Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2021/Spring/105/Section 87/Willie Roberts

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Overview[edit | edit source]

Willie Roberts was a farmer and laborer in Durham, North Carolina. He was interviewed by William O. Forster for the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Roberts was born and raised in Durham. It can be assumed that he was born in the late 1800s, though there is very little information on his childhood in the life history. He grew up poor, and only attended school for a year, likely because he needed to work for his family. Due to his limited schooling, Willie Roberts could only write and read his name. However, he had a good command of numbers, because, in his words, “have to be if you don’t want to git cheated outen all you make.”[1]

Adult Life[edit | edit source]

Marriage to Mary[edit | edit source]

Roberts married Mary, a widow, when she was 41. She had four children from her previous marriage. The family lived in the house and 23 acres of land that Mary inherited from her father, who was a shopkeeper in Raleigh. Mary’s mother was a schoolteacher in Durham and Mary completed high school in Durham. When they had time, Mary would teach Roberts. Roberts also aspired to attend night school in Durham or Chapel Hill to gain more education.[1]

Work and Sources of Income[edit | edit source]

Roberts worked an assortment of jobs to earn money to support himself and his family. He worked some on the family’s farm, which had a few cattle, chickens, hogs, fruit trees, miscellaneous vegetables and a workshop. The food grown on their farm was mainly used to feed the family. In his shop, Roberts repaired farm tools and machinery, as well as some cars. However, he couldn’t earn enough money only working on their farm. He would work for other nearby farmers where he could earn “a dollar a day and dinner and supper.” Roberts also worked temporarily in harsh conditions at the American Tobacco Factory in Durham to earn more steady money.[1]

False Accusation and Sentence[edit | edit source]

The year before the interview, Mary and Willie Roberts were brought to court and falsely accused by their white neighbors. They accused Roberts of attacking a white woman neighbor, Mrs. Jones, though she refused to appear in court. They also accused both Willie and Mary Roberts of hosting white men and women. Mr. Roberts was charged and sentenced to 8 months on a chain gang. This caused the family to take out a $100 mortgage on their house. The Roberts family believed that they were falsely accused because they were black landowners and refused to sell their land.[1]

Social Context[edit | edit source]

Tobacco Factories in Durham and Racial Segregation[edit | edit source]

Tobacco is ingrained in Durham, North Carolina’s history. For about a century, tobacco was the basis of Durham’s economy.[2] In the early 1900s, Durham had a booming tobacco industry that created many jobs and actually brought many people to the area . “As cigarette manufacture became mechanized, blacks were hired as stemmers, sorters, hangers, and pullers. These ‘dirty’ jobs were seen as an extension of field labor and therefore as ‘Negro work’ for which whites would not compete.”[3] Many black men and women worked in tobacco factories, including Willie Roberts, performing these jobs that were generally more physically demanding and had poorer conditions.[3] Willie Roberts noted the extreme heat and danger of burns while he worked at the drying station in the American Tobacco Factory. There is evidence of other health effects from the crowded and strenuous nature of the work, including respiratory issues and diseases like tuberculosis.[3]

Chain Gangs[edit | edit source]

Chain gangs were a form of punishment widely used mainly in the South throughout the late 1800s and the first half of the 1900s.[4] Prisoners were forced to perform grueling labor, usually working on roads. Conditions were generally very poor, as these prisoners had chains around their ankles while they worked and slept, were given insufficient food, and brutal punishments.[4] It is important to note that an extremely disproportionate amount of black men were sent to work on road gangs. As stated by researchers in 1927, “the early development of the prison system in the South cannot be understood without reference to the fact that within the two decades following the Civil War the problem of the Southern prison… became preeminently the problem of dealing with the Negro prisoner.”[5]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Folder 385: Forster, W. O. (interviewer). Willie Roberts, A Negro Laborer-Mechanic. (n.d.) https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/search/collection/03709/searchterm/folder_385!03709/field/contri!escri/mode/exact!exact/conn/and!and/order/relatid/ad/asc/cosuppress/0
  2. Discover Durham Staff. (2019, April 5). Tour Durham’s Tobacco History. https://www.discoverdurham.com/blog/tour-durhams-tobacco-history/
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Jones, B. W. (1984). Race, Sex, and Class: Black Female Tobacco Workers in Durham, North Carolina, 1920-1940, and the Development of Female Consciousness. Feminist Studies, 10(3). 441-451. https://doi.org/10.2307/3178034
  4. 4.0 4.1 Ireland, R. E. (2006). Chain Gang. Medium. https://www.ncpedia.org/chain-gang
  5. Steiner, J. F. & Brown, R. M. (1927). The North Carolina Chain Gang: A Study of County Convict Road Work. The University of North Carolina Social Study Series. Retrieved from https://babel-hathitrust-org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/cgi/pt?id=pst.000017839655&view=1up&seq=5