Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2013/Spring/Bob Draper
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Bob Draper was a White sharecropper in North Carolina during the 1930s. Before becoming a sharecropper for Peter Spencer, he worked in sawmills and cotton mills. In 1939, he was interviewed as part of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) to provide insight into his occupation.
Bob Draper grew up working on a farm alongside his father near Creeksville, North Carolina. His time spent on the farm limited his opportunity to acquire a proper education. He worked with his father on their farm until he was twenty. After his father passed away, the land was distributed between him and his seven siblings.
Draper moved from town to town working various jobs. Once he married his wife, Mary, he worked in a sawmill in Seaboard. Later he sharecropped for Peter Spencer for two years and then worked in a cotton mill for another year. He then sharecropped for Jesse Rogers near Severn and later went to work in a cotton mill in Roanoke Rapids for another four years.
Eventually he settled down and sharecropped for Peter Spencer again. Although he claimed that working on a mill provided financial stability, he preferred the simplicity of life on a farm. He had worked for Spencer for nineteen years and had nothing but admiration for the landowner. Mr. Spencer allowed Draper to run his farm freely and even contributed to outside expenses landowners usually did not pay. After hearing terrible stories about corrupt landowners, Draper felt fortunate to work for Mr. Spencer. While Draper hoped to one day own a home and run his own farm, the financial burden was too costly. At one point he purchased two lots of land; however, the area was desolate.
Draper barely broke even from the crops he farmed on Mr. Spencer’s land. He did not have any children of his own; however, he took in his brother-in-law’s kids, two girls and a boy, when he passed away. Although Draper sought a better future for them, they fell behind in their education due to farming.
Sharecropping was not the first choice for many farmers during the Great Depression. Farmers like Draper sought to own their own home and farm but were unable to due to poor economic and financial circumstances. The economic collapse caused thousands of unemployed individuals in urban areas to “drift to farms during the hard times, searching for a means of livelihood”. Due to overproduction in many North Carolina farm areas, fertile land was scarce. With farmers facing a difficult financial situation, sharecropping became a way of life for many farmers during the Great Depression  . Furthermore, because sharecroppers did not own their own land, they were put at the lower end of the social ladder. Additionally, stringent laws made it difficult for sharecroppers to “sell their crops to others besides their landlord, or prevented sharecroppers from moving if they were indebted to their landlord”. Even Draper acknowledged how common it became for his friends to work for corrupt landowners. With the implementation of the Agricultural Adjustment Act, sharecroppers were at a higher risk of no longer working because the program planned to reduce crop production. The program also provided “Southern planters with the capital to mechanize cotton production and the incentive to evict tens or thousands of sharecroppers”. Many sharecroppers lost their jobs as a result of the reduction of crop production and decrease in demand for manual labor. However, Draper was fortunate to have a long-standing job working for the same landowner for approximately twenty years.
Education in Rural Areas
The value of work over education became a larger social issue that many farmers faced during their childhood. Rather than hiring outside labor, it became common for farmers to have their children spend more time working. Children would have to “miss school at planting time, at hoeing time, and at harvest”. Unable to attend school consistently, children of farmers often fell behind in school and eventually dropped out. Draper intended for his children to regularly attend school, but they ultimately had to sacrifice their education to farm. In addition, children living in rural areas were often tired because they had to complete chores before school. Schools were located miles away from rural homes, which meant children would have to walk long distances. Upon returning home, their first task was not to finish their homework but to work. One-room schools were also common in rural areas during the 1930s. One teacher would be in charge of instructing all grade levels at the same time. This made it difficult for students to focus on individual tasks. The conditions of rural schools made it difficult for children to attain a full education.
Federal Writers’ Project and Biased Perspectives
The Federal Writers’ Project was established in 1935 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The goal of the program was to employ writers to collect stories through interviews. As part of the Works Progress Administration, the program focused on collecting local histories of various citizens, like Bob Draper. Controversy surrounded many FWP stories around the editing process. Scholar Daniel Fox claimed that when authors wrote about local histories, the narrative was often rewritten to show national unity. When creating this sense of national unity, interviewers would purposefully skew the discussion to positively favor an aspect of an individual. For Bob Draper’s interview, the author mainly focused on the benefits of sharecropping rather than detailing the problems Draper faced. Through the interview, it seems like Draper had a perfect life as a sharecropper, when in reality he also faced many difficulties such as home ownership. The absence of a detailed account of his problems revealed bias perspective by the interviewer. Often times, authors tried “to unite Americans…while ignoring issues that divided them”. The interviewer reconstructed Draper’s life to make it seem ideal for a farmer working during the Great Depression. In addition, the author also included a short separate interview of Mr. Spencer, the landowner, who solely described the benefits of sharecropping. An emotional connection to problems that sharecropper’s faced in their personal or professional lives could have revealed a realistic account of a farmer during the Great Depression.
- Draper, Bob. “’The Drapers’ Federal Writers’ Project.” University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Southern Collection. Print. p. 1-12.
- Boyd, Robert. “Black and White Farm Operators in the South During the Great Depression.” Mid-South Sociological Association. 25. 4(2007): 403-416. Web. 6 April 2013. p. 403
- Bishop, RoAnn. “Difficult Days on the Tar Heel Farms.” NC Pedia Government and Heritage Library of the NC Department of Cultural Resources, 1 January 2010. Web. 6 April 2013. para. 3
- “Slavery By Another Name.” PBS. UNC-TV, n.d.Web. 9 April 2013.
- Draper. p. 3
- Lessig, Matthew. “Black folk/white bondage: Race, class and the literature of sharecropping, 1925—1942.” Diss. U of Illinois Urbana Champaign, 2002. Web. p. 1
- Davis, Anita. “Public Schools in the Great Depression.” NC Pedia. Government and Heritage Library of the NC Department of Cultural Resources, 1 January 2010. Web. 6 April 2013. para. 19
- Davis. para. 21
- Davis. para. 21
- Hirsch, Jerrold. Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers’ Project. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Print. p. 2
- Fox, Daniel. “The Achievement of the Federal Writers' Project.” American Quarterly. 13. 1(1961): 3-19. JSTOR. Web. 9 April 2013. p. 4
- Hirsch, Jerrold. Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers’ Project. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Print. p. 3