Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2013/Spring/Leroy Hicks
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Leroy Hicks was an American entrepreneur and family man who lived during the time of the Great Depression. He is best known for his contribution to the Federal Writers’ Project in the form of an interview (1938).
Hicks was 13 years old when his mother died, leaving him to take care of himself and 8 other children. All children worked on the farm, while trying to continue the education that their mother had emphasized. Hicks’ father could read, write, and do basic math, but this was only after marrying Leroy’s mother.
When Hicks was old enough to leave home, he married a former schoolteacher 30 years his senior and moved to another farm. Hicks invested in a sawmill, which failed financially and put him in debt. Hicks’ wife fell ill, causing him to nearly stop working. After 3 years, she died.
Hicks was in great debt when he moved to South Carolina, where he met his new wife, a young widow, who paid off his debt with her late husband’s money. He started working for a towing company, and the growing family travelled the East Coast as Hicks switched jobs often. Some of his jobs included working as a policeman, a plumber, and often a farmer.
In 1919, Hicks’ new wife fell sick, and a cyclone hit their farm leaving them with no food or furniture. Hicks had his children work for him until it was time for them to return to school, when he hired African Americans to work on his farm and sold all his property in other towns.
Hicks’ brother convinced him to invest in another sawmill, which put Hicks in a state of near poverty. Hicks’ eldest daughter worked at a hosiery mill to support the family, but broke her leg and could not work. Hicks, incapable of finding employment, asked the state official for a job in the state prison.
While working in prison Hicks’ last daughter was born, but then died of meningitis. Not including this daughter, four of his seven children finished school.
Hicks and his wife eventually moved to their son’s farm and lived off their children’s income for groceries, insurance, and any doctor or hospital bills. At 67, the government would not give Hicks’ pension to him. Some of Leroy’s poorer grandchildren could receive proper education, which Hicks believed would be a problem later in life when they were trying to earn their living.
Public Education for Rural Farm Children
Though some children were unable to attend school due to the financial strain it put on families, “not a single school in the state [of North Carolina] shut its doors because of the Depression.” In fact, a study by Yamashita at the University of Las Vegas found that “there was negligible association between the Great Depression’s severity and the average years of education” for children. It was characteristic of poorer families during the Depression to not have the same level of education as wealthier families. Hicks and his children worked on farms, which took away time from school. Instead of hiring someone to work on the farm, many farmers used their own children as a means of free labor. This farm work occurred in the early morning hours into the afternoon, which interfered with the school day. For boys especially, adolescence was gone, replaced an early entry into the labor force to support their rural farm family. For this reason, most children during the Great Depression did not achieve education past what was considered grade 12 in a one-room public school house .
Industrialization and Unemployment
In 1933, it was estimated that roughly one-fourth of American civilians were out of work. Other years of the Depression had fluctuating unemployment. This crushing unemployment was the cause of a large workers migration, where people without jobs would move to new locations in hope of finding jobs there, farmers especially. At the same time that the Dust Bowl created unemployment for farmers, industrialization was creating unemployment for skilled and unskilled workers. After World War I came new technologies that lead to more mass production and less job opportunities. According to Levine, “increased mechanization and the advent of the assembly line permitted substitution of semiskilled workers for skilled workers […] mechanization also could substitute for physical strength, [and] the demand for unskilled workers fell as well." Gasoline-powered tractors, such as Henry Ford’s Fordson, were available to wealthier farmers, meaning fewer jobs for farmers such as Hicks.
The Federal Writers’ Project
The Federal Writers' Project (FWP) was a government project enacted in 1935 as part of the New Deal. Writers transcribed local and oral histories, along with other works such as children’s books. The FWP helped provide jobs for anyone who was unemployed and able to write, such as “hungry authors, young writers with ambitious off-time projects, talented writers past their creative prime, […] hacks with meaningless pasts and hopeless futures." Because there was a very convoluted bureaucracy regarding what was allowed to be part of the FWP, the accuracy of each work is questionable. In Hicks case, he and his interviewer had the same last name, which could mean that the two were related. If participants in the FWP were writing biographies of their own relatives, it is very possible that personal bias weighed heavier in the work than factual history. As World War II began, the Federal Writers’ Project became less vital for employment, as many of the unemployed were becoming soldiers. In 1939 federal sponsorship of the FWP ended, and in 1941 the headquarters of the North Carolina FWP in Asheville closed, and remaining workers relocated to Raleigh.
- Hicks, Mary A. "A Rough Route". Federal Writers' Project. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Southern Collection. Print. p. 1-14.
- Davis, Anita Price. “Public Schools in the Great Depression.” NCPedia. 2010. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
- Yamashita, Takashi. “The Effects of the Great Depression on Education Attainment.” University of Nevada Las Vegas, 2007. Web.
- Scheibach, Michael. “Transition to Manhood: Effects of the Great Depression on Male Youth.” Adolescence, 20.79 (1985): 1-20. Periodicals Archive Online. Web. 22 Apr. 2013.
- (Yamashita, 5)
- Bernstein, Irving. “Americans in Depression and War.” United States Department of Labor. Office of the Assistant Secretary for Administration and Management, 2013. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
- Levine, Linda. “The Labor Market during the Great Depression and the Current Recession.” (2009): 1-26. Congressional Research Service. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
- Bishop, RoAnn. “Agriculture in North Carolina During the Great Depression.” NCPedia. 2010. Web. 22 Apr. 2013.
- Fox, Daniel M. “The Achievement of the Federal Writers Project.” American Quarterly 13.1 (1961): 3-19. JSTOR. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
- Hill, Michael. “Federal Writers’ Project.” NCPedia. 2006. Web. 15 Apr. 2013.