Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2013/Fall/Ed Currin
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Ed Currin was born about 1857 in the southern part of Granville County, North Carolina near the town of Wilton. Currin was one of eight children. Though he was born at the Hodgson Place, a plantation belonging to his great grandfather, Ed spent much of his childhood in nearby Franklin County at the site of another former plantation belonging to his family. Currin was a child during the Civil War, and remembers an incident during which he spat on several “Yankee” soldiers as they tried to raid his family’s cellar. The Currin family had owned slaves prior to the Civil War. Ed Currin quite often used terms derogatory by today’s standards to describe black “help,” or laborers employed by the Currin family.
Adult Life and Livelihood
The transition to a post-War Southern economy was difficult according to Currin. He had to perform labor, such as plowing fields, that had once been carried out by slaves. This constant labor prevented Currin from getting an education, a fact that he deeply regretted his entire life. In spite of having no education, Currin seems to have been successful in a number of enterprises. In 1874, at age 17, Ed was placed in charge of his family’s mill. In his early 20s he began buying and selling tobacco for significant profit. He also sold mules, property, and just about anything else that could be bought and sold. It was about this time that Currin became a staunch Baptist, actively preaching in his church and others around Franklin County. In 1887 Currin married his second cousin Alice. By this time Currin had accumulated a great deal of property. Adjacent to his home, Currin constructed at least five tenant houses, demonstrating the ways in which systems of labor changed quite slowly in the South despite the effects of the Civil War. Ed and Alice had six children, though their eldest child Dave died tragically at a very young age. At various times in his life Currin served as Justice of the Peace, as well as County Commissioner in Granville County. He also served as County Superintendent of road-building, but lost this job in 1925. After that time Currin lost much of his wealth, and by the time he was interviewed as part of the Federal Writer’s project in 1939, Currin was struggling to keep his family afloat. He lived off $30 a month in old-age pension. As he mentioned quite often in his interview, Currin was a staunch Democrat.
Single-party politics in the "Solid South"
It should come as no surprise that Currin was fond of mentioning his Democratic affiliations. The political system in the American South was characterized by single-party Democratic dominance for much of the first half of the 20th century. According to Southern political historian Nicol Rae, “by the early 1930s the Southern plantation elite had established a one-party political system that largely succeeded in suppressing challenges to their power inside the Southern states, by the effective exclusion of “class issues” from political debate and the exclusion of the “have-nots” (black and white) from participation in the system.” Under conservative guidance the Democratic Party enacted a steady stream of legislation guaranteed to maintain the position of affluent white males atop the social order. The progressive nature of the New Deal, however, implemented as it was by a Democratic coalition of which Southern Democrats were a part, began to change the nature of politics in the South. The Roosevelt administration began appointing black cabinet members, challenging Southern racial prerogatives. Programs like the WPA and CCC provided working class and impoverished Southerners with new employment opportunities outside the paternal framework of traditional agrarianism. In North Carolina the Roosevelt administration instituted a revolutionary allotment system for tobacco that effectively socialized tobacco production. Progressive changes like these began to disturb Conservative Southern forces and opened up fault lines in Southern Democratic hegemony that had been described up until the time of the New Deal as the “solid South.”
Education in Depression-era North Carolina
Education was another topic that Ed Currin discussed at length. Currin lamented his inability to acquire an education in Reconstruction-era North Carolina. He likewise praised the ability of his grandchildren to receive a free education. This generational change in the availability of education in North Carolina represents a massive social transformation the state underwent in the first half of the 20th century. Schools were not always easy to access for many children in what was a profoundly rural state. During the governorship of C.B. Aycock, North Carolina averaged building a new school every day. Futhermore, during the Great Depression North Carolina was the only state that did not close a single public school. In 1933 the state legislature brought public education entirely under state control, removing the burden of funding from local governing bodies which in many instances had failed to raise funds necessary for an adequate education. These types of advances in the first half of the 20th century help to explain the generational gap with regards to primary education in the Currin family.
The Federal Writers' Project and issues of historical production
Ed Currin’s interview was conducted as part of the Federal Writers Project, a New Deal program employing writers to collect life histories. There are several things to bear in mind when approaching an interview of this kind. The first is the guided nature of the interview. The interviewers often asked leading questions in pursuit of specific answers. It is important to recognize that the interviewers may have an agenda and were seeking specific answers. Leonard Rapport, a writer assigned to North Carolina by the FWP, related years after the project that “some of the stories were not necessarily true but were typical of the region and for that reason were included.” Rapport goes on to criticize the manner in which “Washington” selectively edited the content of many interviews, perhaps as a way of creating a more idealized vision of the American past, smoothing over problematic issues like slavery, race, class and poverty. In the case of the Ed Currin interview another important aspect of historical production became apparent. Two versions of the Currin interview exist. The first version is the full-length original. The second version is the version more widely available to the public which may be found on many online databases. This version is a substantially edited version of the original. It is much shorter than the original, and some of Currin’s more racially charged remarks have been entirely removed. While the motives are not entirely apparent, it is clear that historical actors at some level had a desire to alter the words of Mr. Currin. Further research may reveal why this sort of action was pursued.
- Massengill, Edwin. Federal Writers' Project, 1939. Interview of Ed Currin
- Rae, Nicol C. "Southern Democrats," 1994 Oxford University Press
- Rae, Nicol C. "Southern Democrats," 1994 Oxford University Press
- Bishop, RoAnn “Agriculture in North Carolina During the Great Depression,” Reprinted with permission from the Tar Heel Junior Historian, Fall 2010. Accessed at NCpedia, http://ncpedia.org/agriculture/great-depression
- Davis, Anita Price “Public Schools in the Great Depression,” Reprinted with permission from The Tarheel Junior Historian, Spring 2010. Accessed at NCpedia, http://ncpedia.org/public-schools-great-depression
- Davis, Price Anita. “North Carolina During the Great Depression,” 2003 McFarland & Co,. pg. 124-125
- Rapport, Leonard. “How valid are the Federal Writers’ Project life stories: An iconoclast among the true believers,” The Oral History Review, 1979, pg. 1-2
- Rapport, Leonard. “How valid are the Federal Writers’ Project life stories: An iconoclast among the true believers,” The Oral History Review, 1979