Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Fall/Charlie Mitchell

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This page is connected with English 105 at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill - Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories .

Railroad Tracks of North Carolina in 1938

Overview[edit | edit source]

Charlie Mitchell was a middle aged, Caucasian man who worked as a railroad fireman in Raleigh, North Carolina during the 1930s. Mary A. Hicks interviewed Mitchell and recorded his life history in 1939 as a part of the Federal Writers’ Project

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Years[edit | edit source]

Charlie Mitchell was born near Lenoir, North Carolina in 1899. While growing up, he lived with his mother, father, and sister, Jean. Mitchell’s family was financially stable because his father was a farmer and a carpenter. Mitchell’s uncle, Clem, also lived with them periodically. During Mitchell’s childhood, Uncle Clem was abusive towards him and even tried to kill him once. Charlie dropped out of school after the seventh grade to start working for his father. Even after dropping out, Mitchell’s mother encouraged him to read different materials. Mitchell completely dropped his studies after his mother died when he was fifteen.

Adult Life[edit | edit source]

During his adulthood, Mitchell moved to Raleigh, NC and started working as a brakeman at the railroad, and later, as a fireman. Being a fireman required Mitchell to be around smoke coming from the coal, which often made him sick. While living in Raleigh, Mitchell met Carrie and married her. During the first year of their marriage, Mitchell and Carrie stayed with Carrie’s father. Carrie’s father drank often, and as a result, Mitchell started to develop alcoholism. Mitchell was struggling financially because he got laid off from his job often. Eventually, Carrie gave birth to two children, Margie and Mark. Having two children was a great financial responsibility, so Mitchell’s family battled debt. Simultaneously, Mitchell’s alcoholism became worse, contributing to the debt. In such a time of hardship, Carrie’s father helped Mitchell by giving him $250. Carrie also started drinking and smoking, even while she was pregnant with her third child. Due to the financial burden caused by the children, Mitchell and his wife decided to never have children again [1].

Financial Issues[edit | edit source]

Sustaining a household financially was not an easy task during the Great Depression. Mitchell’s family did not have any money to spare while being in debt and raising two children. The instability in Mitchell’s job as a railroad fireman contributed to the financial issues faced by his family. Cars became the dominant medium of transportation after 1920s [2]. With the introduction of the automobile, less and less people were using the railroads. Railroad employment had been decreasing in the 1930s, decreasing by 42% in 1932 [3]. Because of such a huge decline in railroad employment, Mitchell got laid off often. Even with fifteen years of experience working on the railroads, Mitchell could not avoid getting laid off. As Richard Jensen stated in Unemployment in the Great Depression, “fifteen percent of railroad workers with fifteen to nineteen years of service were laid off” [4]. Due to the lay-offs, Mitchell faced trouble keeping up with all of his family’s finances and eventually had a debt of $250.

Lack of Education[edit | edit source]

Obtaining an education seemed to become less common during the 1920s and 1930s. By 1930, “only 34 percent of youth aged thirteen to seventeen were enrolled in secondary schools in the southeast” [5]. Over half of the student-aged population dropped out of school to help their families financially, similar to Mitchell. After dropping out of school at the age of fifteen, Mitchell started practicing carpentering and farming. During Mitchell’s school years, Southern states accounted for 34% of the American population, but only received 3% of the education funding [6]. Such a low amount of funding meant that the schools could not provide the best education for students. Many teachers earned the same amount of money regardless of their experience, and as a result, most of them were teenage girls without an actual teaching degree [7]. Out of the 6,729 schools in North Carolina in 1931, one-fourth of them used the one room classroom. In a one classroom set-up, a single teacher taught all grade levels in one classroom [8]. The one classroom set-up could not have been the best for students’ learning, because the teachers had to divide their attention between many students.

Federal Writers' Project[edit | edit source]

The Federal Writers’ Project was created in 1935 as a result of the New Deal relief program ordered by President Roosevelt. The program provided employment to historians, teachers, writers, librarians, and other white-collar workers during the Great Depression. The program strived to document the life histories of many everyday Americans [9] While many issues of historical production are present in the Federal Writers’ Project, the issue of validity is present in Mitchell’s story. Leonard Rapport, a writer in the Federal Writers’ Project, stated that the writers viewed their jobs in the FWP as busy work without much significance given to them by the government [10]. The stories cannot reflect the accurate life history due to the lack of motivation in the writers. Some of the stories were written from a small amount of notes taken during the interview, so they are not the most accurate [10]. Another issue of validity is raised with the use of false quotations. Some of the words were “put into the person’s mouth” by the writers to help the narrative [11]. The use of quotations does not always symbolize the true words spoken by the interviewee. Mitchell’s interview flows smoothly like a story, instead of an interview, with many quotes, so the reader does not even know the interview questions. The evidence of what questions were asked is not presented, so the readers may interpret Mitchell’s answers inaccurately. There is a significant amount of chance that portions of Mitchell’s story could have been fictionalized by Hicks to create a smooth narrative.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Mitchell, Charlie. “He Knows It Doesn’t Pay.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Southern Collection. Print. p. 1-16
  2. Jensen, Richard. "The Causes and Cures of Unemployment in the Great Depression." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 19.4 (1985): 553-83. Print.
  3. Kopenhaver, Alex. "Railroad System in the 1930s." Railroad System in the 1930s. SlideShare Inc., 10 May 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
  4. Jensen, Richard. "The Causes and Cures of Unemployment in the Great Depression." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 19.4 (1985): 553-83. Print. p. 569
  5. Tyack, David. Public Schools in Hard Times: The Great Depression and Recent Years. Harvard University Press, 1984. Print. p. 29
  6. "20th Century Education." Chesapeake.edu. Chesapeake College, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.
  7. Jensen, Barb. "Education During the Great Depression." Voices.yahoo.com. Yahoo News Network, 25 Jan. 2008. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
  8. Davis, Anita P. "Public Schools in the Great Depression." Ncpedia.org. State Library of North Carolina, 2010. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.
  9. "New Deal Programs: Selected Library of Congress Resources." Federal Writers' Project. The Library of Congress, 29 July 2011. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Rapport, Leonard. “How Valid Are the Federal Writers’ Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast among the True Believer” The Oral History Review 7 (1979): 6-17. JSTOR. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.
  11. Rapport, Leonard. “How Valid Are the Federal Writers’ Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast among the True Believer” The Oral History Review 7 (1979): 6-17. JSTOR. Web. 19 Nov. 2013. p. 7