Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2021/Spring/105/Section 60/Sam Lynn

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Overview[edit | edit source]

Sam Lynn's wife, Hattie Thomas, was interviewed by Gertha Couric in association with the Federal Writers' Project on January 11, 1939. In the interview, Hattie Thomas describes the life of Sam Lynn.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Sam Lynn was an African American born in 1879 in Eufaula, Alabama. At age ten, Sam was mentored by George Vaugn, a neighboring fisherman, who taught him how to swim and fish. He lived on river along with his youngest bastard son until marrying his wife, Hattie Thomas. He had four other bastard children all to different women, but Sam made sure to keep them clothed and fed. He was a fisherman all his life, hiring four to five men to work for him and bringing in around 200 pounds of fish each day. During his time as a fishermen, he was also responsible for fishing bodies of suicide victims out of the river. He sold his fish locally in Eufaula and traveled to other states to sell to his usual customers. He made good money and always sold out.

1940's River Fishermen

On most nights, he would sell his fish to other white fishermen, who bragged to their friends and claimed the fish as their own catches. He dedicated his weekends to the poor and religion. On Saturdays, he would sell his fish exclusively to other African American men and poor white folks. On Sundays, he would never work because he was a religious man. He was an honest man too and would never sell a fish that was low quality. He never sold fish in the summer because it was too hot to keep the fish alive and fresh. Instead, he and his wife held fish fryes, where they would welcome neighbors to enjoy the fish he caught and fried at a cheap price.[1]  

Social Context[edit | edit source]

Family Structures and Marriage Roles in the Early 20th Century[edit | edit source]

In the early 20th century, single-parenthood was much more common among African American families than white families. From 1880-1960, African Americans children were two to three times more likely than white children to reside without one or both parents.[2] Steven Ruggles, a professor at the University of Minnesota and history and population expert, writes "Sociologists and historians have proposed a variety of economic explanations for the disruption of black families after the Civil War. The simplest and most commonly cited of these is that conditions of extreme poverty destabilized the black family. In addition, investigators have pointed to high female labor force participation, inadequate employment opportunities for males, and narrow wage differentials between men and women as factors that may have encouraged marital instability among blacks.”[3] Given the circumstances of slavery and its long lasting effects on African Americans following abolition, African American families were faced with many more hardships compared to their white counterparts.

African American families that were not subject to single parenthood had much more difficult marriages than white families. In a study by LaPierreand Hill, he determined that "Black married couples had more frequent disagreements than White couples concerning many aspects of marriage such as sex, having another child, and money.” However, in both African American families and white families it was found that wives do much more household labor than their husbands do.[4] Therefore, it was much more common that men worked outside of the house to support their families.

Impact of Great Depression on African Americans and the Fishing Industry[edit | edit source]

The economic disparities brought on by the Great Depression were hard on most, but few groups struggled as much as African Americans. The unemployment rate of African Americans during the Great Depression doubled or even tripled the unemployment rate of white people. “Said to be “last hired, first fired,” African Americans were the first to see hours and jobs cut, and they experienced the highest unemployment rate during the 1930s.”[5] African Americans usually worked unskilled jobs, but after the Stock Market Crash of 1929, those low level jobs either didn't exist anymore or were given to white people who were in need of employment. Eventually, the unemployment rate of African Americans spiked to about 50 percent.[6]

Unemployment Peaks during the Great Depression

One industry that was hit hard by the Great Depression was the fishing industry. Fish prices dropped significantly, making it extremely hard for fishermen to turn a profit. Many fishermen went in debt to local merchants, who loaned them food and supplies that they struggled to pay back. Some fishermen even went so far into debt that they were cut off from receiving loans.[7]

Life Expectancy and Suicide Rates during the Great Depression[edit | edit source]

During the Great Depression, population health increased, mortality rates decreased, and average life expectancy increased. Yet, while all of these measures moved in the positive direction, suicide mortality remained an exception. Of six causes of death that made up two thirds of total mortality during the 1930's, only suicide mortality increased. Jose Granados and Ana Roux, two health experts at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, wrote that “Historical experience tells us that no particular increase of mortality is to be expected as a consequence of a recession beyond an increase in suicides which, although clearly important, is of small magnitude compared to the reduced number of fatalities from other causes.”[8]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Couric, "Sam Lynn, Fisherman and River Rat"
  2. Ruggles, Steven. “The Origins of African-American Family Structure.”
  3. IBID
  4. Johnson, Kecia, Loscocco, Karyn. “Black Marriage Through the Prism of Gender, Race, and Class.”
  5. Klein, Christopher. “Last Hired, First Fired: How the Great Depression Affected African Americans.”
  6. IBID
  7. Higgins, Jenny. “Great Depression – Impacts on the Working Class.”
  8. Granados, Jóse, Roux, Ana. “Life and Death During the Great Depression.”

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

  1. Interview, Couric, Gertha on Sam Lynn, January 11, 1939, "Sam Lynn, Fisherman and River Rat" Folder 8, in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  2. Granados, Jóse, Roux, Ana. “Life and Death During the Great Depression.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, No. 41 (October 13, 2009): 1-5. https://www.pnas.org/content/106/41/17290
  3. Ruggles, Steven. “The Origins of African-American Family Structure.” American Sociological Review 59, No. 1 (1994): 1-13.  http://users.hist.umn.edu/~ruggles/Articles/Af-Am-fam.pdf
  4. Johnson, Kecia, Loscocco, Karyn. “Black Marriage Through the Prism of Gender, Race, and Class.”Journal of Black Studies 46, No. 2 (2014): 2-23.  https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/24572942.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A3b9f363bba00a7db6ba49f709f315ca9  
  5. Higgins, Jenny. “Great Depression – Impacts on the Working Class.” Last Modified 2007. https://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/politics/depression-impacts.php
  6. Klein, Christopher. “Last Hired, First Fired: How the Great Depression Affected African Americans.” Last Modified August 31, 2018. https://www.history.com/news/last-hired-first-fired-how-the-great-depression-affected-african-americans