Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105i/Section 50/Walter Corbett

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Overview[edit | edit source]

Walter Corbett was an African American tobacco farmer with a big family. He was born in 1876 , over on the old Dickey place, in Alamance County, NC, and he had been there ever since.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Farming Life[edit | edit source]

When he was a boy, he was firstly employed by Mr. Maynard and became proficient in cultivating tobacco. From that time on, farming the tobacco became his lifelong career, bringing his life ups and downs along the history events.

He started share-cropping with Mr. Rogers in 1896. Then he rented a piece of land from Mr. Maynard and stayed on it for 9 years. In 1910s, due to the raise in tobacco price and his hard work, he was able to expand his land four times as well as pay off the mortgage note, and even build his own house. Tobacco was highly profitable at that time, but Corbett stayed calm and still raised enough corn every year to feed his stock. Until 1922, he owned 85 acres place which was free of debt. Afterward, the Great Depression started as well as the lean years for tobacco. Thanks to his wise decision on raising corn stock, he stayed tough and got through all these hard times without being in debt.

Married Life[edit | edit source]

He got a lot of children – 15 in total. 6 of them was born of his first wife, who married him in 1896 and passed out in 1909. His second marriage happened in 1913, who gave birth to another 9 children by 1928.

Children sometimes was his burden, but other times was a bless. After his first wife’s death, he had to raise tobacco and children at the same time, which drove him work from daylight till dark. When they grew up, they became a good force to help him. But when they came of age, they went up to New York city one by one, while Corbett rejected to go with them.

History Context[edit | edit source]

Emancipation, Discrimination and Black Agrarianism[edit | edit source]

In 1863, The Emancipation Proclamation was issued, which liberated most of the African American to earn their living. After the Civil War, most of the job the Black people took were concentrated in farming, especially landless wage workers on southern plantations. [1]

Although some African American got rid of landlessness by purchasing less productive land at inflated price [2], social discrimination still existed. As Glenn (cited in King, 2018[3]) put, “they had to appear humble and avoid public prosperity to avoid retribution from whites”.

Farmers also projected economic independence, political freedom, attitude of hard working, and cultural ties into their relationship with the land. Such phenomenon called “Agrarianism” [4] Black farmers had their distinctive “Black Agrarianism”, in which they attached great importance to the “redemptive power of productive work” and valued their lands as safe space and a source of liberation from noble plantations. [5]

Tobacco and The Great Depression[edit | edit source]

The lean years started in 1930, which was also the first year of the Great Depression.

During the World WarⅠ, the price of tobacco rocketed up, appealing more and more farmers to grow tobacco in North Carolina. As a result, the supply of tobacco was too excessive to remain tobacco in a good price, creating a glut on the market.[6] Good crop at that time could not even bring the cost back.

Less income meant farmers could not buy needed farm supplies, or even food and clothing for their families. They relied on banks and merchants for more and more credit, gradually sinking deeper and deeper into debt. [7]

Another reason behind the lean year is the big tobacco company. Tobacco was sold to big tobacco companies in public warehouses at public auction. Yet there were some collusions between big tobacco companies like Reynolds Tobacco Company, which made them earned “awful profit” and ruined away the farmers. More warehouses were constructed [8] and even exaggerated this situation.

Agriculture and The New Deal[edit | edit source]

In 1933, the New Deal started. Tobacco was plated less, and the big tobacco companies was shamed out by President Roosevelt. AAA rental and benefit payments were paid only to farmers of cotton, wheat, and tobacco, traded crops whose prices rose rapidly in spring 1933. [9]

On the other hand, many rural people in this section disliked or distrusted the new control plan, despite they needed the support from government. Instead, they turned to save themselves by farm and home bureaus, which was established between farmers and their faculty or government officials family members. This strategy was eventually adopted by the New Deal to use local people to organize relief programs. The downside of bureaus program was that it amplified the privilege of white farmers since they often excluded African American farmers from these benefits.

Reference[edit | edit source]

·        Thomas Calder, “Asheville Archives: Tobacco and the Great Depression”, Mountain Xpress, July 16 2019. https://mountainx.com/news/history/asheville-archives-tobacco-and-the-great-depression/

·        Bishop, RoAnn. “Asheville Archives: Tobacco and the Great Depression.” Tar Heel Junior Historian Association, NC Museum of History, January 1, 2010. https://www.ncpedia.org/agriculture/great-depression

·        Hausman, Joshua K., Paul W. Rhode, and Johannes F. Wieland. 2019. "Recovery from the Great Depression: The Farm Channel in Spring 1933." American Economic Review, 109 (2): 427-72. https://doi.org/10.1257/aer.20170237

·        Nancy K. Berlage. 2017. “Farmers Helping Farmers: The Rise of the Farm and Home Bureaus, 1914–1935.” Western Historical Quarterly 48 (3): 339. https://doi-org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/10.1093/whq/whx033

·        King, Katrina Quisumbing, Spencer D. Wood, Jess Gilbert, and Marilyn Sinkewicz. 2018. “Black Agrarianism: The Significance of African American Landownership in the Rural South.” Rural Sociology 83 (3): 677–99. https://doi-org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/10.1111/ruso.12208

·        Group in tobacco field, no date (c.1920's-'30's). Dunn Area (Lewis White Studio), North Carolina State Archives, Call no. PhC.121-91. https://www.flickr.com/photos/north-carolina-state-archives/3292841889