Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Summer II/Section 09/Sam Lynn

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Overview[edit | edit source]

Sam Lynn was a black career fisherman born in Eufaula, Alabama, on an unknown date in 1877. His wife, Hattie, was interviewed on the details of his life by Gertha Couric on January 11th, 19391.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Lynn spent his early childhood and adolescence in the post-Reconstruction era. Born in 1877, only a little over a decade since the end of slavery, Lynn never went to school, typical for black children at the time2. Despite never receiving a formal education, Lynn was able to read and write. Instead of spending his primary years formally learning reading, writing, and arithmetic, Lynn began working as a fisherman at the age of ten. He was taught to swim and fish by a white man named George Vaughn. Lynn became such an avid swimmer that he was nicknamed the “river rat,” and would act as a retriever for local townspeople if anyone lost an item in the water.

Adult Life[edit | edit source]

According to Lynn's wife, Hattie, Lynn was, "one bad man over women in his young days." He fathered 5 illegitimate children, all from different women. He was, however, considered to be a good father, always making sure his children were clothed, fed, and loved. As a young man, he was rather wild and impulsive, often swimming for fun against the dangerous current of the Chattahoochee river. When Lynn was in his thirties, he married laundress Hattie Wright and moved into the little cottage he grew up in along the river. After he married, Lynn focused on his career as a fisherman. He became very religious later in life, choosing not to work on Saturdays or Sundays and taking off the entire month of December to spend the Christmas season with his family3.

Death[edit | edit source]

Nothing is known about Lynn's cause or date of death. Besides the one interview with his wife, there are no official records of his birth, death, or marriage - an indication of a larger trend of the lack of official documentation for African-Americans living at the time4.

Professional Career[edit | edit source]

Lynn was a very competent and successful fisherman. He was a hard-worker, often fishing from four in the morning to eight at night with few breaks in between. His average daily catch was around two-hundred pounds of various fish: catfish, bream, perch, and carp to name a few. Lynn made a steady living off of fishing; he was well-off enough to buy a car which he would use to ride into town and sell his catch. The majority of his customers were white men look to "catch fish with a silver hook5," a euphemism for pretending to catch fish you have bought. Lynn was famous around town for his popular Summer fish fries, charging the local townspeople fifty cents a plate of various fried fish, collards, breads, and hush puppies.

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

Hunting and Fishing Post-Reconstruction[edit | edit source]

Hunting and fishing in the new South was a key marker of social status in the post-Reconstruction era. There was a clear discrepancy in how black Americans' fishing was viewed as opposed to white Americans - a reflection of the racial divide in the late 1800s and early 1900s6. To white men, hunting and fishing was a sport brought over to the United States by their European aristocrat ancestors; it was a way to spend free time. Whites were able to show-off their wealth and social standing with a fresh catch of fish, because for them it implied that they had not only time to spend on leisure, it also signified that they were wealthy enough to purchase either the equipment necessary for fishing or black labor that would do it for them. For black people, on the other hand, hunting and fishing were practices that were indicative of a need for sustenance and income, as opposed to a recreational activity like their white counterparts.

Black Education in Alabama[edit | edit source]

The idea of widespread public education for black children in post-Civil War Alabama was very new, with most of the resources from the state being allocated to either white-only or segregated schools7. This was a direct consequence of the passing of political power to white supremacists after Reconstruction. Prior to 1891, the state of Alabama divided funds for public schools based on the number of students by race, which lead to a near-equal split of funding to white and black schools. In 1891, the state allowed counties to allocate funding to schools as they saw fit - the start of a period of fierce racial segregation that would not end until well after the Civil Rights Movement. The average school year for white Alabaman students in the early 1900s was 72 days, over twice the measly 34 days typical of their black counterparts8.The average property value of a white school was $40,000, while black schools were only worth around $1000 in property value8.

Citations[edit | edit source]

1Interview, Couric, Gertha on Sam Lynn, January 11, 1939, Folder 1004, Federal Writing Project Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC Chapel Hill.

2Harris, Carl V. "Stability and Change in Discrimination Against Black Public Schools: Birmingham, Alabama, 1871-1931." The Journal of Southern History 51, no. 3 (1985): 375-416. Accessed July 9, 2020. doi:10.2307/2209250.

3Interview, Couric, Gertha on Sam Lynn, January 11, 1939, Folder 1004, Federal Writing Project Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC Chapel Hill.

4Bill O’Boyle. “Tracing Ancestry Is Not Easy for African Americans.” Times Leader, December 17, 2015. https://www.timesleader.com/news/local/499109/tracing-ancestry-is-not-easy-for-african-americans.

5Fishes and Fishing: Artificial Breeding of Fish, Anatomy of Their Senses, Their Loves, Passions, and Intellects. United Kingdom: T.C. Newby, 1858.

6Giltner, Scott E. Hunting and Fishing in the New South: Black Labor and White Leisure after the Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008., doi:10.1353/book.3487.

7Collins, William, and Robert Margo. “Historical Perspectives on Racial Differences in Schooling in the United States.” Research Gate, 2003. https://doi.org/10.3386/w9770.

8Harvey, Gordon. “Public Education in the Early Twentieth Century.” Encyclopedia of Alabama, 2010. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-2601.