Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Spring/Mrs. Dunlap

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

Girl sewing for the NYA

Overview:[edit]

Mrs. Dunlap was an African-American woman born in 1898 in North Carolina. On December 28th, 1938, she was interviewed by Albert North, a writer for the Federal Writers' Project (FWP). In the interview, she revealed her struggle to maintain a family in poverty.

Biography[edit]

Early Life[edit]

Mrs. Dunlap was born in 1898 into a family of eight children. When her parents died, she was among the youngest six children sent to the Charlotte Episcopal Orphanage.[1] Her grandfather, James Mosely, made wagons, tools, and the family’s shoes.

Home Life[edit]

By 1938, Mrs. Dunlap had mothered seven children and the family lived on Mills Avenue in Greensboro, North Carolina. Mills Avenue was covered with litter and lined with dilapidated shack-like homes. [2] The Dunlap’s house was rugged and run-down. The house was always packed, with nine people squeezed into five bedrooms, and the cracked walls and insufficient heating proved that living conditions were poor. The Dunlaps did not have much at all, but when asked about the size and struggles of the family, Mrs. Dunlap replied, “Although it’s been a hard struggle, I’d sure hate to not have one of my children." [3]

Dunlap Family and Poverty[edit]

On December 8th, 1938, Stanley, one of Mrs. Dunlap’s sons, was shot at the age of 20 as a runaway desperado in a filling station holdup. [4] In the same year, Henry Dunlap, Mrs. Dunlap’s husband, was serving his third year of a ten-year sentence at a prison camp. [5] As a family reliant on relief, the Dunlaps struggled to make enough money to support the entire household. Lela, Mrs. Dunlaps’ oldest daughter, had to quit school in 7th grade and begin working. She worked in the sewing room for the National Youth Administration (NYA) to help bring in income for her family. [6] Due to Lela’s employment, Mrs. Rogers, the city relief administrator, docked the family’s relief from $38 to $25 a month. Harry, Mrs. Dunlap’s oldest son, worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to help Mrs. Dunlap pay for the family. He gave three dollars of his monthly $16.10 to his mother. William, the third son, was sixteen years old and worked at a mechanic shop for twenty cents an hour. [7] Typically, the Dunlaps could only find enough money for potatoes, beans, or cabbage. Fresh meat was served once a week, and milk was rarely available. Mrs. Dunlap explained in her interview with the FWP that her greatest need was a bigger and better house. She stated that in order for her family to have enough, she would need roughly $17 a week, which was three times as much as she was making. Despite the poverty, Mrs. Dunlap fervently loved her children and cared for them as best she could. [8]

Social Issues[edit]

The New Deal[edit]

The interview took place in 1938, a time when President Franklin Roosevelt had designed the New Deal as relief “to help people in the lower tail of the income distribution.” These efforts led to high relief spending in attempt to rejuvenate Americans after the Great Depression. [9] In addition, the programs were designed to enhance the well being of families and offer a financial safety net. [10] The national government offered direct relief from 1933 to 1935 and work relief from 1933 through 1942. Between 1935 and 1940, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a work-relief organization that employed 125,000 men and women of all races in North Carolina, including Lela Dunlap. [11] State and local governments then had the responsibility to give direct relief to unemployables. [12] This explains the reduction in relief money that the Dunlaps were given.

Chain Gang and African American Convicts[edit]

The hostile treatments and punishments of African Americans imprisoned in the 1930s are likely what caused Stanley Dunlap to flee prison and get shot. African Americans made up the majority of chain gang prisoners, and accounts of the 1930s indicate that convicts on chain gang worked from “sun up to sun down,” ate rotten food, slept in unwashed beds, and were treated with unsanitary medical tools. [13] This brutality embodied southern race relations in which blacks were treated with far greater hostility than imprisoned whites were. Forced black labor was mostly outdoors, and black convicts had to perform harsh, labor-intensive tasks. African Americans on chain gang had a “fear of punishment” that “produced a respectful attention to the orders of the overseer." [14] Thus, in the early to mid twentieth century, the Negro convict was treated like a slave.

Federal Writers' Project[edit]

The Federal Writers' Project (FWP) was part of Roosevelt’s New Deal program. It was designed to provide work relief to white-collar workers, unemployed teachers, and others who could not have been usefully employed in manual labor like those administered by the WPA. [15] Writers for the FWP interviewed former slaves and Native Americans, and collected the remembrances of old pioneers and immigrants of every nationality. Many oral histories of the FWP are held today at the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Issues in Historical Production[edit]

According to former North Carolina FWP writer Leonard Rapport, some of the stories written for the FWP “are not offered as authentic life histories." [16] Thus, it appeared that certain interviews had been “considerably rewritten,” and exaggerated to reflect the entirety of the culture at the time rather than solely reflecting the subjects being interviewed. [17] For example, in Mrs. Dunlap’s oral history, many of her quoted words are misspelled in order to portray a southern accent or dialect. Many FWP interviewers wrote in this manner to “make the reader feel the Negro is talking." [18] However, the misspelling of words to match accents and dialects demonstrate that the collection of personal history was not free from racial stereotypes and conceptions.

References[edit]

  1. North, Albert. “The Dunlap Family” Federal Writer’s Project, UNC Southern Collection. Print. p. 3.
  2. North, Albert. “The Dunlap Family” Federal Writer’s Project, UNC Southern Collection. Print. p. 1
  3. North, Albert. “The Dunlap Family” Federal Writer’s Project, UNC Southern Collection. Print. p. 19.
  4. North, Albert. “The Dunlap Family” Federal Writer’s Project, UNC Southern Collection. Print. p .8.
  5. North, Albert. “The Dunlap Family” Federal Writer’s Project, UNC Southern Collection, Print. p. 14.
  6. North, Albert. “The Dunlap Family” Federal Writer’s Project, UNC Southern Collection, Print. p. 17.
  7. North, Albert. “The Dunlap Family” Federal Writer’s Project, UNC Southern Collection. Print. p. 18.
  8. North, Albert. “The Dunlap Family” Federal Writer’s Project, UNC Southern Collection. Print. p. 19-22.
  9. Fishback, Price, Michael Haines, and Shawn Kontor. "Births, Deaths, and New Deal. Relief during the Great Depression." MIT Press Journals (2007): Web. <http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/rest.89.1.1>. p. 1
  10. Fishback, Price, Michael Haines, and Shawn Kontor. "Births, Deaths, and New Deal. Relief during the Great Depression." MIT Press Journals (2007): Web. <http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/rest.89.1.1>. p. 3.
  11. Abrams, Douglas. Tar Heel Junior Historian, Spring 2010. Web. 23 Apr. 2013. p. 1.
  12. Fishback, Price, Michael Haines, and Shawn Kontor. "Births, Deaths, and New Deal. Relief during the Great Depression." MIT Press Journals (2007): Web. <http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/rest.89.1.1>. p. 4.
  13. Lichtenstein, Alex. "Good Roads and Chain Gangs in the Progressive South: "The Negro Convict Is a Slave"" The Journal of Southern History. Southern Historical Association, Feb. 1993. Web. p. 93.
  14. Lichtenstein, Alex. "Good Roads and Chain Gangs in the Progressive South: "The Negro Convict Is a Slave"" The Journal of Southern History. Southern Historical Association, Feb. 1993. Web. p. 106.
  15. Cloyd, Stephen. "The Federal Writers Project--Origins and Goals." The Federal Writers Project--Origins and Goals. Lincoln City Libraries, 2006. Web. 23 Apr. 2013. para. 1.
  16. Rapport, Leonard. "How Valid Are the Federal Writers' Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast Among the True Believers." Oxford Journals 7 (1979): 6-17. Print. p. 6
  17. Rapport, Leonard. "How Valid Are the Federal Writers' Project Life Stories: AnIconoclast Among the True Believers." Oxford Journals 7 (1979): 6-17. Print. p. 7
  18. Hill, Lynda M. "Ex-Slave Narratives: The WPA Federal Writers' Project Reappraised." Oral History Society, Spring 1998. Web. 23 Apr. 2013. p. 64