Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Fall/John Wheedbee Cox

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

Salesman in tobacco warehouse selling shoes and boots to farmers during auction sale. Durham, North Carolina

Overview[edit | edit source]

John Wheedbee Cox was a Caucasian man born in 1870 in North Carolina who worked as a shoe salesman before giving up his job to travel around the United States praying. He gave his life story in an interview with an author in the Federal Writers' Project on December 28, 1938.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

John Wheedbee Cox was born in Hertford, Perquimans County, North Carolina in 1870 and was the oldest of six children. As a small child, his father taught him out of a blue-back speller before Cox attended a small country school for a few years. His father was a college graduate and he worked as a teacher and lecturer until he left to fight in the Civil War. Upon his return, he worked in retail and sold anything and everything. After the retail business failed, the family moved to a farm. Cox did not continue his education, choosing not to go to college even though his grandfather had left money for a scholarship. He believed that people could learn more from traveling than they could from schooling.

Occupation[edit | edit source]

Cox got his first job after his father’s death in 1885, working in an office for Norfolk and Southern Railroad. He left this job after a year and went to work for Pullman Palace Car Company; however, Cox’s mother was religious and she made him quit that job because he would have to work on Sundays. He then began a new career as a shoe salesman. Upon his mother’s death in 1887, Cox moved to Baltimore to work in a shoe store. Eventually, he left for New York to work in another store. After another small stint back in Baltimore, he decided to go out on his own, choosing to travel the country praying. Cox wandered until he needed money and then worked as a cook. As a hotel cook, he made $35 a week plus room and board.

Later Life[edit | edit source]

When he got tired of working, Cox decided to move back home. He made it to Richmond, Virginia and then had a vision. He dreamed that a voice told him, “You are about to receive a special gift.” The next day, a woman on the street gave him a Bible and Cox decided his mission was to read and study this book. He returned to North Carolina and lived on a portion of the back porch in a house maintained by the State and County Welfare Departments. Cox spent his time typing out Bible verses in alphabetical order. He had typed up 18,000 verses on his typewriter but none of the publishing companies wanted to print his work.[1]

Lack of Education[edit | edit source]

One issue that John Wheedbee Cox faced during his life was lack of education. Cox ended his education after the completion of a few years of schooling in a small country school. Since teachers were paid the same wage regardless of experience, many rural teachers were teenage girls with only a high school degree.[2] In addition, it was not until 1931 that North Carolina required a six-month school year. To make matters worse, about one-fourth of all North Carolina schools consisted of one room where students of all ages were taught.[3] During the students’ very limited time in school, the single teacher available for the whole school had to divide his or her attention among many children at different levels. Had Cox chosen to pursue an education in college, he may have had the opportunity to get a better job earning higher wages and might not have had to live on a porch.

Revival of Religion[edit | edit source]

Cox was religious all throughout his life, especially as he became older and dedicated his time to studying the Bible. Social Christianity in the South may have lost some popularity during the 1920s, but it experienced a revival during the Great Depression. Churches once again began to focus on their social missions, much like Cox with his recording of Bible verses.[4] Even during the economic suffering of the Great Depression, Americans were able to turn to religion as a source of belonging and support. As Andre Siegfried explained, religion gave people a sense of national unity: “In order to appreciate the influence of Protestantism…we must not look at it as a group of organized churches, for its strength lies in the fact that its spirit is national.”[5] Faith and religion helped people make it through the tough times of the 1930s.

Federal Writers' Project[edit | edit source]

The Federal Writers Project (FWP) was a program created in President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Established in 1935, the goal of the FWP was to employ writers. These writers were used to interview normal people all throughout the country and to write their life stories.

Issues of Historical Production[edit | edit source]

Although the intentions of the program were good, oftentimes there were issues with the life stories produced by the FWP. For example, some stories were written based off of a few notes, while others were not always true, but were “typical of the region.”[6] Another problem that presented itself was the problem of false quotations. As Leonard Rapport, a writer in the FWP, revealed, quotation marks do not always indicate the truth: “…part of the story which is supposed to be told by the character himself is taken verbatim from an account of basket-making (not told by this character)…and is put into his mouth.”[7] In that case, quotations that were presented as being said by one individual were actually said by someone else and were used simply because they had the same occupation, basket-making. This issue could possibly have affected the life story of John Wheedbee Cox. Although the majority of his story is told in direct quotations and appears to be his words, there is a possibility that they were made-up by the writer to fill in the narrative. It is impossible to find out whether or not this story is the truth, so readers will have to trust the only written material provided about Cox.

References:[edit | edit source]

  1. Cox, John. “John Wheedbee Cox.” Federal Writers Project. University of North Carolina Southern Historical Collection. Print.
  2. Simpson, Mike. “Education During the Great Depression.” Big Education Ape. 4 November 2012. Web. 10 November 2013.
  3. Davis, Anita. “Public Schools in the Great Depression: Keeping the School Doors Open.” NCPedia. 2010. Web. 8 November 2013.
  4. Eighmy, John. “Religious Liberalism in the South during the Progressive Era.” Church History 38.3 (1969): 359-372. JSTOR. Web. 20 November 2013.
  5. Handy, Robert. “The American Religious Depression.” Church History 29.1 (1960): 3-16. JSTOR. Web. 7 November 2013. p. 7
  6. Rapport, Leonard. “How Valid Are the Federal Writers’ Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast among the True Believers.” The Oral History Review 7 (1979): 6-17. JSTOR. Web. 9 November 2013. p. 7
  7. Rapport, Leonard. “How Valid Are the Federal Writers’ Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast among the True Believers.” The Oral History Review 7 (1979): 6-17. JSTOR. Web. 9 November 2013. p. 8