Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Spring/Robah Bowden

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

Overview[edit | edit source]

Robah Bowden was a farmer, janitor, and holiness preacher in Suffolk County, NC, during the great depression. Living as a Holiness Preacher with a small farm, he provided hospitality to those who wished for it. Bowden was interviewed by the Federal Writer's Project [1] during his later years. He was able to provide an extensive interview about his experience and life.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Bowden was born and raised in Virginia to a farming family. His father, who owned his farm, was an alcoholic. After years of his father's grain alcohol abuse, the family lost the farm, forcing the family to rent a new farm to pay the bills in North Carolina. Robah never finished high school, dropping out of school after seventh grade. Robah was forced to work at several mills to help his family pay their bills, and his father would take his paycheck as soon as he left work each day. Robah believed that the lack of luxury during his childhood made him a better person as an adult.

Adult life[edit | edit source]

Bowden met his wife Lola, whom he commonly referred to as "Minnie", when he was young. They married quickly upon meeting and moved to a small farm in Suffolk County, North Carolina. It was here that Robah and his wife Lola lived for years, never having children. Robah became a holiness preacher, despite having very little formal education. He did so to help the people of the area, to comfort them in their poverty. This was a common theme in North Carolina during the Great Depression. Later in his life, Robah took a job as a janitor as a local school to help pay the bills. It was during this time that he was interviewed by the Federal Writer's Project. Bowden took it as incumbent on himself to help the poor in anyway that he could. His door was always open to those looking for hospitality.

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

Holiness Preaching[edit | edit source]

Holiness religion is a religion that took hold in the United States during the early 20th century. This was a time of poverty for many areas of the US and holiness religion provided a spiritual release from hardship. " Holiness religion is to offer underpriveledged groups an emotional and other-worldy escape from the realities that beset them".[2] Robah took it upon himself to "get out and preach to the suffrin'".[3] He would also tithe to the church, giving whatever he could to hold church services. Holiness preaching created a community that revolved around equality and comfort. As Flynt points out "...Within this interior world, issues such as self-worth, equality, interpersonal acts of kindness and charity, a sense of community, hope in a world of adversity, ultimate vindication in a world of powerlessness, ...rise to central importance."[4] Holiness religion was designed to provide an escape from the adversity faced daily by the farmers who had been facing hard times.

Poverty in North Carolina during the Great Depression[edit | edit source]

North Carolina was hit particularly hard by the Depression. Joseph Steelman recalls a certain situation "The most poignant incidents that I can recall ... Unemployed and homeless, [families] hoped to join parents or relatives and somehow eke out a living from the land" (Steelman).[5] Bowden talks about having an open door to any who need it.[6] He talks about wanting to get out and preach to the suffering. Hard times were nothing new to North Carolina, as hard times fell on its people before the start of the Great Depression. "Farmers’ income had declined steadily during the decade because of overproduction of cash crops, falling crop prices, rising farm costs, poor conservation practices, and other problems (Wheelock).[7] While most of the country hit hard suffering after the 'Roaring 20's', North Carolina had been suffering, and Bowden had already established himself as a preacher to comfort those in financial trouble.

Historical Issues[edit | edit source]

The Federal Writer's Project was a program started during the Great Depression to employ writers. They toured the United States writing about different subjects, describing towns, and interviewing people to get a snapshot of America. Leonard Rapport was a writer at the time who oversaw some of the projects.[8] He knew that the legitimacy of these interviews were not of the highest standard. Rapport points out "Though our investigators were told not to inject themselves, their personalities, or their opinions into the stories, a complete absence of individual interpretation would be unattainable even if it were desirable"[9]. While Rapport was involved in maintaining the legitimacy of the project, he could only do so much to fix flawed documents. He points out several times that names were misreported, fixed incorrectly, and changed. He recognizes that "people certified by the relief agencies as writers -- were the best people for life stories... They do not consider themselves court reporters." [10]. This speaks to the legitimacy of what a historian can interpret as fact from the interview and what is the opinion or view of the interviewer. What is known about Bowden's life and what can be interpreted is dependent on the interview done by the Federal Writer's Project, which has it's legitimacy questioned by this issue of it's historical production.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Bowden, Robah. "The Holiness Preacher." Federal Writers Project. University of North Carolina: Southern Collection. Print.
  2. Johnson, Benton. "Do Holiness Sects Socialize in Dominant Values?" Social Forces 39.4 (1961): 309-316. JSTOR. Web. 10 April 2013. 309
  3. Bowden
  4. Flynt, Wayne. "Religion for the Blues: Evangelicalism, Poor Whites, and the Great Depression" The Journal of Southern History 71.1 (2005): 3-38. JSTOR. Web. 10 April. 2013.
  5. Steelman, Joseph. "Great Depression and the New Deal." NCpedia.org. NC Department of Public Research, Jan 1, 2010. Web. April 10 2013
  6. Bowden
  7. Wheelock, David. "The Great Depression, An Overview" NC Museum of History. North Carolina Museum of History, N.D. Web. 10 April. 2013.
  8. Rapport, Leanord. "How Valid are The Federal Writer's Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast among True Believers" The Oral History Review 7 (1979): 6-17. JSTOR. Web. 10 April. 2012.
  9. (Rapport, 13)
  10. (Rapport, 14)