at the time of the emancipation that they do not have a clear view of what slavery was like for adults, but those “who were adults at the time of the emancipation were so old at the time of the interviews that their memories were questionable.” 9
Another source for concern was that most of the interviewers were white, and since the interviewees were obviously black, which could have had two effects: 1. The narratives could have been changed through dictation as well as in editing and 2. The ex-slaves might have felt constricted to tell the truth to a white person. Other problems that arise have to deal with the interviewers and the editors. Both had the opportunity to change the testimony’s meaning, whether done consciously or unconsciously, to suit their beliefs and what they know in life. The Slave Narrative’s Collection employed hundreds of writer’s, whites and blacks, from every ex-slave state. Grace McCune was one of about 10 writers from Athens, Georgia.
Grace McCune was born in November 29, 1899 to the parents of Daniel J. McCune and Gertrud McCune. As far as her social security number shows, she was born in New Jersey. She lived with her parents and grandfather John McCune. It seems that her mother died fairly early on in her life since she does no appear in the city directories past the year of 1925. She lived with her father who was an Athens Police officer and her grandfather who was a plumber and later became a sales clerk for a grocery store. The house she grew up in. 881½ College Avenue, was owned by her parents, which means that they must have fairly well off during a time of economic upheaval. She would have been considered the daughter in a middle class family. After her father’s death in August of 1926, she began to move around a great deal, as well as change jobs on a regular basis. The combination of her father’s death and the depression had a profound effect on her economic situation. She had a whole array of jobs ranging from a sales clerk to a laundress. She began working for the Federal Writer’s Project in 1938. Her first assignment must have been the Slave Narrative Collection because her interview with Mirriam McCommons falls at the beginning of that year. She continued to work for the WPA even after her interviews with the free blacks.
Mirriam McCommons was a 76-year-old emancipated slave at the time of her interview in April of 1938. She was born in Stephen County, Georgia on April 27, 1862. She later moved to Lexington then to Hutchins, Georgia and then finally settled in Athens first at the Calloway’s then at 164 Augusta Avenue. During her early years she was sold a few times which explains why she had to move so many times. Her story began with a short summary of her lineage. Her father “wuz William Young” and her mother “wuz Lula Lumpkin.”10 Her father died in 1918 at the age of 77 and her mother died at the age of 38. During her life as a slave she had three masters. She was a nurse for all three families from her childhood on into her teenage years. She basically grew up with the master’s children therefore she had the advantage of a little bit of education. All three families provided her with a $25 per year salary as well as an education. At her third owners plantation she states “at de Calloway place us colored folks had big suppers and all day dinner, wid plenty to eat.”11 She married in 1862 at the age of seventeen to Albert McCommons and had two children, one who passed away at a young age. She spoke fondly of her masters and mistresses; in fact, Mirriam “ loves ‘em all.”12 After the emancipation, Mirriam moved to her own home at 164 Augusta Avenue. She was one of very few blacks who owned their own residence, which she paid for by working as a laundress. She would have been considered part of the large groups of blacks that tried to make a place for herself and trying to keep the piece between the two races.
The interaction between Grace and Mirriam must have been very interesting. Though Grace and Mirriam had led very different lives they had a few things in common. Neither woman knew their mothers very well, both having died at early stages in their lives. So they did not have that feminine touch that only a mother could instill in a daughter. They also seem to have grown up in loving environments for the early stages of their lives. Mirriam’s “masters” cared and provided for her and Grace was loved, cared and provided for by her father and grandfather. They are also both more or less educated, which was unusual for an ex-slave. There are also a few differences between their lives. Mirriam got married and had children and owned a home but Grace did not. Grace was able to get more upscale employment while Mirriam had to stay with work the laundry mat.
Mirriam’s interview seems to have many of the problems stated by Shaw. First, there seems to be a discrepancy about the spelling of Mirriam’s name. In all of the Athens City Directories and also in the census, she spells her name Mariam. On the first page of her interview there was already a change made. Next, Mirriam only speaks affectionately of all her owners. This could have only been for one reason, as she was neither to old nor to young at the time of emancipation, so she would have seen first hand what slaves went through pre and post emancipation. So, either the writer and editor to suit their beliefs changed her testimony or she was afraid that her white interviewer would chastise or berate her.
The relationships between blacks and whites were extremely complicated during the 1930’s. Many groups of people believed with great fervor in their cause for race equality or in keeping the status quo. The Slave Narratives prove to have their strengths and weaknesses, but also establish a first hand account of the life that emancipated slaves led during the Great Depression. They truly show the hardship that blacks had to over come in order to get to where they are today.
2.Alex Crummel, Incidents of Hope for the Negro Race in America: A Thanksgiving Sermon (Washington DC: 1895), 1-15.
3.David L. Carlton, and Peter A Coclanis, “Confronting Southern Poverty in the Great Depression: The Report on Economic Conditions of the South with Related Documents” (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996), 92.
4. David L. Carlton, and Peter A Coclanis, “Confronting Southern Poverty in the Great Depression: The Report on Economic Conditions of the South with Related Documents” (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996), 92.76-78.
5. Stephanie J. Shaw, "Using the WPA Ex-Slave Narratives to Study the Impact of the Great Depression," Journal of Southern History, Vol. 69 No. 3 (Aug 2003), 630.
6.Stephanie J. Shaw, "Using the WPA Ex-Slave Narratives to Study the Impact of the Great Depression," Journal of Southern History, Vol. 69 No. 3 (Aug 2003), 631.
7.Stephanie J. Shaw, "Using the WPA Ex-Slave Narratives to Study the Impact of the Great Depression," Journal of Southern History, Vol. 69 No. 3 (Aug 2003), 634.
8. Norman R. Yetman, "Ex-Slave Interviews and the Historiography of Slavery," American Quarterly, Vol. 36 No. 2 (Summer, 1984), 181.
9. Stephanie J. Shaw, "Using the WPA Ex-Slave Narratives to Study the Impact of the Great Depression," Journal of Southern History, Vol. 69 No. 3 (Aug 2003), 625.
10. Grace McCune, “The Slave Narratives Collection: Interviewee Mirriam McCommons,” (Federal Writer’s Project: April, 1938) 52.
11. Grace McCune, “The Slave Narratives Collection: Interviewee Mirriam McCommons,” (Federal Writer’s Project: April, 1938) 54.
12. Grace McCune, “The Slave Narratives Collection: Interviewee Mirriam McCommons,” (Federal Writer’s Project: April, 1938) 55.
Blassingame, John W., "Using the Testimony of Ex-Slaves: Approaches and Problems," Journal of Southern History, Vol. 41 No. 4 (November 1975), 473-492.
Carltone, David L., and Coclanic, Peter A., “Confronting Southern Poverty in the Great Depression: The Report on Economic Conditions of the South with Related Documents” (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996).
Cohen, William, “At Freedom’s Edge: Black Mobility and the Southern Quest for racial Control,” (Baton Rouge: Lousiana State University Press, 1991).
Crummel Alex Rev., “Incidents of Hope for the Negro Race in America: A Thanksgiving Sermon,” (Washington DC: 1895), 1-15.
Foner, Eric, “America’s Reconstruction: People and Politics after the Civil War,” (New York: Harper Perennial, 1995.)
Gelfand, J. Michael, "Chronicling An African-American Life In Athens: James W. Davis And His Georgia Writers' Project Interview, 1939," Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 81 No. 3 (1997), 713-734.
History of Ku Klux Klan
Manuscript United States Census, 1930, Georgia, Athens. Microfilm Series, Roll Number M-250.
Manuscript City Directories, 1927-1948, Georgia, Athens. Microfilm Series.
McCune, Grace, “Slave Narrative’s Collection: Interviewee Mirriam McCommons,” (Federal Writer’s Project: April 2, 1938), 51-55. Interview with Mirriam McCommons
Musher, Sharon Ann, "Contesting "The Way the Almighty Wants It": Crafting Memories of Ex-Slaves in the Slave Narrative Collection," American Quarterly, Vol. 53 No. 1 (March 2001), 1-31.
Shaw, Stephanie J., "Using the WPA Ex-Slave Narratives to Study the Impact of the Great Depression," Journal of Southern History, Vol. 69 No. 3 (Aug 2003).
Yetman, Norman R., "Ex-Slave Interviews and the Historiography of Slavery," American Quarterly, Vol. 36 No. 2 (Summer, 1984).
Yetman, Norman R., "The Background of the Slave Narrative Collection," American Quarterly, Vol. 19 No. 3 (Autumn, 1967), 534-553.