Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Fall/F.B. Brewer

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

Tenant Farmer


F.B. Brewer was a tenant farmer during the Great Depression that was interviewed as part of the Federal Writers Project in 1939 by Stanley Combs. The transcript of the interview was found at the Southern Collection at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


Early Life[edit]

F.B. Brewer was a Caucasian, male, tenant farmer born during the late 19th Century, the son of a tenant farmer. Brewer was one of five children in his family. From a young age, Brewer was working in the fields, helping harvest tobacco and cotton with his siblings and his father. Brewer was never given the opportunity to gain an education because he was constantly working for his family; as a result, he only knew how to count and how to write his name. Brewer was effectively illiterate.

Typical Tenant Farm during the Great Depression

Later Life[edit]

F.B. Brewer married Lottie Brewer at a young age and together raised four children, two males and two females. Brewer followed his father’s footsteps and began tenant farming with the intent of saving enough money to buy his own small farm. During the 1920s, Brewer began to see a decline in the profitability of his crops and an increase in the rent for his plot of land [1]. The combined factors of decreased profits forced Brewer and his family to relocate to Wilson, North Carolina, to look for work in the mills . Urban life treated the Brewers no better than the rural life as they paid high prices for housing and job security was minimal. The politics within the mills and factories drove Brewer away from city life because he refused to deal with the coerced politics forced upon him by his boss. Within a year, Brewer and his family returned to rural life where they barely scraped by because of Lottie’s bad health and the high healthcare costs associated with her care. Despite all these burdens, Brewer managed to stay out of debt and even accrue livestock and a small plot of vegetables to sustain family life. His efficiency also allowed his sons to be schooled through the ninth grade [2].

Social Issues[edit]


Historically, rural populations have had issues with educating a spread out populace effectively [3]. It was difficult for tenant farmers and their families to get an education because of the intensive work required by all members of the family. Usually children were forced to stay home during the harvest and planting seasons, reducing the amount of time the children could possibly be in school. In addition, classrooms in the poorer districts of North Carolina were not well staffed and were generally small, one roomed schoolhouses that did not provide much individual attention for students [4]. The lack of access to education for the children of tenant farmers sealed their fate as future wives or tenant farmers. Brewer’s lack of education took away much of his opportunity to leave the farm, limiting his social mobility.

Urban Politics[edit]

The 19th and early 20th Centuries were notorious for the stranglehold that “city bosses” had on towns. The city bosses would enlist factory owners to coerce the workers to vote for an intended political candidate in exchange for favors. The factory owners would then tell the workers that they could vote their way or not return next year for work. As a result, many workers began leaving the cities, like Brewer, because they did not care for the coercion typical of the inner city [5]. The high cost of living in urban districts provided incentive for the workers to vote for the candidates, or else starve, and thus kept the Democratic Party in power for much of the 20th Century in the “Solid Democratic South" [6].

Historical Production[edit]

Federal Writers Project[edit]

The Federal Writers Project was a small part of the comprehensive Works Progress Administration created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933. The Federal Writers Project employed writers that were out of work in the poor economy. The Federal Writers Project was created to help develop and encompass the diversity within the United States in order to create an all-inclusive American national identity. The goal was to include many of the cultures that were typically ignored such as rural culture and African-American culture. The writers ranged from newspaper writers to fiction novelists spread across the United States to create a snapshot of the culture of each section of America.

Issues in Production[edit]

F.B. Brewer’s interview is written like a novel reflecting the possible background of the particular writer. It is not clear whether the interviewee was given a set of questions, and if so, what the questions were to determine whether the questions were leading or not. The interviews were supposed to be “explained in terms of historical experience and were not matters of superior and inferior groups;” however, the extended use of dialect portrayed the interviewee as unintelligent, and did not stay in line with the project’s goal [7]. The continual dialect and references of use of chew tobacco could have possibly influenced the reader to see the interviewee as uneducated. The dialect bias was a particular reoccurring issue within the Federal Writers Project.


  1. Dhahran British Grammar School. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2013. <http://www.dhahranbritish.com/history/A9_Farming20s.htm>.
  2. Brewer, F.B. “Some People Are Destined Never to Have Anything.” Federal Writers Project. University of North Carolina Southern Collection. 21 November 21 2013. Print. p. 4417-4425
  3. Bolton, Charles. “Farmers Without Land: The Plight of White Tenant Farmers and Sharecroppers.” Mississippi History Now. Mississippi Historical Society, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2013. <http://mshistory.k12.ms.us/index.php?id=228>.
  4. Davis, Anita. "Public Schools in the Great Depression." Public Schools in North Carolina in the Great Depression. NCpedia, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2013. http://ncpedia.org/public-schools-great-depression
  5. Saloutos, Theodore. “New Deal Agricultural Policy: An Evaluation.” The Journal of American History 61.2 (1974): 394-416. JSTOR. Web. 21 Nov. 2013. Print.
  6. Biles, Roger. “The Urban South in the Great Depression.” The Journal of Southern History 56.1 (1990): 71-100. JSTOR. Web. 21 Nov. 2013. Print. p. 73
  7. Hirsch, Jerrold. Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers' Project. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Print. p.26