Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Fall/Valley Perry
This page is connected with English 105 at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill - Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories
Valley Perry, an African American washwoman, grew up in the early part of the 1900s in North Carolina. During the Great Depression, Perry and her family struggled greatly economically, as was the case of many families. She detailed her life during the Great Depression in an interview with the Federal Writers’ Project, which took place on February 28, 1939.
Valley Perry grew up in the early 1900s in Cary, North Carolina, with two sisters and one brother. Her mom was a washwoman and her dad dug wells, but he died during Perry’s youth. Perry completed school up until fourth grade, at which time she dropped out to assist her mom as a washwoman.
Marriage and Adulthood
Perry first got married when she was just 15, but her husband passed away a few years after. The death of her first husband left Perry with four children and a mother-in-law to look after. She married again shortly after her first husband’s death, this time to a drunken gambler. He ended up leaving town to avoid trouble with the law after supposedly stabbing another man. Perry’s third marriage ended after she found out her husband was still legally married to another woman. After receiving a letter from the woman, Perry made her husband pack up all his things and go back to his lawful wife. Perry had a child during each of her last two marriages, ending up with six children in total.
After these three failed marriages, Perry and her family moved houses to try to start anew. However, after the move, Perry had a hard time finding a job, but she eventually found one. Tragedy struck the family starting in 1929, as four family members passed away.
After the deaths of the family members, Perry had her salary cut and some of her customers started to do their own housework, so she started work as someone who cared for the sick via cooking, keeping the house, scrubbing, washing, and ironing. In the mid-1930s, Perry and her family were given aid such a pork, butter, eggs, etc., by the federal government. In addition, she took her children out of school and had them start working as well. One day, Perry’s daughter came home pregnant at the age of 15. The daughter would not tell Perry who the father was, and she mentioned how a woman said that if she had any sense, she would get rid of the baby. Perry beat her daughter until her son pulled her away, and she said if he had not done that, she would have probably killed her daughter from beating her so hard
Education for Youth
According to a study during the Great Depression, academics was not a priority for children during the time period because of economic concerns, leading to more children working. One reason given for the problem is the income effect. “Recessions may affect the budget constraints of households through unemployment and income losses. This could lead to the affected individuals leaving school earlier than would otherwise be optimal." This quote describing the income effect applies to Perry’s family, as she was not making enough money and government programs were not always the most reliable. As stated on the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site, “These [relief programs], however, were often inadequate and left many people without enough food, clothing, and other necessities to properly support their families." Thus, Perry pulled her children out of school to have them find a job and contribute to the family income.
Abortion was a big issue during the Great Depression, as shown by Perry’s reaction to her daughter mentioning it. In fact, abortion was illegal from the late 1800s until 1973, but that did not matter to some women. “The Great Depression produced an economic crisis that sharpened the need of women to control childbearing." A common way women controlled said childbearing was through abortion. While the practice was illegal during the Great Depression, it occurred frequently during the time period. “Numerous writers of the 1930s saw an increase in abortion during the early decades of this century, particularly in the 1930s." Along with abortion being a common practice during the time period, it was found that from the turn of the century to the 1930s, the ratio of abortions to births more than doubled. The ratio increased even with the low levels of medicine (penicillin and antibiotics) available at the time that made risks associated with abortion high.
Federal Writers' Project
The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, was established to provide jobs to writers during the Great Depression. Created in 1935, the FWP gave writers employment opportunities that consisted of going throughout the country to interview ordinary, everyday people and get a collection of life histories.
Issues of Historical Production
Many issues of historical production were brought up in the FWP, leading to the validity of the life stories being questioned. These issues include interviewers changing quotes, scratching out certain paragraphs, or changing names and places. One important issue brought up in Perry’s interview, the fact that interviewer wrote in the vernacular Perry spoke in, questions the validity of the Federal Writers’ Project. For example, one line of the interview read, “I’se got six chillun, four by de fust, one by de second, and one by de third." As stated in How Valid Are the Federal Writers’ Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast among the True Believers, writers were told that “the stories are to be told as much as possible in the words of the subject." Since Perry’s interview was written in the vernacular she spoke in, readers are left with the impression that she is lacking in intelligence, leaving her sounding inferior. Consequently, the accuracy of the information in the interview is brought into question, especially since the entire interview consists of Perry talking. One cannot be sure if Perry is speaking the truth, or if she is saying what she means to convey.
- Perry, Valley. “The Story of a Washwoman.” University of North Carolina Southern History Collection. 28 Feb. 1939. Web. p.7162-7176
- Yamashita, Takashi. The effects of the Great Depression on educational attainment. Discussion paper, Reed College, 2008. 12 Nov. 2013.
- Yamashita, Takashi. The effects of the Great Depression on educational attainment. Discussion paper, Reed College, 2008. 12 Nov. 2013. p.3
- Higgins, Jenny. "Great Depression - Impacts on the Working Class." Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site. N.p., 2007. Web. 12 Nov. 2013. p.1
- Bollinger, Michele. "When Abortion Was Illegal." Socialist Worker. N.p., 21 Oct. 2005. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.
- Bollinger, Michele. "When Abortion Was Illegal." Socialist Worker. N.p., 21 Oct. 2005. Web. 12 Nov. 2013. p.7
- Sauer, R. "Attitudes to Abortion in America, 1800-1973." Population Studies 28.1 (1974): 53-67. JSTOR. Web. 29 Nov. 2013. p.60
- Sauer, R. "Attitudes to Abortion in America, 1800-1973." Population Studies 28.1 (1974): 53-67. JSTOR. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.
- "Federal Writers' Project." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 7 Nov. 2013. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.
- Perry, Valley. “The Story of a Washwoman.” University of North Carolina Southern History Collection. 28 Feb. 1939. Web. p.7162
- 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. 12 Nov. 2013. p.12