Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2013/Spring/Nancy Gill
This page is connected with English 105 at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill - Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories
Nancy Gill was a hard-working woman from Wake County, North Carolina. After her husband and five children died, Gill solely owned and ran a lodging house in Raleigh. Gill’s life history is known due to the efforts of the Federal Writers’ Project.
Nancy Gill was born on October 20, 1854 in Wake County, North Carolina. She was the third of John and Tempey Johnson Alexander’s seven children, and also claimed to be the third cousin of President Andrew Johnson. The Alexander family lived on a small farm in the Ramkhatt part of Wake County. Although Gill’s family lived on a farm, they were not dependent on crops for their income. Her father was a hardworking man who held multiple jobs to support her family, such as working as a carpenter, a gunsmith, a blacksmith, and a quarryman. During the Civil War, times were hard for the Alexander family. They had to get by eating only cornbread, salted pork, and the vegetables that they grew on their farm. Gill went to school for a total of six weeks in her lifetime because schools were not free and the Alexander family could not afford to send their children to school. In 1872, eighteen-year-old- Nancy Alexander married David Crockett Gill, a Civil War veteran. Together they rented a small farm and earned their living there before moving to Raleigh in 1880. In Raleigh, David supported their family by driving a team of horses for a lumber company. The Gills had five children, all of which died at some point in Gill’s lifetime. When her husband died in 1910, Gill supported herself by running a lodging home. Gill did housework such as laundry, washing dishes, and cleaning without any additional help. Gill looked after her daughter-in-law, Hattie, and her grandson, Tommy, both of whom suffered from an addiction to morphine. The three of them lived comfortably in the lodging home with good food. Gill made a decent income until her death on December 24, 1939.
Working Women During the Great Depression
When the Great Depression hit America, many families suffered and had to find a way to support themselves during these difficult times. Many women during this time period had to assist their spouses by making an additional income and sending their children to work as well. However, life was much more difficult for women who were either divorced or widowed without children. These types of women “had no one from whom they could claim support.” According to Ware, the only jobs available for women were those that “reinforced traditional stereotypes of what constituted women’s work.” Running a lodging home forced Gill into the homemaker position that was expected of most women during this time period. In order to support their families or themselves, women had to take on many different responsibilities. For Gill, this meant supporting additional family members, adding to the chores she was already carrying out for tenants.
Lack of Education in the South
In North Carolina, before the Civil War, schools were not public and many families could not afford to send their children to school. In the farming communities of North Carolina, many children were too busy assisting their families with household chores to attend school. Many families “needed every member working in order to survive.” These factors caused Gill to only be able to attend school for six weeks in her lifetime. During the Great Depression, schools were in short supply across the south due to insufficient funding and closings. Because of this, many efforts were made to rebuild education across the nation, especially in places like the south where, previously, many children did not grow up with easily accessible education, like Gill. Numerous modifications were made to the school system. Schools were made public so that families would not have to pay for their children’s education like Gill’s family did for her.
Issues of Historical Production
The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) was developed by the Works Progress Administration in order to employ writers and rebuild the nation’s economy after the Great Depression. One of the purposes of the FWP was to create original works, such as art or literature, which would contribute to the culture and communities within the state. Gill’s life story is known due to the efforts of the FWP. There were many criticisms of the FWP, however. Some say that the FWP was not able to accurately portray Americans during this time period. According to Fox, because some writers “were recruited and employed in their home states, many of them had a limited picture of the nation as a whole.” The works that were published, therefore, did not accurately reflect the entire nation’s status during the Great Depression. Many authors tried to bring authenticity into each life history by putting a person’s dialect into words which some believed caused “regional prejudices.” Robert O. King interviewed Gill on November 20-24, 1938. Gill’s life history is broken up in to a short biography written by King and followed by a long quote from Gill recounting her life from her childhood to the present day of 1938. Gill’s life history is unique in that there is no authenticity shown in her written life history. When quoted by King, Gill appears to have good grammar, based on the lack of written dialect. There do not appear to be any issues of historical production in Gill’s particular published life history, unlike many others during the time period. Gill’s life history and many others are available at the North Carolina Southern Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Wilson Library.
- Gill, Nancy. “Mrs. Nancy Gill’s Lodging House.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Southern Collection. Print. p.1-18.
- Bolin, Winifred D. Wandersee. “The Economics of Middle-Income Family Life: Working Women During the Great Depression.” Journal of American History 65.1 (1978): 60-74. JSTOR. Web. April 2013. p.68.
- 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. April 2013. p.646.
- Ware, Susan. “Women and the Great Depression.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Web. April 2013. para.5.
- Helmbold, p.646.
- Gill, p.9.
- Davis, Dr. Anita Price. “Public Schools in the Great Depression.” NCPedia. Government and Heritage Library at the State Library of North Carolina, NC Department of Cultural Resources. Spring 2010. Web. April 2013. para.9.
- Davis, para.1.
- Hill, Michael. “Federal Writers’ Project.” NCPedia. Government and Heritage Library at the NC Department of Cultural Resources. 2006. Web. April 2013. para.1.
- Fox, Daniel M. “The Achievement of the Federal Writers’ Project.” American Quarterly 13.1 (1961): 3-19. JSTOR. Web. April 2013. p.4.
- Fox, p.4.