Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2013/Spring/Fanny Icord
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Fanny Icord was an African American woman who lived in North Carolina and survived the Great Depression. She worked as a sharecropper, housekeeper, and laundress and was a devout Christian. Fanny was interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project in 1939 at her home in Newton, North Carolina.
Fanny Icord (neé Caldwell) was born in Caldwell County, North Carolina, near the towns of Lenoir, Morganton, and Hickory, where she spent her formative years; her date of birth is unknown. When she was old enough for labor, she worked on a sharecropping farm for the Icord family, where her husband-to-be Willis was raised. Fanny and Willis were married while still working for the Icords and lived in a two-room house on the property; she cleaned the Icord’s house three times a week. Eventually, Icord began to work as a sharecropper in the fields alongside her husband. In approximately 1889, she moved to Newton in Catawba County; she and her husband decided to leave the Icord farm because the original owner passed away. They had one hundred dollars left to them by their former boss, “Old Mr. Icord,” which helped them purchase a house in 1909.
Icord’s husband died in 1935 because of his high blood pressure, leaving her completely alone, as she never had children of her own. She was fond of her deceased husband’s three children from a previous relationship. Her only sources of income were the small house that she and Willis lived in previously (which she rented out for a dollar a month), her job washing clothes for a family once every two weeks, and the old age pension she received from the government as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. In her spare time, she attended church regularly, taught Bible studies, and was a member in Ladies’ Aid, a society dedicated to helping overseas missions work. She dutifully gave money to the church and missions every week. Her interview for the Federal Writers’ Project in 1939 used the pseudonym “Dinah Irvin” for Fanny, and said that people in her community knew her as “Aunt Dinah.”
Icord worked in the oppressive sharecropping system when she was younger, and said in her interview that she liked her boss. In Icord’s time, “labor mobility was restricted by the system of ‘debt peonage,’ which bound tenants to the soil through the planter-controlled credit system just as surely as slavery had done.” Although slavery had long been outlawed, African Americans were trapped in their poverty, forced to work the same types of jobs they would have worked if slavery were still a legal institution. Sharecroppers generally had small houses on the land of a wealthy, white farmer, and in exchange for this housing and the money they needed in order to survive, they worked in the fields.
Women in the Workforce during the Great Depression
During the Great Depression, more women entered the workforce as American families struggled to survive the deep economic downturn. Women worked “for lower wages than men” forming “a pool of cheap labor” and allowing for the influx of female workers. In addition to being cheaper than male workers, females also had the benefit of working jobs that were decidedly “feminine,” which granted them some security because these jobs (such as secretarial work and housekeeping) were necessary yet unfit to be taken by the many men desperate for work. Accordingly, the female unemployment rate in the 1930’s was lower than the male unemployment rate. Icord was fortunate enough to find stable work in one of these female-only occupations after her husband died.
Issues of Historical Production
The Federal Writers’ Project was a government initiative to employ scholars during the Great Depression. Men and women working for the project would interview average people in their communities, asking general questions about the lives of their subjects.
The interview reads more like a story, with somewhat fanciful descriptions of Icord and her house, than a professional interview interested only in facts. It would have been more useful to have information about Icord’s treatment in the sharecropping system or her education, but both subjects are glossed over in favor of somewhat derogatory descriptions of Icord. Interviewers were told to record the interviewee as accurately as possible without including confusing dialect; however, when reading the article, it seems that there are gaps in the story. According to Thomas Soapes’ article on the interviews, “the interviewer and editor did not always quote the interviewee verbatim but summarized the answer or the entire interview in a more entertaining style than the question-and-answer format allows.” This method of writing detracted from the historical accuracy of the interviews.
Although Fanny was depicted as not having any harsh words to say about the sharecropping system, it is unlikely that she, as a black woman, would have been comfortable divulging her true opinion to a white interviewer. In some cases, interviewers asked their subjects questions about their master or life as a slave only to put the words in their mouths. White interviewers didn’t want to hear harsh truths of slavery, in general, so they would heavily edit responses or tell the interviewer to say something else.
- Icord, Fanny. “Untitled.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Southern Collection. Print. p. 4641-4647.
- “Social Security.” Wikipedia.org. Wikimedia, 16 Mar. 2013. Web. 7 Apr. 2013.
- Billings, Dwight B. “Origins of the ‘New South’: Planter Persistence and Industry in North Carolina.” American Journal of Sociology 88 (1982): S52-S85. JSTOR. Web. 7 Apr. 2013. p. 28.
- Zipf, Karin Lorene. “Sharecropping.” Ncpedia.org. Encyclopedia of North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press, 1 Jan. 2006. Web. 7 Apr. 2013.
- Milkman, Ruth. “Women's Work and Economic Crisis: Some Lessons of the Great Depression.” Review of Radical Political Economics 8:1 (1976): 71-97. Web. 7 Apr. 2013. p. 74.
- Soapes, Thomas F. “The Federal Writers' Project Slave Interviews: Useful Data or Misleading Source.” The Oral History Review (1977) 33-38. Oxford Journals. Web. 7 Apr. 2013. p. 34.
- Soapes. p. 34.