Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Spring/Norman T. Banks

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


Norman T. Banks was born in New Orleans where he spent his early life there before moving to Pensacola Florida. Later in life he bought and operated a second hand merchandise shop in Greensboro, North Carolina. Norman was interviewed by Pitts Cobb for the Federal Writers' Project on March 12th, 1939.


Early Life:[edit]

Norman T. Banks was born in New Orleans and moved to Pensacola Florida at a young age. His schooling was split between three schools, a French, a Spanish, and an English school, within a two-year period. His father was Protestant and his mother Catholic. Norman’s parents decided that he would be raised Protestant and his sister Catholic.

Later Life:[edit]

As an older man, he operated an animal farm in upstate New York that was prosperous until, due to a bank error, he lost it all except for $200. Later that year, Banks lost both his mother and his sweetheart. His friend, a professor at Columbia, convinced him to take a trip down south for his health because he was suffering from a breakdown due to the tragedy of losing his loved ones. On this trip, he ran into an owner of a second-hand shop who needed help due to health reasons. After assisting the owner, Banks later bought the shop, when the owner could no longer return to work. Norman then created a back room within the store for him to sleep and live in while leaving the front for business transactions. His business was prosperous due to his store selling second hand items and the Great Depression causing many Greensboro residents need to save money He began expanding the merchandise he sold to include some new items like shirts and socks. This was done to help raise funds to allow him to rent an apartment in town. By renting an apartment he would be able to move out of the back room, opening that space up to place more merchandise on the floor. This further increased his profits and assists him in helping the poorer Black community by offering a wider range of more affordable goods.[1]

Historical Production:[edit]

The Federal Writers’ Project was a creation of the Works Progress Administration in the New Deal. In each state a large “group of field workers [were] drawn from local unemployment rolls” (Federal, para 4). The goal of the project was to create the American Book Series, which would be “written and compiled by the [Federal Writers’ Project, but printed by individual states, and [would] contain detailed histories of each state with descriptions of every city and town.”[2]

Problems with Historical Production:[edit]

This interview is written in a subjective novelistic style rather than an objective journalistic style. The log of interview progress with anecdotes from Norman strung together without the interviewer’s question written. This style choice was not one of the interviewer, Pitts Cobb, but of the Federal Writers’ Project. The authors were instructed that “the writer is not to enter the story” [3] Without a clear log of the questions asked by Pitts and the response from Norman, the amount (if any) that the interview was doctored or edited (via omission of information) is left to the reader’s interpretation.

The interview is written with a strong southern dialect of the African Americans who visited Norman’s store. The dialect was written to recreate the local flourishes in speech as the writers were instructed that ““the stories are to be told as much as possible in the words of the subject.”[3] However, the way the dialect was depicted portrays these members of society as uneducated and uncultured. It is up to the reader to decide how much of the dialect, if any, is misleading or inaccurate.

Social Issues:[edit]

Economic Hardships in Southern Cities:[edit]

The adults in southern cities suffered immensely from the Great Depression. The whole nation was suffering and the federal government was instituting programs and allocating funds trying to alleviate the strain as much as possible. Southern cities “showed no evidence of federal intrusion during the depression decade,” meaning the citizens of southern cities were worse off than their northern counterparts.[4] The financial hardships faced by many made common items, like socks, rare and luxuries. These struggles were exaggerate for the African American population. As noted in a study the hardships faced in the rural south of the African American population was not comparable to the hardships faced in cities.[5] Norman T. Banks noticed how many people would constantly shop at his store because of its reduced prices. Even with it being more affordable no one could pay for a wine keg, truly a luxury, and settle on buying socks or shirts instead.

Economic Struggle of the Youth:[edit]

The youth of North Carolina especially suffered in the southern cities like Greensboro. The great depression caused extraneous funds for families to be limited and children had to find free or cheap alternatives for entertainment. The lack of funds for entertainment was compounded by the fact that “not a single public school in the state shut its doors because of the Depression” many after school programs, likes sports, were cut to save money.[6] The lack of afterschool activities translated into children having fewer options for cheap entertainment. Once major source of enjoyment, although it was somewhat expensive, was the movie theatres. Gaining funds to see movies was difficult and stressful for children. Norman noticed a rise in youth trying to sell him stolen goods in order to afford the movies.


  1. Banks, Norman T. “Second Hand Merchant” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Southern Collection. Print. p.1-37.
  2. “Federal Writers’ Project.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 1 April 2013. Web. 9 April 2013. para. 3.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Rapport, Leonard. “How Valid Are the Federal Writers' Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast among the True Believers” The Oral History Review 7 (1979): 6-17. Jstor. Web. 9 April 2013. p. 12.
  4. Biles, Roger. “The Urban South in the Great Depression” The Journal of Southern History 56.1 (1990):71-100. Jstor. Web. 9 April 2013. p. 78.
  5. Johnson, Guy. “The Negro and the Depression in North Carolina.” Social Forces 12:1 (1933): 103-115. JSTOR. Web. 7 Apr 2013. p. 105
  6. “Public Schools in the Great Depression.” NCPedia. Government and Heritage Library, 1 January 2010. Web. 9 April 2013. para. 1.