Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2021/Spring/105/Section 88/Arthur Lee Emerson

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Arthur Lee Emerson
BornLate 1800s
Tennessee, U.S.
Other names"Andrew Jackson of Southern Labor"
Height5 foot 11 inches

Overview[edit | edit source]

Arthur Lee Emerson was most well-known for his contributions as a labor union organizer in the American South during the early 1900s. He founded the Brotherhood of Timber Workers that fought in the Louisiana-Texas Lumber War of 1911-1912. Emerson was interviewed as a result of the Federal Writers' Project in 1938.[1]

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Emerson addresses a crowd of 5,000 timber workers who are members of the Brotherhood.

Emerson was born in the late 1800s in the state of Tennessee. He was an orphan that lived in foster homes up until the age of 14. Emerson was adopted by a man named Dr. Parker. They resided at his home atop Lookout Mountain until Arthur turned eighteen and Dr. Parker died at the age of 87.

Adulthood and Career[edit | edit source]

As a young adult, Emerson held many different occupations. While he was 18 years old, he led an organized strike for strawberry pickers in Georgia, where the unionizers successfully received better working conditions. In 1907, he lived in Louisiana as a woodworker. Due to the Panic of 1907, he and his colleagues received lower wages, so he participated in another labor demonstration. However, labor conditions never improved, so Emerson eventually left this work in search of a new one.

He found new work in the summer of 1910. Emerson and a colleague of his organized a labor union for the timber workers of Louisiana, known as the Brotherhood of Timber Workers (BTW). Their union demonstrations intensified into a conflict referred to as the Louisiana-Texas Lumber War of 1911-1912. On July 7, 1912, Emerson and the Brotherhood lost the battle. As a result, Emerson was arrested and eventually acquitted. The conclusion of the war caused Emerson to suffer a nervous breakdown in 1913. After this, Emerson attempted to return to his role as a union organizer, but his efforts were futile.

Emerson soon became married and took up new professions, like being a basketball coach. In 1921, during one of his basketball practices, he suffered a stroke. Emerson became partially crippled, with his ability to speak being most negatively impacted. As a result, Emerson's aspirations to become a lawyer or return to his old life of union organizing became improbable.

Consequently, Emerson became a farmer. With this new job, Emerson could provide sustenance for his family relatively easily. However, beginning in 1929, the Great Depression lowered the prices of livestock and crop goods, which reduced the livelihood of Emerson and his family. For instance, Emerson's wife noted that they began to use clumps of rags as their bedding. Through the help of friends, the financial condition of the Emerson family gradually improved. Afterwards, his children were also able to finish high school and Emerson resigned to more peaceful life.

Social Context[edit | edit source]

The American Labor Movement[edit | edit source]

Towards the end of the 1800s, business magnates, John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie saw their respective businesses undergo a period of great economic prosperity. Through their actions, the term big business could be used to describe large-scale corporations that exacted a great amount of control over a particular industry, like Rockefeller with the oil industry and Carnegie with the steel industry. Big business began to became more of a normality and that gave way to the rise of robber barons. Including Carnegie and Rockefeller, robber barons were wealthy industrialist men (usually of big business) who amassed an excess of their wealth through unethical methods. This would include paying workers lower wages, increasing working hours, and reducing the quality of working conditions. Consequently, income increased drastically for the rich, which took away from the poor: "the richest 1 percent increased slightly their share of the nation's wealth [from a third] to more than 50 percent by the last decade of the 19th century."[2] Due to worsened labor circumstances and growing gaps in wealth equality, the American Labor Movement grew to prominence at the end of the 19th century.

The American Labor Movement began with the Knights of Labor in the 1860s. It was a labor federation that acted in secrecy in an attempt to promote the condition of workers. Although, the Knights of Labor were never organized enough to act as a true labor union.[3] However, their role in the American Labor Movement allowed for the creation of other labor unions, like the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL, which was formed in 1881, is considered as one of the most successful and long withstanding labor organizations.[3] In general, labor unions, like the AFL and the Knights of Labor, succeed in reducing wealth inequality that extends to even "far beyond their own membership ranks."[4]

The Effect of the Great Depression on Farmers[edit | edit source]

The Panic of 1929, also known as the Stock Market Crash of 1929, marked the beginning of what is considered to be the world's greatest economic recession, the Great Depression. In the early 1920s, the stock market underwent a prosperous period. Stock market prices rose and consequently many people invested in stocks. However, when stock prices eventually began to decline, shareholders liquidated their assets en masse. As a result, stock prices dropped dramatically and the Stock Market crashed in October of 1929, precipitating the start of the Great Depression, the impacts of which were drastic.[5] Income and profits dropped, as well as international trade. However, most notably, the unemployment rate rose to unprecedented numbers.[6]

File:Farmland Damaged by the Dust Bowl.jpg
The Dust Bowl, which negatively impacted the croplands of the Midwest in the 1930s, left this Dallas farmland to nothing but mounds of dust.

One of the groups most negatively impacted by the depression were farmers. At the beginning of the Depression, crop and livestock prices dropped, so to compensate, farmers attempted to produce more goods. However, this had a reverse effect. Farmers had an excess of supply, but no demand to purchase their goods. As a result, many farmers lost resources, became bankrupt, and in extreme cases, lost their farms or their livelihood. For example, at the start of the Depression "only 16 percent of farm households earned incomes over the national median of $1,500 per year."[7] For farmers in the Midwest, the effects of the Great Depression were particularly harrowing. This is because of the Dust Bowl. From 1930 to 1936, large dust storms swept the grounds of the American prairies, causing severe drought and erosion, which reduced cropland to nothing. These farmers had very little money and no means of harvesting their own food.[8]

The condition of farmers began to improve with the arrival of alphabet agencies, like the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) of 1933. The AAA put constraints on the size of crops or cattle. Subsidies were granted to the farmers who conformed to these constraints. Other alphabet agencies that directly benefited the economic situation of farmers include the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Drought Relief Service (DRS), and the Farm Security Administration (FSA).[9] The programs were considered to be a great success, allowing farmers to gradually rebound from the effects of the Great Depression.

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Covington, interview.
  2. Pessen, "Equality and Opportunity in America."
  3. 3.0 3.1 History.com Editors, "Labor Movement."
  4. Dynarski, "Fresh Proof That Strong Unions Help Reduce Income Inequality."
  5. History.com Editors, "Great Depression History."
  6. Barber, "On the Origins of the Great Depression."
  7. Musbach, "Life on a Farm during the Great Depression."
  8. Hornbeck, "The Enduring Impact of the American Dust Bowl: Short- and Long-Run Adjustments to Environmental Catastrophe."
  9. Kennedy, "What the New Deal Did."

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Barber, Clarence L. "On the Origins of the Great Depression." Southern Economic Journal 44, no. 3 (1978): 432-56. Accessed April 7, 2021. doi:10.2307/1057202.
  2. Dynarski, Susan. "Fresh Proof That Strong Unions Help Reduce Income Inequality." Last modified July 6, 2011. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/06/business/labor-unions-income-inequality.html.
  3. Hall, Covington. “The Andrew Jackson of Southern Labor.” Interview. From the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  4. History.com Editors. "Labor Movement." Last modified September 1, 2020. https://www.history.com/topics/19th-century/labor.
  5. History.com Editors. "Great Depression History." Last modified February 28, 2020. https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/great-depression-history.
  6. Hornbeck, Richard. "The Enduring Impact of the American Dust Bowl: Short- and Long-Run Adjustments to Environmental Catastrophe." The American Economic Review 102, no. 4 (2012): 1477-507. Accessed April 7, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23245462.
  7. Kennedy, David M. "What the New Deal Did." Political Science Quarterly 124, no. 2 (2009): 251-68. Accessed April 7, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25655654.
  8. Musbach, Joan W. "Life on a Farm during the Great Depression." OAH Magazine of History 16, no. 1 (2001): 33-43. Accessed April 7, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25163485.
  9. Pessen, Edward. "Equality and Opportunity in America, 1800-1940." The Wilson Quarterly (1976-) 1, no. 5 (1977): 136-42. Accessed April 7, 2021. doi:10.2307/40255293.