Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2021/Fall/Section009/Samuel Dean

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Overview[edit | edit source]

Samuel Dean was born in 1880 in Flat Creek, Tennessee; he was interviewed in 1938 and he lived in Nashville at the time. His father was a sharecropper and struggled to compete against wealthier white farmers; Samuel was painfully aware of income inequality growing up. In terms of education, Samuel received schooling through the fifth grade. As an adult, he noticed that he often labored more than his white counterparts for less pay. After moving to Shelbyville, TN, Samuel married, had three girls, and divorced. He moved away from his wife and daughters to Nashville shortly after. Samuel faced financial insecurity because he was unable to pay the mortgage and property taxes on his home. He worked for various railroad companies throughout his life but found increasingly less employment as he aged.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Personal Life[edit | edit source]

Dean’s childhood home was in Flat Creek, Tennessee in Bedford County. He was born in 1880 and lived on his father’s farm with twelve siblings. Dean received an education through the fifth grade. He recalls that Bedford County was a prominent producer of wheat at the time and that his father constantly competed with larger farmers. After leaving his father’s farm, Dean moved to Shelbyville, TN and was married to a woman significantly younger than him—he largely blames this age difference for his marital issues. He and his then-wife had four children: Evelyn, Jane, Mable, and Marvin. Dean and his wife divorced, and he mortgaged their home to fulfill her financial requests. He then moved to Nashville and worked a variety of jobs while becoming involved in his local church. It is worth noting that while he respected women who organized events within his local parish, he claimed to have stopped voting when women gained suffrage and vehemently denounced female leadership in Europe. Dean remained involved in his children’s lives after his divorce. Two of his daughters graduated from Turner College, his son attended one year at Fisk University, and one of his daughters did not seek higher education and instead worked as a cook. In 1938, Dean was still looking for opportunities to work and complained that his wages had suffered that year.

Freight cars and oil tanks in the railroad yards. Tennessee.
Career[edit | edit source]

Throughout his life, Dean worked a variety of jobs in many places: his father’s farm in Flat Creek, TN; Kansas City, Missouri; Akron, Ohio; Shelbyville, TN; and Nashville, TN. In Kansas City, Dean iced refrigerator cars. In Akron, Dean worked at a machine shop. In Shelbyville, he worked as an ice maker and later in a lumber yard for five years. Finally, in Nashville, Dean served nearly two years at the Big Five Packers and seven years at Cumberland Park caring for racehorses. In 1938, also in Nashville, Dean worked as a bricklayer but complained of little work and low wages.

Social Context[edit | edit source]

Income Inequality in the Rural South[edit | edit source]

In the South, black farmers faced many systemic disadvantages that lowered their income significantly when compared to white farmers. According to Ng and Virts (1993), “blacks were emancipated for the most part without any assets beyond their own labor” and “in 1880, whites derived more income from the ownership of land and capital.” Most black farmers were recently freed slaves; they had no claim to arable land and no existing funds to finance their agricultural ventures. In contrast, white farmers experienced increased profitability of their farms over those of black farmers because they could use existing funds and business relationships to further their gains.

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

Several factors caused the astronomical rise in black unemployment during the Great Depression; these include market discrimination as well as the magnification of disadvantages already faced by black workers. Many black workers were often less qualified than white workers because they had less educational opportunities and weaker societal infrastructure in predominantly black areas (Sundstrom 1992). This disparity in communal support often meant that white workers were more likely to be hired over black workers even before the Depression – job scarcity greatly exacerbated this issue. Additionally, railroad companies increased discrimination against black workers during the Depression because they prioritized the rehiring of unemployed white workers over the job security of black workers (Kelly 2013). This discrimination was not just present in the railroad industry—black workers throughout the US suffered disproportionately from joblessness during the Great Depression.

References[edit | edit source]

Hill, Ray. 2016. “The Great Depression in Tennessee.” The Knoxville Focus, January 10, 2016. https://knoxfocus.com/archives/great-depression-tennessee/.

Kelly, Joseph. 2013. “Showing Agency on the Margins: African American Railway Workers in the South and Their Unions, 1917-1930.” Labour / Le Travail 71: 123-148

Ng, Kenneth and Nancy Virts. 1993. “The Black-White Income Gap in 1880.” Agricultural History 67 (1): 1-15.

Schermerhorn, Calvin. 2020. “Black Americans, crucial workers in crises, emerge worse off – not better.” The Conversation, June 17, 2020. https://theconversation.com/black-americans-crucial-workers-in-crises-emerge-worse-off-not-better-140525.

Sundstrom, William A. 1992. “Last Hired, First Fired? Unemployment and Urban Black Workers During the Great Depression.” The Journal of Economic History 52 (2): 415-429