Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Summer II/Section 07/Harrison Waters

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Harrison Waters
Talladega Springs, AL
ResidenceTalladega Springs, AL
SpouseEmma "Little Bit" Waters

Biography[edit | edit source]

Overview[edit | edit source]

Harrison Waters was interviewed for the Federal Writers' Project in October of 1938. He lived in Talladega Springs, Alabama his entire life, and worked as a farmer on his own land that lied in the rich bottoms of the Coosa River. At 58 years of age, Harrison was living comfortably with his wife Emma and his daughter Seline, in the house he had built 32 years prior.[1] Waters was a successful African American landowner who went his entire life without education.[2] He worked his entire life to build the comfortable life he eventually had.

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Harrison Waters lived on the poorer end of the economic spectrum when he was a kid. There were days he only lived on dried beans, others without even a piece of bread.[3] Waters remembers only having one pair of trousers, a work shirt, and a pair of shoes. He went his whole life without receiving education but he taught himself how to work with his hands. At the age of 23, he acquired a part of land from town banker, a town banker who happened to employ his father. The land was in bad shape but no one else seemed to want it. He attempted to grow cotton and although there were many discouragements, he managed to survive.[4]

Later Life[edit | edit source]

At 26, Harrison, with some help from a friend, built the house that his wife Emma, or “Little Bit,” as he called her, would move into three years later as they began to start a life together.

It is evident that Harrison loved “Little Bit” tremendously as he credits his success in life since he met her to her education and courage and calls her “the brains of the farm”. Together, they saved enough to build the house in which they would live and start a family, and would eventually add more and more land until they owned over 300 acres. Harrison and Emma lost their first child- a son- and although the reason is unknown, access to healthcare was very rare at that time which accounted for many deaths. They ended up having a daughter, Seline, who they both hoped to send to Talladega College as she got older.

Harrison was not a poor farmer, he was quite rich for the time. Having over 150 acres of land in cultivation provided him with a good sum of money. He explained that he wanted to buy an automobile, but figured he’d be better off sticking to his horse and buggy, in apprehension of being called a “biggety person” by white people who had little appreciation for his hard work and self-made success. Multiple whites around town did not like that he was so successful, so they called him discriminatory names and treated him as less. During the early 1900s, people still held prejudices against others based on their skin color, and in Harrison’s life, he experienced racism more than once.

Harrison and his family were well respected and had credit around town and into other towns as well. There is no doubt that the Waters’ worked hard for what they had and never took it for granted. [5]

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

Racial Inequality in Education[edit | edit source]

It was very common during the time of Harrison Waters' lifetime and even prior to, that African Americans were uneducated. It was more shocking and unheard of about an African American being educated than one not. The access to education between African Americans and whites was not the same. While it was easy for whites to obtain education, that was not the case for African Americans. Public schools are owned by the state which means that every decision made regarding public schools (building, maintenance, staffing, etc.) is political. [6] With public education being political, one's access to it is affected by their civil and political rights. One's political rights determined their social rights which in turn determined one's access to public education. [7]

Between the years of 1890 and 1910, there was a major political change where legislation in multiple Southern states restricted the right to vote.[8] This restriction heavily impacted the African American community. Southern African Americans became completely stricken of vital civil and political rights come 1910. [9] In other words, they were disenfranchised. Poor whites were also impacted by this change but not nearly as bad as African Americans. Their political rights were stricken like African Americans yet their civil rights were protected. The system is set up to further advance the white race while hindering the advancement of African Americans.

"Many scholars argue that disenfranchisement was responsible for the increase in racial inequalities in educational opportunities around the turn of the century."[10] African Americans were deprived of their civil and political rights which were key in determining one's access to public education. School funds were then redistributed to where the school funds from African American children went to white children. The number of African Americans who enrolled in public school and whites who enrolled, increased as well. The change in these numbers weren't as drastic but by 1910, whites were more likely to be enrolled in public school than African Americans. [11]

Another factor weighing in on racial inequality regarding access to public education are one's family resources. [12] Could a family afford the cost of their child attending school? In most cases, every member of an African American family (or lower income white families) was working. The question then becomes, "Could a family afford for their child to stop working?" Some occupations provided more availability for their child to attend school. If the family worked in agriculture, the child could attend school part-time whereas if the family worked in manufacturing, the chances of the child being able to attend school would be slim.[13]

Prosperous Blacks In the South[edit | edit source]

Not much attention was paid to the African Americans who became successful and prosperous. "For many years, historians paid only slight attention to blacks who reached the upper economic levels in the nineteenth-century South.[14] People were interested in the things that hindered African American success rather than the people that overcame the challenges. There were few historians who tried to capture the success of African Americans but Gary B. Mill's The Forgotten People: Cane River's Creoles of Color sparked a real interest in the subject. [15] Multiple studies were conducted to see how African Americans prospered in spite of everything against them: slavery, economic oppression, racism, etc. Although studies were conducted, there are still many questions regarding "how". Some questions were personal: how they acquired their property, how the wealth was passed down, how it compared to African Americans and/or whites. Other questions were about the social aspects: what were their occupations, did they have special relationships with whites. People wanted to know how a small group of African Americans rose top of the economical food chain.[16]

The most prosperous group of blacks can be traced back to when some whites had sexual relations with African American women and had children. Marriage between whites and African Americans was forbidden but relationships between the two became common leading to hundreds of black families inherited property from whites. An institution referred to as placage where white men contracted to live with African American women and support them financially, was established. Majority of the African Americans who rose to the top of the economic food chain, were either racially mixed themselves or had relations with racially mixed individual.[17]

Even though some African Americans were given an "advantage," it was on them to maintain the property given to them. African Americans took advantage of the demand of certain services to maintain and expand their property. [18] "Prosperous free people of color were able to maintain their high economic standing in large measure because they did not pose a threat to the South's "peculiar institution." [19]

Life in Alabama[edit | edit source]

Alabama’s economy before the Thirteenth Amendment passed was based on slave labor and cotton. During the Civil War, it was even home to the Confederacy’s capital, Montgomery, but would later become the center of the Civil Rights Movement during the 20th century. Life in Alabama was different for whites and blacks as many services were available for some but not others.

An increasing number of African Americans were able to establish their own businesses before and after emancipation. Many got jobs in cities as mechanics, tradesmen, grocers, restaurateurs, tailors, merchants, and barbers while some made successful businesses in furniture and building trades. By mid-1800s, almost every town had black-owned businesses and black-managed businesses. A significant number of black slaveowners were engaged in various business enterprises or owned large farms or plantations.

Although many people were leaving Alabama after the Civil War in search of better opportunities, it became attractive to more immigrants after reconstruction and military occupation ended. More modes of transportation became available as railroads were constructed across the state through cities and underdeveloped areas. In Cullman, Alabama more than 100 new houses were built in under three months, reflecting the overall growth of the entire state. People of German ethnicity made up the majority of the settlement, but there were also citizens from Russia, Canada, Denmark, Hungary, and France while others came from Georgia.

African Americans in Alabama faced racism and prejudice, and in Cullman County, there was quite a bit of violent history. Sings threatened members of the black community, drove them away, as members of the Ku Klux Klan lived in the town. Although the county’s African American population decreased, the entire state’s actually increased.

New companies in Alabama like Coke and the Stout’s Mountain Coal created jobs for many and the industry in the south grew along with agriculture. [20]

Racism and Prejudice in Post-Civil War America[edit | edit source]

After the Civil War and the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery, racism and discrimination still continued across America as many people believed they were superior to other races, religions, and ethnicities. The belief of superiority plagued many people during that time, leading them to treat others with disrespect and do terrible things to them.

Although slavery was abolished, segregation increased and racial oppression escalated. The Jim Crow Laws enforced said segregation, designating schools, housing, parks, restaurants, churches, cemeteries, and more for either whites or blacks. Many people, the majority being whites, during the early 1900s held beliefs that they were superior to everyone else and developed a deep hatred for everyone else. They held notions that others were less educated, less human, and were “savages.” Believing this led them to do terrible things and treat African Americans with incredible disrespect.

Throughout the early 1900s, America made little progress in human rights. "You couldn't say what you wanted. You couldn't go where you wanted and you couldn't do what you wanted," explained Eva Poole, an African American woman. Public discrimination of blacks was on the rise as their freedoms decreased. White mobs would publically murder blacks, regardless of gender or age. Just in the year 1900, there were 106 lynchings of blacks, and from 1900 to 1950, the average number per year was 49. Although African Americans were two-thirds of homicide victims, 86% died at the hands of other African Americans.[21]

Many racial driven crimes were committed during the early 1990s and it was very common to have news stations cover the incidences. Accusations made against blacks would erupt into whites hanging them, burning them, setting their houses on fire, etc. and there was no punishment for their actions. One of the most largely documented/ publicized lynchings happened in Georgia in 1904 after two black men, Will Cato and Paul Reed, who were suspected of murdering a white family, were found guilty and sentenced to be hung. The night of their sentencing, they were both kidnapped from the courthouse and drug two miles where they were doused with oil and burned to death. Racist Spectators cheers as they stood watching with their children. Although cases against the lynchers were brought to court, no one was charged, just as was expected since the grand jury was all-white and blacks had no political representation or power.

One news station, Savannah Morning News, even knew about the lynching plans and did nothing to prevent it, as one of their reporters photographed the entire thing. After the murder of Cato and Reed, racially motivated crimes continued to spread as whites found it acceptable to take their frustration out on anyone available to them.

The Civil Rights Movement which took place from 1954 – 1968, worked to end racial discrimination and gain equal rights for all African Americans in the United States. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 brought an end to segregation but unfortunately could not end all racism and prejudice, as it still exists in modern-day America.[22]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Kytle, Jack(interviewer): By the Glory of God in the Federal Writers’ Project Papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. [1]
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  5. Kytle, Jack(interviewer): By the Glory of God in the Federal Writers’ Project Papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  6. [4]
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  17. [15]
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  19. [17]
  20. . Davis, Robert S. "The Old World in the New South: Entrepreneurial Ventures and the Agricultural History of Cullman County, Alabama." .
  21. Lynchings: By Year and Race. Archives at Tuskegee Institute. Jul. 12, 2020.
  22. Few J. 1900S / RACIAL STRIFE; MORNING NEWS COVERS RISE IN RACISM, LYNCHINGS: [HOME EDITION]. Savannah Morning News. 2000 Aug 20;Sect. 12.