Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2021/Fall/Section010/Hezekiah Spruill

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Overview[edit | edit source]

Biography[edit | edit source]

File:A southern cotton farm located in Raleigh, North Carolina.jpg
A rural, cotton farm located in Raleigh, North Carolina (Mydans, 1970).

Mr. Hezekiah “Ki” Spruill was a carpenter who lived with his wife in their 4-bedroom house in Elizabeth City.

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Born in Gum Neck, Tyrrell Country, Spruill lived with his brother on their father’s small farm, where their father made and sold shingles for money. As a young child, Spruill would attend school for a quarter term (3 months) between the ages of 6 and 7, then 1-2 weeks once a year for the years following. However, after a permanent, damaging injury that left his father disabled, Spruill had to stop schooling and begin working, his first job as a fisherman at Cedar Point.

Working Life[edit | edit source]

For over 60 years, Spruill had worked a variety of different jobs over the course of his lifetime: he made coffins with his brother that were sold at $4 per adult coffin and less than a dollar for a child’s, worked as a fisherman at Cedar Point, grew and picked his own cotton, worked as a carpenter on people’s houses, and worked as a carpenter in a shipyard where he earned $8-$9 dollars an hour, his highest earning paycheck. However, due to his health status and the total ownership of his house, Spruill was unable to qualify for pensions that would have allowed him to retire.

Family Life[edit | edit source]

The Spruill family had four children total, three daughters who were all married and one son who was disabled and served 2 sentences for unknown crimes. Before his first sentence, the son was romantically involved with a girl and was shot by one of the girl’s family members, leaving him permanently disabled. Instead of facing charges, the girl's relative was able to pay his own bail and avoid serving time. After finishing his first sentence, the son got involved in more illegal activity and served one more known sentence. Mrs. Spruill, Spruill’s wife, was unable to work due to the mental toll of her son’s unknown legal status and unknown whereabouts.

Social Context[edit | edit source]

Social Security Act[edit | edit source]

The Social Security Act was a law signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 that would provide economic relief to the elderly, unemployed, and disadvantaged Americans. However, prior to the establishment of Social Security, there was no formal system of economic support for the working class (History). Many citizens before the Industrial Revolution, such as farmers, were able to support themselves independently or through familial support, many not requiring the assistance of the government (History).

However, due to industrialization and urbanization, many people migrated to major cities with no way of financially supporting themselves. At this time, “the only significant form of public aid to the indigent was a system of poorhouses, workhouses, and charities funded by the state... and private donations.” (Zdencanovic, 2021).  In addition, the Great Depression led to plummeting unemployment rates and left many citizens, especially the elderly, in need of financial programs that were not properly structured. When Roosevelt came into office, he created the Committee on Economic Security that drafted an economic security bill in hopes of addressing unemployment insurances, old age pensions, and financial assistance for widows, children and disabled individuals (History). Once this bill was passed on August 14th, 1935, the next phase of the plan focused on issuing social security cards to citizens through an application process (History).

During the card distribution process, one of the major issues presented was “the Social Security Act of 1935 excluded farmers and domestic workers, and therefore, most African Americans” (Murphy, 2017). The reasoning for this decision provided by the House of Representatives was since their employment was short term, it would be difficult to track down employers. (Murphy, 2017) With no way of accessing Social Security identification, many people in these groups were unable to qualify for financial support, such as old age pensions or unemployment insurances, leaving many forced to work into old age (Murphy, 2017).

FDR’s Addressment of Legal Reforms and its Effects on the Disabled[edit | edit source]

Many of FDR’s reforms reshaped the social economic systems of society in hopes to address the economic crisis following the Great Depression, but in turn led to aggressive legal reforms that resulted in mass incarceration. Many cities across the states, including the United States, saw “the first wave of mass incarceration [focus] on poor white men,” many of whom were laborers looking for work (Denney, 2021). Due to the lack of social restraints, Los Angeles and other cities saw an increase in the construction of prisons to house the influx of incarcerated citizens (Denney, 2021). Many of the incarceration processes targeted poor white workers as well as African Americans and immigrants. "At the beginning of the 1930s, the South had incarceration rates below that of the West and Midwest. But by 1939, the South had the highest incarceration rates in the nation.” (Denney, 2021).

Many of the poorer white Americans and African Americans were targeted in the mass incarceration process, as well as the disabled populations because they were perceived to be unable to “achieve economic self-sufficiency and to fulfill expected social roles” (Longmore and Goldberger, 2000, pg. 897). To filter them out of society, many efforts were made through “sterilization, marriage restriction, and even incarceration to stop reproduction by the ‘unfit,’ and among them the ‘deformed (including the crippled)’” (Longmore and Goldberger, 2000, pg. 894). Since there were no statutory laws to protect them, many disabled people were left unaccounted for by law and were incarcerated as a result. (Longmore and Goldberger, 2000, pg. 896).

Citations:  [edit | edit source]

Denney, Matthew G. T. “‘To Wage a War’: Crime, Race, and State Making in the Age of FDR: Studies in American Political Development.” Cambridge Core. Cambridge University Press, March 9, 2021. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/studies-in-american-political-development/article/to-wage-a-war-crime-race-and-state-making-in-the-age-of-fdr/332D9E4AB9A4E412FA351EE686F39C66.

History.com Editors. “Social Security Act.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, January 26, 2018. https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/social-security-act.

Hollem, H. R. (1942). Production. Motor torpedo boats (wooden). A Negro carpenter at a Southern shipyard runs a heavy plank through a power saw. He works on the building of seventy-eight-foot wooden torpedo boats which are produced in great numbers at this yard. The hulls of these speedy motor-driven boats are built indoors, of prefabricated parts and sections, and are then moved to nearby water for launching and fitting. Higgins Industries. Library of Congress. Library of Congress. Retrieved October 18, 2021, from https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/item/2017694445/.

Longmore, P. K., & Goldberger, D. (2000, December). The League of the Physically Handicapped and the Great Depression: A Case Study in the New Disability History. JSTOR. Retrieved October 1w8, 2021, from https://www-jstor-org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/stable/2675276?pq-origsite=summon&seq=10#metadata_info_tab_contents.

Murphy, M.-E. (2017, December 6). “The Servant Campaigns”: African American Women and the Politics of Economic Justice in Washington, D.C., in the 1930s. Journal of Urban History. Retrieved October 18, 2021, from https://journals-sagepub-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/doi/full/10.1177/0096144217746164.

Mydans, C. (1970, January 1). Cotton field showing rock-strewn soil and character of land at Crabtree Creek Recreational Project near Raleigh, North Carolina. Library of Congress. Retrieved October 18, 2021, from https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/item/2017715224/.

Swindell, R. G. (1938, November 25). Folder 722: Saunders, W. O. (interviewer): When a good coffin cost only $4.50. Federal Writers Project Papers. Retrieved October 18, 2021, from https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/03709/id/1193/rec/1.

Zdencanovic, Ben. “‘Based upon New Principles 'Abraham Epstein, the Soviet Union, and the Idea of Social Security in the United States, 1920–1942.” Radical History Review. Duke University Press, January 1, 2021. https://read.dukeupress.edu/radical-history-review/article/2021/139/103/167798/Based-upon-New-Principles-Abraham-Epstein-the.