Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2013/Spring/A Southern Gentleman (Seaboard, NC)
This page is connected with English 105 at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill - Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories
A Southern Gentleman (1888-unknown) is a name given to a wealthy white landowner living in Seaboard, NC who was interviewed for the Federal Writers Project during the Great Depression on March 31, 1939; Bernice Kelly Harris conducted his interview.
An only child that was faced with the tragedy of his mother’s death at an early age, the Southern Gentleman remains an elusive and nameless figure throughout his biography. Born in Seaboard, NC, his father served as an inspirational figure throughout his life, acting as a landlord and overseer to the various tenants of the family’s farmland. Residing on Long Pine Plantation, the family’s generational home was originally Indian land sold to them by Chief Long. His father remarried soon after the death of his mother. At the age of 17, the Southern Gentleman’s father died and he was placed in charge of the estate. The land they owned was originally Indian land sold by Chief Long Pine to the wealthiest family in the state, the Calverts. From there the land was sold to the Woodruffs. The land was then transferred to the Bridgers and then bought from A Southern Gentleman’s father a few days after he was born in 1888. Once A Southern Gentleman sold the farm for $40,000, but then bought it back again the next morning. In one source, “Southern Gentlemen hold traditional to their values and land.” (Holifield 18) The Southern Gentleman was traditional in his values, never giving up his family’s land. Although A Southern Gentleman’s farm and place of residence was in Seaboard, NC most of the other property he acquired was in Norfolk and Suffolk, Virginia. In addition to that A Southern Gentleman also had a beach house in Virginia Beach, where his wife and him would often visit in the warmer seasons to live. The landlord’s wife was an antique collector and often times served as overseer when A Southern Gentleman was away. He went to Horner Military School for three years, then to Randolph-Macon, then to the University of Poughkeepsie.
As legend has it, the Woodruffs owned many slaves, but there was one by the name of Ephraim who took Master Woodruffs life. Many slaves in the pre-civil war era often times turned on their masters. From one source, “…not a rare occurrence for slaves to attempt to kill their master.” This source brings credibility to the legend of what occurred. After slaying Master Woodruff, Ephraim supposedly hid in a cave. Someone spotted the light coming from the cave, and soon he was captured. Ephraim was then tar and feathered then burned to death. This legend is now known as Ephraim’s light, because Ephraim’s light can still be seen sometimes around the property. A Southern Gentleman claims to have seen the light on several occasions.
A Southern Gentleman was an only child. His mother died at an early age, and his father remarried shortly after. His father was an advocate of Indian novelties. Often times A Southern Gentleman and his father would look for arrowheads and other things on their property as a hobby. A Southern Gentleman’s family had a well-known pedigree, starting with his great grandfather Dr. Barrom. His grandfather held a grand of 2000 acres form the King of England, and also served in the United States Senate. The landlord has been so since he was 17 years old after his father’s death. A Southern Gentleman married at an early age and at the time of the interview has been married for twenty years, although the time of his marriage was not established.
A Southern Gentleman, being a wealthy landowner, had many encounters with business. He was born in to the family business of being a landlord, and saw first hand from his father the skills needed to accomplish such. After leaving school A Southern Gentleman did work with the American Tobacco Company for four years before deciding to leave and come back to his land to see after it. Initially, A Southern Gentleman used the land for sharecropping, but over time did not see it fit to his morals or beliefs, and as a result decided to just rent the land out to tenants. The Southern Gentleman continued to do this until the day of his interview with the Federal Writers Project.
African American during the Depression
During the Great Depression African American people faced many adversities. Segregation amongst Caucasian and African American people was apparent in this historical document. African Americans were affected more than any other race during the depression, in a sense they were in a depression before it even began, and stayed there longer than anyone else. One source states, “As the, "Last Hired and the First Fired," African Americans entered the Depression long before the stock market crash in 1929, and they stayed there longer than other Americans.” (Trotter 10) African Americans faced more adversity than other ethnicities. The ‘blackies’ lived as tenants on the Southern Gentleman’s plantation. They were a huge family of about 20 and with the exception of doing hard labor; they rarely interacted with the Southern Gentleman. The individual discusses these issues through asking the landlord questions. It’s never really addressed directly, but it is made apparent through several questions that these are issues. The Southern Gentleman refers to them several times, he knows everything about their family and you can tell he actually has a close relationship with them. He looks at them as people even though most people at the time looked down upon African American people in a condescending manner. Through the interview, the Southern Gentleman actually shows concern about the family’s well being, this could be because he looks at them as an asset that he needs to maintain his land.
Struggles of Farming during the depression
During the Great Depression farming was a source of struggle. Due to the difficult times farmers often broke even, and could not produce a significant amount of income to support their families financially. Most farmers could no longer afford to pay their mortgage on their farms, and had to give up. The government distributed large quantities’ of non-repayable grants to help stimulate farming, but even that could not surmount the lack of consumers. From one source, “The federal government distributed $16.5 billion in non-repayable grants over the 6-year period.”(Fishback 3) The farmers that could still hold on to their farms lacked motivation to distribute their crop, because the price of corn and other commodities dropped so low in price, that to produce them would actually cost the farmers money. Many farmers found themselves burning their crop for heat, rather than selling it. A Southern Gentleman did not have to care about paying his mortgage. His farm was passed down through the generations and was family owned; however the economy had tanked and consumers were less likely to buy. This leaved A Southern Gentleman to use his land to produce real estate, and allow tenants to pay rent. Even in scarce times when the tenants could not pay rent, A Southern Gentleman would allow his tenants to pay in other forms of currency such as food, tools, etc.
The WPA established the Federal Writers Project during the Great Depression; it was part of the New Deal program established by the government to help establish jobs to those in dire need. One source describes the Federal Writers Project, “…a New Deal program that provided relief jobs to millions of Americans-was the hiring of men and women to document the history and folklore of America so as to capture the "soul" of the nation.”(Basso 23) This New Deal in a ‘hypothetical’ utopia would have been historically accurate, however due to human error, information may have been misconstrued. The employees of the Federal Writer’s Project did not hold proper credentials to conduct historically accurate interviews. Many of the interviews were summaries of the interviewee’s words, and often times did not represent what was actually said. The interview of A Southern Gentleman only portrayed the social values of himself. The information being relayed was an attempt at telling a story, rather than presenting historical information to encompass the society during the Great Depression. The Southern Gentleman’s words a relayed to the audience without knowing what questions the interviewer was asking, this makes the whole entire excerpt seem scattered and unorganized.
- Savitt, Todd. “Black Health on the Plantation: Owners, the Enslaved, and Physicians” OAH Magazine of History, Vol. 19, No. 5, Medicine and History (Sep., 2005), pp. 14-16. JSTOR. Web. 8 April 2013. p.15.