Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Spring/Leathy Lightsey

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This page is connected with English 105 at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill - Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories


Leathy Lightsey was an African American woman born in South Carolina who later moved to Charlotte, North Carolina as a young adult in hopes of improving her economic status. With the onset of the Great Depression and her husband’s mental illness, Leathy was the sole caretaker of her eight children and breadwinner for the family. Her life history was recorded by Cora L. Bennett in 1939 as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal Program that was part of the larger Works Progress Administration.


Early Life in South Carolina[edit]

Leathy Lightsey was born in South Carolina as the eldest of five siblings. Her family worked on a farm, and she and her other siblings participated in the harvesting of crops. Leathy’s mother died when she was in the fourth grade, so Leathy dropped out of school to become the caretaker of her siblings. She married her husband John while she still lived with her father in South Carolina, and the couple continued to live with her family after the marriage. The family experienced some financial hardship, and they faced poor living conditions, including a bad case of malaria that plagued them all. Leathy’s father suggested that the family should move to the city of Charlotte for more opportunities for financial advancement.

Adulthood in North Carolina[edit]

Despite the move, Leathy and her other siblings did not improve their economic situation. Leathy and John Lightsey had eight children during the marriage. While her children were still young, John began to show signs of mental illness, and Leathy decided to send him to an asylum for Blacks in North Carolina. As a result of the loss of income from John, Leathy was forced to move to a poorer area of Charlotte due to her inability to pay for rent and the utilities. Ms. Lightsey was a cafeteria worker for sometime, but the school at which she worked was closed due to financial problems. Leathy also worked for a canning project, and she was an employee of the Works Progress Administration. In order to contribute to the family, Leathy’s eldest children dropped out of school to find jobs and earn income. Leathy viewed her poor living situation as a direct correlation to her lack of education, and she was disappointed that her children would not have a chance to gain a higher education and better opportunities for employment. Because of her poor living standards in the city, Leathy wanted to move back to the country because she felt a lack of a supportive community in Charlotte when she was forced to send her husband to the asylum and when she subsequently lost a source of income for her family.[1]

Social Issues[edit]

Lack of Education for African Americans[edit]

During the early 20th century, African Americans were not privileged to access the same level of education that most Caucasian adolescents received. The schools were largely segregated, and the school boards were made up of mostly Caucasians, leading to a lack of funding available for African American schools. In fact, “only 19 percent of Blacks aged fourteen to seventeen were enrolled in high school, compared to 55 percent of all white students.”[2] Leathy Lightsey and her children were unable to finish higher levels of education, and she lost her job as a cafeteria worker due to a cut in education expenditures. In this time period, there were some elementary level schooling was available for African Americans, but higher-level education was severely underprovided.

Living Standards for Africans Americans during the Great Depression[edit]

The Great Depression was a financial disaster for most Americans, but African Americans were especially affected by the economic downturn. A study published in 1933 documented that the “plight of the [African American] on the farm is bad, the plight of the [African American] unemployed in the towns and cities is still worse.”[3] When the Great Depression depleted the many people’s resources, the President at the time, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, created the New Deal Program to create more opportunities for employment and provide aid for impoverished people. However, multiple Southern cities did not allocate the aid they received to minorities. These cities actually “ranked near the bottom in social services generally and in the provision of relief specifically.”[4] Without financial aid from their cities, African Americans continued to be extremely impoverished. In Leathy Lightsey’s situation, she was forced to move out of her house because she could no longer pay for running water and electricity. Without these basic necessities or basic sanitation, African Americans faced increased incidence of disease. Also, there were increased rates of delinquency in the cities among the African American population.

Historical Issues of Production[edit]

The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) was a part of the overarching New Deal Program called the Works Progress Administration. The purpose of the Federal Writers’ Project was to provide jobs for educated yet unemployed people and to contribute to “the culture of the state and local communities.”[5] The writers of the FWP were tasked with collecting life histories from people in the community; these people whose lives are documented were unlikely to have a history if it were not for the Federal Writers’ Project. However, many of the interviews from the Project have been criticized due to issues with their transcription, and a writer who worked for the FWP later stated that he didn’t believe “that writers…were the best people for life stories” due to their tendency to insert their opinions into the interviews.[6]

Use of the Vernacular[edit]

In the case of Leathy Lightsey, the interviewer overuses the vernacular when transcribing her dialect. For example, the writer would include “usta” instead of “used to” and “gonna git” in place of “going to get”. The heavy emphasis on the interviewee’s dialect forms the incorrect notion that the person is uneducated because she cannot speak English properly.


  1. Lightsey, Leathy. “We’ll Git Along Somehow.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Southern Collection. Print. p. 3952-3958
  2. “Education for African Americans.” Encyclopedia.com. HighBeam Research, 2001. Web. 7 April 2013. para. 3
  3. Johnson, Guy. “The Negro and the Depression in North Carolina.” Social Forces 12:1 (1933): 103-115. JSTOR. Web. 7 Apr 2013. p. 105
  4. Biles, Roger. “The Urban South in the Great Depression.” The Journal of Southern History 56:1 (1990): 71-100. JSTOR. Web. 7 Apr 2013. p. 78
  5. Hill, Michael. “Federal Writers’ Project.” NCpedia. Government and Heritage Library of the NC Department of Cultural Resources, 2006. Web. 7 Apr 2013. para. 1
  6. Rapport, Leonard. “How Valid Are the Federal Writers’ Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast among the True Believers.” The Oral History Review 7. (1979): 6- 17. JSTOR. Web. 7 Apr 2013. p. 14