Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Spring/Jim Parker
This page is connected with English 105 at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill - Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories
Jim Parker was born in the late 1870s into a family of African American sharecroppers, and spent nearly his whole life as a migrating sharecropper facing deceitful landlords. The Federal Writer’s Project interviewed him in 1939 as part of their initiative to record untold stories of Americans.
Parker began sharecropping for Joe Harris with his father, Zebedee Parker, when he was just nine years old just north of the North Carolina Virginia Border. In his early twenties he did public work as a section hand in the Gumberry- Jackson area of North Carolina. A typical day as a section hand for Parker included riding a handcar across railroad tracks that needed attention. There he would shovel dirt and fix the railroad ties. After five years as a social worker, Parker began working at a sawmill, where he was paid between seventy-five cents and one dollar an hour. During his ten years at the sawmill, he married and started his family. As his family grew larger and he needed more space and money to support them, he decided to sharecrop on a farm for John Leak. In the seven years he was there, he made between $200 and $1000 every year—enough for him to open a bank account. Doing well financially, Parker elected to buy a forty-three acre farm in Gumberry, and he bargained for a price of $3800 that he could gradually pay off after a $1000 down payment. In his second year on the farm, his crops unfortunately suffered because of the weather, couldn’t make a payment, and lost the farm and the money he invested in it. The next ten years he worked for Tommie Stephenson for $600 per year, but Stephenson charged Parker unfairly for use of his horses and overcharged him for fertilizer. He bargained again for another farm from the Land Bank in Raleigh, but again it failed and he began sharecropping for Lem Harris. He was again overcharged for fertilizer, and this time the landlord, Harris, acknowledged his unfairness, but did nothing to make amends. Parker sharecropped with Carl Maddrey up to the time that the federal writers project interviewed him in 1939. Over the years he raised fifteen children (thirteen of his own and two grandchildren), but they began to be upset with his lack of ability to provide for them. His unstable salary and job security did not make his life any easier. At the conclusion of his interview in 1939, Parker expressed his ultimate wish for his life—to own property with his family and stay there until his death. His entire life, Parker wanted to have his own house and farm to raise animals and grow plants—something his father worked for but could never achieve. Instead, the few investments he made to buy plots of land and pay off a house proved dismal ventures because he lost both of the houses and farms he bought. 
During the period of Reconstruction many African Americans, having spent their lives as plantation slaves, took up sharecropping as a means of income. The landlords, who had lost their slave workforce, hired sharecroppers and, although they offered farming supplies, often charged interest rates on the crops as high as 100%. According to Naison,“The Black work force rented land, tools, seeds, and supplies from the planter… in return for a share of the crop, but the interest rates on these crop loans was at a level which made it very difficult to escape debt”. Parker faced these problems as a sharecropper, and often the landlord governing over the farms determined the maximum salary that Parker could achieve. Dishonest landlords such as Lem Harris swindled him out of money by charging absurd amounts for basic fertilizer or extra hands on the farm. To reform such dishonest farming policies, Farmers’ Alliances and the Populist Party formed in the 1890s, but sharecroppers did not see appreciable reform until the New Deal (Zipf para. 4-5).
Job Security for African Americans in the Great Depression
Constantly looking for work, African and Americans often struggled to uphold jobs for extended durations. As a sharecropper Parker experienced this inability to maintain one job. Working farms that he could not afford to own, his salary never exceeded $1000 in a year, and fluctuated by hundreds of dollars each year. His continuous change in work location and unstable salary reflected the ever-present the lack of job security of African Americans in society. Sundstrom posits that some of the black unemployment was due to the unwritten “Last hired and first fired” policy of white employers in the labor market during the Great Depression. White employers primarily hired white workers when they needed to hire people and dismissed African Americans first when they needed to fire workers. When African Americans managed to find jobs, they often worked for wages low enough to ward off any competitor for the job. Even then, such low wages often were not sustainable enough, and workers were forced again into the competitive job market (Sundstrom 421).
Credibility of the Interviews from The Federal Writers’ Project
Part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Federal Writers’ Project “summarized and indexed government records and newspaper articles, compiled local histories, and interviewed men and women from all walks of life” during the 1930s to provide jobs to writers. The style of the recorded interview ranged from being directly transcribed to being made into a narrative. Parker’s interview was directly transcribed, however the author easily could have changed words or not recorded all of them. As Soapes notes, “the interviewer and editor did not always quote the interviewee verbatim but summarized the answer or the entry interview in a more entertaining style than the question-and-answer format allows.". Such a comment calls for a critical review of Parker’s interview and questions the reliability of the work. Although proving that changes were made during the transcription is a difficult task, readers ought to be aware that the interviewer for a dramatic effect may have altered the reading of Parker’s life history.
- Parker, Jim. “Jim Parker Hopes Ahead.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Southern Collection. Print. p.1-10.
- Zipf, Karin Lorene. Sharecropping. NCpedia. 2006. Web. 24 April 2013.para.1-2.
- Naison, Mark. "Black Agrarian Radicalism in the Great Depression: The Threads of a Lost Tradition." Journal of Ethnic Studies. 1.3 (1973): 47-65. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. p.49.
- undstrom, William. "Last Hired, First Fired? Unemployment and Urban Black Workers During the Great Depression." Journal of Economic History. 52.2 (1992): 415-429. Web. 14 Apr. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2123118 >.p.420.
- Shaw, Stephanie. "Using the WPA Ex-Slave Narratives to Study the Impact of the Great Depression." Journal of Southern History. 69.3 (2003): 623-658. Jstor. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30040012.p623.
- Soapes, Thomas. "The Federal Writers' Project Slave Interviews: Useful Data or Misleading Information." Oral History Review. 5. (1977): 33-38. Web. 14 Apr. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3674886 >.p.34.