Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2013/Spring/Walter Corbett

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

Farmers waiting for a tobacco auction to start in Alamance County, North Carolina


Walter Corbett (1876-unknown) was a successful African American tobacco farmer in Alamance County, North Carolina during the time of the Great Depression. Corbett was interviewed as a part of the Federal Writers’ Project on December 2, 1938. At the time of the interview, Corbett had 15 children (by two of his three wives), 85 acres of land, and was debt free.


Walter Corbett was born in Alamance County, North Carolina in 1876. As a child, he never attended school or received any formal education. However, Corbett learned the art of growing tobacco as a young boy from his “mentor,” Mr. Charles Maynard of Burlington, North Carolina. Corbett worked for Mr. Maynard until he was a young man. Under the guidance of Mr. Maynard, Corbett became a skilled tobacco farmer. In 1896, 20-year-old Corbett married his first wife, Maggie Sellars. They started sharecropping on F.P. Rogers’ land, also in Burlington. Corbett would continue to sharecrop for Rogers and rent land from Maynard for a total of nine years. In 1909, Corbett lost his first wife, leaving him to take care of their six children, ages ranging from 2 to 12 years of age. He struggled over the next four years to raise the children but managed fairly well and married his second wife, Annie Liza Lee, in the fall of 1913. In this time, he expanded his fields for growing, continuing to make a profit. In 1915, Corbett would buy 20 acres for $600 and build a house for him and his family. He paid his debt in full by the end of growing season with money to spare. He was one of the few African American landowners in Alamance County at that time. Corbett’s eldest children started to leave home in 1924, traveling as far as New York. Two of his oldest boys, Lee and Arthur, worked for a trucking business while his daughter, Mary, stayed in New York after getting married. Vivian, another daughter, would later visit Mary and stay in New York as a nursemaid. By 1938, 23 years after purchasing the first 20 acres of land, Corbett had 9 additional children with his second wife and owned 85 acres of land for tobacco farming without any debt. On December 2, 1938, Corbett was interviewed as a part of the Federal Writers’ Project.[1]

Social Issues[edit]

Lack of Education[edit]

Eric Rauchway, in his book The Great Depression and The New Deal: A Very Short Introduction, stated, “unemployment stood at around 25 percent. Indeed the entire world seemed to have ground to a halt.”[2] A study done by Yale University also found that African American children, during the pre-Depression era, were less likely to attend school when compared to their white counterparts.[3] Due to a lack of education, a majority of African American families could not support themselves and felt as if their lives had come to a halt. Many African American children, during this time, would be found in the fields or in some other form of work to help support the family. This left little time for school or formal education. Additionally, a number of the parents of these children could not teach their children at home because they were uneducated ex-slaves. Corbett never attended school and apparently was never given a chance. As a child, he would sharecrop almost all day, most days of the week. However, this lack of education would not prevent Corbett from being a successful farmer during extremely difficult economic times.

African American Farmers[edit]

Farmers during the Great Depression fell into bankruptcy by growing too much product, thereby lowering prices. In addition to excess supply, some tobacco buyers tried to take advantage of the fact that most farmers had never attended school by driving farmers to sell their goods at lower prices. By manipulating supply and prices of certain goods, such as tobacco, companies pushed prices even lower.[4] These extremely low prices prevented farmers from making a profit or breaking even. Corbett, who recognized these trends, grew less but better quality tobacco. By learning these tricks and being able to adapt to them, Corbett still managed to make money rather than lose it like some of his counterparts. Additionally, as mentioned by Gilbert, Sharp, and Felin, “…black farmers also faced their own set of difficulties. Much of the land they obtained was of poor quality and small acreage.”[5] However, Corbett was able to buy large sections of quality land at reasonable prices, even during the Great Depression. Though Corbett had a large family of 15 children, he never experienced horrible living conditions or extreme poverty that some describe as the life of an African American farmer.[6]

Federal Writers’ Project[edit]

The Federal Writers’ Project, created in 1935, provided employment to many writers and educated citizens as a part of the Works Progress Administration. Directed by Henry Alsberg, this project was created to “produce a series of sectional guide books under the name American Guide, focusing on the scenic, historical, cultural, and economic resources of the United States.”[7] One section of this allowed writers to interview American citizens and write a record of their lives. Most of the interviewees, like Corbett, would not have been remembered otherwise. However, one of the major concerns of this project was some of the oral histories collected and published were written in the person’s dialect. As explained in his work, Soapes looks as to how an extreme dialect could affect the reader, such as perceiving the interviewee as unintelligent or uneducated. Unlike most interviews though, the piece written about Walter Corbett did not include any dialect or embellishment of his accent, allowing an unbiased opinion to be drawn.[8]


  1. Corbett, Walter. “Up and Down.” Federal Writer’s Project. University of North Carolina: Southern Collection. Print. p.1-15.
  2. Rauchway, Eric. The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print. p.1.
  3. Moehling, Carolyn M. "Family Structure, School Attendance, and Child Labor in the American South in 1900 and 1910." Department of Economics Yale University & National Bureau of Economic Research. Yale University, June 2003. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. <http://www.econ.yale.edu/~cmm54/famst603.pdf>. p.8.
  4. "Bright Leaves-North Carolina & Tobacco: Historical Background." POV. PBS, 23 Aug. 2005. Web. 06 Apr. 2013. <http://www.pbs.org/pov/brightleaves/special_tobacco.php>.
  5. Gilbert, Jess, Sharp Gwen, and M. Sindy Felin. “The Decline (and Revival?) of Black Farmers and Rural Landowners: A Review of the Research Literature.” North America Series. University of Wisconsin-Madison, May 2001. Web. 06 Apr. 2013. <http://ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream/12810/1/ltcwp44.pdf>. p.2.
  6. "The Great Depression: An African American Perspective." African-American History. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Apr. 2013. <http://mtungsten.freeservers.com/>.
  7. "New Deal Programs: Selected Library of Congress Resources." Federal Writers' Project: New Deal Web Guide (Virtual Programs & Services, Library of Congress). The Library of Congress, 29 July 2011. Web. 06 Apr. 2013. <http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/newdeal/fwp.html>.
  8. Soapes, Thomas F. "The Federal Writers' Project Slave Interviews: Useful Data or Misleading Source." The Oral History Review 5 (1977): 33-38. JSTOR. Web. 15 Apr. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/stable/3674886>. p.34.