Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105i/Section 50/Nelly Hargraves

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Overview[edit | edit source]

Nelly Hargraves was an African American woman born in Mt. Carmel, North Carolina in the 1920s. She was interviewed by Bernice Harris for the Federal Writers' Project in 1939.[1]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Nelly Hargraves was born in Mt. Carmel, North Carolina. Her parents were Dock Maddrey and Sarah Rochelle. Hargraves was one of 7 children. When she was younger, her family did not have much, but they were farmers and owned some land. Nelly Hargraves received a formal education up until fourth grade, when she could no longer attend because of distance. Hargraves's grandfather helped to build the Mt. Carmel Church and religion is very important to Hargrave, as she went to church regularly when she was young. She lived on her parents’ farm until she was married to Henry Hargraves. They had been married 12 years and were living in Margarettsville, NC when Hargraves was interviewed by the Federal Writer's Project in 1939.[1]

Married Life[edit | edit source]

After Nelly Hargraves and Henry married, they worked a year on Hargraves's parents’ farm, then they moved to a nearby farm and became sharecroppers. Hargraves and her husband Henry had three children; Frances, Lillian, and Stanley. Because Hargraves was not able to attend school past the fourth grade, it was important to her that her three children attend school throughout high school. They could not afford books for the children, only the bible and a paper for farmers on farming practices. She wanted her children to attend church like she did when she was younger, but they did not have the resources to attend regularly and received what little religious education they had at school.

One of the most important things to her was teaching her daughters to cook. They attempted to grow and raise most of their food to save money. They slaughtered pigs for the winter and raised chickens for eggs and meat. In addition, they grew collard greens, peas, and butterbeans.

The Hargraves moved around often as they ended up sharecropping for a few different men as follows: Jasper Gray, Grover White, Daniel Taylor, Henry Davis, and Romie Gay. Most of the men they sharecropped for were decent, however, the men also were strict on working in the fields even if it was not needed. They were forced out of their home on Mr. Gay’s farm when Hargraves’s husband Henry fell ill with rheumatism and could not work the fields.

Nelly Hargraves and Henry were dirt poor. She said, “We’ve never been able to save nothin’ while we was farming’; it took every cent we made to live on.”[2] They could survive off of Henry’s pension, which was $18 a month. Henry Hargraves was an African American WWI veteran. However, that money was later cut off. In addition, once Hargraves's father passed, she got $100 from the sale of his land, which she later wished she saved for emergency savings but they spent it on immediate necessities. Therefore, when Henry could not work the fields, the Red Cross provided them clothes and they received government aid money. Hargraves’s younger brother Herman, who was a sharecropper for a Mr. Barrett, opened up his home to them and their children. When Henry recovered from his rheumatism he helped Herman out on the farm, however no other landowner would let Hargraves and Henry become sharecroppers again because they did not trust Henry was capable.

The family hoped to move out one day to farm their own land.[3]

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

African American WW1 Veterans[edit | edit source]

Black servicemen have dated back to the Revolutionary War. However, the US government and army were hesitant about allowing African Americans to serve in WWI in combat positions. Black soldiers who fought in WWI had a unique experience from other soldiers because they were fighting patriotically for a country in which they experienced prejudice and discriminatory laws like Jim Crow.[4]

In addition to belonging to a marginalized community, black soldiers had to deal with the trauma of shell shock, which academic literature on WWI veterans often neglects. For black servicemen, "the unforgettable horrors of war persisted at the haunting center of their debilitating condition."[5] The military was segregated during WWI and most black servicemen were not given combat positions, but were assigned labor.[6]

Then, upon return home, African American WWI Veterans faced hostility and racial tension because of their service instead of newfound respect. After the war, there were many whose veteran benefits or disability paychecks were taken away. African American soldiers became targets of hate crimes by wearing their fatigues in public.[7] Many were beaten or shot and "at least thirteen black veterans were lynched."[8]

African American Sharecroppers[edit | edit source]

Sharecropping was the Reconstruction’s solution to the ending of slavery in the American south, however the nature of it created frustration between black sharecroppers and landowners. Landowners wanted sharecropping to essentially be an extenuation of slavery, while African American emancipated slaves wanted it to be a pathway to land ownership. Landowners, most of whom had been plantation owners, tended to be strict with the sharecroppers who worked their land. They only cared about how many people were laboring in the fields. Therefore, they were opposed to black women becoming homemakers rather than field hands, for example raising kids, gardening, raising barn animals, and cooking.[9]

For African Americans, land ownership has represented the "long struggle for freedom... self-sufficiency and independence."[10] Land ownership has historically been disproportionately available to white Americans and policy throughout the years has not alleviated the difference. In the 1930s, FDR era government projects to resettle farmers on land that were previously plantations in North Carolina gave less tobacco allotments to black owned farms than they did to white owned farms. The systemic disadvantages facing African American land ownership in the 1930s created long-lasting effects, as seen in the Pigford v Glickman class action lawsuit of 1999, which pointed out the discriminatory practices against black landownership.[11]

Footnotes[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Harris, Folder 471.
  2. Ibid., 4.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Baker, The Tragic, Forgotten History of Black Military Veterans.
  5. Ibid., 156.
  6. Chad, African-American Veterans Hoped Their Service in World War I Would Secure Their Rights at Home. It Didn't.
  7. Baker, The Tragic, Forgotten History of Black Military Veterans.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ochiltree, Mastering the sharecroppers.
  10. Wood & Ragar, Grass Tops Democracy, 22.
  11. Wood & Ragar, Grass Tops Democracy.

References[edit | edit source]

Baker, Peter C. “The Tragic, Forgotten History of Black Military Veterans.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, November 27, 2016. Accessed October 1, 2020. https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-tragic-forgotten-history-of-black-military-veterans.

Dodman, Trevor. ""Belated Impress": "River George" and the African American Shell Shock Narrative." African American Review 44, no. 1/2 (2011): 149-66. Accessed October 1, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781316287040.005.

Harris, Bernice Kelly. "Folder 471: Harris, Bernice K. (interviewer): Nelly Hargraves." Federal Writers Project Papers, 1939.

Ochiltree, Ian. “Mastering the sharecroppers: land, labour and the search for independence in the US South and South Africa.” Journal of Southern African Studies 30, no. 1 (2004): 41-61. Accessed October 1, 2020. https://doi-org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/10.1080/0305707042000223933.

Williams, Chad. “African-American Veterans Hoped Their Service in World War I Would Secure Their Rights at Home. It Didn't.” Time. Time, November 12, 2018. Accessed October 1, 2020. https://time.com/5450336/african-american-veterans-wwi/.

Wood, Spencer D. and Cheryl R. Ragar. “Grass Tops Democracy: Institutional Discrimination in the Civil Rights Violations of Black Farmers.” The Journal of Pan-African Studies 5 (Sept. 2012): 16. Accessed October 1, 2020. http://bsc.chadwyck.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/search/displayIibpCitation.do?SearchEngine=Opentext&area=iibp&id=1080788214.