Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Fall/Odell McNeil

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

The picture above is that of a Texas tenant farmer's wife working in the field.

Overview[edit | edit source]

Odell McNeil[1] was a poor, white female bag maker who lived in Salisbury, North Carolina where Mary A. Hicks interviewed her for the Federal Writers' Project in 1939.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Childhood[edit | edit source]

Odell McNeil, a Caucasian female, was one of eleven children born into a poor, tenant farming family who grew up in a two-room home in Salisbury, North Carolina. The McNeil’s often did not have enough food for all of their children and they never attended church. Her father was a drunk and abusive to McNeil’s mother and her siblings. McNeil only received schooling until the third grade because she was needed to work on the family farm.

Adulthood[edit | edit source]

McNeil married her husband, Brad, one week shy of her fourteenth birthday. They lived in a one-bedroom shack next to Brad’s mother, where McNeil soon discovered Brad’s terrible drinking habits. She stayed with him for three years, having two girls during this time. A third was to be born when she was 16, but Brad kicked her in the stomach and McNeil lost the baby. McNeil tried to leave after Brad beat her one morning, but did not get far before she was found. Brad took one of the babies to his mother’s house and smothered the child. McNeil left shortly after that, leaving her first child at the home of her sister, while she went in search for work. After not acquiring any sort of job, she decided to move to Walterville, hoping her efforts would soon produce results. McNeil’s sister tricked her into signing adoption papers, and she was never allowed to see her eldest child ever again.

After leaving town, McNeil ended up at the home of “Ma” Perry. Ma took her in, allowing McNeil to assist her in running their family store. She began a relationship with a taxi driver, Harry, who she spent a great deal of time with. McNeil ended up becoming pregnant, and attempted to commit suicide by taking turpentine so she did not have to endure having another child. She ended up not dying, and had a baby boy whom Harry gave away. Harry was a married man, and the relationship between McNeil and him soon dwindled. McNeil began going to church and received a job at a bagging plant. McNeil soon realized it was time to become an independent woman and praised Ma for steering her life in the right direction.

Tenant Farming[edit | edit source]

McNeil’s childhood underlines the economic struggles families endured in the era of the Great Depression. McNeil was born into a tenant farming family that was extremely affected by the decline in crop prices, specifically of cotton and tobacco, during this time period. Tenant farming was a business where farmers rented land from landowners in exchange for cash or crops.[2] According to RoAnn Bishop, half of North Carolina’s population lived on working farms in the Great Depression.[3] A sociologist at the University of North Carolina is quoted in 1929 saying, “Many of our North Carolina farmers are desperately poor, live in wretched houses, and are scantily provided with even the necessities of life."[4] This description parallels the situation in which McNeil grew up: she, along with ten other siblings, worked tirelessly on the farm, receiving little food for their efforts due to lack of money. Tenant farming’s extreme decline during this time period sent havoc through the southern states, causing families and farmers to rely on credit from the banks and merchants, putting individuals into a financially declining spiral.

Abortion in the 1930's[edit | edit source]

During the years preceding the economic downturn of the 1930s, contraception methods and abortion were available, but controversial and expensive. Andrea Tone argued that the market was, “Capitalizing on Americans' desire to limit family size in an era of economic hardship, pharmaceutical firms…launched a successful campaign to persuade women and men to eschew natural methods...."[5] Americans turned to artificial methods to control child bearing because of the declining economy that sent many individuals into debt. Either for religious or political reasons, the ability for women to control child bearing and terminate pregnancies was not discussed publicly. Social workers stated, “the Great Depression produced an economic crisis that sharpened the need of women to control child bearing."[6] Women who did not have access to safe contraceptives, due to financial instability, often turned to abortion to prevent pregnancy for the fear of not being able to financially support the child. McNeil was unsuccessful in finding a job, thus was unable to provide economic support to her unborn baby. Subsequently, she opted to commit suicide in a desperate plea to avoid having another child. In a 1932 study, it was discovered that “illegal abortions or complications from them were the cause of death for 15,000 women each year…."[7] The worry of being criticized by peers and of not being able to provide for an infant during this economic crisis caused many women, such as McNeil, to endure these extremely dangerous abortions.

Federal Writers' Project[edit | edit source]

Validity of the Federal Writers' Project[edit | edit source]

The Federal Writers' Project, a program of the New Deal, was developed under the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935. This project was developed to revamp the struggling economy in the period of the Great Depression by giving writer’s the task of recording life stories of everyday Americans. According to Daniel Fox, the FWP “attempt[ed] to present a total picture of American life in a Guide format¬– a panoramic view of the nation."[8] However, issues of historical production arose surrounding the project, especially with the validity of the interviews. Writers who were given this task of interviewing Americans were given little instruction on how to go about this process. Many writers’ were attempting to make themselves known, and in turn could have possibly altered stories to make them more appealing to readers.[9] The authenticity of the interviews vary between the different writer’s, due to their different personal strengths and weaknesses in observing and writing. The story of Odell McNeil was not written in an interview form, so we are unaware of the questions she was asked. Also, Mary Hicks begins the story with a dramatic flashback to McNeil’s suicide attempt, and causes the reader to question the validity of the account.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. McNeil, Odell. “The Turning Point.” Federal Writer’s Project. University of North Carolina Southern History Collection. 14 Nov. 2013. Print.
  2. “Tenant Farming Labor System.” Southern Tenant Farmers Museum. Arkansas State University. Web. 15 Nov. 2013.
  3. Bishop, RoAnn. “Agriculture in North Carolina During the Great Depression.” NC Pedia. North Carolina Museum of History. Web. 15 Nov. 2013.
  4. Bishop, RoAnn. “Agriculture in North Carolina During the Great Depression.” NC Pedia. North Carolina Museum of History. Web. 15 Nov. 2013. p. 1.
  5. Tone, Andrea. “Contraceptive Consumers: Gender and the Political Economy of Birth Control in the 1930s.” Journal of Social History 29.3 (1996): 485-506. JSTOR. Web. 15 Nov. 2013. Pg. 1.
  6. “When Abortion was Illegal.” Socialist Worker. International Socialist Organization, 21 Oct. 2005. Web. 15 Nov. 2013. Para. 13.
  7. “When Abortion was Illegal.” Socialist Worker. International Socialist Organization, 21 Oct. 2005. Web. 15 Nov. 2013. Para. 7.
  8. Fox, David. “The Achievement of the Federal Writers’ Project.” American Quarterly 13.1 (1961): 3-19. JSTOR. Web. 15 Nov. 2013. p. 5.
  9. Rapport, Leonard. “How Valid Are the Federal Writer’s Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast Among the True Believers.” The Oral History Review 7 (1979): 6-17. JSTOR. Web. 15 Nov. 2013.