Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2024/spring/Section13/The Thurman Hamiltons

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Mrs. Thurman Hamilton[edit | edit source]

Man plowing farmland in North Carolina

Mrs. Thurman Hamilton grew up in Cary, North Carolina countryside with her parents and grandparents. Her family was relatively poor, and despite claiming she did not work much, her previous positions included working in a hosiery mill, being an attendant at the nearby hospital, working in the state hospital in Pennsylvania, and later working in a cigarette factory. Once her father died, her stepfather stepped up and kept her family afloat financially. She married Thurman Hamilton in 1932 and spent the remainder of her life in Cary, North Carolina with her husband and two children.[1]

Early Life:[edit | edit source]

Mrs. Hamilton grew up poor in rural North Carolina on a farm where she worked until she was 15. She explains that her family came from a "long line of farmers."[2] She grew up without her father, but her stepfather "spoiled and petted" her from her childhood, teaching her, in her words, "to hate work."[3] Despite this, she went on to work in a hosiery mill looping silk hose for three years. Later, after working as an attendant in the State Hospital in North Carolina for eighteen months, Mrs. Hamilton traveled to Pennsylvania with a friend to work in Allentown at the Pennsylvania State Hospital. She describes the hundreds of sick individuals whose suffering was too difficult for her to watch, as well as the danger that came with the job as a young woman surrounded by violent patients. She and her friend left and went to Baltimore, but the two ran out of money and were forced to return home.[4]

Mrs. Hamilton looked back on her youth with both longing and disdain. She describes the many suitors she had in her youth and how beautiful she had once been, reflecting also on the fact that she was "hateful and selfish" and did not give her family enough money from her work.[5] Once she realized her selfishness in young adulthood, she started providing for the family, as she felt it was her duty as the eldest child. It was during this realization that she went to work at a cigarette factory to support her family, presumably her last job before she was married.

Blacksmiths working in a shop in Tazewell County, Virginia

Adult Life:[edit | edit source]

Mrs. Hamilton met Thurman Hamilton in 1931 in North Carolina and they were married in 1932. Thurman did not have a job when the two married, and his family were poor blacksmiths. Despite this, Mrs. Hamilton was invited to live with his family that same year until Thurman could find his footing. In December of 1932, he got a government job hauling wood for four dollars a week, and their first son Sonny was born in October of 1933.[6] Financial struggle was a major concern for Mrs. Hamilton in adult life, as Thurman was often in and out of jobs, none of which paid enough to support a family. They were forced to move frequently to afford rent, and Thurman's cycle of jobs was hard on the family. He developed serious medical conditions, and between this and Sonny's burn injury when he was young, they racked up significant medical costs. Both Sonny and Thurman were ill multiple times, and Thurman was eventually told he could no longer work. He later found a job with the Works Progress Administration, a government organization that created jobs for those struggling through the Depression. In January of 1934, Mrs. Hamilton gave birth to her second son, Linwood, who quickly fell ill and required medical attention along with Thurman and Sonny. These hardships forced the family to move out to the country and live with Mrs. Hamilton's mother until February 1934.[7]

In February 1934 the family moved in with Mrs. Hamilton's sister before building a house in her backyard. Mrs. Hamilton recalls disliking this home, and when the opportunity arose the Hamiltons bought forty acres of farmland from Mrs. Hamilton's brother and sister and built a two-room house in which they still live today.[8] Finally, they were able to pay off their medical bills and support themselves, and Mrs. Hamilton stated that she and Thurman were finally able to enjoy their lives and plan for their children's future. Mrs. Hamilton hoped for her sons to go to college and had begun to teach them basic writing and math. Mrs. Hamilton deeply valued education, and had high hopes for both of her children's careers. She stated: "Education is like standing on the highest mountain looking down at the world."[9] The interviewer follows her to the backyard where she feeds their guinea pigs and goat, and the interview concludes with Thurman arriving home from work in the family's 1929 Pontiac and Mrs. Hamilton and her children rushing to greet him.

Social Context[edit | edit source]

Migration in the South:[edit | edit source]

The Great Depression, in conjunction with the Dust Bowl, caused a mass movement of people in and out of their home states in the South and the Midwest. North Carolina maintained a fairly steady population as it was not heavily affected by the Dust Bowl, but many people moved to more urban areas looking for job opportunities, as the farming industry that had once dominated the state was diminishing as the decades progressed.[10] The city was not a cheap place to live, and many had to adjust to new ways of life and new costs, which proved difficult in an economic depression. Organizations like the Works Progress Administration greatly increased the number of jobs available to Americans by creating government jobs that low-income citizens could work, attracting even more people into urban centers where the majority of these jobs were based.[11]

“Despite the lore of the Dust Bowl and the “Great Migration” from the South to the North, the volume of internal US state-to-state migration was not all that great from the early twentieth century until after World War II.”[12] Much of the movement was within states or the South in general. The movement caught the attention of the US Census, which began tracking migration for the first time ever in 1940.[13] Many people moved for better income, more land, or ethnic and religious reasons. These social structures often shaped the political landscape of regions in the South, sometimes bringing more liberal ideas into lower areas.

A traveling doctor examining a women and her two children

Healthcare for the lower-middle class:[edit | edit source]

Healthcare in the American South picked up dramatically in the early 1900s, and the Red Cross made up the majority of healthcare workers in the region. Many women became public health nurses who traveled to deliver care to the poor during the Great Depression.[14] It was difficult work, and the increasingly unpredictable weather of the South made it difficult to travel to rural areas.[15] The availability of nurses varied depending on the area so some regions were better covered than others. This program made it easier to receive healthcare of some kind for those who could not afford a physician.

The Great Depression sparked the first investigation of the connections between public health and economics, as reduced food consumption and limited access to health services caused a downturn in the health of American citizens. Income significantly increased in the South after 1940, and by 1980 it was consistent with other regions of the country.[16] Mrs. Hamilton most likely did not benefit from this income increase when she needed it, as before WWII there were “substantial regional variations in economic conditions” throughout the nation, which, in part, increased issues regarding access to healthcare.[17]

The Cary High School in the mid 1900s

Life in Cary:[edit | edit source]

The Town of Cary sits in the Piedmont region of North Carolina and is a part of Wake County along with towns like Zebulon, Greensboro, Raleigh, and Durham. It was established in the 1750s and was incorporated in 1871 before becoming a railroad stop at the intersection of the North Carolina and Seaboard railroads.[18] In the 1930s it was a small and relatively poor town; newspapers from surrounding towns made mention of Cary briefly, but a local paper was not published in Cary until the 1960s, signifying the small and underdeveloped nature of the region. The town was still involved in proceedings that included other neighboring towns and held minor events to draw tourists such as a gourd exhibition at the Cary High School in 1939.[19]

Cary's biggest draw was its private boarding school known as The Cary High School, established in 1871. It originally sat at the end of Academy Street in what is now downtown Cary and became the first public school in North Carolina in 1907.[20] In 1939, "local and WPA funds [were] used to build a new $132,000 three-story school building to replace the original building".[21] In a town with little else as well-established as this school, Cary valued education in ways most other small towns did not.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. "Folder 551: Mary A. Hicks, Ed Massengill, and Frank McDonald (interviewers): The Thurman Hamiltons :: Federal Writers Project Papers". dc.lib.unc.edu. Retrieved 2024-03-22.
  2. Hicks, interview, 3.
  3. Hicks, interview, 3.
  4. Hicks, interview, 2.
  5. Hicks, interview, 2.
  6. Hicks, interview, 4.
  7. Hicks, interview, 6.
  8. Hicks, interview, 10.
  9. Hicks, interview, 11.
  10. Myron P. Gutmann, et al, “Migration in the 1930s: Beyond the Dust Bowl,” Social Science History 40.4 (2016): 707–740, Web, Figure 1, 708.
  11. David A. Taylor, Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America (Turner Publishing Company, 2012), 2.
  12. Gutmann, “Beyond the Dust Bowl,” 707.
  13. Gutmann, “Beyond the Dust Bowl,” 708.
  14. W. Keeling, “Migrant Nursing in the Great Depression,” Nursing Rural America: Perspectives From the Early 20th Century, (2014): 103.
  15. Keeling, “Migrant Nursing,” 111.
  16. Suzanne C. Eichenlaub, Stewart E. Tolnay, and J. Trent Alexander, “Moving Out but Not Up: Economic Outcomes in the Great Migration,” American Sociological Review 75, no. 1 (2010): 105.
  17. Eichenlaub, “Economic Outcomes in the Great Migration,” 105.
  18. "Looking Back," Cary, North Carolina, accessed March 21, 2024.
  19. Zebulon Record (Zebulon, N.C.), Zebulon Record, Little River Historical Society, Sept. 22, 1939, edition 1, page 1.
  20. "History Of Cary High School," Wake County Public School System, accessed March 21, 2024
  21. “History of Cary High School,” WCPSS.

Works Cited[edit | edit source]

Cary, North Carolina. "Looking Back," Cary, North Carolina. accessed March 21, 2024. https://www.carync.gov/recreation-enjoyment/about-cary/looking-back#:~:text=Cary%20was%20incorporated%20in%201871,Cary%20and%20built%20a%20hotel.

Eichenlaub, Suzanne C., Stewart E. Tolnay, and J. Trent Alexander. “Moving Out but Not Up: Economic Outcomes in the Great Migration.” American Sociological Review 75, no. 1 (2010): 101–25. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27801513.

Gutmann, Myron P. et al. “Migration in the 1930s: Beyond the Dust Bowl.” Social Science History 40.4 (2016): 707–740. Web

Hicks, Mary A. Folder 551: Hicks, Mary A., Ed Massengill, and Frank McDonald (interviewers): The Thurman Hamiltons, December 14, 1938. Accessed 27 Feb. 2024. https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/03709/id/412

"History Of Cary High School." Wake County Public School System. accessed March 21, 2024. https://www.wcpss.net/domain/264.

Keeling, W. “Migrant Nursing in the Great Depression.” Nursing Rural America: Perspectives From the Early 20th Century. (2014): 103-120. https://books.google.com/books?id=ytn0AwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

Taylor, David A. Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America. Turner Publishing Company, April 15, 2010.

WALKER, KIRSTY. “HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES ON ECONOMIC CRISES AND HEALTH.” The Historical Journal, vol. 53, no. 2, 2010, pp. 477–94. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40865698. Accessed 27 Feb. 2024.

Zebulon Record (Zebulon, N.C.). Zebulon Record. Little River Historical Society. Sept. 22, 1939, edition 1, page 1. https://newspapers.digitalnc.org/lccn/sn92073191/1939-09-22/ed-1/seq-1/#pageinformation