Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2021/Summer/105/Section 08/Bernice Kelly Harris

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Jim Parker[edit | edit source]

Overview[edit | edit source]

Jim Parker was an African American sharecropper and father during the Great Depression. He was interviewed by Bernice Kelly Harris for the Federal Writers Project[1] on June 7, 1939 in Seaboard, North Carolina. For her interviews, Bernice Kelly Harris often worked in African-American communities and she began to write differently about race and avoided stereotyping, which caused her to be the recipient of criticism for trying to deceive her readers. At the time of the interview, Jim Parker was sixty two years old.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Jim Parker was born and raised in Seaboard, North Carolina to a small family. His father Zebedee Parker, was a tenant farmer for his whole life after slaves were given freedom and struggled every day to provide for his children. He spent most of his younger life moving around and working with his father. Jim only went to school up until the fourth grade but possessed the ability to read.

Work[edit | edit source]

Jim's Parkers life is one with little enjoyment or time for himself. On a daily basis he does hard manual labor work to try and provide for himself and then for his thirteen children. In his interview he admits, "I can't say they's every been any pleasure much in life for me, just hard work and disappointments...I've been plowing co'n all day, and tonight I'm only able to drag one foot 'fore the other." Since the age of eighteen he did public work such as shoveling dirt or maintaining the railroads. He then moved to Gumberry, got married, and worked at the mill for ten years. As his family grew, he moved to a farm belonging to a man named John Leak, and remained there for seven years. He bought a house, lost it, then again began to sharecrop for the next decade with his thirteen children. At the time of his interview, Jim Parker has been a sharecropper for twenty two years. In the years leading up to his interview he has struggled to make any significant money, but some of his older children went on to have their own families. All he wanted to do was to purchase land to have for his family but went through cycles of buying it and losing it due to financial problems.

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

Reconstruction Era[edit | edit source]

During the years leading up to the Great Depression, the Civil War and the times of slavery were over which lead to newfound freedom for African Americans. This time period was referred to as the Reconstruction Era[2], where the government attempted to acclimate former enslaved people into society. Unfortunately however, the situation for black Americans was bleak. They had their freedom, but had no property or income. The federal government along with Republican state governments formed during Reconstruction did little to help freed Black people own their own land. Prior to the Great Depression and in this reconstruction time period, African Americans worked primarily in unskilled jobs.

Hundreds of thousands of African Americans, including Jim Parker, turned to sharecropping in an attempt to find an income. Sharecropping[3] dominated agriculture and gave African Americans like Jim hope for autonomy in daily work, but quickly began to undermine this promise through labor contracts, exploitative sharecropping, and violence from landowners.

Great Depression and Unemployment[edit | edit source]

Every group struggled immensely during the Great Depression, but no group more so than African Americans. As the Great Depression worsened in the 1930s, black Americans were the first people to be laid off from their jobs and had an unemployment rate twice to three times as much as white Americans[4]. In the rural South specifically, blacks found it increasingly difficult to survive. For the majority of the time, they were excluded from white-collar and blue-collar jobs, and therefore dependant on service sector employment[5].

During this period, President Roosevelt bgan to institute the “New Deal,” a series of economic programs to offer relief to the unemployed and help recover the national economy. African Americans were able to benefit from this and made Roosevelt popular amongst citizens like Jim Parker. The New Deal was able to stipulate that up to 10% of all the programs’ recipients must be African Americans. Black workers were able to participate in the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration, and the Works Progress Administration. But often the decisions that affected African Americans were shaped by the need to please white Southerners, who held substantial power in Congress.

Racism[edit | edit source]

Despite the newfound emancipation for black Americans. This time period was shaped by new forms of racism. For example, African Americans were concentrated in the jobs and industries most sensitive to economic cycles, making them targets to be the last people hired and the first fired[6]. Additionally, black unemployment was also aided by the racist attitude that whites should not be without work while blacks were employed.

Despite Roosevelt's New Deal, in the South, these flagship programs were implemented along Jim Crow Segregation lines, which heavily affected sharecroppers throughout the South. Additionally, the Federal Housing Administration refused to insure mortgages in African American neighborhoods and the Agricultural Adjustment Act gave white landowners money to keep their fields uncultivated, but didn't require them to give money to sharecroppers, and finally tenant farmers were not eligible for Social Security.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

Columbia University. “Amistad Digital Resource.” Amistad Digital Resource: The Great Depression, 2009.

Gregory, James. “Civil Rights.” Civil Rights in 1930s Washington State, 2009.

History.com Editors. “Sharecropping.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, June 24, 2010.

Editors, Lumen. “Boundless US History.” Lumen, 2019. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-ushistory/chapter/minorities-and-the-new-deal/.

PBS Editors. “FDR and The New Deal.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, 2008.

Signature Editors. “Slavery by Another Name: The Economy of Sharecropping.” Signature Theatre, 2019.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Harris, Bernice Kelly. "Jim Parker Hopes Ahead." Interview. From the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. ROSEN, HANNAH. "Teaching Race and Reconstruction." Journal of the Civil War Era 7, no. 1 (2017): 67-95. Accessed July 18, 2021. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26070490.
  3. Crofts, Daniel W. "From Slavery to Sharecropping." Reviews in American History 23, no. 3 (1995): 458-63. Accessed July 18, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2703319.
  4. Mercer, Deborah. “Unit 11 1930s: The Great Depression.” New Jersey State Library, March 29, 2021. https://www.njstatelib.org/research_library/new_jersey_resources/highlights/african_american_history_curriculum/unit_11_great_depression/.
  5. Leuchtenburg, William E., William E. Leuchtenburg Professor Emeritus of HistoryUniversity of North Carolina, William E. Leuchtenburg, and Professor Emeritus of HistoryUniversity of North Carolina. “Franklin D. Roosevelt: The American Franchise.” Miller Center, July 24, 2018. https://millercenter.org/president/fdroosevelt/the-american-franchise.
  6. Klein, Christopher. “Last Hired, First Fired: How the Great Depression Affected African Americans.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, April 18, 2018. https://www.history.com/news/last-hired-first-fired-how-the-great-depression-affected-african-americans.