Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105i/Section 50/B.E. Cokes

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B.E. Cokes
BornCirca 1900
Bardwell, Kentucky
DiedUnknown
NationalityAmerican
EthnicityWhite

Overview[edit | edit source]

B.E Cokes was a white man born in Bardwell, Kentucky in the early 1900s. Cokes was homeless and frequently incarcerated during the Great Depression. He was interviewed on January 16, 1939 by Nellie Gray Toler for the Federal Writers Project. [1]

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

B.E. Cokes was raised in Kentucky by his parents. As a teenager, he was unsatisfied with ordinary, stationary life, and ran away several times. At age 14 he ran away with a friend named Ben, who died while freighthopping, an illegal practice of sneaking onto freight trains by holding onto the rods beneath the train. After witnessing that traumatic event, Cokes returned home, only to run away with his girlfriend a year later. Cokes and his girlfriend lived in New Orleans until his boss at a Greek restaurant plotted to kill him, so he ran away and became homeless.[2]

Adulthood[edit | edit source]

Shortly after becoming homeless, Cokes was caught freighthopping and sent to work on a cotton plantation, where he was whipped badly for not reaching his quota. After he served his time at the plantation, he met his first wife, and they had two children, Gladys and Glen. Early in their marriage his wife died, and Cokes left the children to be raised by her mother. [3]

He then moved to Detroit, Michigan attempting to find work, but there were no jobs available and he became homeless again. Cokes took up traveling to fulfill his restless soul, and he was in and out of jails for freighthopping and public drunkenness for many years. In total, he was incarcerated at over seventeen different jails all over the country. Cokes expressed his hatred for jail because it was “filled up with foreigners.” [4]

Cokes’ children also ran into problems with the law. Cokes’ daughter, Gladys, killed her drunk, abusive husband in self-defense, and Cokes sold all of his possessions to clear her name. Cokes’ son, Glen, accidentally killed a man in a fist fight who was pining for the same woman. Since Cokes was broke after helping his daughter, his sister helped financially with Glen’s defense. [5]

Eventually, Cokes found work in Paducah, Kentucky rescuing people in the aftermath of the 1937 flood. After the flood, he lived with his sister in Sikeston, Missouri, but he took to traveling again when he began to feel restless, visiting every corner of the US and traveling by freight train. [6]

Someday, Cokes intended to settle down. He aspired to be a professor because he loved to lecture, and he was an excellent storyteller. [7] How Cokes spent the rest of his life and his date of death are unknown.

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

Prison Conditions For Immigrants During the Great Depression[edit | edit source]

During the Great Depression, immigrants were incarcerated at a higher rate than native-born Americans. One reason for this statistic was that immigrants were more likely to live in impoverished areas with high crime rates. In addition, new immigrants tended to be young and male-- the groups most likely to engage in criminal behavior according to a study by Moeling and Piehl. [8]

Negative sentiments towards immigrants also contributed to a high incarceration rate. It was a popular belief that immigrants increased crime and took the jobs of native-born Americans. The government passed the 1917 Immigration Act with a provision to deport immigrants who were convicted of serious crimes. [9]

In addition, the prison system was largely unorganized and focused on holding prisoners rather than reforming. This system was called the “warehouse prison” and it was the dominant form of prison from the 1900s to the 1950s. Under this system, prisons have open dormitories, little supervision, and contact with one another. These factors allowed for the formation of gangs and violent riots to take place. [10]

The combination of high incarceration rates, discrimination, and an unorganized, violence-prone prison system led to unfavorable conditions for imprisoned immigrants during the Great Depression.

Freighthoppers help each other into the freight car.

Freighthopping[edit | edit source]

As a result of the economic downturn during the Great Depression, many people could not afford train tickets, so freighthopping was a common method of travel among the poor and homeless.[11]

The practice of freighthopping involves holding on to the rails beneath a freight train or jumping into a freight railcar in order to travel for free. During the Great Depression, people used this method to find work in other cities. Train hopping is illegal, and the railroad police patrolled train stops, resulting in many poor or homeless going to jail or paying fines.[12]

The practice of freighthopping continued beyond the Great Depression and is still present today. Over time, it became less practical to hop trains in order to find work. [13] Frequent freighthoppers today are often dissatisfied with a sedentary lifestyle, enjoy the adrenaline rush, or are looking for adventure. [14] Typical train hopping travelers spend most of their time outdoors, camping in small groups between rides and improvising for food. [15]

Freighthopping is also very dangerous. Death, the loss of limbs, or starvation from getting locked in a train car is common. To thrill-seeking travelers, the draw to freighthopping outweighs the potential threats. [16]

The 1937 Flood in Paducah, KY[edit | edit source]

Paducah is located at the intersection of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers. In 1937, two weeks of rain and a sleet storm caused the rivers to rise, which had devastating impacts on the city. At the peak of the flood, water levels reached 60.8 feet and nearly 95 percent of the city was underwater. 27,000 citizens were evacuated by boat, including patients at the local Red Cross hospital. The evacuation efforts were complicated by downed telephone lines, which caused panic among the citizens of Paducah who were unable to communicate with their loved ones. As the water level grew, it became clear that local rescue efforts would not suffice, so the town came under military supervision. [17]

To prevent future floods, The Paducah floodwall was created in 1949. Today, this floodwall is covered in murals that describe Paducah’s history. [18]

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Cokes, B.E. "Waywandering Man." Interview with Nellie Gray Toler. January 16, 1939. Folder 972, in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Moehling, Carolyn M. and Anne Morrison Piehl, "Immigrant Assimilation into US Prisons, 1900-1930," Journal of Population Economics 27, no 1 (January 2014): 173-200, doi: http://dx.doi.org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/10.1007/s00148-013-0476-6.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Anderson, Lloyd C, Voices from a Southern Prison, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000, Accessed October 1, 2020, ProQuest Ebook Central.
  11. El Alaoui, Hicham El Falah, “Perseverance of North American Train Hopping Travels: A Look at the Past & the Present,” Master’s Thesis, (Concordia University, 2018).
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Bowes, Peter and Sara Jane Hall, “Train hopping: Why do hobos risk their lives to ride the rails?” Last modified December 19 2012, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20756990.
  15. El Alaoui, Hicham El Falah, “Perseverance of North American Train Hopping Travels: A Look at the Past & the Present,” Master’s Thesis, (Concordia University, 2018).
  16. Bowes, Peter and Sara Jane Hall, “Train hopping: Why do hobos risk their lives to ride the rails?” Last modified December 19, 2012,https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20756990.
  17. McKenzie Martin, “The 1937 Flood,” Accessed October 5, 2020, https://explorekyhistory.ky.gov/items/show/369#:~:text=1937%20Flood%3A%20Paducah%20was%20not,of%20the%20Kentucky%20Historical%20Society.
  18. City of Paducah, “Floodwall," Accessed October 5, 2020, http://paducahky.gov/floodwall.

References[edit | edit source]

Anderson, Lloyd C. Voices from a Southern Prison. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000. Accessed October 1, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Cokes, B.E. "Waywandering Man." Interview with Nellie Gray Toler. January 16, 1939. Folder 972, in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Bowes, Peter and Sara Jane Hall. “Train hopping: Why do hobos risk their lives to ride the rails?” Last modified December 19, 2012. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20756990.

City of Paducah. “Floodwall.” Accessed October 5, 2020. http://paducahky.gov/floodwall.

El Alaoui, Hicham El Falah. “Perseverance of North American Train Hopping Travels: A Look at the Past & the Present.” Master’s Thesis. (Concordia University, 2018).

McKenzie Martin. “The 1937 Flood.” Accessed October 5, 2020,https://explorekyhistory.ky.gov/items/show/369#:~:text=1937%20Flood%3A%20Paducah%20was%20not,of%20the%20Kentucky%20Historical%20Society.

Moehling, Carolyn M. and Anne Morrison Piehl. "Immigrant Assimilation into US Prisons, 1900-1930." Journal of Population Economics 27, no 1 (January 2014): 173-200, doi: http://dx.doi.org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/10.1007/s00148-013-0476-6.