Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Fall/Edna Meadows

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

Overview[edit | edit source]

Edna Meadows was a young woman who lived at 42 Howard Street, West Asheville, NC at the time that she was interviewed by Anne Winn Stevens for the Federal Writer’s Project in 1939 [1].

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Edna Meadows was born around 1920 and her parents were farmers on a rented farm near Leicester, North Carolina. The owner of the farm took nearly all of the harvested crops that they grew every year. The Meadows family was hardworking but still very poor. Edna’s five brothers all helped out with the farm work alongside Edna.

Their sister, Rachel, suffered from a severely curved spine resulting in her being confined to a chair for the majority of her life. Her father brought many doctors in to see her, but none of them could provide a cure.

Edna’s father died of pneumonia from going back to work too early after having been ill. After this, their mother had to take over the farm work, as they had no savings to live off of. Soon after this, Edna’s brother George suffered from sun poisoning while working in the fields. According to Rachel Meadows, “after that he began having fits, and crazy spells. The doctor said that his brain-cells had been burned away.”

Her mother tried to run the farm as effectively as her husband, but the stress of taking care of both George and the farm wore her out, so she decided to move the entire family to West Asheville. The sons in the family found work at the Carolina Coal Company.

Education and Employment[edit | edit source]

Woman Weaving

After their mother was killed by a drunk driver and Edna’s brothers all married and moved away, Edna was left to care for both Rachel and her brother, George, who had become violent after he lost his mother. George was sent to a Sanitarium, and Edna was sent by “an interested social worker” to a mission school for girls in Madison County.

The social worker helped support Edna while she attended school. Edna learned how to weave and used this skill to help pay for the rest of the costs of school. She was not allowed to complete her senior year of high school, because the school claimed that they could not keep Edna due to the school’s financial condition. Despite the fact that Edna had worked all summer for the school in order to pay her fall admission fee, the school refused to reconsider. Her lack of a high school diploma meant that the only jobs she could get were menial jobs with low wages.

Lack of Education[edit | edit source]

Free education through high school was not offered to the poor masses during the Great Depression, a fact which greatly limited their job opportunities. Even those who could afford to go to school for a short time often had trouble completing their education.

Many public schools were forced to close their doors during the Great Depression leading to children having to travel even further for school every day. According to Dr. Anita Davis, “Children whose families farmed for a living in the 1930s – as most North Carolinians did – often had a more difficult time attending school…” [2]. The children of farmers were pulled out of school anytime that their help was needed on the farm. Other children had to drop out of school in order to work for wages to help support their family [3].

Children who did not get high school degrees could not get high-paying jobs and so their children were forced to go through the same struggles with education. Most of the lower class was trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty due to lack of education. Edna is a prime example of lack of a high school diploma keeping her from working higher paying jobs.

Sharecropping[edit | edit source]

Sharecropping was a way of life for many households in North Carolina around the time of the Great Depression. It was a type of farming where, “…families would rent small plots of land in return for a portion of their crop” [4].

The problem with sharecropping was that, “it often resulted in sharecroppers owing more to the landowner…than they were able to repay” leading to the sharecroppers often being in debt [5]. On the eve of the Great Depression, farmers who owned their own land tended to not be badly off in comparison to sharecroppers [6].

Once the Depression took hold, then according to Mishkin, “the initial stages of the Depression triggered a price deflation that was especially harmful to the holders of debt” [7]. Sharecroppers were hit harder than land owners because they had no chance to build up their savings as most of their crops went towards paying rent on their land. Edna Meadows’ family worked as sharecroppers for years and remained very poor.

Federal Writers' Project[edit | edit source]

Edna’s story is just one of thousands that were collected during the Great Depression as part of the Federal Writers’ Program.

The Federal Writer’s Program was part of President Roosevelt’s plan to pull the United States out of the Great Depression. The writers who were sent out to record the life stories of the people were not taught how to conduct a proper interview. Their lack of training meant that many of the stories are very biased and have elements of fictionalization and dramatization within them.

In an analysis of the Federal Writer’s Program, Daniel M Fox argued that “the most disturbing aspect of the manuscript is the fact that despite a vast amount of research, the federal writers could not view history without the distorting mirror of contemporary partisanship” [8]. Edna’s story was written in such a way that it sounds like a fictionalized account of someone’s life. It is very focused on her family rather than on her directly and is not written in an interview form. It is impossible to tell if Edna and her family were asked any questions. The interview is written in a narrative format which makes the reader doubt its validity. This was a common problem in the stories recorded during the Federal Writers’ Project.

References:[edit | edit source]

  1. Meadows, Edna. “The Meadows.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina Southern History Collection. Pdf.
  2. Davis, Anita P., Dr. "Public Schools in the Great Depression." Public Schools in North Carolina in the Great Depression. NCPedia, 1 Jan. 2010. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. <http://ncpedia.org/public-schools-great-depression>. p. 19
  3. Davis, Anita P., Dr. "Public Schools in the Great Depression." Public Schools in North Carolina in the Great Depression. NCPedia, 1 Jan. 2010. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. <http://ncpedia.org/public-schools-great-depression>. p. 19-21
  4. "Sharecropping & "Forty Acres and a Mule"" History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. <http://www.history.com/topics/sharecropping>. p. 1
  5. "Sharecropping & "Forty Acres and a Mule"" History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. <http://www.history.com/topics/sharecropping>. p. 7
  6. Federico, Giovanni. "Not Guilty? Agriculture in the 1920s and the Great Depression." The Journal of Economic History 65.04 (2005): 949-76. JSTOR. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. p. 950
  7. Mishkin, Frederic S. “The Household Balance Sheet and the Great Depression.” The Journal of Economic History 38.4 (1978): 918-937. JSTOR. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. p. 922
  8. Fox, Daniel M. “The Achievement of the Federal Writers’ Project.” American Quarterly 13.1 (1961): 3-19. JSTOR. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. p. 6