Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2021/Fall/Section010/James Joseph Florian

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James Joseph Florian was interviewed for the Federal Writer's Project in 1938 by Cobb Pitts.

Brief Overview[edit | edit source]

A view from downtown Goldsboro, North Carolina.
The inside of an African American church similar to the one Florian attended in his youth.

In 1938, James 'Joe' Florian was interviewed by the Federal Writer's Project in Greensboro, North Carolina. Florian grew up on a farm in a large family, but longed for the experience of the city and left home for a future there. He was able to find work in a hotel in Greensboro but quickly grew tired of working indoors all day and left. Throughout his life, he flitted between different working-class jobs, before finally settling as a janitor. Florian married a woman named Virginia that he met at church a couple years after moving to Greensboro. They had two kids before Virginia tragically passed away from a heart attack. Florian struggled as a single father and almost turns to alcoholism, however, he sobered up due to the love and loyalty of his children.

An African American woman working on a farm similar to the one that James Florian grew up on.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

James Florian grew up on a farm nestled in rural North Carolina. During his interview he recalled his numerous siblings, many who were much younger than him. He also fondly remembers his stern but loving mother who was a hardworking housewife. Growing up in this environment instilled a strong work ethic in young Florian. This characteristic continues to aid Florian throughout his life as he works difficult and tedious jobs with little in the way of reward or respect.

Family[edit | edit source]

Florian was born into a sizeable family with several siblings. Though it is unclear in the interview, one can infer that he has many brothers and sisters who were much younger than him.

After marrying Virginia, he had two children; one son named James and daughter who's name was not mentioned in the interview. However, Virginia died from a heart attack during a freak storm, according to Florian. The details of her death are not corroborated and it is unclear whether he was telling the truth about the circumstances. After his wife passed away, the two are sent to live with their aunt, which depressed Florian. However, after some time, his son, James, returned to live with and take care of him.

Work Experience[edit | edit source]

After moving to the city as a young adult, Florian successfully applied for a job as a hotel concierge. After approximately six months of work, he found the indoor work unsatisfying, and left to work for the Davidson family, who were one of the most wealthy and prominent families in Greensboro at the time. However, he again decided to switch vocations, and moved to work at a mill on the outskirts of the city. It is unclear how long Florian worked for the mill, but after some time, he was hired as a janitor, which is the occupation he works up to the time of the interview in 1938.

Social Context[edit | edit source]

Segregation in North Carolina[edit | edit source]

Florian was a colored person living in Greensboro, NC in the 1930’s. This is around the end of the Great Depression, where it was difficult to find work. Because of his racial status, Florian is only able to look for lower-wage jobs; menial labor. He never directly addresses racism in the interview; rather the interviewer alludes to discrimination through context clues. For example, there are instances where he is refused service by a taxi, or struggles to find jobs despite being more than capable. These everyday moments show how deeply ingrained racism is in American society. In the Deep South, the Jim Crow laws were still in effect in the ‘30s. These laws worked to disenfranchise Black people across the Deep South, rendering them unable to look for work, apply for aid, get an education, or use certain public amenities. The racism of the time can also be seen through the distribution of aid relief during the Great Depression; the white families were supported much more than the black communities. The New Deal was ineffective at aiding Black people during the crisis; as unemployment rates for that demographic remained very high, even when white people started to recover.[1]

James Florian saw this first hand, because he struggled to find a job during his time in Greensboro. Though it is unsaid, the interview makes it clear that Florian is aware of his disadvantage as a black person during a financial crisis. Not only was it difficult for him to keep a job, it also limited his opportunities to lower wage work and difficult working conditions.

The Great Depression in Greensboro[edit | edit source]

The Great Depression, and the subsequent policies that followed, fostered growth of cities in the South during the 1930’s. Much of this growth can be linked to New Deal policies that rapidly modernized the so-called ‘Dixie’ cities.[2] This growth can also be linked to an increase in opportunities in the city that led many African Americans to move to urban centers from rural farms. However, as the article states, these efforts for urbanization were fought by Southern Democrats who disagreed with the tenets of the New Deal. Florian was one of the many to migrate to a city looking for work during this era. As rural work was few and far in between, he needed to find a way to make a living. This encouraged him to move to Greensboro, leaving behind his family’s farm.

The Great Depression crippled thousands of families across the nation. For Black families, it made the financial situation worse. They were disproportionately affected. The unemployment rate among Black people was 2-3 times that of the white people. Though this discrimination would later lead to organized activism and protest, during the 1930's and '40s, very little was done to help them.[3]

Religious Revival[edit | edit source]

During the 1930's there was a religious revival in the United States. Hundreds of thousands turned to Christianity during the time, due to the dire economic situation. This time period birthed the modern Evangelicalism movement in the country.

The Depression took a huge toll on people’s mental psyche. The financial crisis and its repercussions led many to push for religiosity, in hope that a different bent of mind would aid their difficult situation.[4] Additionally, during this time development of African-American churches occurred; the culture and traditions that have become so widespread today, began in small one-room churches very similar to the one Florian attended every Sunday. [5]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 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. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2123118.
  2. Biles, Roger. “The Urban South in the Great Depression.” The Journal of Southern History 56, no. 1 (1990): 71–100. https://doi.org/10.2307/2210665.
  3. Lynch, Hollis. “African American Life during the Great Depression and the New Deal.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 2021. https://www.britannica.com/topic/African-American/African-American-life-during-the-Great-Depression-and-the-New-Deal.
  4. Greene, Alison. “Religion and the Great Depression.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, April 26, 2019. https://oxfordre.com/americanhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-513.
  5. Flynt, Wayne. “Religion for the Blues: Evangelicalism, Poor Whites, and the Great Depression.” The Journal of Southern History 71, no. 1 (2005): 3–38. https://doi.org/10.2307/27648650.