Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2013/Spring/John Lowery
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John Lowery was an African-American man who lived during the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century. In 1901, he moved to Charlotte, North Carolina to begin working as a Pullman Porter for the George Pullman Company. In 1939, he was interviewed and his personal history was recorded in the Federal Writers’ Project.
Lowery was raised in an agricultural family in South Carolina. He had nineteen siblings. Neither he nor his siblings were formally educated. Due to the distance between his home and school, education was not easily accessible. In addition, many of the crucial times to plant and harvest crops occurred during the four months that school was in session.
Adulthood and Career
In 1901, Lowery moved to Charlotte to begin his career at the George Pullman Company, which specialized in passenger rail transportation. Pullman Porters were typically African-American men. His occupation required him to serve sleeping car passengers. He made their beds, serviced their requests, and served them meals in the dining car. The destinations included much of North America, including Canada, Mexico, and all US states at the time. His career in the train industry allowed him to travel, which was an activity financially unobtainable by many African-Americans at the time. Later, he worked as a porter for the Thomas Tourist Agency on the West Coast of the United States.
Late Family History
Lowery married twice. His first wife could not work, and died after having several children. The second wife, whom he married one year after his first wife died, worked as a teacher prior to marriage. She later worked as the school’s maid. He had fourteen children. Unlike their father, the children were formally educated. Lowery intended to send all of them to college.
Access to Education for Rural African Americans in the South
In the nineteenth-century, school was often inaccessible to African-Americans, especially those living in rural settings. Lowery’s personal history merely stated that the schools available to him and his siblings were not good, without explaining the reason.
During this time, rural schools for African-Americans consisted of one building with one or two teachers. Especially in the South, these schools were often dilapidated. Early in the twentieth century, the popular Jim Crow laws mandated racial segregation. Separate public facilities were built for both White and Black Americans. Efforts in Southern states attempted to lower the quality of education for African-Americans. In the states of Georgia and Louisiana, many white educators supported hiring teachers for African-American schools by offering the position to the least qualified candidate. There were efforts to pass the proposal in the two states, but both efforts failed. However, the popularity of such practices suggested that Black Americans were viewed as inferior to White Americans.
Working Conditions of Pullman Porters
In the early 1900s, the Pullman Company employed more Blacks than any other company in the United States. George Pullman did so with the intention of lowering company costs than providing work for African-Americans, who would otherwise work in farms or factories.
Lowery’s career as a Pullman Porter did not require a formal education, but was plagued with its own problems. Working conditions were poor, even for a relatively prestigious occupation for African-Americans. Porters were required to serve passengers in a friendly manner, while sleep-deprived for days.
Due to the nature of long-distance train travel, trips consisted of shifts lasting multiple days. The passengers were expected to be comfortable in their beds, but the porters were not. Over multiple nights, working conditions could become exhausting to employees. In addition, Porters could be assigned to consecutive trips, exacerbating the issue of poor health and lack of rest.
Federal Writers’ Project
In 1939, Cora Bennett of the Federal Writers Project interviewed John Lowery. As part of the New Deal programs, President Franklin Roosevelt established the FWP to provide employment for writers and journalists during the Great Depression. During this period, journalists conducted interviews throughout the United States. Many of the personal histories relate to the hardships faced by ordinary people, highlighting the difficulties they had in everyday life.
Issue of Historical Production
Presence of Vernacular Language
The FWP was criticized for its interviewers’ attempts to record “as nearly word-for-word as possible,”. There were attempts to recreate the “Negro dialect” or “Black English vernacular” on text. The recorded words would be shaped to closely match how they were said, unless doing so would make the interview unreadable. In addition, many of the interviewers employed by the FWP were white. When interviewing African-Americans, especially ex-slaves, there could potentially be a condescending tone written into the article. Blacks could be given a title right after their name to indicate their status.
In Lowery’s personal history, the use of vernacular was present. The words lacked the first syllable, such as “because” becoming “cause”. Choice of words was also a concern. “Was” often replaced “were”, leaving sentences grammatically incorrect. The recording of vernacular suggests that there was emphasis of capturing Lowery’s character instead of the accuracy of the interview.
- Fultz, Michael. “Teacher Training and African American Education in the South, 1900-1940.” Journal of Negro Education 64.2 (1995): 196-210. JSTOR. Web. 8 Apr. 2013. p. 198.
- Fultz p. 206.
- Tye, Larry. Rising from the Rails – Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003. Print. p. 28.
- Derickson, Alan. “Asleep and Awake at the Same Time.” Labor 5.3 (2008): 13-44. Web. 8 Apr. 2013. p. 14.
- Derickson p. 22.
- “Federal Writers’ Project.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Last Updated 1 Apr. 2013. Web. 8 Apr. 2013
- Dittman, Michael. “The Federal Writers’ Project and the Creation of Hegemony.” 49th Parallel Issue 2 (1999) Web. 25 Apr. 2013.