Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Fall/Richard Branch
This page is connected with English 105 at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill - Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories
Richard Branch, an African-American man, was born and raised in the state of North Carolina. He lived in a small town known as Seaboard, within Northampton County. In 1935, the Federal Writers’ Project began, allowing many life stories of average people to be written and kept. Branch’s story was created in 1939 when he was 64 years old.
Branch was born in 1875 near the small town of Enfield. He was only able to reach a 4th grade level of education and began working at the age of 12. He worked as a day laborer making 10 cents a day and continued to do this for 10 years. His wages rose slowly and he eventually made 10 dollars a month.
Branch married his wife, Josephine, in 1897. Branch mentioned that after 42 years of marriage they were still satisfied and happy. Throughout his life, Branch raised a total of 20 children: 14 of his own and 6 grandchildren. Only 2 of his children had passed which was a miracle at the time. Branch said he believed his family was blessed with good health.
Branch spent his life working as a day laborer, sharecropper and tenant farmer. He disliked sharecropping because he made little money. He was paid just enough to support himself and his family. Often, when he sharecropped, he noticed that the landlords would leave out 10 to 15 dollars that earned. With the discrimination and lack of respect given to blacks at the time, Branch took what he was given and left without a fight. Branch did his most profitable work tenant farming. He rented land and raised his own crops to sell and make food for his family. He owed landlords a portion of his profits, but the rest he could keep to himself. Branch was lucky enough to work under kind, reasonable men, who did not always take advantage of him as a black man working in the south.
Against all odds, Branch was able to own land of his own and a car when his tenant farming was at its highest return. When the depression hit, along with the dust bowl, Branch lost all of his property. He had to move around a great deal to find jobs with decent pay. He settled in Seaboard, North Carolina where he rented a small house with his family and started making more money again. All the while, Branch maintained hopes of one day owning a house and his own land again.
Racial Inequality During the Great Depression
During the Great Depression, many people lost their jobs, alongside Richard Branch. With the racism of the time, “Blacks faced unemployment of 50 percent or more, compared with about 30 percent for whites." African Americans were forced out of their jobs, especially when competing with whites. Before and after the Great Depression, when blacks were able to have and maintain a job, wages were still distributed unequally. Most African Americans worked under landlords who controlled how much they paid their black employees. Sustar points out, “Black wages were at least 30 percent below those of white workers, who themselves were barely at subsistence level.” The Great Depression was detrimental to all as pay was scarce and as African Americans faced harsher social treatment, pay was virtually nonexistent for them. It was indeed a hard time for all, but with racial inequality, it was even harder for African Americans.
Even as laws of equality formed and were established in Congress, southern employers found a way to avoid adhering to them. Katznelson states, “…Southern members [of Congress] traded their votes for the exclusion of farmworkers and maids." Therefore, Jim Crow was still in effect and white employers could get away with treating workers like Branch anyway they deemed necessary, including unfair wages.
The Working Class and Agriculture During the Great Depression
Branch faced difficult times farming as the Great Depression hit. Along with all of the other farmers who lost their land, Branch was left with nothing. As Bishop stated, “When owners lost their farms, tenant farmers, who had rented land and living quarters from the owners, and sharecroppers, who had worked the land for a share of the crop, lost their homes and livelihoods, too." Sharecroppers and tenant farmers relied on their landlords for stability in their financial state. Landlords provided their worker’s property and most times their homes as well. When the Great Depression arose, landlords could no longer afford to let another worker and his family live on his land without paying the full price. Thus, workers were forced to either pay or leave. Most could not pay and therefore were left without homes or property, looking for jobs along amid all other Americans.
Federal Writers' Project
The Federal Writers Project began in the 1930s to give writers jobs during the Great Depression. The writers’ jobs were to go across the country and write the stories of average American people. Amongst these writers were a variety of different people with different skill sets. Some had gone to school and were professional journalists or creative writers while others had no experience. These different writing skillsets created some issues of accuracy.
Issues of Historical Production
There are many issues involving the historical production of the life histories written during the FWP. As Daniel Fox states, “Two points must be borne in mind in an analysis of the merits and defects of the American Guides. First, the books, like the writers, were affected by the ambiguity of the FWP's aims….” There were unclear aims of the project and some writers may have focused on specific aspects of the people they interviewed as opposed to their whole story. This focus could have swayed the way the writers asked questions and in turn changed the way the interviewees answered said questions. “…Second, the Guides reflect local and regional prejudices as well as a new national unity”.Also, with the local prejudices, the interviewers point of view may have changed the way the story was written. In other words, the writers own personal biases could have changed the way some life histories were framed.
The story of Richard Branch stood out against the errors of historical production. His story is fully written in quotes, including Branch’s vernacular. This quoted form of writing appears to avoid all issues of historical production because it looks as though it is word for word what Branch says. Despite its appearance, we can never really know if the words within the quotes were changed or not. This uncertainty is the issue of historical production within Branch’s life history.
- Branch, Richard. “I Ain’t Lost Heart.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina Southern History Collection. Pdf.
- Sustar, Lee. “ Blacks and the Great Depression.” Socialist Worker . Web. para. 1. 11–16 2013. <http://socialistworker.org/2012/06/28/blacks-and-the-great-depression>.
- Katznelson, Ira. When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America. New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2005. Google. Web. p.55. 16 Nov. 2013. <http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=cfhneJPcD38C&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=race+inequality+%22great+depression%22+north+carolina&ots=v3JaPywqsf&sig=1pVPTHkx0a6fVPUFYDGurSHP0jc#v=onepage&q=race%20inequality%20%22great%20depression%22%20north%20carolina&f=false>.
- Bishop, RoAnn. “Agriculture in North Carolina During the Great Depression .” NCpedia. Web. para. 5. 11–16 2013. <http://ncpedia.org/agriculture/great-depression >.
- Fox, Daniel. “The Achievement of the Federal Writers’ Project.” JSTOR 13.1 (1961): 4. Web. p. 4. 16 Nov. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2710508?seq=2>.