Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2024/spring/Section13/Frank Nesbeth

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Overview[edit | edit source]

Frank Nesbeth was an African-American restaurant cook and bootblack working to make ends meet for his family. He came from a sharecropping background in the rural town of Tryon, North Carolina, which is just north of Greenville, South Carolina. He was interviewed by writer Adyleen G. Merrick on December 12, 1938 as part of an entry to the Federal Writer's Project. The struggles that he faced in his life most notably align with the social contexts of the polio virus, sharecropping in the rural South, and high child mortality rates during the Great Depression.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Nesbeth was born into an African-American sharecropping family in Tryon, North Carolina, located in Polk County. He and his family's experience on the grape farm was tough, but they were treated to better conditions as a black family opposed to others around him. Nesbeth and his family were grateful to have a schoolhouse instituted for him and the other black children on the land. His mother, “Aunt Ella,” raised Nesbeth under their “boss,” as she tried to keep him in line accordingly during his youth. He gained both his education and early working experience from the grape farm, and Nesbeth was lucky enough to survive as many of his own siblings died before reaching maturity.

Adulthood[edit | edit source]

After leaving the farm and working a series of odd jobs in Chicago, Illinois, Nesbeth was diagnosed with infantile paralysis, which forced crutches upon him for the rest of his life. After being diagnosed with the disease, he would endlessly pray for a secure job and better life. Nesbeth was able to convince a white man to allow him to work as a horse-drawn carriage driver until automobiles would eventually killed the industry. He then worked more contract work before finding his place as a cook in a black restaurant back in North Carolina, along with having a bootblack set for the weekends. Nesbeth would barely provide enough money taking care of his mother and father while severely crippled, as he would commonly only scrape by while taking care of his parents.

Social Context[edit | edit source]

Sharecropping in the Poor, Rural South[edit | edit source]

The rural South was incredibly poor during its share-cropping era, and there was a massive economic difference between white and black farmers during this period. The inequality arose as “the share-cropping system was a compromise solution to serious conflicts between landowners and the emancipated slaves[1]." White farmers who already had capital from the use of slavery enforced a system of oppression over sharecropping black families who relied on manual labor and their “bosses” to stay afloat. While Nesbeth grew up under a boss who allowed for the black children to attend a schoolhouse on the property, celebrate holidays, and eat home-cooked meals with their families, there was no way around the effects of the oppression on his youth. He developed early ideas of racism that never faded from his memory, as he would often refer to his own family using slurs that were largely appropriated in the South at the time. Nesbeth also suffered from the financial inequalities, as he would only make enough each week to feed himself and his parents while he was working two labor-intensive jobs that were incredibly challenging given his condition of polio.

Infantile Paralysis during the Great Depression[edit | edit source]

Infantile paralysis, the former name for polio, causes those who are diagnosed to have crippled limbs in many cases. In 1914, the disease was sweeping the East coast of the US as a burden which would cause stress, the deterioration of health, and even death. The polio virus deals harm when "a localized hematogenous myelitis has attacked the cord and has destroyed more or less at random certain areas of spinal nerve centers[2]." The vaccine to prevent polio was not released until 1955[3], and thousands of children who grew into infantile paralysis faced the difficulties of terminal crippled limbs that forced many out of ever landing future work. Nesbeth had a very rough experience himself with the disease, as he mourned and prayed for his condition before he lucked out with his position as a carriage driver. Even then, he found himself struggling as one incident almost left him trampled when he fell from his seat on the coach. Nesbeth also was forced to walk a mile into town and back each day when he set up his bootblack station, and he would often have to make this journey on his own crutches with no support.  

Infant and Child Mortality Rates[edit | edit source]

From the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth, infant and child mortality rates were incredibly high in the US, especially in the more rural South. Added with the racial inequalities that were largely prevalent in this region, it was very hard for African-Americans to find sufficient health outlets for their children at the time. Medical discoveries and advancements were lacking compared to Europe, as it was a difficult struggle given the much more elementary technology when it came to tackling health issues during these years. Contributing to the state of failure regarding health, “medical journals carried little information about the European developments, and medical research was poorly organized and under-funded[4]." Common diseases included polio, tuberculosis, pneumonia, and enteritis, and the general poorness during the Great Depression also saw rates of malnutrition rise, especially in the deaths of children[5]. Nesbeth saw firsthand how destructive the medical technology was in terms of what it was lacking, as he was never able to recover from his case of infantile paralysis. He faced many difficulties with this disease as it was incredibly difficult for him to find stable and reliable work so he could feed both himself and his parents. Nesbeth also saw the majority of his siblings die while he was growing up, as childhood deaths were unfortunately more than common during the early 1900s.

Footnotes[edit | edit source]

  1. Mann, Susan. "Slavery, sharecropping, and sexual inequality." Hine, King, and Reed," We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible (1995): 281-301.
  2. Wright, Wilhelmme G. "Muscle training in the treatment of infantile paralysis." The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal 167, no. 17 (1912): 567-574.  
  3. “History of Polio Vaccination.” World Health Organization. July 2021. https://www.who.int/news-room/spotlight/history-of-vaccination/history-of-polio-vaccination#:~:text=In%20the%20late%2019th%20and,the%20disease%20faced%20lifelong%20consequences.
  4. Preston, Samuel H., and Michael R. Haines. Fatal years: Child mortality in late nineteenth-century America. Vol. 1175. Princeton University Press, 2014.
  5. Preston, Samuel H., and Michael R. Haines. Fatal years: Child mortality in late nineteenth-century America. Vol. 1175. Princeton University Press, 2014.

References[edit | edit source]

Badger, Tony. “Great Depression in the South.” Encyclopedia.com, March 18, 2024. https://www.encyclopedia.com/economics/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/south-great-depression.

Mann, Susan. "Slavery, sharecropping, and sexual inequality." Hine, King, and Reed," We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible (1995): 281-301.

Preston, Samuel H., and Michael R. Haines. Fatal years: Child mortality in late nineteenth-century America. Vol. 1175. Princeton University Press, 2014.

Wright, Wilhelmme G. "Muscle training in the treatment of infantile paralysis." The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal 167, no. 17 (1912): 567-574.  

“History of Polio Vaccination.” World Health Organization. July 2021. https://www.who.int/news-room/spotlight/history-of-vaccination/history-of-polio-vaccination#:~:text=In%20the%20late%2019th%20and,the%20disease%20faced%20lifelong%20consequences.

  1. Mann, Susan A. (1989-07). "Slavery, Sharecropping, and Sexual Inequality". Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 14 (4): 774–798. doi:10.1086/494544. ISSN 0097-9740. http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/494544. 
  2. WRIGHT, WILHELMINE G. (1912-10-24). "Muscle Training in the Treatment of Infantile Paralysis". The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal 167 (17): 567–574. doi:10.1056/nejm191210241671701. ISSN 0096-6762. http://dx.doi.org/10.1056/nejm191210241671701. 
  3. "History of polio vaccination". www.who.int. Retrieved 2024-03-22.
  4. Preston, Samuel H.; Haines, Michael R. (1991-12-31). Fatal Years. doi:10.1515/9781400861897. http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/9781400861897. 
  5. Preston, Samuel H.; Haines, Michael R. (1991-12-31). Fatal Years. doi:10.1515/9781400861897. http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/9781400861897.