Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2021/Spring/105/Section 88/Walter Corbett

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Walter Corbett
Alamance County, North Carolina
EthnicityAfrican American
OccupationTobacco Farmer

Overview[edit | edit source]

Walter Corbett was an African American tobacco farmer born in Alamance County in 1876. He farmed his whole life, having to deal with the pricing boom of world war followed by the crash of the Great Depression.[1]

Biography[edit | edit source]

Career[edit | edit source]

Being an African American in the south Mr. Corbett was unable to receive any form of an education.[1] Without school he began working on a farm from a very young age. He got his first job when he was just a boy working on Charles Maynard’s tobacco farm for six dollars a month. The nature of farming tobacco requires a lot of knowledge and intuition about the process and Walter was able to excel at this. He then chose to strike it out on his own and began sharecropping. The nature of sharecropping makes it incredibly hard to get ahead and accumulate any sort of savings, however after nine years of hard work Mr. Corbett took a chance. In 1915 he had the opportunity to buy twenty acres of land for six hundred dollars. Seeing this as his only opportunity to ever own land Mr. Corbett went into debt and borrowed the money so that he could purchase the land. The same year that he purchased the land Mr. Corbett sold enough tobacco to be able to pay off his loan, finally achieving his lifelong dream of being a landowner. Things kept going up, World War 1 continued to boost tobacco prices and in 1917 Walter was able to buy another 20 acres of land for only four hundred dollars. The following year he was able to buy 30 more acres of land for five hundred and fifty dollars. Unlike a lot of other farmers at the time, Walter chose to not extend further by going into debt. This decision served him well when the great depression struck. With prices tanking many others got foreclosed on but Walter made it through.

Adult Life and Family[edit | edit source]

An African American sharecropping family.

At twenty years old Mr. Corbett married his first wife, Maggie Sellars, and had his first child with her a year later.[1] They went on to have six kids together before Maggie passed away in 1909. With her passing Mr. Corbett was left being a single father to six children. The oldest child twelve at the time and the youngest was just two years old. His only option was to become more determined to make his farm work. The children old enough to work on the farm worked and those too young merely tagged along. Six years after the death of his first wife, Walter married Annie Liza Lee. With the help of his wife he was able to expand his farming. With the success of his farming in 1916 Walter was able to build his family their own home on his land. Mr. Corbett and Annie went on to have nine kids together all while he was expanding his business. Eventually his kids began to move out and become independent. Four of them moved to New York and found jobs or started businesses there.

Historical Context[edit | edit source]

Sharecropping[edit | edit source]

Sharecropping is the practice of people renting land and paying the landowner with a portion of the crop that they grow.[2] In the post emancipation south sharecropping was used as another way to keep the african american population under control. The nature of the system keeps the renters in debt to the landowner making it near impossible to break free of the institution and buy your own property. It was used to keep capital and property in the hands of the white elite.

Agriculture During World War 1[edit | edit source]

World war 1 had a massive impact on farmers in America.[3] A massive campaign was launched to help farmers boost food production. It was now framed as patriotic to produce more food than ever. Food shortages were a serious problem for the war effort so demand had never been higher. Prices kept going up and so farmers kept expanding their operations. The government was constantly calling for larger and larger production goals and it looked like there was no ceiling.

The New Deal and the AAA[edit | edit source]

The high prices and over extension caused by world war one led to farmers getting hit that much harder by the great depression.[4] Many had gone into debt to expand their farming operations during the war and with prices dropping had no way of paying off that debt. The new deal is what pulled America out of the great depression and had many programs specifically designed for helping farmers. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) was at the forefront of these efforts. The AAA gave farmers who worked with the federal government benefit payments so that farmers could receive an income resembling their pre-depression income without overproducing. While the AAA was the largest but there were many others that played a role. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) helped rural communities and provided them with relief. The Resettlement Administration (RA) and the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), both did a lot of work for rural communities before being absorbed into the department of agriculture.

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Abner, “Up and Down." 1938.
  2. Ochiltree, "'A Just and Self-Respecting System'?: Black Independence, Sharecropping, and Paternalistic Relations in the American South and South Africa." 1998.
  3. Kosmerick, “World War I and Agriculture.” 2017.
  4. Saloutos, "New Deal Agricultural Policy: An Evaluation."

References[edit | edit source]

  • Ochiltree, Ian D. "'A Just and Self-Respecting System'?: Black Independence, Sharecropping, and Paternalistic Relations in the American South and South Africa." Agricultural History 72, no. 2 (1998): 352-80. Accessed March 23, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3744387.
  • Smith, John David. "More Than Slaves, Less Than Freedmen: The "Share Wages" Labor System During Reconstruction." Civil War History 26, no. 3 (1980): 256-266. doi:10.1353/cwh.1980.0003.
  • Saloutos, Theodore. "New Deal Agricultural Policy: An Evaluation." The Journal of American History 61, no. 2 (1974): 394-416. Accessed March 24, 2021. doi:10.2307/1903955.
  • Abner, John. "Up and Down". Interview. From the Federal Writers Project papers, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.