Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Spring/Nellie Blythe

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African-American farmer plowing in NC

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

Overview[edit | edit source]

Nellie Blythe was a female African-American ex-slave living in Garysburg, NC. She was interviewed by the Federal Writer’s Project on June 28th, 1939. At the time of the interview, she was living with her niece and had no job. She also continued to struggle affording the baseline necessities in life.[1]

Biography:[edit | edit source]

Early Life:[edit | edit source]

Nellie Blythe was an African American woman born in the 1850’s and raised in Garysburg, NC. For most of her upbringing she was a slave of the Ellis family. Unlike many slave owners at the time, she and most of her family were treated very well. They were never beaten nor did they have to do overly taxing duties as slaves. When she was a young girl her mother died, so her grandmother raised she and her 8 relatives.

Adulthood:[edit | edit source]

After emancipation, the Ellis family provided Ms. Blythe with work on their property, as well as setting her up with many other jobs. She continued to work for numerous families completing jobs that ranged from cleaning homes to plowing fields and picking hundreds of pounds of cotton. Ms. Blythe admitted that throughout all the years of domestic and farming jobs, the most she ever made in one day was 75 cents. However, once her father died she was left with 20 acres of land and stopped working for others and began to farm the property with her 5 children. Although she never had a husband, she had “a few” sweethearts, yet did not know the fathers of any of her children. One day, a son of hers had gotten in trouble and was in dire need of a mule so she gave him $110 to purchase it. The 110 dollars Ms. Blythe loaned her son consisted of her entire life savings. After she was out of money, she Ms. Blythe moved in with her niece, Lonnie, so she could cut costs and make profit off of the land she inherited. She collected $28 of rent a year from her property. After a lifetime of work and struggle as a previous African-American slave, Ms. Blythe still seemed to be in very high spirits. In her mid-90’s she was not ready to pass away even though she had hardly any family left alive. The only regret in life that she ever hinted at seemed to be her non-existent education. The one thing she waned to do all he life was read the bible, but without any kind of formal education, she was unable to do so.[2]

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

Lack of Education for African-Americans:[edit | edit source]

Receiving a formal education was nearly impossible for African Americans in the south during enslavement. Of the many factors that restricted their access to education; work, transportation, and finances were among the most prevalent.[3] According to PBS (2004), “In both the pre-abolition North and the antebellum South, labor demands made it difficult for slave children to engage in extensive learning or to attend school consistently”.[4] However, even if it was convenient for a slave to attend school, majority of slave owners would not deny the request in fear of them gaining intelligence.[5] The lack of education for African-American slaves produced long-term effects even after slavery was abolished. It played a major role in the declining religious practices and limited the type of occupation ex-slaves could obtain.[6] All throughout her life, Ms. Blythe never had the opportunity to obtain any formal education. At the end of her interview, she also admitted that she no longer practiced a religion because she was not able to read the bible.[7]

Socioeconomic status of slaves after emancipation:[edit | edit source]

After emancipation, ex-slaves struggled to improve their socioeconomic status among other free individuals. Although free, many African-Americans continued to farm land and do manual labor work for low wages.[8] Without money, “most black farmers in the area were sharecroppers or small subsistence farmers, who produced cash crops for sale”.[9] The farmers and landowners would create contracts, which required payments or crops from the farmers in exchange for using the landowner’s property. Even though the work for uneducated ex-slaves was physically taxing and emotionally draining, the pay was close to nothing.[10]. Rather than saving their income and improving their economic status, nearly every penny of pay went towards the basic living expenses like housing and food. After she was a free woman, Ms. Blythe continued to work cleaning houses and plowing fields for hours upon hours. Still, the most she could ever recall making was 75 cents per day.[11]

Historical Production Issues:[edit | edit source]

The Federal Writer’s Project began in 1935 and was established to create job opportunities for scholarly writers and reporters. The interviewers were assigned to select an individual and create a “Life History” of them. They were required to “record all stories as nearly word-for-word as possible, but to avoid dialect spelling that would confuse the reader”.[12] However, one of the greatest production issues regarding the project was raised from the author, or interviewer, molding the story into their perception on the individual. Rather than transcribing what the interviewee said, the interviewer would alter various aspects to make it more appealing for the general public.[13] In the case of Nellie Blythe this was not an issue however. Bernice Harris created the “Life History” of Ms. Blythe as an almost exact word for word story. The entire document was in quotations and there was no paraphrasing or summarizing of what as said in the interview.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Blythe, Nellie. “I’s Laughed Some.” Federal Writer’s Project. University of North Carolina, Chapel hill: Southern Collection. Print. NC 1-12
  2. Blythe NC 1-12
  3. Davis, Anita. "“Keeping the School Doors Open”." Public Schools in The Great Depression. NCpedia, n.d. Web. 6 Apr 2013. <http://ncpedia.org/public-schools-great-depression>.
  4. “The Slave Experience: Education, Arts, and Culture.” Slavery and The Making of America. PBS, 2004. Web. 8 April 2013. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/slavery/experience/education/history2.html> p. 2
  5. PBS p. 2
  6. Rauchway, Eric. The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print. <http://m.friendfeed-media.com/6a4906655c3e24fd01bf883e2c7d9983144772be>
  7. Blythe NC 11
  8. Gilbert, Jess, Gwen Sharp, et al. "The Decline (and Revival?) of Black Farmers and Rural Landowners: A Review of The Research Literature." North American Series.(2001): Web. 15 Apr. 2013. p. 6
  9. Gilbert p. 6
  10. Bishop, RoAnn. “Difficult Days on Tar Heel Farms.” Tar Heel Junior Historian.NCpedia. Fall 2010. Web. 17 April 2013 <http://www.ncmuseumofhistory.org/collateral/articles/S10.tar.heel.farms.pdf> p. 2
  11. Blythe NC 6
  12. Soapes, Thomas. "The Federal Writer's Project Slave Interviews: useful data or misleading source?" Oral History Review. 5.1 (1977): 33-38. Web. 15 Apr. 2013. p. 33
  13. Soapes p. 34