Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Fall/James Stevens Brown

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

Overview[edit | edit source]

Doctor Gray was a country doctor in Hendersonville North Carolina, who graduated from the Northwestern University and began his career as a physician in 1893. He was interviewed by Frank Massimino, a writer for the Federal Writers' Project on January 11, 1939.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Beginning of Career[edit | edit source]

Gray was born to a family of doctors. His father and grandfather were doctors, which inspired Gray to pursue the same profession. In order to send him to medical school, his family made a tremendous financial sacrifice. His father willingly made the sacrifice on one condition, Gray had to promise to help anyone who was in need. Gray attended Rush Medical School in Chicago and then transferred to Northwestern University, where he graduated. After graduation, he launched his career in 1893 as a medical supervisor in the Chicago World’s Fair. The Chicago World’s Fair was a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of North America (“World’s Columbian Exposition” 1).[1]

Later Life[edit | edit source]

After the fair closed, Gray moved to Hendersonville, North Carolina and launched his career as a country doctor to fulfill the promise he made to his father. Through his experience as a country doctor, Gray witnessed the importance of receiving an education and the sufferings of the poverty stricken people in western North Carolina. For forty-five years, he used his expertise to cure over three hundred patients free of charge. Which constituted several thousand dollars’ worth of uncollected debt because most of his patients were unable to afford his medical attention. Also, Gray often had to walk several miles through the most severe weather to travel to his patients who were too sick to travel to his office.

Achievements[edit | edit source]

Through his earnings as a country doctor, Gray was able to raise his family of five children and provide them with college educations. They were all successful in staring their own businesses. One of his sons followed Gray’s footsteps and became one of the most renowned surgeons in the state. Throughout his extensive career, Gray achieved many accomplishments. Gray delivered over five thousand babies, without the loss of a life and successfully performed a prostatectomy on a black man.[2]

Poverty in rural North Carolina[edit | edit source]

The Great Depression caused immense suffering to the citizens of rural North Carolina. The poverty stricken people of Hendersonville, North Carolina suffered from illnesses, such as malaria, which claimed over 2,000,000 lives annually. Carlton, who wrote reports on the economic conditions of the south reported, “The low-income belt of the South is a belt of sickness, misery, and unnecessary death. Its large portion of low-income citizens are more subject to disease than the people of any similar area.” (qtd. in Carlton 59).[3] The spread of disease and death is due to the poverty and low living standards of poor southerners. They often lived next to mills or mines, or on low swampy land, where there was a lack of sanitation, resulting in contaminated milk and water (Carlton 62).[4] The poor became sick due to these unsanitary living conditions. Despite Gray’s efforts to cure them, some patients died because they needed hospital care and were unable to afford it.

Lack of education[edit | edit source]

The lack of education in rural North Carolina prevented the poor from pursuing jobs with higher wages that yield better living conditions. Those who were in severe poverty were not able to afford an education for their children. In 1930, there were 4,250,000 school age children in the southeast region (Carlton 57).[5] The majority of these children were unable to attend school due to the lack of schools and funding for schools. Only two percent of the national income went to supporting education in the southeastern region. According to John Bell, financial support for education was effected by the Great Depression, “The effect of the depression on education was [that the] overall financial support for education declined, the base of financial support for schools [was moved] to state government” (qtd. in Bell 62).[6] This shift in funding for schools resulted in more evenly distributed education opportunities. However, higher education declined due to the dwindling financial support for state institutions (Bell 62).[7] This decline in higher education prohibited the poor from raising up in the social ladder and obtaining jobs that yield higher incomes. Some people, like Gray, were able to escape from poverty because they were able to obtain an education through a tremendous financial sacrifice. However, most of the southern population were not as fortunate and were not able to afford an education.

Federal Writers’ Project[edit | edit source]

In 1935, the Federal Writers’ Project was created by the United Sates Work Progress Administration. The FWP provided jobs to writers, teachers, librarians, and other white-collar workers, who were unemployed during the Great Depression. The FWP included 2,900 documented life histories spanning 24 states. These life histories included interviews of a variety of people, ranging from doctors to farmers and former slaves (“Federal Writers' Project” 1).[8] Some of these interviews, like the account of Gray’s life were written in sophisticated language and in the form of a short story. Gray’s story was written as a series of mini-stories in his interviewer, Massimino’s point of view. Since Missimino’s perspective was an outsider’s perspective, the life history reveals the facts about life in rural North Carolina in 1939, such as severe poverty and the lack of education, but does not include the attitudes and feelings of the people. According to Jerald, a professor at Truman University, the interviewers “Addressed inherited questions about the nature of American identity, nationality, and culture. The answers they offered to the questions they inherited were shaped by their personal experiences and pre-FWP careers” (qtd. in Jerald 18).[9] Therefore, Missimino wrote the interview in the form of a narrative because he was formerly a creative writer, who was used to writing literature as a form of art. Thus, the life history does not provide the reader a first-hand perspective of how the Great Depression impacted the lives of the residents of rural North Carolina.  

References[edit | edit source]

  1. “World’s Columbian Exposition”. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 10 Nov. 2013. Web. 12 Nov. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World's_Columbian_Exposition>
  2. Massimino, Frank. “Doctor Gray” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina Southern History Collection. 1939. Print.
  3. Carlton, David L. Confronting Southern Poverty in the Great Depression. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 1996. Print. pg. 59
  4. Carlton, David L. Confronting Southern Poverty in the Great Depression. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 1996. Print.
  5. Carlton, David L. Confronting Southern Poverty in the Great Depression. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 1996. Print.
  6. Bell, John L. Hard Times: Beginnings of the Great Depression in North Carolina 1929-1933. Raleigh: North Carolina Department of cultural Resources, 1982. Print. pg. 62
  7. Bell, John L. Hard Times: Beginnings of the Great Depression in North Carolina 1929-1933. Raleigh: North Carolina Department of cultural Resources, 1982. Print.
  8. “Federal Writers' Project”. Web Guides. New Deal: Selection Library of Congress Resources, 2011. Web. 12 Nov. 2013. <http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/newdeal/fwp.html>
  9. Hirsch, Jerrold. Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers' Project. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina. 2003. Print. pg.18