Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Fall/Charles Humphrey
Charles Humphrey (“Hamp Charles”) was born on February 4, 1890. As a cotton mill worker, he is most notably known for being interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project in 1939.
Charles Humphrey was born into a farming family in the Salters Township in Radford County, North Carolina. His father owned 33 1/3 acres of land. However, his father took ill and died in 1900, when Humphrey was 10 years old. The land was then left to the eldest son (Charles’ older brother). About three weeks after the death of the father, the Humphrey family left the Salters township for Folleyville, NC. Humphrey attended school here until Christmastime, when his eldest brother, who took care of the farmland, asked Humphrey to go back to the farm by himself. Back in the Salters township, Humphrey worked and attended school alone until 1907, when he was 17 years old (Humphrey 4).
In 1907, Humphrey returned to his family in Folleyville. He began work at a nearby mill during the summer, but continued his education. In 1909, he began to court Lottie Kivett, who was 6 years his junior. In 1911, they married, staying in Folleyville. It was here that they raised 4 of 5 of their children. Their children were Jack, Alton Pershing, Millie, Opal, and Vivian (Humphrey 5).
Family and Occupation
The mill where Humphrey worked changed ownership, which caused the working hours to become erratic, so they moved to Red Branch. Here, Humphrey worked as an overseer for the Southside Mill, earning $42.00, almost 5 times more than in Folleyville. After 3 years, the family moved, again, to Wardleigh. The Humphreys worked at the Sparks Mill. At the end of 3 months, the Humphreys moved to East Lurton. In East Lurton, the Ludford-Jasper Corporation employed the family. At age 49, Humphrey earned $13.20 per week as a harness repairman at the mill. At this point in his life, he lived with his wife and 3 daughters. At the mill, a union called the Textile Workers Organization Committee formed, which made Humphrey agitated, uncomfortable, and disinterested in the strikes occurring around the mill. Even though the union evoked unwanted feelings, Humphrey stayed at the mill. At some point in time, the cotton mill had employed 6 of the Humphreys, none of whom joined the union. Humphrey was a baseball-enjoying Baptist and a Democrat (Humphrey 5).
In the early 1900s, every individual of a family had to work and contribute to the family’s income. Bennett M. Judkins and Dorothy Lodge explain, “Fathers, mothers, and children often would work together in the same mill. This kept the families together, but it also meant that children faced demanding jobs at an early age” (2). Mill villages conveniently provided housing for mill workers and their families. Because manufacturing was at an early stage in the 1900s, the use of children as laborers were not seen as abuse. Holland Thompson states that industrialism heightens the negative use of child labor and also “changes the form, regularity, and intensity” of industrialism (220). Child labor was not initially looked down upon; the increased demand of manufactured goods, and the change from an agriculture society to a manufacture society, child labor became a negative idea in most societies (Thompson 220). The Humphrey children worked in the mills when they were young. None of the children completed their education, as they concentrated on working (Humphrey 3).
Labor unions were first created in the late 19th century America in response to unfair working conditions and wages. Workers demanded “provisions to protect their core workers” threatened to strike (Jensen 575) and “more lenient shop-floor discipline” (Jensen 582). Labor unions were large enough to frighten employers into giving into the union’s demands. The cotton mill where Humphrey worked had one union, the Textile Workers Organizing Committee. Because Charles was satisfied with his salary, he had no use to join unions or attend their events, and therefore had no knowledge of his fellow employees’ reason for going on strikes (Humphrey 4).
THE FEDERAL WRITERS’ PROJECT
From Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administation (W.P.A.) sprouted the New Deal. Created in 1935 as a part of the New Deal program, the Federal Writers’ Project created jobs for starving artists and writers, who were products of the Great Depression. “Not only did the W.P.A. change much of the physical face of the nation during the mid and late nineteen-thirties, but also it concerned itself with esthetic and intellectual needs of Americans through its theater, art and writers’ projects” (Duscha 2). Over its existence, the FWP employed 10,000 writers, editors, researchers, teachers, and librarians to collect and preserve life histories of the common man through interviews (DeMasi 1195). It disassembled in 1942 due to federal funds directed towards supporting WWII instead.
Because the life history writers take creative license, some life histories were like actual stories, rather than interviews. Many problems of inaccuracy can be due to misinterpretation or to changing the names of people and locations. Henry McKee conducted the interview of Charles Humphrey in February 1939. All of the names of places and people were changed, so there are no actual, accurate known places stated by Humphrey. The direct quotes include colloquial speech, but they were not difficult to understand. The overall writing does not “have a somewhat blurred historical perspective” that is in risk of “frequently distorts the relative importance of historical events” (Fox 5). McKee did not include any of the interview questions in the life story, but from the Humphrey’s answers, it is clear as to what McKee asked him. The writing only gives detail that the Humphrey household “was the cleanest looking house on the block, and the yard, with its winter green grass, was certainly well-kept” (Humphrey 10).
DeMasi, Susan Rubenstein. “The Federal Writers’ Project: A Legacy of Words.” CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries 47.9 (2012); 1195-1206. Academic OneFile. Web. 13 November 2013.
Dusha, Jullius. “Jobs in the Great Depression: W.P.A. Still a Model For Today’s Planning.” New York Times 22 December 1974: 1. Print.
Fox, Daniel M. “The Achievement of the Federal Writers’ Project.” American Quarterly 13.1 (Spring, 1961); 03-19. JSTOR. Web. 13 November 2013.
Humphrey, Charles. “Afraid to Belong to a Union.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina Southern History Collection. 1939. Print.
Jensen, Richard J. “The Causes and Cures of Unemployment in the Great Depression.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 19.4 (Spring, 1989); 553-583. JSTOR. Web. 15 November 2013.
Judkins, Bennett M. and Lodge, Dorothy. “The Evolution of Textile Mill Villages.” NCpedia. 1986. Web. 13 November 2013.
Thompson, Holland. From the cotton field to the cotton mill: a study of the industrial transition in North Carolina. New York: Macmillian, 1906. Print.