Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2013/Spring/Lucy James Bailey Britt
This page is connected with English 105 at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill - Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories
Interviewed as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, Lucy James Bailey Britt was a white woman of North Carolina who witnessed first hand both the Civil War and Great Depression. Forced to work to support herself and eventually her family, Bailey Britt led a life full of sacrifice.
Born in December of 1844, Lucy James Bailey Britt was the youngest of three children in the Bailey family. She had a sister Caroline who was nine months older, and an older brother; however, their brother passed away the year before the girls were born. When she was a child, Bailey Britt’s father passed away from illness, leaving Mrs. Bailey to care for her two daughters. Rather than attend school, Lucy decided she was going to go off on her own and make a living to lessen the burden on her mother, stating “there wa’n’t no chance for me to get no schoolin’.”
The Civil War
During the Civil War, Lucy Bailey Britt worked as a field hand and cook, making four dollars a month until she married. While working, Bailey Britt spent time in multiple houses, resulting in her experiencing varying levels of wealth. In one home, she experienced wealth and luxuries of the time; in another, she went without shoes during the winter and had to “scrape up the smokehouse dirt” for salt. The different economic levels resulted in her witnessing varying levels of slavery as well. During her interview, Bailey Britt commented on seeing slaves who ate as well as the family in a wealthier home and then slaves that were almost beaten to death in a poorer home.
While working in the home of Tom Garris, Lucy Bailey Britt was courted by Mr. Britt, a widower with two daughters. After some courting, Bailey Britt decided to marry Mr. Britt to help with his daughters and to end her work as a field hand, work that left her hands full of arthritis for the rest of her life. After a few years together, the Britt’s bought a home on Bynum Road and had their first son, who died three weeks after his birth. Together, the Britts had three other sons; however, Mr. Britt died a few years after their youngest was born, leaving Lucy James Bailey Britt with five children to care for. After her husband’s death, Bailey Britt was forced to go back to working as a field hand to pay a debt left behind by the late Mr. Britt. When her children were old enough, they worked to help her. At the time of her interview, Lucy James Bailey Britt was ninety-five years old and living with her son George and his family, as she refused to live anywhere else.
Education and the lack of Accessibility for the Non-Upper Class
During the Great Depression, accessibility to a quality education was scarce. With minimal funding, many schools across the United States were forced to close their doors. The state of North Carolina was the exception to this, as there was an active movement to prevent schools from shutting down. By the end of the Great Depression, not a single public school in North Carolina had closed. Despite this impressive accomplishment, the quality of the school systems in North Carolina was not particularly high. Classrooms were packed with students, with only one teacher who had to divide their time between each of different ages and grade levels in each class. With a lack of individual attention, it was easy for students to fall behind, reflecting the quality of the education system of the time. An education was not accessible to everyone during the Great Depression, particularly for children of poorer families. Rather than attend school, these children had no other choice but to work and help support their families during a time of economic hardship. This was the case of Lucy James Bailey Britt, who felt that she had no choice but to work as soon as she was of age to lessen the financial burden on her widowed mother.
Women and their role in the Household
Women during the Great Depression began to challenge the typical gender roles previously established. Rather than sit at home while their husbands went of to work, many women were forced to join their husbands in the work force in order to contribute to the household. Furthermore, women were expected to sacrifice everything, if necessary, for their families. The pressures of such a degree of sacrifice “resulted in conflict between parents and daughters, between husbands and wives, among members of doubled-up households, and between ‘unattached’ women and their children and siblings.” This conflict resulted from women feeling that they had no options. They were expected to do as they were told by their husbands, even if doing so required them to go against their own views, or give up something they valued. Furthermore, as in the case of Lucy James Bailey Britt, women were expected to sacrifice their own lives for children who were not theirs by birth. Bailey Britt had no choice but to care for her two stepdaughters following her husband’s death, simply because there was a pressure on her to do so, “as expected.”
The life history of Lucy James Bailey Britt was written as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, established in 1935 as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. The project aimed to create jobs for writers during the Great Depression when jobs were rare. The writing style of Bernice Harris, the interviewer for Lucy James Bailey Britt’s life history, raises a few questions of historical production, resulting in a questioning of credibility. Other than the possibility of dramatizing Bailey Britt’s story via the addition or subtraction of information, the use of vernacular creates a further issue. In transcribing the vernacular, Harris might have based her spelling on sounds, which may have altered the meaning of what Lucy James Bailey Britt was trying to say. Because the vernacular is can vary considerably, there is no indication that Harris completely understood Bailey Britt, leading Harris to infer what was being said. Therefore, there is reason to question the validity of the life history produced. This issue of historical production is relatively common in the life histories of the Federal Writers’ Project. According to the Journal of American Folklore, it was common for writers involved in the Federal Writers’ Project to allow biases to influence the writing of life histories. Therefore, it is possible that Harris allowed some biases to alter her interpretation of Lucy James Bailey Britt’s vernacular.
- Harris, Bernice Kelly. “Will There Be Any Stars.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Southern Collection. Print. p.4
- Goodenow, Ronald K. “The Progressive Educator, Race and Ethnicity in the Depression Years: An Overview.” History of Education Quarterly 15.4 (1975): 365-394. JStor. Web. 08 April 2013. p. 382
- Davis, Anita Price. “Public Schools in the Great Depression: Keeping the School Doors Open.” NCPedia. Government and Heritage Library of the NC Department of Cultural Resources, 1 January 2010. Web. 8 April 2013. para.5
- Helmbold, Lois Rita. “Beyond the Family Economy: Black and White Working-Class Women during the Great Depression.” Feminist Studies 13.3 (1987): 629-655. JStor. Web. 08 April 2013. p. 640
- “Federal Writer’s Project.” Wikipedia. The Wikimedia Foundation, 1 April 2013. Web. 8 April 2013.
- Hirsch, Jerrold. “Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers’ Project.” Journal of American Folklore 120.475 (2007): 116-117. Scholars Portal Journals. Web. 08 April 2013. p. 116