Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2013/Spring/George Burris
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George Burris (born 1905) was an African- American servant worker living in Charlotte, NC. He was interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project in August of 1939.
Born in South Carolina in June of 1905, George Burris was one of many children to ex-slaves. Sometime during his youth, Burris’ family moved to North Carolina. His father was a sharecropper. They lived on multiple farms throughout his life in search of better pay and fair conditions. Because of limited educational opportunities for African-Americans in the South and poverty, Burris had to work on the farm as a young child to help his family earn money. The family stayed on one farm for the majority of his youth and teenage years. However, Burris’ father realized that the landowner was not being fair to them, saying they had earned no money at the end of the year and taking the calf they had raised each year. They moved to find a better farm to live on. They found a new place where they were paid $145 one year.
In the 1920s, Burris impregnated a young girl, Jane. They married, but she and the baby died during labor. Burris did not remarry because he only loved Jane. After that, the family moved to York County where Burris’ mother died. Finally, they moved to Charlotte where Burris’ father died shortly after his mother.
Shortly after his father’s death, Burris went into service work (cooking, cleaning, etc.) where he was mistreated and paid little money. Because his parents were deceased, Burris had to care for his sisters who had children out of wedlock. Burris was also a member of a Baptist church nearby his home. He believed in ghost and superstitions like many African-Americans during this time. He was unhappy with his life and wanted more for himself. Mary Brown interviewed George Burris in August 1939 shortly after he was released from jail for a crime he did not commit.
Sharecropping was one of the few sources of work for freedmen after the Civil War. A landowner allowed a tenant to use land in exchange for half of the crops produced. The sharecropper had to borrow all needed materials- seeds, fertilizer, clothing, and food- on credit. Tenant farmers, on the other hand, owned their tools and equipment, and only rented the land. The sharecropper had to pay his debts with the crops at harvest. He kept the difference, broke even, or added to his debt. Sharecroppers were confined to poverty in a similar state of servitude.Cite error: Closing
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<ref> tag Sharecropping in the South was a slight improvement from slavery, and landownership for African-Americans was low.
Farmers also had to deal with the results of constant cultivation. The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 paid the landowners to keep their fields out of cultivation. Sharecroppers and tenant farmers were displaced a forced to find work elsewhere. Groups like the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU) attempted to fight against displacement with little success.
Education for African-Americans in the Early 20th Century
During slavery, African-Americans were prohibited from obtaining an education because of the fear of up rise. Whites did everything in their power to keep African-Americans from becoming educated even after slavery was abolished. Many southern states came up with Jim Crow laws following the Reconstruction Era that separated Blacks and Whites in every aspect of life including education. Black schools in the South received less financial support than White schools resulting in fewer books, worse buildings, and lower paid teachers. After the Reconstruction Era, most African-Americans in the South relied on agriculture as a means of life. The average southern African-American farm family had nine children because they needed the extra hands to work in the fields to increase crop production. They could not afford to lose their children’s labor to school. George Burris could not attend school because he was needed to support the family financially. Most African-Americans remained uneducated until more laws regarding attending school were enacted and agriculture declined.
Federal Writers’ Project (FWP)
Mary Brown interviewed George Burris for The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) in 1939. The FWP was established in 1935 as a part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under the New Deal to collect oral histories of Americans and produce guidebooks for the United States. There has been debate regarding the limitations of these interviews as sources of African-American history. Many oral histories revealed mistreatment and inequality of African-Americans. The interviewers sometimes left out details of mistreatment in an effort to reflect the positive aspects of White domination. One writer, Murray, who opposed writing African-American stories comments, “the general run of negro is only too glad of opportunity to record his grievances.” Southern Federal Writers were determined to uphold the “white South’s traditional view of blacks” in their interviews. This explains the abruptness of George Burris’ narrative. When he complained of a White woman who refused to pay for his work and physically abused him, he quickly changed the subject so as not to offend the interviewer. The writer could have eliminated details feeling they were exaggerated or Burris could have held back in fear of what would happen if he revealed such realities. Unedited narratives could have moved others to take action. The Writers sought to uphold traditional ideas of Blacks because they did not want them to receive help from liberal Americans to initiate reform and change ways in the South. Positive views of White dominance aided the continuation of African-American oppression and upheld White supremacy. These narratives must be critically reviewed, noting the overbearing societal influence on the FWP.
- Burris, George. “Untitled.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Southern Collection. Print. p. 1-7
- “Sharecropping.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 8 April 2013. Web. 9 April 2013. para.12
- Tolnay, p.14.
- Tolnay, p.15.
- “Black School.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 27 March 2013. Web. 9 April 2013. para. 2-3
- Tolnay, p.73.
- Hirsch, Harold. Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers’ Project. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Print. p.1
- Cohen, Ronald. “Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers' Project (review).” Journal of American Folklore 120.475 (2007): 116-117. Project Muse. Web. 4 April 2013. p. 117
- qtd in Hirsch, Harold. Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers’ Project. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Print. p.188
- Hirsch, Harold. Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers’ Project. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Print. p.188
“Black School.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 27 March 2013. Web. 9 April 2013.
Burris, George. “Untitled.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Southern Collection. Print.
Cohen, Ronald. “Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers' Project (review).” Journal of American Folklore 120.475 (2007): 116-117. Project Muse. Web. 4 April 2013
Hirsch, Harold. Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers’ Project. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Print.
“Sharecropping.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 8 April 2013. Web. 9 April 2013.
Tolnay, Stewart. The Bottom Rung: African American Family Life on Southern Farms. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999. Print.