Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Fall/Mr. Grizzard

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

Overview[edit]

Mr. Grizzard was an American farmer during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He was interviewed as a part of the Federal Writers’ Project in 1939.[1]

Biography[edit]

Early Life[edit]

Mr. Grizzard was born in Greensville County, Virginia, in 1861. His father died after leaving to fight in the American Civil War when Mr. Grizzard was young. Born into poverty, he grew up with his mother and three other siblings.[2]

Young Adulthood[edit]

When he was around 20 years old, Mr. Grizzard began working as a farm hireling in both Greensville and Southampton County, Virginia. In his older age, Mr. Grizzard revealed complaints over co-working with members of the African American community in the fields during this time. Racial tensions led to a multiple physical confrontations between Mr. Grizzard and an unnamed African American man, whom he accused of theft. During the first confrontation Mr. Grizzard hit the man with a cypress stick; during the second confrontation, he shot the man (non-fatally) three times with his gun.[3]

First Marriage[edit]

Following a few years of working as a hireling, Mr. Grizzard attempted several new jobs. He worked at a saw mill for around eight months, worked as a logger for a while afterword, and then worked on the railroads for about a year. Sometime during this work experience he met his first wife, Sarah. After they were married, he returned to a farming lifestyle. They lived as share-croppers in Southampton for a year and then rented a home in Greensville County for around two years. Their final move was to Seaboard, North Carolina, where they worked on a nearly fifty-three acre farm for about twenty-eight years. During this time, they had three children: Rosalie, Romie, and Rennie. Following their son Romie’s enlistment in World War I, Sarah became ill and eventually died.[4]

Second Marriage and Later Years[edit]

Seven years after Sarah’s death, Mr. Grizzard married his second wife Carrie following written correspondence. According to Mr. Grizzard, they lived happily together, though he was against her voting. During his later years, Carrie took on the majority of the farm-work after Mr. Grizzard developed a foot ailment. As they both aged, they also witnessed a depreciation in the value of their farmland and a decrease in income from growing corn and cotton, which intensified the economic difficulty of their farming livelihood and led them to rent out portions of their land.[5]

Social Issues[edit]

Racism in America following the Civil War[edit]

After the American Civil War, the African American community gained freedom and increasing civil rights. When Mr. Grizzard was nearly nine years-old, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments had all been ratified as a part of the U.S. Constitution.[6] When he was in his twenties, lynching and other racist acts by white mobs had become a commonplace response to African American civil rights in Virginia (Mr. Grizzard's birth state) and other Southern states.[7] This prevalence of intense racism during Mr. Grizzard’s young adulthood likely contributed to his racist views towards the African Americans he worked with as a hireling. His economic status and social class also likely played a role in his violent confrontations with them. As American historian Jack T. Kirby has noted, it was often that lower-class, rural, white individuals “…were the most violent of southern white racists because, sharing… ethnic brotherhood with upper-class whites… while also sharing with most blacks the bottom rung of the economic ladder, they had the most to lose in association with blacks or in the face of black progress,” (416).[8] Thus, Mr. Grizzard’s racist opinions and actions were likely representative of many other white, southern farmers during the Great Depression.

Farming Hardship during the Great Depression[edit]

The depreciation of the value of farmland experienced by the Grizzards was common among North Carolina farmers during the 1930s. Earlier in the 1920s, “farmers’ income had declined steadily during the decade because of overproduction of cash crops, falling crop prices, rising farm costs, poor conservation practices, and other problems."[9] Mr. Grizzard, having farmed in Seaboard for nearly 44 years, had likely worked his farmland yearly without knowledge of practices to uphold the land’s value. He also mentioned his desire to be able to tend to his corn and cotton crops despite his foot ailment rendering him unable.[10] The fact that the Grizzards grew cotton, one of North Carolina’s biggest cash crops before the Great Depression, meant they were contributing to the market inflation at this time and hurting their own economic situation.[11] To remedy this inflation, at-the-time N.C. Governor O. Max Gardner instituted the “Live-at-Home” program in 1929 to encourage farmers to grow fewer cash crops and more food crops, exemplified by the Grizzards growing corn.[12]

Federal Writers’ Project[edit]

Background[edit]

The Federal Writer’s Project (FWP) was a program established under U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. It involved the documentation of life histories provided by Americans primarily from 1935-1940.[13]

Historical Production[edit]

Throughout the interview, the interviewer and author (Bernice Kelly Harris) never provides the explicit questions she asked the Grizzards. Instead, the narrative is presented in a disjointed-monologue format that is difficult to follow. From this provided documentation, it is hard to determine whether or not Harris guided the interviewees towards certain answers by framing her questions, thus distorting the life history’s accuracy. Also, at the end of the interview, the last, summary-style page of the document has a note classifying the interview as a “Very Good (Old Person Story)."[14] The fact that this historical document was possibly rated as a story and not presented as a biography also makes the accuracy of Mr. Grizzard’s life history questionable.[15] These possibilities of historical editing are not unlikely; according to American historian Jerrold Hirsch, many of the authors of the Federal Writers’ Project could be classified as romantic nationalists and cosmopolitans with a goal of trying to renew cultural nationalism during the crisis of the Great Depression.[16]

References[edit]

  1. Grizzard. “The Grizzards.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina Southern History Collection. 1939. Print.
  2. Grizzard. “The Grizzards.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina Southern History Collection. 1939. Print.
  3. Grizzard. “The Grizzards.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina Southern History Collection. 1939. Print.
  4. Grizzard. “The Grizzards.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina Southern History Collection. 1939. Print.
  5. Grizzard. “The Grizzards.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina Southern History Collection. 1939. Print.
  6. Smith, V. Chapman. “American Anti-Slavery and Civil Rights Timeline.” ushistory.org. Philadelphia Independence Hall Association. Web. 17 Nov 2013.
  7. Buckelew, Richard. “Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930 by W. Fitzhugh Brundage.” The Arkansas Historical Quarterly 53.4 (1994): 493–495. JSTOR. Web. 18 Nov 2013.
  8. Kirby, Jack T. “Black and White in the Rural South, 1915-1954.” Agricultural History 58.3 (1984): 411–422. JSTOR. Web. 17 Nov 2013.
  9. Bishop, RoAnn. “Agriculture in North Carolina during the Great Depression.” NCpedia. State Library of North Carolina, 2010. Web. 17 Nov 2013.
  10. Grizzard. “The Grizzards.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina Southern History Collection. 1939. Print.
  11. Bishop, RoAnn. “Agriculture in North Carolina during the Great Depression.” NCpedia. State Library of North Carolina, 2010. Web. 17 Nov 2013.
  12. Bell-Kite, Diana. “Live-at-Home Program.” NCpedia. State Library of North Carolina, 2010. Web. 17 Nov 2013.
  13. Fox, Daniel M. “The Achievement of the Federal Writers’ Project.” American Quarterly 13.1 (1961): 3–19. JSTOR. Web. 17 Nov 2013.
  14. Grizzard. “The Grizzards.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina Southern History Collection. 1939. Print.
  15. Fox, Daniel M. “The Achievement of the Federal Writers’ Project.” American Quarterly 13.1 (1961): 3–19. JSTOR. Web. 17 Nov 2013.
  16. Hirsch, Jerrold. Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers’ Project. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Google Books. Web. 18 Nov 2013.