Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Fall/Eliza Hall

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This page is connected with English 105 at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill - Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories

Black Washwoman


Eliza Hall, a black washwoman from Jamesville, North Carolina, lived during the Great Depression. Her story was recorded as a part of a New Deal project called the Federal Writers' Project.[1]


Early Life[edit]

Eliza Hall was born in the American south, to two ex-slave farmers. Hall grew up with eight siblings and attended a small school as a young child. She walked three miles to go to her school, which was in an old church building. Hall studied with one teacher and eight children. While at school, she drew pictures and sang songs, only learning how to print her name. After attending school for a short five months, Eliza Hall was hired out to begin her work as a washer.

Middle Life[edit]

At the age of eighteen, Hall married her husband Ed, a brick worker. As a married couple, Eliza and Ed worked in a tobacco factory for a short time. Due to the horrible pay during the time of the Great Depression, both Eliza and Ed quit their jobs at the factory. They moved forward by attaining new jobs: Eliza began to work again as a washwoman and Ed became a farmer. It was during this time that Eliza and Ed had their two children, Sadie and Elsie. Eliza Hall and her family did not own a car. The family enjoyed the radio and Eliza and Ed took part in voting. When voting, Hall and her husband were driven and paid by whites to vote for their [the whites’] candidates.

Late Life[edit]

Ed fell ill and succumbed to death thereafter. Sadie and Elise also fell ill and passed away, leaving Hall to pay for the exorbitant burial expenses. Hall at this point in her life had not missed a single day of work in forty years. She continued on, working as a washwoman, as she explained, “til [she] drop daid."[2]


Education for blacks in the south during the Great Depression was scarce. There was not the proper infrastructure for black public schools to exist—as there were not enough teachers, buildings, or seats to accommodate the students.[3] Emerging from the Jim Crow south, many middle-aged blacks were not well educated, which made it increasingly difficult to find teachers. In rural areas, if a teacher was available, the only place to learn was generally within small, one-room buildings. Because of few teachers, few buildings, and few seats, very few blacks had the opportunity to be educated. If blacks did have the opportunity to be educated, attending school for even a few months was considered quite good.[4] Eliza Hall had a “good education” as she was able to attend school for five months.

Economic Status[edit]

During the Great Depression most people were not financially stable. According to PBS, “Hard times came to people throughout the country, especially rural blacks."[5] Most rural blacks experienced such difficulty because jobs were scarce and whites, both male and female, were fighting for positions, traditionally held by blacks.[6] In an article written by Susan Ware, it is stated “Women…saw their roles in the household enhanced as they juggled to make ends meet."[7] Traditionally, women of the time would take care of the house and children. However, during the Great Depression, many women were forced to get jobs themselves. In many cases, their husbands were no longer making enough money to finance the family. One reason that some families needed extra money was for health purposes. Life expectancy oscillated during the Great Depression, which led many families to have to pay for exorbitant burial expenses.[8] In Eliza Hall’s case, she was a rural black woman who was forced to work in order to provide for her family and eventually to provide for their burial expenses.

Federal Writers' Project[edit]

The Federal Writers’ Project was a government-funded project, which was commissioned in order to support thousands of American writers who were out of jobs. These writers were employed to record the stories of people who were living during the Great Depression.[9] Many issues of historical production arose from the Federal Writers’ Project. One of the issues was the purposeful use of black vernacular to portray a lack of education. Hall’s life story is an example of such deliberate use of vernacular. An example of this vernacular is: “I ain’t nevah voted much, ‘cause it takes so much time an’ one vote don’t seem to make no difference nohow."[10] According to Alan R. Thomas in Methods in Dialectology, “the records of these interviews are of questionable reliability.” He continues by saying, “The evidence of linguistic tampering is strengthened by some of the correspondence found in state archives."[11] This issue of historical production is a major flaw within the Federal Writers' Project. It creates doubt as to whether or not the written material is in fact reliable and original.


  1. Wikipedia. Web. 25 Nov. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Writers’_Project>.
  2. Hall, Eliza. “Reckin’ I’ll Be Washin’ An’ Ironin’ Til I Drop Daid.” Web site. Web. p 1-7
  3. Anderson, James D. The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. Print.
  4. Simpson, Mike. “Education During the Great Depression.” Big Education Ape. 4 Nov. 2012. Web. 2 Dec. 2013. <http://bigeducationape.blogspot.com/2012/11/education-during-great-depression-yahoo.html>.
  5. PBS. Web. 25 Nov. 2013. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_events_depression.html>. para 1-2
  6. PBS. Web. 25 Nov. 2013. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_events_depression.html>.
  7. Ware, Susan. “Women and the Great Depression.” Gilder Lehrman. Web. 25 Nov. 2013. <http://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/great-depression/essays/women-and-great-depression>. para 1-3
  8. Tapia Granados, José A, and Ana V Diez Roux. “Life and Death During the Great Depression.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106.41 (2009): 1–14. PNAS. Web. 25 Nov. 2013. <http://www.pnas.org/content/106/41/17290.full>.
  9. Wikipedia. Web. 25 Nov. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Writers’_Project>.
  10. Hall, Eliza. “Reckin’ I’ll Be Washin’ An’ Ironin’ Til I Drop Daid.” Web site. Web. p 1-7
  11. Thomas, Alan R. Methods in Dialectology. Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters Ltd, 1988. Google Books. Web. 25 Nov. 2013. <http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=Ov4xywn8r-EC&oi=fnd&pg=PA109&dq=federal+writers+project+use+of+vernacular&ots=GirLudarI3&sig=XXZ_mzzOujbmuzyMdc24IWdcBQU#v=onepage&q&f=false>. p 111-112