Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2013/Spring/Robert Quinn

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

African Americans gather to worship and listen to the word of God in the local church.
African American children learning in a local school house.

Overview:[edit]

Robert Quinn was an African American who worked for an electric lighting company in the early 1900s. He was a dedicated religious family man known for being the only African American to start his or her own business in Hendersonville, North Carolina. In 1939, he became a part of the Federal Writers' Project when his wife was interviewed about their struggles during the Great Depression.

Biography:[edit]

Robert Quinn was born in Greenville, South Carolina. He was the son of Jefferson Quinn, a preacher, and one of thirteen children. The family moved to Hendersonville, North Carolina in 1889 where Quinn quickly found a job and started working long hours for an electric lighting company.

In 1900, Quinn met a woman named Eliza whom he then married. They had nine children, but only three survived: Octavia, Cephus, and Lige. With Quinn’s hard work, the family was able to move from the outskirts of a rundown town to a better neighborhood. Quinn’s father and brother also moved into the seven room two-story house located near the local school and church.

Quinn became more religious, taking on the role of a church leader. He was on the board of trustees and led Wednesday prayer meetings. His discipline with work and religion made a huge impact on his children as they attended school and weekly mass.

Quinn quit the power company in 1931 because he was being paid less than his white counterparts despite working more hours. He started his own electrical contracting business, making him the only African American in Hendersonville to own his own business. Quinn had considerable success with this business and his family lived comfortably until Quinn’s dad became ill.

His father died in 1939, and with the hospital, doctor, and funeral bills on top of the falling economy, the family started to struggle. They were able to pay for Octavia’s first year of college, but as she also started to get sick, the medical bills continued to escalate. Quinn and his wife wanted to send their sons to college to receive solid educations, but schooling was hard to find at the time and those plans were destroyed. The Quinn family battled to get back to their normal routine life.[1]

Social Issues:[edit]

The Birth of a “New Poor”:[edit]

As stated in American Decades, the Great Depression was a time of distress for families as “low-paying part-time work caused financial uncertainty and lower standards of living for many”.[2] Numerous people tried to fight the weakening economy by taking on multiple jobs and working longer hours but nothing could stop the decline.[3] The Depression created two different types of Americans: the “traditional” poor and the “new poor”.[4] The “traditional poor” were families who were in poverty before the Depression and were already accustomed to dealing with minimal amounts of money. The “new poor” however was a large group that was forced to experience poverty abruptly. As the economy worsened, families that had never struggled to get food on the table before started to face this very issue. The Quinn family was a part of this “new poor” and while the economy started to deteriorate so did their comfortable life.

Desire and Struggle for African American Education:[edit]

For many years African Americans were prohibited from pursuing an education. As slaves, they were not permitted to go to school. Many things changed after the Civil War, including the creation of black schools that opened the gate to educational opportunities for African Americans. With this new opportunity, African Americans yearned to receive an education so that they could “rise above and beyond the limitations of race to become leaders”.[5] They wanted to prove that the dominant opinion towards African Americans being illiterate and degenerate was false.[6] During the time of the Depression however, the quality and access of education started to drop. There was not enough money available to maintain black schools, consequently leaving many African Americans with empty hopes for education.[7] Tyack found that during the 1930s only half of African American children went to school and those who did “passed” with grades that should have held them back.[8] The Quinns directly dealt with this frustration, wanting to send their children to college but discovering how difficult that was.

Federal Writers' Project:[edit]

The Federal Writers' Project started as a way to provide jobs for people by producing literature about life during the Great Depression. Current-Garcia describes the project as being a way to “hold up a mirror to the face of the United States”.[9] The deteriorating economy caused high unemployment, but around 6,000 unemployed workers were able to find work by joining 40 professional writers in this mission to capture history.[10] According to Rapport, a writer for the Federal Writers' Project, the amount of untrained writers created a problem with legitimacy.

Historical Production Issues:[edit]

Rapport argues how difficult it was for this project to be entirely accurate because the “standards of ‘authenticity’ differ somewhat with the different writers”.[11] The inexperienced writers often wrote with a fictional voice and became creative, veering away from the real interview. Respected African American poet Sterling Brown set guidelines for the writers in attempt to keep these life histories authentic with proper language.[12] In many cases when interviewing African Americans in the South, writers would exaggerate the vernacular of the interviewee. The South had a unique dialect during the 1930s, but many of the life histories are described as being “regularly ‘doctored’, certain portions deleted and language altered” creating inaccurate recordings.[13] Brown tried to salvage the correct dialect and keep the life histories accurate but that was hard to manage. Many accounts, including Quinn’s, use choppy language that is difficult to understand.

References:[edit]

  1. Quinn, Eliza. “A Negro in Business.” Federal Writers Project. University of North Carolina Southern Collection. Print. p. 1-14.
  2. “The 1930s: Lifestyles and Social Trends: Overview.” American Decades (2001). Encyclopeida.com. Web. 8 April 2013. <http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3468301229.html>. para. 7.
  3. Mitchell, Daniel. “Wage Flexibility: Then and Now.” Industrial Relations: A Journal of Economy and Society 24.2 (March 1985): 266-279. Wiley Online Library. Web. 8 April 2013. <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-232X.1985.tb00995.x/abstract>. p. 274.
  4. “The 1930s: Lifestyles and Social Trends: Overview.” American Decades (2001). Encyclopeida.com. Web. 8 April 2013. <http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3468301229.html>. para. 7.
  5. Simmons, LaKisha. “’To Lay Aside All Morals’: Respectability, Sexuality, and Black College Students in the United States in the 1930s.” Gender & History 24.2 (August 2012): 431-455. Wiley Online Library. Web. 7 April 2013. <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-0424.2012.01690.x/full>. p. 431.
  6. Briggs, Jennifer. “1930’s Race Relation in the American South.” (3 March 2004). Web. 7 April 2013. <http://mgagnon.myweb.uga.edu/students/3090/04SP3090-Briggs.htm>. Carmody, Todd. “Sterling Brown and the Dialect of New Deal Optimism.” Callaloo 33.3 (Summer 2010): 820-840. Project Muse. Web. 7 April 2013. <http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/callaloo/v033/33.3.carmody.html>. para. 2.
  7. Tyack, David. Public Schools in Hard Times: The Great Depression and RecenTyackt Years. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984. Print. p. 33.
  8. Tyack, David. Public Schools in Hard Times: The Great Depression and RecenTyackt Years. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984. Print. p. 32, 38.
  9. Current-Garcia, E. “American Panorama: (Federal Writers Project).” Prairie Schooner 12.2 (Summer 1938): 79-90. JSTOR. Web. 5 April 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40622837>. p. 84.
  10. Current-Garcia, E. “American Panorama: (Federal Writers Project).” Prairie Schooner 12.2 (Summer 1938): 79-90. JSTOR. Web. 5 April 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40622837>. p. 79.
  11. 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. 8 April 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3675185>. p. 13.
  12. Carmody, Todd. “Sterling Brown and the Dialect of New Deal Optimism.” Callaloo 33.3 (Summer 2010): 820-840. Project Muse. Web. 7 April 2013. <http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/callaloo/v033/33.3.carmody.html>. para. 2.
  13. Carmody, Todd. “Sterling Brown and the Dialect of New Deal Optimism.” Callaloo 33.3 (Summer 2010): 820-840. Project Muse. Web. 7 April 2013. <http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/callaloo/v033/33.3.carmody.html>. para. 1.