Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105i/Section 026/John Kelly Edwards

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John Kelly Edwards
Spartanburg, SC
EthnicityAfrican American
SpouseName Unknown

Overview[edit | edit source]

John Kelly Edwards was interviewed on December 6th, 1938 by E. Fronde Kennedy for the Federal Writers Project

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

John Kelly Edwards was born in 1868 and grew up in Spartanburg, SC. He has mixed feelings towards his education as he was whipped often by his first school teacher for missing minor questions. However, this improved with his next teacher, Jim Lindsay, to whom he felt he owes his life to. He was unable to get a full education because he had to quit school in the summer and winter to help his family with farming and cotton picking. Faith was a large part of his life, he began by attending Salem Church, A ‘white folks’ church with a segregated section for African-Americans. He enjoyed attending church because they hosted dinners, he liked the preacher, and service took place in a grandiose church building. Eventually, the black people of the church separated and formed their own A.M.E church (Kennedy, 1938).

Adult Life[edit | edit source]

Edwards married his former teacher’s cousin and together they had 12 children, only 8 lived into adulthood. He tried working in farming but later moved to town because his wife was little help. From there he worked odd jobs from janitoring to engine fire at the Crescent Knitting Mill. Later, he moved to Tryon, North Carolina to work at a power plant. He was underpaid and struggled to provide for his wife and children throughout his life. He believes this is the reason his wife left him and moved to New York seeking a better life. He never saw her again because she died shortly after. One of his daughters was offered the opportunity to move north and get an education, which led her to a stable job in adulthood. Soon all of his children followed and moved to New York and Philadelphia, however; he wished to not go into much detail about them as they maintained little contact. He only speaks of one, his eldest daughter, Penola, who regularly came back to Spartanburg to visit him. He began living in Spartanburg again in his old age with his ‘little aunt’ who was younger than him. He maintained a positive outlook on life despite his hardships through the church, Penola, and his hobbies. He left most of his worth to Penola and his aunt, as they were the ones who stuck with him throughout his life (Kennedy, 1938).

Societal Context[edit | edit source]

Emanuel Methodist Episcopal Church in 1909

Church Dynamics in the South[edit | edit source]

Churches in the late 1800s to early 1900s viewed African Americans as second-class citizens despite preaching acceptance and love. There existed white-only churches, segregated churches, and underground black churches for the first period after slavery. In the late 1800s, African American activists began to speak out against the complicity of the church during slavery and segregation. Fredrick Douglas, a black activist, held one of the most influential voices in this period. In his 1845 memoir, Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglas, Douglas preaches, “The church-going bell and the auctioneer’s bell chime in with each other...we have men sold to build churches, women sold to support missionaries, and babies sold to buy Bibles and communion services, (quoted in Sweeny, 2018).” Through his preachings, historically black churches began to form and grow in response to the mistreatment from the white church. The biggest of these that are still around today are the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and Progressive National Baptists, (Sweeny, 2018). These churches grew exponentially in this period growing to over one million members by the early 1900s. They allowed African Americans to worship how they please without the scrutiny of the white church.

The Black Man's Struggle to Find Work During the Jim Crow Era and the Great Depression[edit | edit source]

Scott and Violet Arthur arrive with their family at Chicago's Polk Street Depot on Aug 30, 1920. The picture has become an iconic symbol of the Great Migration.

The cards were long stacked against black workers. The Black Codes were implemented in southern states shortly after slavery to suppress black workers from finding success. South Carolina specifically enacted codes restricting the type of work blacks could find, setting up poll taxes, and making minor violations arrestable criminal offenses, (Novak, 2014). Soon after, in the early 1900s, Jim Crow Laws were passed leading to segregation and oppression in almost every aspect of life. This left black workers already disadvantaged in low-skilled jobs. When the depression hit, black unemployment rates became almost three times higher than white workers. In some cities, 70% of African Americans were unemployed, (Burrell, 2017). Work was hard to find for everyone, but the jobs African-Americans previously held were given to white people struggling to find work, “In some Northern cities, whites would conspire to have African American workers fired to allow white workers access to their jobs, (Burrell, 2017). The prejudice held by the American people, laws against African Americans, and the Great Depression made it near impossible for black workers to provide for their families

The Great Migration[edit | edit source]

While there wasn’t equality everywhere, hatred was especially prevalent in the south where most African Americans lived. They became tired of sharecropping and racism in the south and began to seek factory jobs in the north. Wages tended to be higher in big cities like New York and Philadelphia ($3-$5 a day), they also offered healthcare and better education. In the 1920s-30s, these factors led to a “Great Migration” of African Americans from southern to northern cities, (Trotter, 2002). “African Americans often viewed the Great Migration to northern cities in glowing terms: ‘The Promised Land,’ the ‘Flight out of Egypt,’ and ‘Going into Canaan,’” (Trotter, 2002). These dreams did not pan out for everyone, however; the population of African Americans in New York grew from 90,000 in 1910 to 380,000 in 1930. These numbers persisted throughout the Great Depression and African Americans became a largely urban group, (Trotter, 2002).

References[edit | edit source]

Edwards, John Kelley. “John Kelley Edwards.” Interview by Kennedy, E. Fronde., December 6, 1938, Folder 867, Federal Writers Project Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC Chapel Hill.

Burrell, Kristopher. 2017. “United States History: Reconstruction to the Present.”Hostos Community College. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/atd-hostos-ushistory/chapter/the-depths-of-the-great-depression/.

Kane, Connie M. 2000. "African American Family Dynamics as Perceived by Family Members." Journal of Black Studies 30, no. 5 : 691-702. Accessed October 13, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2645877.

Novak, Daniel A. 2014. Wheel of Servitude: Black Forced Labor after Slavery. Univ Pr Of Kentucky.

Pinkney, Adrianne R. 2016. “The Role of Schools in Educating Black Citizens: From the 1800s to the Present.” Theory & Research in Social Education 44 (1): 72–103. https://doi.org/10.1080/00933104.2015.1099486.

Semuels, Alana. 2017. “'Segregation Had to Be Invented'.” February 17, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/02/segregation-invented/517158/.

Sweeny, Douglas A. 2018. “The Story of the Segregated American Church • EFCA.” June 5, 2018 .https://www.efca.org/blog/reaching-all-people/story-segregated-american-church.

Trotter, Joe William. 2002. "The Great Migration." OAH Magazine of History 17, no. 1: 31-33. Accessed October 20, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25163561.

Unknown Photographer. 1909 AME Church (Historic Charleston Foundation Archives). Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AME_Church_-_1909.jpg

Unknown Photographer. 1920 Great Migration The Chicago Defender 4 September 1920 (Chicago History Museum) Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Great_migration.jpg