Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2016/Spring/Section 021/Walter Corbett

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BornWalter Corbett
1876
Graham, North Carolina
DiedDate Unknown
NationalityAmerican
OccupationFarmer

Overview[edit]

Walter Corbett was a successful tobacco farmer in North Carolina and was interviewed for the Federal Writer’s Project in 1938. He worked as a sharecropper for nine years before purchasing several acres of land and farming independently.

Biography[edit]

Early Life[edit]

Walter Corbett was born in Alamance County, North Carolina in 1876. Corbett’s first job was farming for Charles Maynard. Here, he learned how to grow and cure Tobacco. Corbett worked for Maynard until 1896.[1]

Marriage and Children[edit]

Corbett married Maggie Sellars in 1896, and the pair produced six children. Sellars died unexpectedly in 1909, but Corbett married again in 1913 to Annie Liza Lee. The couple had nine children and stayed together until Lee died in 1929. Corbett’s last marriage was to Edith Sloan in 1932, and the pair did not produce any children.[2]

Career and Adult Life[edit]

Corbett began sharecropping at F.P. Rogers’ farm in 1896.[3] While working for Rogers, he rented a piece of land from Maynard. In 1913, Corbett purchased four acres of land near the Maynard farm. Corbett received a loan of six hundred dollars and purchased twenty more acres in 1915. He paid off his loans the following year and became an independent farmer. In 1916, Corbett left the Maynard farm and built his own house. During the first year of American involvement in World War I, tobacco prices skyrocketed. Corbett bought twenty acres of adjoining land in 1917 and an additional thirty the next year. While growing tobacco, Corbett raised crops and kept three cows to feed his family. In 1920, he bought eleven acres of nearby land to expand his farm. Tobacco prices plummeted in 1921, but Corbett avoided debt and bought the last three and a half acres of open land for his farm.[4]

During the first year of the Great Depression in 1930, Corbett remained out of debt, but he did not make money off his tobacco crop. Big businesses controlled the market and purchased his tobacco for lower prices than it cost to produce them. These companies did not bid against each other and consequently received the lowest possible price in what Corbett described as "you take this un, and I'll take that un."[5] In 1933, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of the New Deal was implemented and made Corbett reduce his tobacco crop from nine acres to seven, though he started making profit again as buyers were forced to bid against one another.

Later Years and Death[edit]

Corbett continued to farm and maintain his land with the help of his family. The last known record of him is at age 62, the time of his interview for the Federal Writer's Project.[6]

African American Sharecroppers[edit]

Economic Bondage[edit]

Following the destruction of the Civil War, freed African Americans sought economic freedom through new employment. While some were given a few acres of land as compensation for slavery, the Reconstruction period forced most to become sharecroppers. Farmers would rent both land and farming supplies in return for a share of their crop at the end of the season.[7]Sharecroppers seldom became independent farmers. They rented most of their supplies and had little control over how the crops were sold. Sharecroppers bought most of their tools on credit and often relied on luck to pay their debts at harvest time. If they were unable to repay their loans, the landowners prevented them from leaving the property.

Black Codes[edit]

In an effort to ease into rebuilding the South during Reconstruction, white state legislatures instituted laws meant to push freedmen back to plantations in what became known as Black Codes.[8] Although farm ownership was steadily increasing for white men, black codes allowed landlords to “extract more output …with less compensation”[9] from sharecroppers. African Americans, approximately fifty percent of the state of North Carolina, were sharecroppers, essentially binding themselves to the plantations again.[10]

Tobacco Overproduction[edit]

Farm Growth[edit]

By the beginning of the twentieth century, tobacco farming had become a booming industry. In North Carolina, 224,637 farms existed in 1900; however, the number had grown to 283,482 by 1925.[11] North Carolina farms maintained steady growth until 1925 when they would be met with the beginning blows of the great depression. During the early twentieth century, big farms controlled tobacco farming, yet due high demand, small farmers could still profit through the crop.[12]

Excess Supply[edit]

By the 1920s, farmers had overproduced tobacco and were left with more crops than consumers, thus drastically lowering prices.[13] “By 1931, prices for tobacco…had dropped to just 9 cents a pound, compared to 86 cents in 1919,” leaving farmers to accept less money for their goods than it cost to produce them and unable to buy farm supplies to maintain their land, thus spiraling them further into debt.[14] Tobacco farming had reached its peak by early 1920, and overproduction had indebted farmers to big tobacco companies like the Reynolds Tobacco Company who did not bid competitively against one another in order to receive low prices.

New Deal[edit]

Agricultural Adjustment Act[edit]

To combat the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt instituted several programs meant to provide relief and promote economic growth in what became known as the New Deal. Often time relief given was inadequate,[15] thus forcing Americans to have self-sufficient farms to feed their families. The act protected farmers from changes in the market through crop subsidies that reduced excess production, as well as educational programs on how to better tend the farm and prevent soil erosion. The act also marked the first time that it was the duty of Congress to “balance supply and demand for farm commodities so that prices would support a decent purchasing power for farmers.”[16]

Notes[edit]

  1. "Up and Down." Interview by John H. Abner. Accessed February 23, 2016. http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/03709/id/690/rec/1.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Reynolds, Bruce J. Black Farmers in America, 1865-2000: The Pursuit of Independent Farming and the Role of Cooperatives. Report no. 194. October 2002. Accessed March 01, 2016. http://community-wealth.org/content/black-farmers-america-1865-2000-pursuit-independent-farming-and-role-cooperatives.
  4. "Up and Down." Interview by John H. Abner. Accessed February 23, 2016. http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/03709/id/690/rec/1.
  5. Ibid.
  6. "Up and Down." Interview by John H. Abner. Accessed February 23, 2016. http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/03709/id/690/rec/1.
  7. "Reconstruction: Sharecropping." Reconstruction --- Sharecropping. Accessed March 12, 2016. http://histclo.com/essay/war/cwa/recon/rec-share.html.
  8. "Reconstruction: Sharecropping." Reconstruction --- Sharecropping. Accessed March 22, 2016. http://histclo.com/essay/war/cwa/recon/rec-share.html.
  9. Reynolds, Bruce J. Black Farmers in America, 1865-2000: The Pursuit of Independent Farming and the Role of Cooperatives. Report no. 194. October 2002. Accessed March 01, 2016. http://community-wealth.org/content/black-farmers-america-1865-2000-pursuit-independent-farming-and-role-cooperatives.
  10. Ibid.
  11. "North Carolina Business History - Agriculture." North Carolina Business History - Agriculture. Accessed March 02, 2016. http://www.historync.org/agriculture.htm.
  12. "Bright Leaves." PBS. Accessed March 01, 2016. http://www.pbs.org/pov/brightleaves/historical-background/.
  13. "Agriculture in North Carolina during the Great Depression." Agriculture in North Carolina during the Great Depression. Accessed March 01, 2016. http://ncpedia.org/agriculture/great-depression.
  14. "New Deal." North Carolina History Project :. Accessed March 01, 2016. http://www.northcarolinahistory.org/commentary/31/entry.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ganzel, Bill. "AAA, the Agricultural Adjustment Act & Administration." AAA, the Agricultural Adjustment Act & Administration. Accessed March 12, 2016. http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s/water_11.html.

References[edit]

"Agriculture in North Carolina during the Great Depression." Agriculture in North Carolina during the Great Depression. Accessed March 01, 2016. http://ncpedia.org/agriculture/great-depression.

"Bright Leaves." PBS. Accessed March 01, 2016. http://www.pbs.org/pov/brightleaves/historical-background/.

"New Deal." North Carolina History Project :. Accessed March 01, 2016. http://www.northcarolinahistory.org/commentary/31/entry.

"North Carolina Business History - Agriculture." North Carolina Business History - Agriculture. Accessed March 02, 2016. http://www.historync.org/agriculture.html.

"Reconstruction: Sharecropping." Reconstruction --- Sharecropping. Accessed March 12, 2016. http://histclo.com/essay/war/cwa/recon/rec-share.html.

"Up and Down." Interview by John H. Abner. Accessed February 23, 2016. http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/03709/id/690/rec/1.

Ganzel, Bill. "AAA, the Agricultural Adjustment Act & Administration." AAA, the Agricultural Adjustment Act & Administration. Accessed March 12, 2016. http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s/water_11.html.

Reynolds, Bruce J. Black Farmers in America, 1865-2000: The Pursuit of Independent Farming and the Role of Cooperatives. Report no. 194. October 2002. Accessed March 01, 2016. http://community-wealth.org/content/black-farmers-america-1865-2000-pursuit-independent-farming-and-role-cooperatives.