Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2013/Spring/J.R. Glenn
This page is connected with English 105 at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill - Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories
J.R. Glenn was a preacher interviewed for the North Carolina section of the Federal Writers' Project on July 26, 1939. He spent his life working to further his education as best he could and preaching in North Carolina.
J.R. Glenn was a black man born in the countryside of North Carolina to a very poor family. His parents could not afford to take care of him so he was sent to live with his uncle until age seven. However, his uncle was not anymore equipped to take care of him than his parents. As soon as he was able, he assisted his uncle with the farm and his aunt with the house. When his uncle was unable to find work, Glenn went to work for a white man on his farm for very little pay. After his mother found out, she came to the farm and took him home with her. Glenn did not stay with his mother for long; he went to live with his local preacher who gave him clothes and a job on his farm.
During his stay with the preacher, Glenn was sent to elementary school with the rest of the preacher’s children. After finishing elementary school, Glenn was given a little bull calf as a gift. The calf became his prized possession. A few years later, a professor came to Glenn’s church and talked to him about furthering his education. However, Glenn did not have the money to attend school again. He asked the professor if he would take meat in exchange for letting him attend school. When the professor accepted, Glenn killed and sold his bull calf giving him enough money for three more years of school.
At 18, Glenn was ordained as a preacher and made preaching his life’s work. Afterwards, he was sent by his parish sent to Smith Grove where he married a nurse. They moved around for work for another seven years as Glenn was sent to preach in other small towns until they eventually settled in Charlotte. By this time, they had eight children, five of whom they were able to put through high school and one even college. Most of Glenn’s children eventually married and moved away; he mentioned his sadness in not being able to communicate with them but was happy that they had started families of their own.
Education Accessibility during the Great Depression
Glenn’s interview illuminates the utter lack of affordable education to low-income families during the 1930s. His parents could barely afford to feed him, let alone send him to a school. It was also not just a matter of affordability, but opportunity cost; many families, in the South especially, were dependent on farming for income and “when a bread earner of a family becomes unemployed, children of a certain age may have to give up schooling and look for a job to help the family.” Even when they could attend school, the children were often exhausted by extensive chores and work before and after school. They would possibly even have to miss school during harvest season. Glenn’s family was also uneducated because the drastic economic downturn that came with the Great Depression was affecting the school system. Despite an increase in enrollment and funding, most schools had to reduce spending. A failing economy pushed people in the 1930s to further their education, but the poor became poorer and education became even harder to attain.
Women’s Roles in the 1930s
The Great Depression affected men and women very differently. Because of the economic downturn, “many women—white and black—were willing to work in domestic positions.” In fact, while “men’s employment rates declined during the period, women's employment rates actually rose.” Women began to fill the domestic roles of their communities, becoming housekeepers and maids for hire. However, this was not always a step up for the women. For instance, Glenn’s wife was a practicing nurse when they met, but she became known around town as a housekeeper and a maid. There was also a decline of independent women that had seen rise with the feminist movements of the 1920s. Women remained property of their husbands during the 1930s. Glenn allowed his teenage daughter to marry an abusive, older man simply because he was wealthy and could help the family. While women did have increased opportunity for employment during the 1930s, it was dependent on being socially accepted within their communities, which meant having a husband and a family.
The Federal Writers’ Project provided jobs for “hungry authors, young writers with ambitious off-time projects, talented writers past their creative prime,” and almost anyone willing and able to write. Its aim was to capture snapshots of cultures around the United States by collecting their histories. As a result, they conducted many interviews which were transcribed with written vernacular in order to show the spoken part of the culture. In the case of the mostly uneducated south, this led to an interview that was very difficult to read given the mispronunciations that riddled their speech. However, the written vernacular appeared more uneducated, which only seemed to reinforce stereotypes that existed about the south. Another issue is the absence of the interviewer’s questions and responses from the transcript. The structure of the interview and Glenn’s responses indicate that the interview was just a series of questions with a bit of elaboration. However, Glenn’s responses often responses often skip large spans of time in his life and suggest that either the questions were selective or that some answers were omitted in the final draft. This shows a selective editing process that could be used to paint a biased picture of any given culture. The lack of training and standardization in the project allowed for biased interviews and broad generalizations about cultures.
- Glenn, J.R.. “Untitled” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Southern Collection. Print. p. 3959-3965.
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- Schrecker , Ellen. “The Bad Old Days.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. June16, 2009. Web. Apr 7, 2013. para 4.
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- Boehm, Lisa. “Women, Impact of the Great Depression on.” Ed. Robert S. McElvaine. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. p 1050-1055. Web. p. 1050.
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