Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105/Section071/Leathy Lightsey

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Overview[edit | edit source]

Leathy Lightsey was a colored WPA worker in the 1930s, living in Charlotte, NC. She was interviewed at her house on July 6, 1939 by Cora L. Bennett, and the interview was revised by Mary R. Northrop. The interview took place where Leathy lived, 712 E. Third St. This was interview was conducted for the Federal Writers’ Project.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Leathy Lightsey was raised on a small farm with her family in South Carolina. She was not born to a rich family. Her parents were very hard-working and at an early age, she learned how to work hard and do labor at a young age. She used to help her father on the farm a lot. She was the oldest of six children in the family, who all lived in the same house. Like other children, she did go to school initially. However, while she was in fourth grade, her mother died, so she quit school to help the family at home. Eventually, she married her husband and they moved to town and started a family.

Later Life[edit | edit source]

Leathy had eight children at the time of the interview. She did not have much time to work because she had to take care of the children a lot, although she did work on sewing projects to earn a little money. Her husband earned the most money for the family. He soon become unemployed. His inability to provide for his family and the constant stress of finding a job were reportedly some of the factors that led to the appearance of mental issues. He started to act in a way that the children were scared of him, although Leathy did not think he was in dire need of help. Even still, she agreed when officials offered to take him to an asylum so he was taken there and since then, Leathy had written and called with no answer for three months until the point of the interview. She had to take on a job as a lunch lady and then, worked on canning projects when school was out for the summer. Her family was poor and barely got by at times. She regretted not getting an education when she was younger. She thought that she would be better able to provide for her family if she did. When her husband went to the asylum, the two oldest children quit school to get a job or take care of the younger siblings.

Social Context[edit | edit source]

Dorothea Dix is a well-known historical figure. She is known for the work she has done to reform mental institutions.

Mental Asylums[edit | edit source]

There have been many controversial aspects associated with mental asylums and “mentally ill” since before the 20th century. Dorothea Dix helped bring about reform of mental asylums and treatment of the mentally ill in the 19th century. However, there were still many issues in the 20th century. To start, the labels of “mentally ill” or “clinically insane” were thrown around very often. A book discussing the transformation of psychiatric care in Canada explained a hypothetical story of someone who was labeled as clinically insane in the 20th century. "William spent several years there. … [He] explained to the superintendent that there had been a mistake. Sure, he’d had some bad harvests, but no one should begrudge a man a few drinks and a frustrated response to difficult circumstances." (Dowbiggin 2018, 4).[1] People were taken into asylums and mental hospitals for things as little as being drunk. During the 20th century, mental asylums had an overwhelmingly large amount of people. Mental asylums transitioned from places of treatment and care for the mentally ill to prisons that protected society from the “insane”. Hensley said, “these hospitals had become custodial facilities. Public asylums housed large numbers of the mentally ill, but they were no longer providing innovative treatment, or in many cases, any treatment at all.” (Hensley 2010).[2] The prisons were declining in the 20th century. Around the 1930s, new forms of “treatment” were also introduced, such as electrotherapy. One patient explained the experience. “ ‘… one or more patients were called behind the screen to sit down and take off their shoes while the patient who had just preceded them was still on the table going through the convulsions that shake the body after the electric shock has knocked them unconscious. …’” (Office of The Missouri Secretary of State 2003).[3] There is no way to tell what kinds of questionable practices took place in mental asylums in the 1930s.

Cyclical Poverty and Children Abandoning Education[edit | edit source]

Method of treatment that were used in the 20th century, especially in mental institutions. It was supposedly used for treatment but it left many unconscious and was more likely used as a form of punishment.

Around the 1930s, the occurrence of children leaving school to help the family was very common. Many families struggled to get by so the children would quit school to help take care of siblings or get a job to earn money. However, most families whose children left school to work remained in poverty in later generations. One of the biggest reasons for this is the lack of education. Education was not a very big priority for the children in most families. The choice of sending children to school or letting them help as farmhands, get jobs, take care of the young, etc. was an obvious one for most families. (Moore 2001, 8).[4] The situation has not changed much since then. Explaining a study done in the beginning of the 21st century, Donna Beegle says, “When respondents were asked to reflect on what education meant to them and their families, 98% of them reported that education had little or no meaning in their early lives and simply was not important. For nearly all of them (92%), early education was just something they “did” and never knew why.” (Beegle 2001, 14). [5] This shows that education was not valued very much, so many people would quit. This usually led to those children staying in poverty as they grew up and had their own families.

Works Cited[edit | edit source]

Beegle, Donna (2000-01-01). Interrupting Generational Poverty: Experiences Affecting Successful Completion of a Bachelor's Degree.

Dowbiggin, Ian (2018). "Managing Madness: Weyburn Mental Hospital and the Transformation of Psychiatric Care in Canada by Erika Dyck, Alex Deighton". Bulletin of the History of Medicine 92 (4): 716–717. doi:10.1353/bhm.2018.0088. ISSN 1086-3176

Hensley, Melissa A. (2010). "The Consequence of the Trend of Decline". Missouri Medicine 107 (6): 410–415. ISSN 0026-6620 PMID 21319691 PMC 6188234.

Lightsey, Leathy. “We’ll Git Along Somehow.” Interview by Bennett, Cora L. and Northrop, Mary R., July 6, 1939, Folder 297, Federal Writers Project Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC Chapel Hill.

Moore, Karen (2001). "Frameworks for Understanding the Inter-Generational Transmission of Poverty and Well-Being in Developing Countries". SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.1754527. ISSN 1556-5068.

Office of The Missouri Secretary of State (2003). "1930-1950: New Treatments". www.sos.mo.gov. Retrieved 2020-10-22.

  1. Dowbiggin, Ian (2018). "Managing Madness: Weyburn Mental Hospital and the Transformation of Psychiatric Care in Canada by Erika Dyck, Alex Deighton". Bulletin of the History of Medicine 92 (4): 716–717. doi:10.1353/bhm.2018.0088. ISSN 1086-3176. http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/bhm.2018.0088. 
  2. Hensley, Melissa A. (2010). "The Consequence of the Trend of Decline". Missouri Medicine 107 (6): 410–415. ISSN 0026-6620. PMID 21319691. PMC 6188234. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6188234/. 
  3. Office of The Missouri Secretary of State (2003). "1930-1950: New Treatments". www.sos.mo.gov. Retrieved 2020-10-22.
  4. Moore, Karen (2001). "Frameworks for Understanding the Inter-Generational Transmission of Poverty and Well-Being in Developing Countries". SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.1754527. ISSN 1556-5068. http://www.ssrn.com/abstract=1754527. 
  5. Beegle, Donna (2000-01-01). Interrupting Generational Poverty: Experiences Affecting Successful Completion of a Bachelor's Degree. http://dx.doi.org/10.15760/etd.5709.