Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Fall/S. P. Boykin

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

Williamson School, one-room school in Blanch, Caswell County, North Carolina. There were twenty children enrolled, only eight present, busy tobacco season

Overview[edit | edit source]

S.P. Boykin was a seventy-six-year-old white farmer who lived his whole life in countryside of Wilson, North Carolina. He was interviewed by Stanley Combs in 1939, and Boykin’s life story was recorded as part of the Federal Writers’ Project. In his life, Boykin had seen the social changes from late nineteenth century to early twentieth century, but he kept living a rural and self-sufficient life. The archive of Boykin’s life story is now preserved in Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

S. P. Boykin was a third-generation farm owner in Wilson, North Carolina. The farm was built by Boykin’s grandfather on a 1000-acre land in 1799. Boykin was born in 1863. When he was young, he was educated only as far as the multiplication tables and worked on the farm for most of the days. During the time he spent on the farm, he learned comprehensive living skills such as growing vegetables, fixing tools, and raising livestock .

Adulthood[edit | edit source]

Boykin took over the farm when his father passed away. He had seven children, one of whom died young, and the rest finished school, got married and had their own farms. As capitalism developed in late nineteenth century, Boykin noticed the dramatic change of the society: automobiles brought more convenient transportation; schools and churches provided public education, and alcoholism promoted misconduct.

Life in Old Age[edit | edit source]

Boykin started to grow “cash crops” such as tobacco and cotton in the 1930s for more income. He and his neighbors constantly discussed and adjusted their tobacco productions of the following year. When interviewed in 1939, Boykin was seventy-six years old and lived with his wife. They grew vegetables and raised livestock on their own. The cost of buying automobile gas and hiring people to repair house damages could be covered by the earnings from cash crops. Overall, their life was described as self-sufficient. In politics, Boykin continued to support and vote for Democrats, although he believed that elections were manipulated. The Boykins wished they could have had the same convenient transportation and accessible education as young people did. However, because young people in the 1930s were more modernized than the Boykins, the couple found it hard to catch up with the fast pace of society and preferred to keep their country life where they could provide food, tools and clothes for themselves.[1]

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

Education[edit | edit source]

Boykin was school age in late nineteenth century, but he got little education because at that time rural communities lacked financial support and attached more importance to farming than schooling. In Boykin’s youth, the American schools were set up in one-room schoolhouses. Rural communities were often unable to provide schools with resources such as knowledgeable teachers and enough books[2]. Also, the one-roomed schools were seen as less important than farming. Parents in farming families preferred their children to help with farm work rather than go to school. So schools had to open during the time when the farm work was less busy than usual: “often the school would be open only for a few months of the year, usually when children were not needed to work at home or on the farm"[3]. In the North Carolina area, the school opened in winter, when there was not much for people to do on the farm. However, the weather was the worst in winter and country roads were always muddy, because of the precipitation. Thus students like Mr. Boykin were little motivated to go to school, where they were provided with limited resource.

The Federal Tobacco Program in the 1930s[edit | edit source]

During the 1930s, the government adopted policies regarding price stabilization of certain kinds of tobacco. The supply of tobacco was controlled by the government, and thus the price was raised accordingly[4]. This policy both restrained the tobacco consumption and ensured the income of farmers at a certain level. However, the policy still had its limitation. While only limited acreage of certain kinds of tobacco such as flue-cured tobacco and burley tobacco was under the control of the government, small farms which did not get the acreage of those kinds of tobacco could hardly get the support for their corps[5]. Fortunately, according to Lawrence E. Wood of Appalachian Regional Commission, most of the price-guaranteed tobacco in the United States was grown on the flat lands of eastern North Carolina and South Carolina[5]. So, Wilson farmers like Boykin and his neighbors in the 1930s had stable income from the local tobacco market[6].

Federal Writers' Project[edit | edit source]

In June of 1935, the American government approved The Federal Writers’ Project to be included in president Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Project employed established or aspiring writers, teachers, librarians, and clerical workers to interview Americans around the nation and record their life stories. The purpose of this project was to relive unemployment and "to educate Americans for an evaluation of their own civilization"[7]. The life stories were mainly written in the form of quoting interviewees, demonstrating the real life of over 10,000 Americans. S. P. Boykin’s story was recorded by Stanley Combs, Wilson, NC, and reviewed by Edwin Massengill in 1939.

Issues in Historical Production[edit | edit source]

The historic production of the Federal Writers’ Project has potential problem of hegemony. Professor Dittman from Butler (PA) County College stated that the Project in general seeks to “establish a hegemony from the bottom up"[8]. By narrating the life of people from working class and races other than white, writers of the Project tended to tell a democratic story of American life. The personal stories were narrated in spoken English of the non-dominant group and recorded by written language of the writers, who act as the outsiders of the interviewees’ culture. Thus, the writers with their own opinions and preconceptions could fail to record the personal history in respect to the interviewees’ perspectives. The writers might choose to tell the content that they regarded as educational while to omit the content that they did not value [9]. In Mr. Boykin’s story, the description of their self-sufficiency occupied much space, and the interviewer wrote in his own word that the Boykins lived with “apparent pleasure”[10]. This personal history tended to imply that country life was a joyful experience apart from city life, whereas Mr. Boykin might not give this opinion when interviewed.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Boykin, S. P. “An Old Farmer.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina, Southern History Collection. Web. p. 4384-91
  2. “Evolving Classroom.” Public Broadcasting Service. Roundtable, Inc. 2001. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
  3. “Evolving Classroom.” Public Broadcasting Service. Roundtable, Inc. 2001. Web. 20 Nov. 2013. para. 1
  4. Wood, Lawrence E. Appalachian Regional Commission. The Economic Impact of Tobacco Production in Appalachia. Washington, DC:ARC. Web. 1998.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Hunter, Robert F. “The A.A.A Between Neighbors: Virginia, North Carolina, and the New Deal Farm Program.” Southern Historical Association. 44.4 (1978): 537-570. JSTOR. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.
  6. Phillips, Sarah T. “Lessons From the Dust Bowl: Dryland Agriculture and Soil Erosion in the United States and South Africa, 1900-1950” Environmental History 4.2 (1999): 245-266. ASEH. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
  7. Dittman, Michael. "The Federal Writers' Project and the Creation of Hegemony." 49th Parallel Spring.2 (1999). Web. 20 Nov. 2013. para. 4
  8. Dittman, Michael. "The Federal Writers' Project and the Creation of Hegemony." 49th Parallel Spring.2 (1999). Web. 20 Nov. 2013. para. 7
  9. Dittman, Michael. "The Federal Writers' Project and the Creation of Hegemony." 49th Parallel Spring.2 (1999). Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
  10. Boykin, S. P. “An Old Farmer.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina, Southern History Collection. Web. p. 4391