Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105i/Section 52/John Simms Junior

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Overview[edit | edit source]

John Simms Jr. was a chimney sweep from New Orleans, Louisiana. He was interviewed by Robert McKinney for the Federal Writers Project, sometime from 1936 to 1940.[1]

John Simms Jr.
BornJohn Simms Jr.
Westwego, Louisiana
ResidenceNew Orleans, Louisiana
EthnicityAfrican American
  • Chimney Sweep (Primary)
  • Milkman
  • Bicycle Delivery
  • John Simms, Senior
  • Stella Simms

Early Life[edit | edit source]

In 1894, Simms was born in Westwego, Louisiana. His exact date of birth is unknown. Although she had worked previously as a "washwoman," his mother Stella did not work when Simms was a child. His father, John Simms Sr., worked in New Orleans at the “Round House of the T. P.” During his childhood, his father was an alcoholic. His mother took care of his father when he was too intoxicated to take care of himself. Alcoholism was common among Simms men; Simms Jr. also dealt with alcohol problems. During his interview, for instance, he had clearly been drinking; his interviewer described him as "dressed in shabby overalls, drunk, and forlorn.”[2] Finally, although the Simms family lived in the Bible Belt, they were not religious. According to Simms, there "never was a Christian in [his] family."[3]

Career[edit | edit source]

Simms left school to join the workforce at an early age, holding several odd jobs throughout his lifetime. After completing third grade, his father forced him to leave elementary school and “get a job on a milk truck” at the age of ten.[4] After leaving this position, Simms completed deliveries via bicycle. Later, Simms quit bicycle delivery to become a chimney sweep. Sweeping chimneys afforded Simms decent pay and a flexible work schedule. For a time, Simms worked as a chimney sweep at the Round House of the T.P., where his father had worked during his childhood. Simms worked as a chimney sweep at the time of his interview. His date of death is unknown.[5]

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

Education Access for Black Children in the Early 20th Century[edit | edit source]

In the early 20th Century, schools for Black children were chronically underfunded. Because of this, according to African American Studies scholar Charles Vincent, “Louisiana Black leaders agreed that quality education was the most important goal for Blacks in general.”[6] In 1915, civil rights leader Booker T. Washington toured parts of Louisiana, including New Orleans, to promote the education of Black students. While this movement led to the advancement of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), primary and secondary schools still suffered.[7]

During the Great Depression, the educational situation worsened. Decreases in government funding led to massive school closure across the country. In an effort to stay open, many schools cut lunch programs and special courses, such as music and sports.[8] Black students, who had already received less than adequate funding, were hurt the most. For instance, in 1930s North Carolina, school buildings in Black school districts were worth, on average, “one-ninth the value of school facilities for white children.”[9] In the classroom, Black students were often forced to reuse old books and rarely had access to “standard high school programs.”[10]

Huey Long, who served as Governor of Louisiana and later Senator from Louisiana during the 1930s, “gave very little support to black education” in the state. Estimates suggest that white students in Louisiana received “4.5 times more money” than Black students during the 1930s.[11] By the 1940s, white students in Louisiana were still receiving three times more money than Black students. In Black school districts, students and teachers were forced to rely on “philanthropic aid,” rather than state funding, to support their education.[12]

Black Unemployment During the Great Depression[edit | edit source]

The Great Depression led to mass unemployment across the United States. At its height, the unemployment rate exceeded 20 percent.[13] However, Black unemployment rose higher than white unemployment, particularly in “urban areas of both North and South.”[14] Although "Black unemployment rates were much higher in the northern" cities, Black laborers in southern cities, such as New Orleans, also suffered.[15] In addition, the unemployment gap was particularly noticeable in "unskilled service jobs,” such as chimney sweeping. Across the United States, labor markets were inherently discriminatory against Black workers.[16] During this time, Black leaders, such as A. Phillip Randolph, who served as president of the first African American labor union, saw the unemployment gap as a symptom of the "dismal economic situation most African Americans faced."[17]

During the Great Depression, then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt championed The New Deal, which was a program designed to reignite the American economy and bring “relief to the unemployed.”[18] Despite a widening unemployment divide between Black and white members of the labor force, FDR’s New Deal did not focus on Black laborers. However, many of its programs helped Black workers considerably. According to PBS, programs that “encouraged union organization” and established a new “minimum wage” made FDR “popular with many African Americans.”[19]

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

Davis, Anita Price. "Public Schools in the Great Depression." NCPedia. Last modified January 1, 2020. Accessed October 4, 2020. https://ncpedia.org/public-schools-great-depression.

Folder 272: McKinney, Robert (interviewer): Chimney Sweeper's Holiday in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/03709/id/752/rec/1.

Public Broadcasting Service. "FDR and The New Deal." Slavery by Another Name. Accessed October 4, 2020. https://www.pbs.org/tpt/slavery-by-another-name/themes/fdr/.

Romer, Christina D., and Richard H. Pells. "Great Depression." Encyclopaedia Britannica. Last modified September 10, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/event/Great-Depression.

Sundstrom, William A. "Last Hired, First Fired? Unemployment and Urban Black Workers During the Great Depression." The Journal of Economic History 52, no. 2 (1992): 415-29. Accessed October 4, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2123118.

Tuttle, Kate. "Fair Employment Practices Committee." Oxford African American Studies Center. 1 Dec. 2006; Accessed 12 Oct. 2020. https://oxfordaasc-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/view/10.1093/acref/9780195301731.001.0001/acref-9780195301731-e-41225.

Vincent, Charles. "Louisiana." Oxford African American Studies Center. 1 Dec. 2009; Accessed 10 Oct. 2020. https://oxfordaasc-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/view/10.1093/acref/9780195301731.001.0001/acref-9780195301731-e-45855.

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Federal Writers Project Papers, McKinney, Robert (interviewer): Chimney Sweeper's Holiday.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Vincent, Louisiana.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Davis, Public Schools in the Great Depression.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Vincent, Louisiana.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Romer and Pells, Great Depression.
  14. Sundstrom, Last Hired, First Fired?.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Tuttle, Fair Employment Practices Committee.
  18. Public Broadcasting Service, FDR and The New Deal.
  19. Ibid.